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Talking Policy: Sebastian Junger on Returning from War

Sebastian Junger, award-winning author and co-director of the critically-acclaimed documentary Restrepo, has spent years reporting from Afghanistan, both alongside the Northern Alliance and embedded with U.S. troops in the Korengal Valley. His new book, Tribe, takes an anthropological perspective, offering insight into how aspects of ancient tribes—collaboration and community—are missing from modern society. World Policy Journal spoke to Junger about the intense isolation soldiers experience when transitioning from the tribal community of the platoon to the often-atomized structure of civilian life. 

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What did you observe to be the major challenge to soldier reintegration?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I think anyone transitioning from a communal society to an individualized society has trouble. I think it happens to kids at summer camp when they come home. I think it happens with Peace Corps volunteers; I think it happens with soldiers. [...] If you're talking about the specific difficulty that veterans have, particularly, (take veterans who didn't see combatwhich, of course, is the vast majority), why should they have a problem coming home to this wonderful society? Well, they really shouldn't.

WPJ: So where do you think the lack of connection comes from?

SJ: As society gets wealthier, the individual requires less and less input from the community to survive. So, I look around at my neighbors: I don't get my food from them; we don't hunt together—in fact, I don't get any of my food myself—I buy it from people I don't know. We don't live in a wartime environment, so I don't need my neighbors to literally defend my home and my family. We just don't need our community, and the wealthier you are, the less you need the people around you in order to physically survive.

WPJ: Do you think it's a sense of being communal or just a sense of dependency that's lacking when these soldiers return?

SJ: We're all dependent on something. And we are all dependent—for all of our basic needs—on society. But we're not dependent on the people around us, so we don't have that ancient human connection to people whose names we know and we recognize, that sleep within snoring distance of us while we're asleep. That's your basic human-animal experience of life in a group. We don't have that, and it's what we're wired for; it's what makes us feel good. Soldiers do get thrown back to that level of existence, and it seems like it's a step backward, but actually it's what we're adapted for and it makes people feel weirdly content. Dependency—all of us are dependent on something. I'm not sure you can avoid that anywhere.

[...] I think we're wired for communities. If we don't have a community made up of the people that are immediately around us, we'll try to affiliate with other, more conceptual communities—like fans of a certain sports team—we do it in a million different ways. It's a little like Harlow's experiments with the baby monkeys: you take away the mother, and you give them a wire-mesh mother that has more milk coming out of it, they'll cling to the wire mesh; they're doing something they're programmed to do (they're just doing it with a object); they're focusing that connection on an object which is a pale and very inadequate version of a real mother, but they'll still do it. You don't have any choice—that's us—we're all basically clinging to a wire-mesh mother, trying to get that human connection out of it.

WPJ: In Tribe, you wrote about the Blitz, and how that sense of connection and unity was forged through a communal contribution to the war effort, replacing previous feelings of isolation and alienation. Yet you say the U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan weren’t fighting for a cause. If they weren’t unified by fighting for a common cause, what brought about that connection?

SJ: [The soldiers I spent time with] weren't fighting for a cause; none of them were fighting for a cause. They were soldiers and they were conducting their mission they were given and they were trying to not get killed. That's it. [In the case of the Blitz,] I don't know—I wasn't there—but I don't think the people of London were fighting for a "cause"; they were collaborating in order to survive, which is what anyone in an earthquake or flood or war, that's all what the people do: they collaborate to survive. Surviving—sometimes it means killing the enemy who try to kill you; that's a part of the survival. I've seen that in action with American soldiers; I've seen it in action with civilians in Sierra Leone and Liberia who were arming themselves in local militias to fight off the rebels. That's not just a product of modern war; that's a very ancient situation. But there really isn't a "cause." At that level, people are really fighting for survival.

WPJ: What's also quite interesting about that is that without conscription, these people are putting themselves in this place where they have to survive. But obviously it's completely unnecessary for them. They could just work at 7-Eleven.

SJ: The individual guys in the unit I was with—you're right, it's a volunteer army—they didn't have to be there. But they weren't there, some other bunch of guys would have been. Someone’s going to be in that trench. It might not be those guys, but somebody. In addition, these guys grew up playing wars—as children—wanting to be soldiers. Many of their fathers were in Vietnam and many of their grandfathers were in World War II, and fighting is something that young males are very wired to do. They're there for a reason; they're there for evolutionary reasons, primarily. It's very hard to undo that wiring and get boys to be more interested in working at 7-Eleven than operating [a fighter plane]. You could fly a fighter plane or you could run a cash register. If you're a 20-year-old male, what would you choose? [...] The guys that were in the platoon chose to because of the incredibly compelling nature of combat. It wasn't a default decision that they somehow couldn't avoid; it was the thing they wanted to do most.

WPJ: You seem to travel a lot to these very interesting and scary places. Do you not get the sense—especially when you're traveling around and speaking to people perhaps for the first time—a kind of what am I doing here? Do you ever feel that sense of disconnect straight away, or are you attached straight away?

SJ: Mostly I feel lucky to be witness to such extraordinary events. Seriously. Most times I just go feel my god, I can't believe I'm here. [...] I've been very scared but I exactly what I'm doing there; it's very clear to me why I'm here.

WPJ: A lot of your work tends to be less about these places and more about the minds of the people who go there. Restrepo was—for me—more about the minds of the soldiers, rather than the actual combat itself.

SJ: War was the only time I've really written about American soldiers. I mean the other wars I covered were sort of indigenous wars that didn't involve American or Western forces. But I was not interested in the strategy or the politics; I was interested in what it felt like to be a young American soldier in combat. That was the entire focus of what interested me. Had they talked about politics or whatever—had that have been part of what that experience of combat was, then I would have incorporated those conversations. But they just were not interested. You know guys who work on oil fields in [the] Dakotas really are not talking about global warming—they just don't care, right? Their job is to drill oil, and that's how they make their living. And that's what they're doing—same with soldiers like their job is to be soldiers. It's not to evaluate the national policy.

[...] I'm writing from a rationalist, anthropological position. [...] One of the core bases of anthropology is that there is an objective rational position from which you can evaluate human behavior. And you can to some degree escape your cultural or societal bias and evaluate any behavior anywhere from a sort of objective and rationalism. You never entirely escape your background and your life, of course. So you're sort of working against that. But my cultural bias could have been: "I'm American, we were attacked on 9/11, and these boys are doing their duty." That's a form of analysis of their behavior. It's just very inadequate because it's so loaded down with cultural bias that it's only seeing what it wants to see. I didn't want to do that. There's another form of cultural bias. I'm admittedly left wing, a lot of my friends are left wing. I could have gone in there with a different cultural bias, which is: "These are the stormtroopers of the empire—what are they doing here? This is just another outrage." And I could have done that too, right? But even though I understand that viewpoint it just didn't interest me; it didn't seem to illuminate what they were actually experiencing and what the significance of those events was.

WPJ: There's kind of a conflict there: you trying to objectify these people and trying to look at them behaviorally, and also trying to connect with them on a human level. I'm interested in how you did that.

SJ: We all do it. For instance, if your girlfriend is mad at you, you're connected to her on a human level, but you're also intellectually trying to understand the basis for her being upset. Are you objectifying her? No, you're trying to understand her. You're trying to understand the world through her eyes. Why does the situation look so upsetting to her, when to me I'm not even noticing it? But you're still connected to her as a human being—you care about her. But you're using your rationality and your intellect to understand something that is not immediately apparent to you. They're not opposites at all—in fact they go together quite well. In fact I would say that any really close human connection actually requires that step of trying on an intellectual level understand the other person. An experience that ultimately is unknowable to you because it's not your experience.

WPJ: If you disagree with these people how do you connect with them?

SJ: By going on patrols, eating meals together. Hugging them when they went away on leave. Worrying about them. I mean I connect with them the way we all connect with everybody. I think in all of the relationships we have in our lives we're connecting on a human level and we're trying to understand on an intellectual level what that person's experience is. We're just all doing that all the time. I've formalized that a bit by taking notes and writing things down and later doing some research about the psychology of that. But that doesn't push aside the human experience I had. [...] I got very used to the lovely feeling of having 20 or so guys around me in situations where we're all absolutely committed to each other’s welfare and safety. Survival. It was an incredibly close experience and you never knew who you were missing until you experience it. When you experience it, it's the only thing you want to keep doing. I came back and, like a lot of those guys, I missed it.

WPJ: Did you feel in any way deficient when you came back, or can you explain that sense of confusion?

SJ: No I didn't feel confused; I felt quite depressed. I felt like I had somehow some of the emotion removed from my life. Including in my marriage. I felt really removed from everything. Then [British photojournalist Tim Hetherington] got killed, and I really felt helpless.

WPJ: How did you reconnect?

SJ: I didn't—I got divorced. After that and the fallout of that process I found myself reengaged to the new person I previously wasn't connected to. I wasn't able to salvage my life as it had been until then. And I didn't get divorced because I was out there. I mean, there are a lot of other forces at work in my life. But when I came home it was suddenly apparent that I was not emotionally connecting to the people I thought were closest to me.

[...] In Restrepo I was connecting with people who were half my age. So the relationships I had back home with my peers were very profound relationships. I just felt suddenly outside of them all. They didn't have meaning. I felt like there was some bulletproof plexiglass between me and everybody else.

WPJ: Did that annoy and frustrate you?

SJ: It demoralized me. I got really depressed. It's part of PTSD. This was one of the aspects of PTSD that's really difficult: the sense of emotional removal from everything you thought was meaningful. [...] I was just not connected with my life and I didn't understand why. It wasn't like I was longing to go back to Afghanistan. I was relieved to be done. I missed it, but I didn't want to go back there. [...]

WPJ: You didn’t feel as whole.

SJ: The opposite: I felt too large. Overflowing with emotion. So removed from everybody and welling up. [...] I came to understand that that kind of emotional outpouring is often a result of exposure to trauma. It's pretty classic. Tearing up at the post office for some reason—that extreme sensitivity to the poignancy of life. [...] Men don't really like to cry in public. It's embarrassing but I also had the feeling that I was gaining access to the emotional backwaters of myself than had previously been available so I definitely felt something important was happening. But it would also be inconvenient. It didn't feel unhealthy. But it was certainly disruptive.

The guys that they were with out there kind of complain about the same thing. One of them said he didn't understand why they were crying and would find themselves crying at things that weren't sad. They were just moving. One of them said "we're turning into girls" [...] From an evolutionary perspective, if males are the ones primarily charged with doing the things that are really difficult—dangerous—then it makes sense that they are wired and cultured and conditioned to suppress their emotions. Because as soon as you're having an emotion you're less functional. If you're grieving, if you're terrified if you're too excited it'll all make you less accurate when you're throwing the spear. Or whatever. This sort of emotional suppression that men do has excellent evolutionary origins and clearly is adapted for survival. We're still doing it. [...] In just about every society in the world you have males who underplay the importance of emotion. [...] In terms of evolution the point of life is not to have a rich life. It's to successfully duplicate your DNA. Whether you have a rich life is not the concern on evolutionary programming.

WPJ: This emotional richness only really came out in combat situations. This feeling of security. Did that feel more like home to you than anything else?

SJ: It certainly wasn't home, but I've never been part of a group like that before. And I've certainly never been in a war zone in a dangerous situation where I've been part of a group. It felt very human and right. I don't know if I would call it home. In terms of human history traditionally that feeling happened “at home,” what's weird now is that at home you don't get [that feeling] and if you go to a hillside in Afghanistan, you find it. That’s one of the ironies of modern society.

WPJ: How would we really change that as a society?

SJ: I don't think we can. Maybe people decide to knock the walls out of their house and create one big living space. We're not going to dismantle the suburbs to rebuild some kind of communal space. It's not happening. We've done this to ourselves.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Robert Stevens]

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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