clock menu more-arrow no yes
Javier Zarracina

Is civilization good for us? Sebastian Junger on the dangers of social fragmentation.

"Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it." – Sebastian Junger

It’s a question we don’t ask often enough: Why do American soldiers disproportionately suffer from PTSD? We would expect veterans to report higher rates of PTSD relative to civilians, but not higher than combat troops in other countries.

And yet the numbers are striking: In Canada and Britain, close to 10 percent of combat soldiers are diagnosed with PTSD. In Israel, a country in which military service is mandatory, the rates are roughly 1 percent. Among American troops, the rates are as high as 25 percent. This is especially remarkable in light of the fact that only 10 percent experience combat.

"There's something literally deadly about social isolation, the kind of individualism that typifies our modern society"

There is no accepted explanation for this disparity. Whatever the reason, American soldiers have a harder time reintegrating into society after combat.

Author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger has taken up this question in his latest book, Tribe. His inquiry leads to a provocative conclusion: The problem isn’t the soldiers or the wars, it’s our society.

On Junger’s view, life in America is hollow and atomized. Humans, he argues, evolved to live in small groups in which inter-reliance and cooperation were essential. In combat, soldiers function much like our tribal predecessors. They live, eat, sleep, and fight together. When they come home, that sense of solidarity disappears. The civilian world feels alien. It’s "anti-human," Junger told me.

Anti-human may not be the right word, but to the extent that a fragmented existence is inconsistent with our evolutionary past, he makes a compelling point.

I spoke with Junger last month about his new book, his thoughts on America’s PTSD problem, and what he learned about community and belonging in combat. A transcript of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity and length, is below.

Sean Illing

Most people understand that we have a PTSD problem in this country, but I’m not sure they understand how bad or unusual it is. A fourth of our veterans are filing claims for PTSD despite only 10 percent seeing actual combat.

In the book, you connect this to the alienated climate soldiers face when they come home. At war, every soldier feels essential. The circumstances are extreme. The intensity of connection is unique. Self-sacrifice is the cardinal virtue.

Sebastian Junger

Basically, soldiers in combat experience something that's a pretty close reproduction of our evolutionary past. We evolved to live in groups of 30, 40, 50 people functioning very closely. Sleeping together, eating together, doing everything together. Our survival depended on the group.

That's our evolutionary past. It's also life in combat. It's even life in a platoon at a rear base. Most of the military does not fire their weapons at the enemy, do not get shot, but they do function in these close, tight-knit groups, and those emotional bonds become incredibly important. That's what we're wired for.

Sean Illing

Shifting from this to the isolation of civilian life can be psychologically disorienting. Indeed, you argue this is why many soldiers actually miss the war.

Sebastian Junger

We're primates, we're social animals, and we're wired for that close, communal connection. When you take people who've experienced the pleasure of that, and you pick them up and put them back down in the great American suburb, they're going to feel like something is missing because there is something missing. If you look at the rates of mental illness, suicide, depression, schizophrenia, in the modern American environment, they're sky high and climbing.

The suicide rate keeps going up, which is odd for a society that's this wealthy and well-off. It's not that the suicide is increasing among the very poor. It's actually increasing among the affluent. That, to me, says there's something literally deadly about social isolation, the kind of individualism that typifies our modern society.

Sean Illing

You write that "[t]oday’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it." What do you mean?

Sebastian Junger

I wasn't a soldier, I'm not a veteran, but the impression I get from talking to them is that their sense of purpose and their sense of devotion to a common good is foremost in their minds in combat. The common good, by the way, not being the country so much as the platoon.

Then they come back and they see a country which is racially divided, it's economically divided, it's politically divided. There are powerful, wealthy people frankly getting away with enormous financial crimes without consequences.

It's a country at war with itself, and I think on some level, unconsciously or consciously, it must be quite complicated for soldiers who risked their lives for this country, were wounded maybe, lost friends, to come back and see that the thing they were fighting for is fighting with itself. I think that must be incredibly demoralizing.

Sean Illing

Do you have any ideas about how we could better reintegrate our veterans into society?

Sebastian Junger

Well, do they really want to be reintegrated? The point of my book is that it's a fragmented, alienated society with very high suicide rates. Do we want to help them transition back to something that's psychologically toxic? Is that really doing them a service?

The fact that they are psychologically rebelling against the transition home says something very healthy about them, because they're transitioning to something that if you look at rates of mental illness is obviously not doing anyone much good.

The real question is do we want to help the vets? We help the vets by helping ourselves. How can we transform society so that it is psychologically a more inclusive and welcoming place for everybody? I don't think you can help vets transition to a society that has such basic emotional and psychological problems as ours.

Sebastian Junger. (Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

Sean Illing

I associate tribalism with political pathologies — in-group/out-group thinking, nativism, identity politics. But you suggest in the book that tribalism has its benefits. In the context of combat, at least, you describe a tribal orientation as psychologically healthy. Is that right?

Sebastian Junger

We can't get too hung up on the language. My book is about community, and close communal connection of the sort that humans enjoyed and depended on for hundreds of thousands of years. One compelling word for that is tribe. Had I called my book Community, nobody would have bought it. Tribe definitely has more resonance, more punch.

I've been asked this sort of tribalism question a lot, and I'm like, "Listen, tribalism is bad if you define your tribe too narrowly." If your tribe is your town, and that's it, and you don't care about the rest of the state or the rest of the country, that's not so good. If your tribe is merely your political party, that’s not helpful either.

But what if you define your tribe as this nation? Now we're starting to have a conversation about how we can all function a little bit more communally toward the greater good. The highest form of enlightenment, of course, would be to see the human race as one huge tribe. I don't think there's any evidence in our evolutionary past that we have the neurological wiring to do that, but, hey, you never know.

Sean Illing

The problem with a tribe is that it implies an enemy, some external group against which the in-group defines itself. In that sense, it’s division by definition. Tribalism in combat or a hunter-gatherer context hardly needs a defense, but it’s more problematic in a modern, pluralistic context. Do you see a way around this tension?

Sebastian Junger

Thing is, we do live in a nation, right? We don't have to. We had a civil war, we could be two nations, we could be a collection of states, but we chose not to do that. We actually see ourselves as a nation, and as long as we see ourselves as a nation, it seems to me possible to think more broadly about our collective identity.

Interestingly, Donald Trump said, you either have a country or you don't. He was referring to illegal immigration, but it’s an interesting thing for him to say. Either you have a country or you don't.

If you have a country, you cannot talk about people in your country, your fellow citizens, your president, your government, as if they were the enemy. As if they were the source of the problems within your country, right?

Tribe's fine, talk tribe all you want, but if you're running for public office your definition of tribe has to include everyone in this country, and if it doesn't, you are acting in a deeply unpatriotic and dangerous way.

Sean Illing

You make clear in the book what we’ve lost by throwing off our tribal roots, but what have we gained?

Sebastian Junger

I think we've gained an enormous amount. I think on the whole we've gained a lot more than we've lost. My book is about what we've lost and how that has affected us, but we've got science, we've got medicine, we’ve got countless other luxuries. We know an enormous amount about the natural world, about the cosmos, and about our bodies. We've got rule of law, we've got a very evolved moral system, we've got books.

We've got this incredible heritage of learning and knowledge. Humans have never done this before. We never organized ourselves into groups of a million, 2 million, 3 million people; we've never done that. Humans have never done that before, and it has allowed us to build a robust, advanced civilization.

But there are downsides to the incredible affluence. I think it manifests in the individualization of society and in our chronic loneliness.

Sean Illing

I couldn’t help but think of Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone while reading Tribe. Putnam was among the first social scientists to trace the erosion of social capital in America. In many respects, you tell a similar story in your comparative analysis of modern and tribal culture. Do you believe we can recover the interreliance and cooperation of tribal society in a modern, capitalist context?

Sebastian Junger

There's clearly an adaptive trait in humans, which is to act individually if you possibly can. That's part of our evolutionary heritage as well. I think we're programmed to do that up until the point where doing that endangers us or degrades the quality of our life; then we act communally.

I know people who grew up under communism in Eastern Europe, and as poor and miserable as it often was, it was also, in human terms, very, very rich. Their poverty forced many families to live three generations in one apartment, in ghastly Soviet-era apartment blocks that nevertheless, in the courtyard, had a mixing of many families and many generations, and kids running around and communal child care and all that. That's tribal society right there.

Are those people better off, or worse off? In human terms, they're better off. In modern, economic terms, they're worse off. Ultimately, at the end of the day, what are we living for?

Sean Illing

You write about the sense of belonging and meaning that accompanies crisis. Suffering seems to activate the tribalistic virtues you exalt in the book. My favorite novel is Albert Camus’s The Plague because it’s about shared experience, about how crisis crystallizes our common vulnerability.

Tragedy has a way of stamping out solipsism. When the bombs fall or the hurricane strikes, the "I" becomes a "we" in a way that’s never so apparent in times of comfort. Do you think it’s possible to manufacture that sense of community and solidarity without the oppressive weight of suffering or combat?

Sebastian Junger

No, I don't think it's possible. I think in very transitory ways we can. You can go out and proactively try to cultivate more of a community nature in your neighborhood, and maybe a victory garden, whatever, but it's all voluntary. There are a lot of people who are busy, and they've got a conference call at 10, and then they've got to get in their car and rush off to do this or that. Most people are just not going to participate.

The monetary rewards for putting your energy and time into yourself are greater than the monetary rewards of putting your time and energy into the community. That's a collective good; it's not monetized at all. It's a waste of time in monetary terms.

In a modern, capitalist society you're really not going to get people making decisions where they sideline something that actually pays quite well for something that doesn't — it's not going to happen.

Sean Illing

Reading your book, it seemed to me that you were using the psychological state of our veterans as a measuring stick for the health of our society. So let’s close with the obvious question: After writing this book, do you believe we’re a good or healthy society?

Sebastian Junger

When you use the word bad or good, those are relative terms, they're moral terms, and it depends on how you define them. We're a good society if you define good in the terms that our society defines good as. Every society does that — it's natural.

But if you step back and ask, are we a human society? In evolutionary terms, no we are not. We do not elevate the moral values that have always kept humans safe and happy and secure for hundreds of thousands of years. We do not elevate those qualities on a national level. In that sense, we are way outside of our evolutionary past and, in many ways, are an anti-human society.


Politics & Policy

9 questions about the humanitarian crisis on the border, answered

Politics & Policy

American fascism isn’t going away

Conversations

The Republican establishment’s long dalliance with the conspiracist right

View all stories in Conversations