By Kevin Coughlin
His new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, is all about community.
More specifically, about its scarcity in modern society.
Junger, the best-selling author of The Perfect Storm and co-producer of the gripping Afghanistan war documentary Restrepo, kicks off Morristown’s third annual book festival on Sept. 30, 2016.
Early humans depended on small, cohesive groups for survival, and we remain hard-wired to feel happiest in settings where our contributions benefit those in our immediate circle, contends the author, who studied anthropology at Wesleyan University.
This predisposition explains why many former soldiers miss combat, and even why many colonial settlers chose to remain with their Indian captors, Junger writes in Tribe, expanded from an article for Vanity Fair.
He argues that it’s also why many servicemen and women struggle upon re-entry to civilian life, where intimate, close-knit communities have been replaced by faceless sprawl, online echo chambers, divisive politics and consumerism.
We spoke with Junger, 54, about Tribe; his journey from a tree-cutter to a freelance war correspondent; the plight of veterans and a new Veterans Day; mandatory national service; and the personal toll of his tribal year with troops in the deadliest region of Afghanistan.
Here is our conversation, edited for clarity.
MorrristownGreen: When I say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ what goes through your mind?
Sebastian Junger: It feels like a well intentioned and completely empty, reflexive sentiment that doesn’t have much social or emotional utility. In other words, people can say it or not say it, it wouldn’t really matter.
MG: How should we be welcoming back our soldiers?
SJ: It’s complicated. I think both sides are failing to communicate very well. I think soldiers aren’t communicating what they need very well, and they’re sometimes even disdaining a meaningful conversation, saying, “You’d never understand.” And civilians want to do the right thing, but don’t know what that is. So I think it’s a matter of the two groups communicating effectively and without pretense.
MG: How would you define a hero?
SJ: I think probably the best definition is anyone who puts other people’s welfare ahead of their own. Which obviously means heroes happen in boardrooms, in the workplace, in kindergartens and on the battlefield. Heroism isn’t restricted to combat, obviously.
MG: We have a volunteer military. Do men and women have any idea what they’re getting into?
SJ: Well, only about 10 percent of the military is engaged in combat, and the people in those combat units have to go to great lengths to pass the tests and the training to be allowed in to those units. So the people in combat units I think are extremely aware of what they’re getting into. At least the guys that I know, that’s exactly what they want to get into.
I think in these current wars where the front lines are less well defined, of course, there are logistics units and all kinds of people who wind up in bad situations that they never wanted to be part of. There are people in National Guard units who don’t want to be over there in the first place, who signed up to help with college tuition and whatever else, so there’s a whole mix of people. But when you’re talking about dedicated combat units, they know exactly what they’re getting into.
MG: Many servicemen and women who are not in the front lines are claiming Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Why is that?
SJ: Well, my book raised the possibility that the very real psychological issues that many veterans face even though they weren’t traumatized in combat reflect the alienating nature of modern society and the difficulty of transitioning to that from the very close communal life of a platoon, even at a rear base.
“Modern society has so completely removed stress and hardship that communal bonds are almost never required.”
MG: The “9/11 Singing Policeman” is performing on Sept. 11, 2016, at the same theater where you’ll be speaking in Morristown. He was at Ground Zero after 9/11, and he’s an opera singer now. He claims he’s trying to rekindle the sense of community that we felt immediately after 9/11, which then disappeared. Why is it so hard to maintain this sense of togetherness after a crisis is over?
SJ: Well, we live in a very wealthy, modern society where individuals don’t need other people in order to eat and survive. When you wake up in the morning and look out your window, the people that you see around you in your neighborhood are not contributing directly to your physical well being.
In a crisis that’s actually not true. In a crisis you look around you and it’s precisely the people around you that you realize you might have to count on to get through the next five minutes or five hours. And that creates an instantaneous, very very high bond. It’s really adaptive behavior, that falls away when it’s not needed anymore.
Likewise, our bodies deal with crises by pumping adrenaline into the bloodstream. It makes us highly functional. But we don’t walk around pumped full of adrenaline all the time. We only get that dose when we need it. And it’s sort of the same thing socially. Society coheres and bonds and comes together when it’s required to do that, to face a threat.
In modern society those threats almost never happen. In our evolutionary past those threats were an ongoing issue, and therefore these very small groups of humans that characterized our evolutionary past–groups of 30, 40, 50, 60 individuals–were presumably quite tightly bonded most of the time.
MG: So that adrenaline just can’t keep pumping all the time, it would burn us out…
SJ: It wouldn’t burn us out because we don’t get it. There’s no way to make the adrenaline happen in our bloodstreams all the time. We’re not physically capable of doing that. And it’s because we don’t need that. The adrenaline costs a lot of energy and we don’t need it all the time. But in seconds it floods our bloodstream when we’re in a crisis.
Likewise, modern society trying to function in a very close, communal interactive way is spending a huge amount of energy on something it doesn’t really need to do to get through an average day. It needs it enormously during a crisis, like after 9/11, so those communal bonds wax and wane, depending on the circumstances.
The point is that modern society has so completely removed stress and hardship that those communal bonds are almost never required. And we’re able to lead our lives in a very, very unsocial way. And by unsocial I don’t mean that we don’t have friends or go to cocktail parties. I mean in a way that’s very chiefly connected to other people immediately around us.
In some ways that represents a great freedom of the individual from the bonds of society. But it also represents a significant psychological loss because it’s those bonds that make us feel psychologically well.
MG: Do you see a tribal component to the whole Donald Trump phenomenon?
SJ: Well, there’s a tribal component to everything. When you go to a football game, if you attend a wedding, humans are social animals and they organize themselves around “in” groups and “out” groups, for very sensible evolutionary reasons.
Donald Trump –and other politicians, by the way, it’s not just Trump–politicians through the ages, and Donald Trump’s one of them, have appealed to that sense of group solidarity and group identity to bolster their political base. And it works extremely well. So yeah, he does. But that’s a really common political tactic.
“Very very few primates exist alone. And they’re in an enormous amount of danger when they’re not in a group, and we’re wired to know that.”
MG: You refer in your book to thousands of Europeans settlers who joined Indian tribes, the so-called “White Indians.” Were they analogous to people who join cults today?
SJ: Yeah, absolutely. Or communes in the ’60s. People are always trying to form close, interconnecting groups. In modern society, people are constantly trying to do it. It’s been pointed out to me that even retirement homes are a form of tribal society that’s arisen in this sort of cultural vacuum, where those groups don’t exist in the rest of society. It’s a very comforting and helpful thing for older people.
MG: You extol the virtues of tribalism. So why are so many refugees from tribal places– Syria, Iraq, Somalia–trying so desperately to come to the West?
SJ: Syria’s not a tribal society. It’s a modern state that’s in civil war.
MG: Certainly in Iraq, various factions have been fighting for a long time, people are trying to get out of there —
SJ: That’s a religious war, a sectarian war based on religious divisions. Likewise the American Civl War was a sectarian war, based on very deep cultural and economic divisions. These are modern countries that have lapsed into civil war, for some very complex reasons.
And any sane civilian would want to escape and bring their families to safety. When you talk about the word tribe, what you’re really talking about is a kind of close communalism, and humans all over the world have a predisposition for that. It’s …really everywhere.
MG: Do you think that is what communism purported to be initially, where you subordinate the individual to the collective good?
SJ: Yeah, and this is what’s complicated. It’s hard to subordinate your individual interests for 200 million people you’ve never met. That’s not in our evolutionary past. What is in our evolutionary past is subordinating your interests for people that you know intimately and care about and depend upon yourself for your own survival.
So what communism was trying to do, I don’t think consciously, but in hindsight, it looks like communism was trying to take this basic communal human response and broaden it to the modern state. It was a failed experiment. But I can sort of get where it was coming from.
“Even retirement homes are a form of tribal society that’s arisen in this sort of cultural vacuum.”
MG: Your book paints the image of the “good soldier,” bonding with others for the good of their platoon, similar to Indian tribes and Amish societies. But what about the bad seeds? Human nature being what it is, you must have encountered some bad apples who disrupted this idealized vision of cohesion and community?
SJ: What humans have done for hundreds of thousands of years is either killed or thrown those people out because they were a danger to the group. Obviously, that didn’t happen with the platoon that I was with. But that is typically how humans deal with someone who’s so disruptive that they represent a danger to everyone.
MG: Many people have portrayed digital technology as a liberating and unifying force. It sets information free, gives everyone a voice. Will this bring a greater sense of community over the long haul?
SJ: If you look at rates of mental illness, suicide and depression in modern society, they keep going up. So it doesn’t seem like the digital age has brought what we like to call happiness. I think part of the problem is not just that the Internet fails to provide community, it fails to provide it while seeming to. It seems to provide community, but it actually doesn’t. Within that illusion people lapse into a very lonely, solipsistic universe that actually is not in keeping with our evolutionary past at all.
MG: By conventional yardsticks, you’ve done well. Your books about war top the best-seller lists, your documentaries have won awards, you’re sought after as a speaker. What personal price have you paid for fame and fortune?
SJ: My first book was my most successful, The Perfect Storm. The price really was I kind of lost some privacy and some self awareness as a public figure. Many people would say that’s worth the trade. I’d probably agree with that. But there is a kind of cost there, where you’re removed from a certain anonymity that most people enjoy.
More specifically, the war reporting that I’ve done — I started war reporting in the early ’90s in Bosnia–and I was in Sierra Leone in Africa, and Liberia, and Afghanistan starting in 1996. So I did a lot of war reporting before I was ever with U.S. soldiers.
Collectively, I would say that if you’re in war, or in any kind of traumatic situation where you’re in danger and you see people who have been wounded or killed, you experience trauma. And I did like anyone would.
Like most people, that trauma dissipated after some weeks or months, and it’s changed me, but I’d hardly say it’s diminished me. If anything, I think it’s expanded me emotionally and psychologically.
“The problem is not just that the Internet fails to provide community, it fails to provide it while seeming to.”
MG: You said you had some short-term PTSD. Did it wreak havoc with you in other ways?
SJ: It didn’t wreak havoc. I had occasional panic attacks, I was mildly depressed for awhile…It definitely affected me.
MG: Did it contribute to your marriage coming apart?
SJ: It was definitely part of a time in my life where things were sort of coming unglued. I wouldn’t say there was a cause-and-effect there. It was definitely part of the mix, for sure.
MG: Most people would not want to be anywhere near the places where you’ve gone. What drew you to those places?
SJ: Honestly, a lot of young boys play war, and I think war is an object of a certain amount of fascination, particularly in boys. My family was very affected by war. My father is half-Jewish. His family fled Europe when the Germans came. I grew up in a very comfortable suburb where I was never really tested in any way, physically. All of those combined to make me very curious about war.
And in my early 30s I went off to Bosnia to try to become war correspondent. It seemed like a very dramatic, compelling and meaningful job. I was a very very low-level freelance writer before that, and very modest accomplishments, and I made most of my money as a climber for tree companies. And so reporting from a war zone really seemed like a step that would be personally transforming and professionally transforming. So I went.
MG: So you proved you could do it, but then you kept going back. Why?
SJ: I went there to be changed. I didn’t go there to prove something. I went there to be changed. And I liked the changes that were happening to me as I did that work. I kept going back because I kept being interested in what I was seeing and experiencing over there.
MG: You have said you slept better in a war zone, with a bunch of soldiers, than you sleep at home, in the peaceful USA. How can that be?
SJ: What I said specifically was that if you’re camping alone in the woods of New England where there are no physical dangers, you don’t sleep very well because we are wired to find our safety in groups, when you’re alone, as a social animal, or as primates. Very very few primates exist alone. And they’re in an enormous amount of danger when they’re not in a group, and we’re wired to know that.
So you’re way more scared, unconsciously, when you’re asleep, you do not sleep as well when you’re by yourself in the woods of New England. You’re ostensibly safer with a group, even if that group is in a combat situation. At least, that was my experience.
“In some ways, war reporting is extremely easy… what’s a lot harder, journalistically, is to write about ‘normal’ life.”
MG: What do you miss most about your “tribal” experience in Afghanistan?
SJ: I started going to Afghanistan in ’96, and I found it to be an incredibly dramatic, historically, geographically, culturally dramatic country. I really fell in love with it. And some of the very most intense wartime experiences I’ve had were with the Northern Alliance militia in 2000, about a year before 9/11.
I felt like I was on another planet. It really was very, very intense. And I felt even though the people I was with spoke a different language, and were from a different society, I felt very, very close to those guys. And that experience was repeated when eventually in 2007, I was with American soldiers off and on for a year. What do I miss? I miss the meaningfulness and the closeness of those relations.
MG: Re-entry to a less-exciting world must have been quite an adjustment for you. For soldiers coming back, it must be even more so. You have suggested a radically different kind of Veterans Day, where we listen to vets share their experiences. Are Americans capable of that?
SJ: In my book I describe a situation where we did that, and they were totally capable of it. It went extremely well, so I have to assume yeah. This country pulled off D-Day. If we could pull off D-Day we can pull off a bunch of meetings in town halls.
MG: And you think that would help a lot, it would mean more to veterans than a simple “Thanks for your service”?
SJ: According to veterans it would. I’m not a veteran. All my opinions about this stuff come from soldiers and veterans that I’ve talked to. They seem to think so, yeah.
MG: Do you regret not being a serviceman yourself?
SJ: There were no wars to fight in the ’80s, and I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to be in the military with nothing to do. So, no.
“As an atheist, it boggles my mind that people would imagine that God would be anywhere near a battlefield.”
MG: After living side by side with soldiers who put their lives on the line every day for this country, how do you feel about the this election campaign?
SJ: I feel disdain for people who talk about this country in divisive terms, that are calculated to exploit cultural and racial fissures in society for their own short term benefit. I don’t think it’s going to work for them politically, and it certainly is failing them on a moral level, and endangering the country. So I have zero respect for people who act like that.
MG: Do you get the sense that soldiers wonder what they are fighting for?
SJ: I just imagine that if you fought for this country and you come back and see this country fighting with itself, it must raise enormous questions in your mind about what’s happening, what are we doing, how do we see ourselves as a nation, or not. I can’t help but think that those questions would arise…
MG: The old saying is there are no atheists in a foxhole. Are you the sole exception?
SJ: You know, I never once saw someone pray at Restrepo, except the Afghans. The Afghans pray. I never saw an American pray. That doesn’t mean they’re all atheists. But I never saw them pray.
As an atheist, I would say that if you look around yourself on a battlefield, it does occur to you, why would God want to have anything to do with the situation where his creations are killing each other. As an atheist, it boggles my mind that people would imagine that God would be anywhere near a battlefield.
“We can afford to put you out to pasture if you’re broken. Here’s $3,000 a month.” –Sebastian Junger on the message sent to veterans by America’s PTSD program.
MG: We talked about the many PTSD claims by soldiers. What changes, if any, do we need to make to our disability compensation system?
SJ: As a journalist, I don’t make recommendations to society about what to do. But what I did do in my book was cite statistics and studies that showed a certain amount of PTSD disability claims were issued even though there was no supporting evidence of trauma. Now that doesn’t mean there isn’t trauma, and there aren’t psychological issues.
But when you receive money from the government without supporting your claims with evidence, I think you’re on tricky ground, and it’s tricky ground psychologically for the soldier, for the veteran. We’re a wealthy country and we can afford an enormous amount of disability payments. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to many other expenses. But I think it sends an ambiguous and complicated message to the soldiers themselves about their mental health.
Disability for most people is a short term problem. And even for people who have a longterm problem with it, it’s eminently treatable. So when you give someone a lifelong disability check for something that’s usually not chronic and is treatable, you’re sending a very complicated message to that soldier.
You’re basically saying, “We probably don’t really need you in this country. We can afford to put you out to pasture if you’re broken. Here’s $3,000 a month. The nation will just go on with its business.” It looks like we’re doing vets a favor, but I think in psychological terms, we may not be. I say this not because I’m a shrink, but because I talked to a lot of psychologists who are of that opinion.
“I think national service with a military option would do an enormous amount to make this country feel like a whole, that has shared concerns and goals.”
MG: How should we go about reintegrating these soldiers? How do we make them whole again, how do we get them back into the swing of society?
SJ: I don’t think we can, frankly. I don’t think there’s anything to reintegrate into. The point of my book is that modern society is so dispersed and individualistic that there isn’t a there there. So you’re not going to integrate soldiers into something that itself doesn’t have a cohesive center.
MG: That’s kind of gloomy.
SJ: Ultimately, what we need to do is reform the society so it feels more bonded and coherent for everybody.
MG: Where do you start?
SJ: I don’t know. It may not be doable. Humans have never lived in a society like this before. It’s an experiment, it may not work. I think a good place to start would be to remove the kind of divisive and hateful political rhetoric that exists at the very top echelons of our political society. And there are ways to do that. All that stuff is protected by free speech.
But that doesn’t mean that social sanctions by the populace can’t change the behavior of a very very few powerful people at the top of the heap. I think national service with a military option would do an enormous amount to make this country feel like a whole, that has shared concerns and goals.
I think town hall meetings for veterans on veterans day, at a community level, would be a very integrating and bonding experience for both the town and the veterans. That’s a start. Who knows if it would work?
“Modern society is so dispersed and individualistic that there isn’t a there there.”
MG: You saw radical Islam up close and very personally. How do we combat radical Islam?
SJ: The same way we combat radical Christianity. You combat it with rationality, with the rule of law, and with armed force, if need be. I think Islam ultimately has to reform itself.
What we can do in our society is not create a society where people of other ethnicities and religions experience prejudice and bias and violence. That’s not the cause of radical Islamic violence, but it fans the flames of it, and so it really is going to require everyone in all the different religious camps to espouse some kind of integrated, peaceful, accepting ethos. We all have to do it, or it’s not going to work for anybody.
MG: Having spent so much time in Afghanistan, do you feel there’s any hope for that country?
SJ: Eventually… it’s a failed state because the West kept intruding on it. The state collapsed when the Soviets invaded, and then pulled out, and we pulled out. Something very very predictable happened. You destroy a country and then fill it full of weapons, it’s a poor country, you’re going to have a lot of violence.
I think for the part of the world that it’s in, it can achieve the kind of stability that many of our other allies in that area of the world–Pakistan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan–many of them have achieved. It’s not going to be Wisconsin, but I’m not sure it wants to be Wisconsin.
MG: Well, parts of Wisconsin haven’t been too peaceful of late, either. You’ve said this is it for you, as far as the war correspondent bit. Why are you so sure that you’re not going to feel pulled back to cover wars?
SJ: I have free will and can make decisions, and I decided to stop covering combat after Tim [Hetherington, co-producer of Restrepo] got killed [covering the Libyan civil war in 2011]. I’d already reached the point where it interested me less. I felt like I learned what wanted to learn in that environment. So it’s not a question of getting pulled back in, it would be a question of making myself go, and I’m not going to do that.
“There are a lot of jobs in this country [that] kill and really maim a lot of people, at rates that are comparable to many combat units.”
MG: So what’s next? I can’t imagine anything that could possibly be as challenging as what you’ve done.
SJ: Things can be challenging in different ways. In some ways, war reporting is extremely easy. There’s a very dramatic, obvious narrative that doesn’t require a lot of writing skill to communicate effectively on the page, or through a camera.
Actually, what’s a lot harder, journalistically, is to write about “normal” life, everyday life, in this country. It’s way harder than going to a war zone and documenting that. My book “Tribe” it’s not war reporting, it’s a serious, arguably academic book. So I’ve already done the next thing.
My movie The Last Patrol takes place in this country, no one had to die for me to have a story to tell. It is a very complex film, that was a lot harder to make than Restrepo was. So I’ve already moved on to the next thing. What the next next thing is, I don’t know.
MG: No gut feeling?
SJ: I really haven’t even sussed it out. I just finished my book tour for Tribe and am enjoying my down time, so I’m not sure.
MG: You don’t have kids, do you?
MG: If you did, how would you feel about them enlisting in the service?
SJ: Depends on what unit they were enlisting in. If they were in a non-combat unit I would feel like, well, that will be interesting. There’s other things you could do. You’ll probably get around to those things eventually.
It definitely gives you an amazing experience of being part of America, because you experience every race, every economic group, every educational level, you really are mashed together with a broad spectrum of American society, and I think that’s an enormously healthy thing. Which is why I support national service with a military option.
If they wanted to be in a combat unit, as a parent, I would worry. But I would also understand why that’s a compelling idea.
MG: What is the one thing most of us back home don’t get about actual combat? I’ve covered lots of parades, and lots of services, and there is lots of flag-waving and patriotic talk. But what’s the reality, that we just don’t get?
SJ: I think Americans don’t realize that most of the military actually is not in combat. They serve faithfully, and they serve well for the most part. But they’re actually not engaged in combat.
There are a lot of jobs in this country, a lot of very very dangerous jobs. Drilling for oil, timber cutting, commercial fishing, high rise construction, even some kinds of farming, which really kill and really maim a lot of people, at rates that are comparable to many combat units.
And I think Americans in honoring and even venerating the military, they forget that the military is only one part of society that we all need. There is a whole industrial sector of this country that we’re equally dependent on that costs the people who do those jobs an enormous amount. And they’re not very well paid for it.
What I wish is that we, as Americans, that our honoring and appreciation would encompass all of those people. And I feel like it’s a really important thing for an organic, whole society to do.
MG: I really appreciate you taking the time, and I’m really looking forward to your talk here in Morristown.
SJ: Thank you very much. I enjoyed talking to you.
Sebastian Junger will deliver the keynote at the third annual Morristown Festival of Books on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, at 100 South St. Tickets are $35 and include a copy of TRIBE. They are available at morristownbooks.org or by calling 973-538-8008. Reduced price tickets for students (without the book included) are $15.