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Sebastian Junger Examines Veteran Life After Leaving 'Tribe'


War is appalling, destructive and dehumanizing. Even warriors, maybe - especially warriors - would say that. But war can also inspire unprecedented acts of courage, genius and humanity. Sebastian Junger, who has covered so many conflicts around the globe and written best-sellers, including "The Perfect Storm," has a book that looks at why the bitter experience of war can also cause people - citizens, not just soldiers - to feel extraordinary closeness, purpose and meaning in their lives.

He writes about it in "Tribe: On Homecoming And Belonging." Sebastian Junger joins us now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: As you can attest, often the real anxieties come after the war and battles are over, don't they?

JUNGER: Yes. I mean, the odd thing about war - one of the many odd things about war is that the experience of combat produces an incredible human closeness between the soldiers involved. And when soldiers come home, there's this sort of existential loss of community. You're not in a platoon. You're not sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder with other people that you would die for. And that transition is at the root of a lot of what we erroneously, I think, call PTSD.

SIMON: That term PTSD - you don't like it. And yet, you use it. But tell us why it makes you uncomfortable.

JUNGER: Well, it has its use. It's an important word. It describes the long-term reactions to trauma that some people get. Around 20 percent of people exposed to deep trauma wind up struggling with their reaction for many months or years. Keep in mind - only 10 percent of U.S. military is engaged in any kind of combat at all.

But roughly half the U.S. military has applied for some form of disability based on PTSD. So there's 40 percent in there who really weren't traumatized, who come home and are - feel deeply alienating and out of place. The only language they have for it is PTSD. I actually don't think that's what is. And by definition, it can't be.

What they're experiencing is the very real trauma of reintegration into modern society. People who serve two years in the Peace Corps have the same problem. The depression rates after people come home from the Peace Corps is astronomically high.

SIMON: We both spent time in Sarajevo during the siege. And I want to get you talk about a young woman - a teenager then - who's a journalist in Bosnia now, who has no problem when saying that's when we were the happiest.

JUNGER: That was in Sarajevo in '93, '94. It was a very traumatized city. Something like 20 percent of the population was killed or wounded. I didn't go back there until last summer - 2015. And I met this extraordinary woman, Nidzara Ahmetasevic, who was wounded at age 17 by a Serb tank round that hit her parents' apartment. They almost had to cut off her leg.

They saved the leg, but they operated on her for reconstructive surgery without anesthesia because there was just nothing in Sarajevo at the time. And when I met her last summer, she said - almost embarrassed - she said, you know, the seige was so terrible. It was so hard. But, you know what? We all kind of miss it.

And she literally lowered her voice because she was embarrassed by the thought. And I asked her about that. And she said, we were better people during the siege. We helped each other. We lived more closely. We would have died for each other. And now, you know, it's peaceful. It's - we're a wealthy society. And everyone just lives for themselves. And everyone's depressed.

SIMON: Yeah. One thing I remember noticing is - when artillery and sniper fire were at their worst, people would struggle to stay alive. And then there'd be, like, the rare period of five-day cease-fire or something. And they'd come out and raise their heads - see the world they knew was in shambles. And that's when you hear about people throwing themselves off the tops of buildings.

JUNGER: Yeah. Emile Durkheim, the great sociologist, found that in Europe in the 1800s, countries that were at war experienced a decline in their suicide rate. After 9/11 in New York, the suicide rate went down. The murder rate - violent crime rate - went down. Even Vietnam vets who struggled with PTSD reported that as soon as 9/11 happened, their PTSD symptoms improved. In Sarajevo, Nidzara said that during the war, very few people killed themselves because they knew that their families needed them.

SIMON: Israel has more or less been constantly at war for decades. And you say their universal service might make a difference.

JUNGER: Yes. The idea for the book started with my background in anthropology. I studied anthropology in college. I did my fieldwork on the Navajo reservation. And at one point a year or two ago, I had this idea. I was like, I bet the Navajo, the Apache, the Comanche, the Cheyenne, the Sioux, the Kiowa - very, very warlike societies. I bet they weren't getting PTSD. I bet they weren't coming home to their community and feeling alienated and out of place and unconnected. I bet the transition was fine.

And so I had this idea. Maybe the rate of long-term trauma that combatants experience - maybe that's a function not of the trauma - not of what happens on the battlefield - but the kind of society you come home to. And if you come home to a cohesive tribal society, maybe you recover quite quickly from trauma.

So I looked at Israel. Now, most of the Israeli population serves in the military. They don't all see combat, but they've all been in the military. When the fight - when the combat takes place in that kind of societal context, it makes much greater moral sense. When you have to fly 10,000 miles to fight in another country, and everyone back home is continuing as if everything the same, the moral context is sort of more suspect.

When you're defending - literally defending your house, there is very little trauma because it's so clearly something that has to be done. So the PTSD rate in Israel is something like 1 percent. In the U.S. military, it's around 20 percent. Very similar kinds of military, similar kind of society, similar kind of fight - but a different societal context. And that seems to make the whole difference.

SIMON: Yeah, you found some differences with the World War II generation, too.

JUNGER: Yes. I mean, one of the interesting statistics that I found was that with every war, you know, going back to the American Civil War, the percentage of casualties has gone down. But the disability rate has gone up. That's both psychological disability and physical disability. The only thing I could think to explain this is that soldiers coming back to a society - that every generation is increasingly alienated from itself - increasingly conflicted - experience higher rates of trauma.

I'm talking about - you come back to your neighborhood and most of the men in that neighborhood also served. Your parents live down the street. Your three brothers live a block away. I mean, that kind of rich communal connection - it's the thing that creates mental health in a society.

SIMON: So the answer isn't just to give every veteran a slot with a psychiatrist and a welcome home parade.

JUNGER: I think psychological counseling is very important for people who have been traumatized. But what do you do with the people who weren't traumatized, who don't feel like they should be home? They no longer feel like they belong to the society they fought for.

SIMON: Sebastian Junger - his book "Tribe: On Homecoming And Belonging." Thanks so much for being with us.

JUNGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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