For many years, the slogan for the largest branch of the U.S. military was “An Army of One.” But in fact, when our armed forces deploy, they move in units that are essentially tribes: small, tightly knit, fraternal and supportive in a way that resonates with human instincts crafted over hundreds of thousands of years, according to journalist Sebastian Junger in his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.
It’s only after our soldiers get back home from war that they become armies of one: isolated and disconnected in the same way that many are in the modern world, but much more so as a result of experiences that civilians can never fully understand. And that’s leading to mental health and social issues among the soldiers returning from today’s conflicts.
Junger’s new book examines modern Western society through the lens of those returning soldiers to point out the downsides of our culture of independence, explain why disasters and dangerous situations bring out the best in us, and show how a few fairly simple enhancements to our civic life could make a big difference to the mental health of veterans and civilians alike. He joined us on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 to talk about it. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows:
Knowledge at Wharton: This is an interesting book. The backstory plays off an article that you wrote for Vanity Fair a year or so ago, correct?
Junger: Yes, I started this idea about a year ago in Vanity Fair. I thought that one way of understanding, not just America, but modern society in general throughout the world, is to look at it through the eyes of people who are returning to it and seeing it with fresh eyes. Of course, veterans are a great example of that, as are Peace Corps volunteers and some other people. The transition from an arguably harder circumstance to the luxury of modern society — the fact that that transition is actually hard rather than — says a lot about what is missing in modern society. As you said, it greatly affects veterans who might be struggling with psychological issues.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are the majority of Americans missing in terms of their understanding of what these people are going through and helping them re-acclimate themselves to this society?
Junger: Humans evolved to live in groups of 40 or 50 people in a harsh environment, totally relying on one another for their safety and for their emotional needs. Obviously, modern society doesn’t exist like that anymore, and there’s a great loss in that. If you look at mental health rates, the suicide rate goes up with income. As societies get wealthier, the suicide rate climbs. The rate of depression climbs. All these things climb with income. As societies get wealthier, people live more and more individualistic lives, and that actually leaves them psychologically very vulnerable.
“The transition from an arguably harder circumstance to the luxury of modern society — the fact that that transition is actually hard rather than easy — says a lot about what is missing in modern society.”
So you have veterans who have spent a year-plus in a platoon, which is about 40-50 people. It basically reproduces our evolutionary past very closely — living in close proximity, sleeping together, eating together, doing everything together. It doesn’t matter if you were in combat or not. Most soldiers are not in combat; most soldiers actually are not traumatized. But they’re living in these incredibly close, cohesive, tribal circumstances. It feels very good for ancient reasons.
Then, they come back and suddenly they are alone, and they are actually in some ways more vulnerable psychologically than they were on the battlefield.
Knowledge at Wharton: The majority of those returning soldiers would have family members, but that doesn’t create the sense of bring in a tribe like being in a platoon, correct?
Junger: Yes. Family is great. It’s very important for psychological health, but community really is the key.
You can tell that by looking at rates of psychological illness in modern society. Most people do live in families, and it really doesn’t buffer them. What does buffer people is community. If you take modern society and you collapse it — for example, during the Blitz in London, when you had strangers sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder on subway platforms, forming bucket brigades to put out fires and burning buildings, terrible, huge causalities — you would think that would be psychologically very stressful. It was actually the opposite. The admission rates to psych wards in London went down during the bombings. As people come together even to face great hardship and danger, essentially, they feel better and they do better.
Knowledge at Wharton: Looking at our society now, it’s really only in times of great tragedy or great stress that we really do come together – for example, in the wake of 9/11.
Junger: Interestingly in New York, the suicide rate went down and the murder rate went down after 9/11. Some kinds of psychological illness improved across the population. We’re very lucky to live in an affluent society where individuals don’t need their community to get by; they’re drawing a paycheck, they have a car, they live in a house. They don’t need their immediate community. And the community doesn’t need them — until a tornado comes through, until the floodwaters rise, until a plane crashes into a building. We’re all leading these separate lives, which gives us enormous autonomy.
It’s not that it’s without its benefits, but there’s a real psychological price to be paid. Veterans are making this radical transition from a very tightly bonded life to modern life, and it’s extremely hard for them. And keep in mind, only 10% of the military has ever experienced combat. Most of the people coming back were not traumatized at all, and yet almost half the military has applied for PTSD disabilities. So there’s something going on that doesn’t have to do with trauma that’s still deeply affecting these people making the transition.
Knowledge at Wharton: You talk a bit in the book about how these men and women coming back after serving for our country are, in many respects, viewed by communities as damaged goods.
Junger: I wouldn’t say “damaged goods,” but there’s a bit of a culture of victimhood that I think both sides play into, which I think is really damaging to the efforts by veterans to reintegrate into “normal society.” When you’re viewed as a special case, when people are sort of tiptoeing around you verbally, and when they don’t know what to say — do I say, “Thank you for your service,” or do I say nothing? When you’re treated with kid gloves, I think it’s very hard to reintegrate into society.
“As societies get wealthier, people live more and more individualistic lives, and that actually leaves them psychologically very vulnerable.”
Knowledge at Wharton: We did an interview right around Memorial Day with PwC, and the person we had on was a former military member who runs a program for PwC to help former military members become part of that company, and ingrain them in it. How much of a benefit are those types of programs? Do you see them in any way easing the issues that you’re talking about?
Junger: What I would say is that the things that help veterans help everyone. I think in some ways, we should eventually stop just talking about veterans. Veterans need exactly the same things that everybody needs.
People need work, and veteran or not, if you don’t have a job, your psychological health is really at risk. People need community. Veteran or not, if you don’t have community, you’re at risk psychologically. So when we talk about helping the veterans, the bigger conversation is, how do we save ourselves? How do we change society so that it’s psychologically healthy for everybody?
Veterans in some ways are not a special case. I mean, they are, but they’re not. They’re emblematic of something that we all face. I start my book with Pontiac’s Rebellion in the 1760s in Western Pennsylvania, and one of the extraordinary things about that — and this was played out throughout the history of America — was that white captives of the Indians who had been taken from the settlements by force and adopted into Indian tribes, when they were given the chance to be repatriated to white society because of peace treaties and things like that, many of them refused to go.
They wanted to stay with their adopted tribal families. I look at that and I ask, what is it about our civilization that’s so unappealing to people, even to people raised in our civilization? It’s a really interesting question.
Knowledge at Wharton: It looks like we’re going to continue to grow even farther apart, considering how things have developed over the last 30 to 40 years. With all the technology we have, and the ability to avoid speaking directly with one another, I think we’re actually continuing down this path even more.
Junger: Yes. I don’t talk at all about social media in my book, but I think you’re exactly right. I have a flip phone, by the way. But I walk around looking at people on their devices, and it’s sort of amazing to me. Again, I don’t talk about this in the book, but now that we’re having the conversation, I can say that in my opinion, the danger of social media is not that it doesn’t provide community. It’s that it doesn’t provide you community, but it gives the illusion that it does. It’s even worse than no internet at all in some ways because it seems like you belong to something, but you actually don’t. You are literally interacting with pixels on a screen. I mean, when you really look at it, you’re in your parents’ basement interacting with pixels. You’re not actually having a human exchange. That, I think, is very, very tricky for us just in evolutionary terms.
Knowledge at Wharton: Are there examples out there right now … of areas where there is still that tribal mentality of community, of truly being a part of a greater entity? Other than Native Americans?
Junger: Native American culture has been radically damaged by many social ills that came from its contact with white society. But still, on many of the Indian reservations in this country, they have ceremonies for bringing veterans back into the community from the wars overseas from Iraq and Afghanistan. Those ceremonies are public. The whole community shows up, and they are extremely therapeutic. I talked to one woman from the Kiowa Nation who deployed to Iraq, and she said her whole community showed up in full regalia and drummed her out of town, and welcomed her home the same way. She was like, “I don’t have PTSD. I don’t even know what that is.” She basically deployed with her whole community, and that was fine.
Knowledge at Wharton: How much, though, do other countries follow that kind of path these days? You alluded to the fact that this has been almost washed out of our society in general, but do other countries still follow that type of path?
Junger: The problem with modern societies is that we don’t live in communities — we’re affluent enough to not need the community around us in order to survive. As communities get poorer, people depend on one another more and more. Rampage shootings have become the scourge of America in the past 10, 15 years, and they happen almost exclusively in pretty dispersed middle-class communities. A high-crime urban neighborhood has never ever had a rampage shooting in this country. There is something about the alienation of the American suburb, which somehow does not restrain psychotic individuals from turning violent.
Knowledge at Wharton: Going back to a point you made before — in situations where there has been high stress or some sort of military event, there is almost [easier] for military personnel to be in the battle or in that tribe. It’s easier for them than being back in society. It seems counterintuitive. But that ends up being the reality not only for a lot of these people, but for a lot of people just in general these days.
Junger: Yes, and again, keep in mind most soldiers are not in battle. They’re deployed, and they’re in support units, but regardless, they’re in very, very tightly bonded, cohesive situations — living, breathing, eating and sleeping with a group of 30, 40 people. Again, it’s exactly our evolutionary past and it feels good…. There was an earthquake in Arenzano, Italy that I researched and in Arenzano, in the rubble, the survivors basically made no distinction between rich people and poor people. Briefly, the survivors had a completely cohesive society, and one writer said that the earthquake produced what the law promises but cannot, in fact, deliver, which is the equality of all men.
“The danger of social media is … that it doesn’t provide you community, but it gives the illusion that it does…. It seems like you belong to something, but you actually don’t.”
I think one of the things that feels very good about disaster — and I saw this in New York City — is that when disaster strikes, everyone needs each other, and we stop making these awful social distinctions between white and black, rich and poor. We are just all one people because we need each other. That’s our evolutionary past, and in some ways, disasters that strike modern society in a weird way are kind of a relief.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you believe we can change the course of where we’re going with society? Can we get back to something closer to where we were? I’m not sure when the high point of that “tribal living” ethos would have been here in the United States. Maybe in the 1950s, or further back?
Junger: To go back to tribal life in America, you have to go back to a pre-white context, I think. The agrarian society that we had in the 1950s is really a modern society. There were elements of it, though. World War II saw much, much higher casualties than the current wars, much more intense combat, but lower rates of psychological trauma. My guess is that’s because people, even then, were coming back to more cohesive neighborhoods. You were more likely to live in the town that you were born in, amongst your brothers and sisters, you were less likely to be dispersed the way we are today. That dispersal shows an incredible amount of autonomy and independence for individuals, which is great. But again, the down side — you don’t have a community, you don’t have that tribal connection, and your psychological struggles are going to be that much harder.
Knowledge at Wharton: There’s a line in your book that kind of jumped out at me: “Contemporary America is a secular society that obviously can’t just borrow from Indian culture to heal its own psychic wounds, but the spirit of community healing and connection that forms the basis of these ceremonies is one that a modern society might draw on.” That is something you probably would like to see happen in of a lot of situations, not only around the United States, but around the globe.
Junger: I’m so glad you brought that up. The one thing that I am very excited about — if you go to my website, SebastianJunger.com, there’s a page on it called “Veterans Town Hall.” We did this experiment in Marblehead, Massachusetts last year and it really worked. I had this idea that you could take this common element of Native American ceremonies for warriors, which is a cathartic retelling of what you did on the battlefield for your people. It’s a very common component of these ceremonies, a sort of dramatic reenacting, retelling of what you did. In the context of modern America, that would happen not in a ceremonial dance ground or something, but in the town hall, the city hall. The center of civic life in this country is the city hall, the town hall. Basically, every Veterans Day, you would unlock the town hall, and veterans of any war would have the opportunity for 10 minutes to stand up to a microphone and simply tell their community, which has come into the room to hear them, what it felt like to go to war.
You are going to have people who are very proud of their service. You are going to have people in a rage that they had to fight that war. You’re going to have people who are crying too hard to talk. You’re going to have all of it. But the beauty of that is that it returns the emotional experience of war to the entire community. And of course, it’s the whole community that sent these people off to fight in the first place. It’s an incredibly therapeutic thing to do.
And if you want to do one in your town, it doesn’t cost a dime. It’s so easy. Just go to my website. There’s a page that tells you how to do it. Basically, you get the doors unlocked on Veterans Day, you get the PA system turned on, you do some social media outreach, and you’re good.
Knowledge at Wharton: I would bet it is cathartic for a lot of the people involved.
Junger: It’s enormously cathartic for the veterans. But more than that, in some ways, it brings the community together. It makes the point that whether you’re pro-war, anti-war, Democrat, Republican, I don’t care, that we’re all in this together.
When people say, “I support the troops,” who knows what that means? It means absolutely nothing. But what it could mean is that once a year, for a couple hours, you show up and you listen to the stories of the people who have served this nation. You can do that as an anti-war pacifist and you can do it as an ardent patriot. It does not matter. This is not a political event — it’s a human event. What we found was it made the community in Marblehead very cohesive for a couple hours. If we did this all over the country, I think we might regain something that many agree has been lost during this campaign season — this idea that we are a nation. I think that’s almost coming into question now, and we need to do something.
Knowledge at Wharton: I did want to bring up at some point the fact that our political system continues to show that our focus is frequently not on the people, it’s on the entity of the President of the United States. And as we’ve seen, it’s more about tearing down than it is building up.
Junger: I make the point in my book that in tribal communities, because they depend on each other to survive, people have disagreements, they have disputes. People don’t like each other. It’s human society, so it’s a mess, of course. But the one thing that they don’t do is harbor contempt and derision for the people they depend on, the people inside the wire, as it were. You see that in platoons, also. There are plenty of problems in the platoon, but the one thing the soldiers do not do is mock the other soldiers in their unit that they might depend on for their lives. When politicians do that, when media figures do that, when powerful people are contemptuous and derisive of the president, of the government, of segments of the population — when you’re doing that to people who are inside the wire, basically, you are really undermining this country. And I say that whether you are a Democrat or Republican, I don’t care. There’s a code of conduct and it’s being violated and it’s extremely dangerous.