Peabody award-winning author Sebastian Junger joins our podcast this week. Junger is well-known for his NYT-bestselling books The Perfect Storm and War, the latter of which was written after a 15-month tour of duty in the most dangerous outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
Based on his observations while in Afghanistan, Junger noted how much troops in combat valued the social solidarity of their units. In fact, he noted that the loss of this cohesive community, with its sense of purpose and shared responsibility, created prodigious psychological strife when these soldiers returned and tried to re-integrate into civilian life. This dynamic is not just limited to the military; any collection of humans working in tight-knit groups under stress, united in purpose, evidences similar behavior (Peace Corps volunteers, trauma care physicians, etc).
In his latest book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger explores our evolutionary wiring for community, and paradoxically, how our modern aspirations for “success” and “wealth” attempt to distance ourselves from it — making us unhappier and emotionally unhealthier in the pursuit:
When I was young I had mentor and uncle figure named Ellis, who was half Lakota Sioux and Apache. He was born literally on a wagon out West during the Depression. When I was young he said to me, that white people on the frontier were constantly running off to join Indians. But the Indians never ran out to join the white people. That the flow of humanity was towards the tribal. And I wondered about that; I thought about that my whole life. That even captives, people who have been captured along the frontier by Indians and were given the chance to go home…often didn’t want to.
Many, many years later I was with American soldiers in Afghanistan and I noticed a similar thing. After a very, very rough deployment, the guys I was with got back to Vicenza, Italy with their mates. They had a good time for awhile but then something settled in and a lot of them said that they didn’t want to go back to America. They actually wanted to return to the war.
And it reminded me of what Ellis said. What is it about civilization, about modern society that’s really so deeply unappealing even to people who have benefited from its wealth and from its stability? And so, my book is really about that. It’s about our ancient human preference for community and what happens when you lose that. What happens when you lose that in modern society, what happens to mental health, to PTSD, to social cohesion? Rampage shootings go up, just like the tragic one in Orlando. A lot of things fall apart when community falls apart.
Keep in mind that if you put soldiers in a platoon — it’s about 40, 50 men…at least the platoon I was with was all men — and you put them in a remote area in combat. Or even not in combat — most of the military actually doesn’t fight directly. But they’re sleeping soldier to soldier on the ground or in their barracks. And they’re eating meals together. They’re doing everything together, and they’re completely dependent on each other for their survival. That’s our human evolution, that’s what we evolved for. That’s the kind of life that humans are adapted to. So, when you put people in that environment, they respond incredibly well because in a kind of genetic sense, it’s familiar.
But it’s not just restricted to soldiers. Civilians also: people in London after the Blitz, reported that they missed the Blitz. Think about that. 30,000 Londoners were killed by German bombs; strangers were sleeping shoulder to shoulder in the subway platforms, digging people out of rubble. It was an awful, awful time. And yet, people said that they missed it. What they missed was the social solidarity, the sort of ‘us versus them’, ‘we can do this’. One lady told me ‘We would have all run out of the beach with broken bottles to fight the Germans if we had to’.
Humans are wired for and have adapted to surviving in extremely tough circumstances. We’re actually not adapted to stability and peacefulness in some ways. It allows us to pursue a kind of individualism that leaves us deeply unconnected to groups and being part of a group — the things that make people feel physically and emotionally safe. And when you lose that — although there are great benefits to individualism, obviously — but when you lose that, it makes people really quite vulnerable to all kinds of mental illness and sort of psychic disturbances.
Click the play button below to listen to my interview with Sebastian Junger (35m:02s)