Why is it that American combat veterans experience the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the world, while soldiers from other countries have far lower levels? Amazingly, warriors of the past, such as Native Americans, rarely experienced PTSD-like symptoms.
In his new book Tribe, Sebastian Junger argues that much of the difference lies not in the individuals, but in the societies to which they return. During a war, American soldiers become deeply immersed in a life of mutual support and emotional connection. Then they return home to a hyper-individualistic, fragmented, superficial consumer society. The shift is just too troubling for many. Life is suddenly bereft of collective meaning. There is no tribe.
It turns out that PTSD is not just about coping with memories of death and destruction; it is an abrupt loss of tribal ties and a resulting crisis of meaning. “When combat vets say that they miss the war,” writes Junger, “they might be having an entirely healthy response.”
“As awkward as it is to say, part of the trauma of war seems to be giving it up,” Junger insists. The intense, shared purpose in life-and-death circumstances is intoxicating and fulfilling. As one soldier told oral historian Studs Terkel, “For the first time in [our] lives….we were in a tribal sort of situation where we could help each other without fear.”
This theme was moving explored by Rebecca Solnit in her beautiful book, A Paradise Built in Hell, which describes how people show amazing empathy and help for each other in the face of earthquakes, hurricanes and wars. Londoners who lived through the Blitz during World War II don’t really yearn for the danger or death of that time. They do yearn for the profound unity and cooperation that the Blitz inspired.
Hunger’s book, subtitled On Homecoming and Belonging, derives from a series of articles he wrote for Vanity Fair, many of them dealing with combat veterans and PTSD. He brilliantly uses the experiences of combat veterans to show the deep emotional appeal of collective experiences, even in horrific contexts. Indirectly, we see how modern market cultures are woefully unable to satisfy our emotional needs for connection.
The sly achievement of Junger’s book is to critique to cultural deficiencies of American life through the experiences of combat veterans and, interestingly, Native Americans. His opening chapter is an extended exploration of the early clashes between Native American and European cultures in the 1700s — and the European attraction to the natives’ way of life.
A surprising number of European settlers – mostly men – wound up joining Indian society rather than staying among their peers. The European and English “defectors” (sometimes, captives) emulated Indians, married them, were adopted by them, and on some occasions even fought alongside them.
The opposite virtually never happened. Indians never ran away to join white society. “Thousands of Europeans are Indians,” wrote the French commentator Hector de Crèvecoeur, “and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.”
Crevecoeur, notes Junger, “seemed to have understood that the intensely communal nature of an Indian tribe held an appeal that the material benefits of Western civilization couldn’t necessarily compete with….Indian clothing was more comfortable. Indian religion was less harsh, and Indian society was essentially classless and egalitarian.”
Native American culture strongly emphasized sharing, so there was much less surplus accumulation of things and therefore less inequality. It was easier for tribes to make decisions in the best long-term interests of the group. No one was rich or powerful enough to capture the governance system for their individual, selfish ends. The culture, its ethic and rituals wouldn’t allow such an outcome.
It can hard to critique the intense social alienation and senselessness of advanced market cultures when you live within it. How does one acquire a clear outsider perspective? Junger brilliantly uses two unlikely “tribes,” combat veterans and Native Americans, to show the deep satisfactions of commoning — and the costs of not having a tribe.