Sebastian Junger on the ironies of PTSD, war and the modern condition
“If you’re craving something as terrible as war, then there’s really something missing at home.”
World-famous war reporter Sebastian Junger talked candidly about the twin-edged nature of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) yesterday in La Jolla, California.
He has a daring thesis: PTSD is caused by veterans being simply unable to reintegrate into developed consumer societies as much as it is by the horrors of war.
They’re treated like broken victims, damaged and fragile, and cannot slot neatly back into an uncaring cosmopolitan life.
It’s not incidental that as wealth rises in a society, so do depression and suicide.
But, in more primitive conditions, along the evolutionary tape somewhere nearer the state of nature, everyone has purpose.
Junger said: “Loneliness is something that started with modern societies… when your whole village or platoon is relying on you, you’re not going to kill yourself .”
This seemingly unlikely proposition— argued in new book Tribe — is hung on some persuasive facts.
Almost 50 per cent of American veterans have applied for PTSD disability yet only 10 per cent get caught up in real combat.
So too with Peace Corp workers, who have alarmingly high rates of the crippling disorder.
The problem is America — not Afghanistan.
Junger argues once you’ve tasted the primitive, once you’ve “gone native” the prospect of normal suburbia is intolerable.
He cites the early American settlers who would run off to join tribes, while the reverse was unheard of.
The corollary to “go civilised” doesn’t exist. People were trying escape back to hunter-gatherer roots, to emancipate themselves from meretricious surfaces and find real meaning.
In his award-winning documentary Restrepo Junger records intense, unseen moments which show war at its most tender edges.
Men sleeping soundlessly, the intense love they develop for each other, everyone working for collective survival.
It’s easy to see how you would miss the burning brotherhood, the life-and-death love, when back home you barely know your neighbours.
Though strange, re-adjusting to life in Oregon leads as reliably as bombs and bullets to ending up bent-double on a sidewalk with a cardboard sign.
Junger gave the example of the blitz in WW2 London, where six months of German bombing killed 30,000 people.
During this rain of fire, “everyone suddenly felt needed”. What one person did directly affected the whole: “They would have gone and fought the Germans with broken bottles on the beaches,” he said.
Mental health hospital admissions and suicides went down during the bombing, then crept back up after the war.
Junger even said people he spoke to in Sarajevo last year whispered they missed the war and wanted the feeling it gave them back again.
I asked him about the discrepancies between British soldiers and Americans. A 2014 King’s College London study found British soldiers were up to four times less likely to suffer from PTSD.
He said: “It may be you just have a more cohesive society, although I haven’t compared the UK and the US directly.
“After WW2 however, the Germans revealed they couldn’t understand ‘battle fatigue’ as it was then known, and they nicknamed it the ‘American disease’ there may be something specific to the US.”
The KCL study cites UK soldiers doing six month tours not 12, better access to healthcare and benefits, and US soldiers being younger and poorer as potential reasons for the gap.
Concluding, Junger recommended opening up every town hall in the country on Veterans’ Day and letting them talk about their experience.
The war correspondent said national service would help heal a deeply fissured national consciousness, and make huge economic and social disparities more tolerable.
He said: “I’m not talking about politics, I don’t care either way about your political views but this is something new. I’m 54 and it’s the first time I’ve seen it.
“I think selective national service would be incredibly healthy for this country and would be so beneficial in starting to fix this.
“It would give young people the chance to serve their country in line with their ethics and morals. You either have a country or you don’t.”