My review from the July, 2016 Sturbridge Times Magazine.
You may have heard the statistic that 22 veterans kill themselves a day. From that stat, one may get the idea of a national crisis and the depth of the problem, or maybe not. It turns out that the majority of that number are Vietnam vets. As a qualifier, that changes the discussion from an immediate problem for recent servicemen and women to something that could have other reasons.
Still, a number around ten is a problem here and now. Is anyone noticing? Sebastian Junger is. Junger is a well known author of many books on various subjects from his most famous The Perfect Storm, to modern warfare and other subjects. He has been embedded many times with military forces and is a man of adventure. His personal encounter with horror led him to publish Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.
Junger found himself not immune to the stress of life following a stint as a combat reporter. Almost a year before 911, he suffered a panic attack in the New York Subway. Junger had been in Afghanistan covering battle between the Taliban, of whom you have heard of by now, and the Northern Alliance of Ahmad Shah Massoud. It was a a brutal war well before we became involved.
Yet here back home, in maybe not the world's most pleasant venue, but still not a war zone, he fell apart. Sebastian has been thinking about it, to say the least. As bad as the momentary event was, he recovered. Junger had had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, which is in the news lately so you might have heard about it. His occurrence was short-term (acute) and he had several over time and then they stopped.
The author did not know what it was and did not connect it to his time in a combat environment. It was in a conversation with a psychotherapist at a picnic that he realized what had happened.
PTSD is part of the evolutionary tool kit. Heightened awareness in an emergency situation is just what one needs. On the subway, though, it might not be as helpful.
The author also found out a lot facts about combat and PTSD. Some of them are surprising. Only about 20% suffer it long term and chronically. Something else he discovered, American troops take a third as many casualties as in Vietnam, but now claim three times the number of disabilities. He has other stats about the problem, but also many insights.
If you go through battle and end up with the chronic form of the disorder, you probably had problems before combat. In fact, combatants are no more likely than vets who have not been under fire to kill themselves. So what is it all about? Why would we go to pieces after coming home?
Junger explores a “civilization and its discontents theme.” We who live in a so-called civilized society would seem to have it better than the “savages.” Not all felt the same.
The author cites the writings of Ben Franklin on the subject. According to Dr. Franklin, as quoted by Junger, “”White captives who were liberated from the Indians were almost impossible to keep at home : “Tho' ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life...and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.””
In case you are wondering, the operative word here is the title of the book. The aboriginal inhabitants of the continent lived in tribes and Junger wants to make a point. Men in wars live and fight with comrades in cohesive groups, depending on each other for survival. He does not call them tribes exactly in that situation, but why not?
They come home to “Thank you for your service” and some rah rah stuff, but little else. That unit esprit is gone and they are on their own. Many lose it. Junger has seen it elsewhere. The Siege of Sarajevo saw solidarity amongst the besieged. That camaraderie evaporated with peace and is mourned.
The author cites Israel as a place with little diagnosed PTSD. That most of that nation are at some time in the army and have a greater fellow feeling has something to do with it. Men and women are both subject to service. Somehow it does not seem that universal conscription is going to happen here.
That would be a solution to PTSD in the military. After all, if all the kids of the rich and powerful and the politicians were drafted and had to learn to low crawl through the mud with the sons and daughters of trailer park denizens, our wars would end before Ivanka or Chelsea lost a nail.