Veterans and the Alienated Society


Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (Twelve, 2016).


Sebastian Junger understands a lot about warfare. He is admirably passionate about helping America’s veterans come to terms with their wartime experience and form the kind of meaningful connections that inoculate against post-traumatic stress disorder. Much of his new book, Tribe, is about veterans, and where it is, it enlightens. It is when Junger jumps from the specific experience of veterans to putting all of modern society on the analyst’s couch that the book falters. Too much of his jeremiad is a paean to a mythical time in which we defined ourselves as a whole, CEOs were not paid so excessively, and virtue prevailed. Moreover, he ignores the vibrancy of familial, religious, and civic organizations that do provide for many Americans the social cohesion he advocates.

Junger begins this book with concern about why veterans seemed to be struggling so mightily with PTSD at higher rates than previous wars in which they experienced combat of longer duration and higher casualty rates. A heartfelt concern both grounds the book and rings through it. He relays important and under-appreciated facts about PTSD, such as that it is unrelated to combat or deployment, correlates strongly to pre-existing factors of alienation, and to the experience a veteran has reintegrating into civilian society. As only someone with his credibility on veteran’s issues would, Junger explains the way well-intentioned programs to facilitate treatments encourage over-diagnosing of PTSD and encourage a victim mentality among America’s veterans.

As he emphasizes in his related Ted talk , while in the military, our servicemen and women experience a strong sense of tribe, the removal of which upon returning from war can leave them unmoored. We no longer have a “‘community of sufferers that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others.” The broader community sharing in the responsibility for soldiers’ actions is a very powerful way to reintegrate veterans. As Junger shows, many Native American tribes have rituals performing that function. Which makes it all the more disappointing that Junger, with all his insight and empathy, does not explore what those rituals might be for contemporary America. He dismisses the token gestures of public thanking service men and women, or recognition at sporting events that are America’s unifying spectacles. Those are admittedly inadequate, but he neither credits society for attempting to create the kinds of rituals he advocates nor suggests what more meaningful rituals would entail.

One interesting suggestion comes from this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer. In it, a Vietnamese soldier bitterly complains:

We have all kinds of ways to talk about life and creation. But when guys like me go and kill, everyone’s happy we do it and no one wants to talk about it. It would be better if every Sunday before the priest talks a warrior gets up and tells people who he’s killed on their behalf. Listening is the least they could do.

That sentiment would probably resonate with many contemporary American servicemembers and veterans. We as a society owe them more understanding of the burdens they carry on our behalf. Our civilian rituals – celebrations of Memorial and Veterans days, acknowledgements of veterans in ceremonial or political contexts – are too passive. They treat veterans as objects rather than subjects. Through the Hoover Institution’s project on civil-military gaps we have found that activities which pull veterans into involvement are much more useful. Well-intentioned veterans programs that make possible extended absence from the workforce often compound a veteran’s difficulties by isolating them. As does the public emphasis – including by leading politicians – of treating all trauma as debilitating, when for many veterans experiences in war strengthen rather than weaken. The same is true of journalistic coverage of veteran suicides, which seldom acknowledges the suicides are predominantly of Vietnam-era veterans, rather than having a connection to more recent wars.

What veterans need most is the gift of inclusion, of living among us and being organically connected to us, without turning them into comic book heroes or treating them like victims irreparably damaged by their service. In a volunteer military, people who choose to serve have a strong sense of civic obligation. As Team Rubicon, The Mission Continues, Spirit of America, and other organizations have shown, contemporary veterans groups are successfully pairing the connection veterans have to each other and giving them a civic purpose. The Independence Fund also shows an important example, retooling disabled veterans services to be more empowering.

Faith communities also have an important role to play, not just by getting a community’s arms around veterans, but also by grounding them and their families back into civilian life. In some ways, the parallel case is to mainstreaming immigrants in America: We have no integration programs beyond the labor force and our civil society, but those conveyor belts are sufficient.

In a society as individualistic as ours, the most important level of engagement is personal. Most Americans honestly don’t know how to start a conversation with a veteran, and publicity about PTSD makes them fearful of harmful mistakes. But a society that took so easily to thanking military people for their service can be coached to more meaningful engagement. Those of us with some familiarity can help by showing how to ask veterans conversational questions about why they chose military service, what their experience was of military life, how they prepared their children for frequent moves. Our success as a society will be measured one cup of coffee at a time, one career counseling at a time, one book group inclusion at a time, one 8th grade civics class lecture at a time, and one dinner invitation at a time.

Junger also over-states the novelty of the circumstance of today’s veterans, saying

It makes absolutely no sense to make sacrifices for a group that, itself, isn’t willing to make sacrifices for you. That is the position American soldiers have been in for the past decade and a half.

That we lack shared sacrifice between civilians and the military for the wars has as much to do with their locations, the dominance of our military over its foes, and the small size of our military relative to our population. Can the American people do more and approach these problems differently? Absolutely, but what American taxpayers have done should not be overlooked: While real wages have not increased for Americans in the past decade, we have given our military large increases in pay and benefits.  As the Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation points out, “enlisted military pay and benefits exceed 90% of private sector workers of similar age and education; officer pay exceeds 83% of civilian counterparts; and that does not include healthcare, which further advantages military.” Moreover, public apathy would have been recognizable to soldiers who fought in most of America’s past conflicts.

Junger has a broader objective in mind than just understanding veteran experiences, though: He extrapolates from the alienation of veterans to a general societal ill. He explores the positive effects of crises such as wars and natural disasters: how they foster positive mental health by giving people a sense of common purpose. As Junger writes in the introduction, summarizing the book:

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.

He is certainly right that great needs often call forth great unifying efforts in societies, and that often people yearn for those times of purposeful self-abnegation. He notes that “as affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down.” But he connects that rather breezily to income distribution, and from there to argue that the financial crisis caused more deaths than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and therefore leaving its architects unpunished is detrimental to the tribe.

Junger objects that “Construction workers are more important to everyday life than stockbrokers and yet are far lower down the social and financial ladder.” He even indulges a gratuitous parallel between Stone Age thieves and CEOs paid beyond what he considers appropriate; an analogy that would only hold if CEOs set their own salaries, rather than boards of directors accountable to shareholders and tasked with maximizing the company’s value. Junger illustrates public frustration with the remove at which much economic activity occurs in our globalized age, but his economic proposals are recipes for fostering national unity only if damaging our prosperity was the only viable path to that goal.

There is more than a hint of romanticism about Native American ways of life, too: Such as suggesting that because of their communal hunting and warfare, they lived in societies without personal poverty — when in fact many Native Americans, entire tribes, lived in societies where personal poverty was widespread (such as the Comanche), and often an impetus to warfare in order to gain personal possessions. Nearly every tribe on the plains and in the southwest used horses as currency and fought to steal them. They just raided possessions from outside the tribe.

Which brings us to the most problematic part of Junger’s argument: What constitutes the “tribe”? He seems to recognize no tribe below the level of the federal government. Families are dispensed with early as inadequate to provide the level of connectedness. Faith communities are never mentioned. Civic societies such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars have no resonance in providing the connectedness Junger believes veterans and all Americans need. Most Americans have several tribes that appeal to different parts of their lives or identities, and the overlap of them weave stronger connectedness than Junger acknowledges.

Readers will find much to disagree with, but Sebastian Junger is wrestling with big, important ideas about the nature of contemporary American society. It is too important a subject to be left to politicians and economists — all of us in the tribe should be trying as he is to contribute to a common understanding that will strengthen our country.


Kori Schake is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. She is the editor, with Gen. Jim Mattis (ret.), of the forthcoming book Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo, Senior Airman John Nieves Camacho