Journalist Sebastian Junger has a new book, titled Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. The slender volume starts out by asking why colonial settlers joined Native American societies, and concludes that modern Western life offers too few of the qualities that sustained us for most of human history. Drawing on his sometimes traumatic experiences as a war reporter — and the intense feeling of belonging that soldiers feel at the platoon level — Junger offers a provocative conclusion: So many U.S. veterans are dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder because the consumer-driven, individualistic society they are trying to re-enter may itself be as alienating as anything they’ve been through overseas.
Ahead of Memorial Day, TIME spoke to him about war, peace and the effort to find home.
Your new book, Tribe, posits that modern American life is hard to re-enter because it’s alienating even to those not arriving from a war.
For me, PTSD is just one lens to look at a broader question of our society — the very common sense of loneliness, the lack of communal utility that people sense. Like, 'What am I here for? Who am I helping? Who needs me?' That’s a societal problem and not a personal problem.
So it’s not just a problem facing soldiers?
The assumption is that our wonderful society is good for our mental health. And the fact that it’s not is shocking and also a relief to find out. I mean, why would suicide rates go up with wealth? Why would depression go up with modernity? It’s counterintuitive, but once you think about it, once you think about our evolution as a species, it makes sense.
Civilization and Its Discontents. Another short book.
Western society has this narrative that we’re moving steadily toward a kind of societal perfection. And in some ways we are. The improvements are amazing. But there’s this massive unseen cost which is our sense of connectedness to the group, and that connectedness to the group has been at the core of our definition of what it means to be human for 2 million years. And for the first time in history it’s being challenged, it’s being corroded. Then when soldiers experience life in the platoon, or when earthquake survivors experience a brief communal survival effort, everyone’s shocked by how good it feels even though the circumstances are horrible. When really it’s people re-experiencing their evolutionary origins of being in this small inter-reliant life. And it feels good. It feels really good.
But things are also clearer and simpler in war.
They’re simpler and they feel more important, but the insight for me was that we evolved as a species to survive everything, including trauma. And if trauma left half of us incapacitated, as one could conclude from the military statistics, we wouldn’t be here today as a species. So what is going on? The answer I came up with is that the level of long-term trauma isn’t a function of the trauma, it’s a function of the society you come home to. In other words, the vets aren’t messed up. We are. We as a society.
Isn’t community the word you’re looking for?
Oh, imagine how the book would do if I called it Community! Community is not an interesting word because it’s been bled of any kind of rawness and human intensity. The cool thing about tribe is that the word feels sort of ancient and potent. It suggests connections between people that go beyond just being in proximity to each other.