Sebastian Junger has made a career out of high-risk pursuits: commercial fishing in the Atlantic and fighting wildfires in Idaho. But since 2010’s Restrepo, his Academy Award–nominated documentary about soldiers in Afghanistan (along with War, his book on the subject), he’s become synonymous with combat reporting. He’s also become a voice for a generation of soldiers who appreciate his revealing, apolitical portrayal of grunts at work. Now that coverage includes the difficult task of coming home. Beginning with the 2014 documentary The Last Patrol, Junger has turned his attention toward PTSD among combat veterans and the difficulty of readjusting to life in America. In his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger probes why, for many people, “war feels better than peace, and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing.” We asked the author and filmmaker about what he’s learned from two decades of reporting in war zones. He boiled it down to five hard truths.
Some Men Need to Risk It All
“All through my teens, I wished something would happen in my hometown, Belmont [Massachusetts], that required me to act bravely and with purpose. And because it was Belmont, nothing ever happened. I went to war in Bosnia as a journalist in 1993 for many reasons, but part of it was that I wanted to be in a situation where I was scared and not sure of the outcome. I felt that would transform me into an adult in ways that a safe life in America never could.”
A Sense of Belonging Is a Powerful Drug
“On my second trip to Afghanistan, the troop I was with saw a lot of combat. I almost took a bullet in the head and was nearly blown up. I may have been kidding myself, but I had the feeling that if I had to risk my life to help one of the men, I would’ve done it. Unhesitatingly. And I realized that they would probably reciprocate that for me. That’s a profound feeling. It was intoxicating.”
Tribalism Is Therapeutic
“The Navajo fighters and the Apache weren’t coming back from their battles with the U.S. Cavalry, or against each other, all messed up, because they were doing something that was keeping the tribe safe. They were probably fine — maybe mildly traumatized but basically fine. American soldiers are having problems coming home. It doesn’t mean they have PTSD, but it does mean that they’re going from a situation of great human intimacy and connection to a situation of alienation and loneliness. And if that’s the problem, that should appear in the statistics on mental health.”
Addiction to Combat Isn’t Crazy
“A lot of soldiers from the American Civil War went straight out West and started fighting as soon as the war ended. After World War II and Vietnam, a lot of guys became mercenaries and wound up in Africa. After Iraq and Afghanistan, guys miss the intimacy of small-unit warfare and they miss the high-stakes game of combat. They miss situations where it’s them against someone else. That is an incredibly intense endeavor, maybe the most intense endeavor. Once some guys taste it, mowing the front lawn on a Saturday morning is never the same.”
A Little Pain Is Necessary
“I needed those experiences. They introduced a lot of psychological pain into my life, but I don’t think pain is necessarily an evil thing. A life without discomfort and pain is an unrealistic life.”
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