“The world is truly fucked up if you miss war”, says former war correspondent, author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger. Teun Voeten talked to him at his home base in New York about his latest book Tribe. In the introduction, Junger captures the essence brilliantly in one sentence: “Modern society has perfected the art of people feel unnecessary.”
“Archeology and anthropology tell us that humans have lived for hundreds of thousands of years in small hunter gathering communities of 30 to 50 people”, Junger starts. “Eventually we evolved psychologically, neurologically and physiologically to function optimally is such small groups. For the largest part of our history, humans have lived in small tribes where empathy and cooperation were essential for survival”, says Junger, who originally studied cultural anthropology. “Now it is possible for the first time to live in a society surrounded by millions of people without actually knowing most of them, we can survive while completely oblivious of people around us. Modern life, progress has transformed us into autonomous individuals, but at the same time lonely, solitary – and because of that – vulnerable, creatures.
It is interesting that most perpetrators of mass shooting are upper middle class kids from the suburbs
According to Junger, from a medical point of view humans have made a tremendous leap forward, but never before in history are humans suffering in such high numbers from mental disorders like schizophrenia and depression. Suicide numbers are highest in the affluent West. Junger grew up in a middle class family in the white suburbs of Boston. “Western suburbs are deadly boring, it is nearly criminal”, says Junger. “It is interesting that most perpetrators of mass shooting are upper middle class kids from the suburbs. I would say the most alienated people in society. I think there is a reason why there has never been a mass shooting in the ghettos.”
No, he is not a naive and a romantic. “I do not say that live in prehistory was better. I said we evolved living in small groups, and we no longer do. And that is psychologically hard on us. Junger acknowledges the blessings of modern industrialized society. “I call it the miraculous society”, he says. “Average people, even poor people, live better than kings and queens did years ago. And wealthy people live like Gods. We have liberated ourselves from the tyranny of nature, from the oppression of the group. We have amazing possibilities in the arts, in philosophy and in science. But we have lost something really essential: the chance to mean actually something for the other, the feeling of belonging. You loose a very, that very basic ancient human experience of being part of the group.”
Wars and disasters are the great equalizers
According to Junger, in times of crisis, war and misery, humans best sides, that is to say, solidarity and self-sacrifice come to the front. Mental diseases diminish. Junger quotes fascinating studies from sociologist Charles Fritz who researched the morale of the population during the Blitz in London and the Allied bombings on German cities. Their mutual shared agony resulted in a great sense of togetherness. They became community of sufferers. Determination and steadfastness increased, while hospitalizations in mental institutions significantly went down. The same effect happend during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As a New York resident, Junger witnessed this with his own eyes. “Wars and disasters are the great equalizers”, he says. “It is no longer important who you are or how much you have. Everybody is confronted with the same distress and challenges.”
Sebastian Junger in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan (2005). The area was called ‘The Valley of Death’ since it was one of the most dangerous part of the country where the fight between US troops and the Taliban was the fiercest.
For longer periods, Junger was embedded with American troops in Afghanistan. His book WAR had as a provocative central thesis that Love is the binding element that holds the soldiers together. “A platoon soldiers, dependent for their survival on each other, isolated from the outside world, a group of 30 young men who eat and sleep and fight together is like time travel to the evolutionary past of humans”, says Junger. “The lack of comradeship, the return in a society in which many veterans feel unwanted and not understood, is causing PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder.”
Former fighters are not been viewed as victims, but as part of the community
Many veterans applaud Junger because he succeeds exactly in describing how they feel on returning in their homecountry. Every month he receives dozens of emails and letters from veterans, some of them heartbreaking. “Back in Afghanistan soldiers knew what to die for. Here in the US they don’t even know what to live for.” According to Junger, veterans are talked into a victim complex. Once you are diagnosed with PTSD you are a patient for ever, even if you are cured. In Israel only one percent of soldiers suffers from PTSD, while many of them have been exposed to heavy combat. “Military service is compulsory in Israel and the war is all over. The whole society shares the same experiences.” Junger quotes the anthropologist Daniel Hofman, who studied the reintegration of former child soldiers in Sierra Leone and Liberia. First of all, it is remarkable that these societies don’t have a word for ‘trauma’. That was introduced with the advent of western aid organizations. But essential is that former fighters are not been viewed as victims, but as part of the community and are accepted back in the community with ceremonial rituals.
Junger does not mention the rise of all kind of new subcultures that offer not only a new, alternative group identity and morality that can be rather suffocating, but also that much coveted warmth and sense of belonging. Is that a compromise for modern man who tries to combine the technological blessings of contemporary society with that warm, homey, tribal feeling? Is that even possible? Junger has to laugh.
“This is typically a case like ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it.’ Of course, evolutionary we are wired to have the best of both worlds, maximizing our benefits and minimizing our disadvantages. Can I have the benefits of a nice stable marriage and home and a loving family en still screw everything that moves? The answer is no. Is there a society wide transformation we can make, where we live with millions in skyscrapers in air conditioned apartments and drive cars and fly planes etcetera but also have at the same time that close communal connection of stone age hunter gatherers who are sleeping around around a campfire? I don’t think so.”
Yes, humans have selfish tendencies, but there is also an instinct to care about the group and its survival
Bankers got away with murder
Is Junger not too optimistic about humanity: aren’t we all unrestrained selfish individuals? “Two miles down the road is a group of people that has cost society 15 billions.” Junger gets angry and indignant talking about the Wall Street tribe that caused the financial collapse of 2008 resulting in ten thousands of families that lost their homes and thousands of suicides. “Not one banker ever was convicted. They got away with it. In a hunter-gather society such behaviour would not be tolerated. Such people would be ostracized and isolated. And people who would hurt the community that deeply would be killed. Yes, humans have selfish tendencies. There is an imperative to take good care of yourself. But there is also an instinct to care about the group and its survival.”
Junger refers to game theory, where is mathematically calculated that both a 100 percent altruistic and a 100 percent selfish behaviour are in the end unsustainable survival strategies. “An individual that supports the group eventually increases his own chances of survival, because the group will support him as well. At the same time, people serve their individual interests because it gives them status and power in the group. There is a dynamic tension between these two imperatives in each person. Partly you serve your own interests, partly you serve the group. If you get the balance right you have a socially and psychologically healthy life. In the case of Wall Street, the balance totally tipped over to one side. In modern society, people can afford to only think about themselves.”
Teun Voeten met Sebastian Junger in 1993 in Sarajevo, where they both started their career in war reporting as ‘freelancers without a clue’. They became good friends an went together in 1996 to Afghanistan to report on the advance of the Taliban and secrete trainingcamps for Al Qaeda. Later, they made reportages for Vanity Fair on women trafficking on the Balkan, war crimes in Kosovo, blood diamonds in Sierra Leone and the fall of Charles Taylor in Liberia.
In 1997, Junger became a literary sensation with his million selling book The Perefct Storm, People Magazine called him ‘Sexiest Author of the Year’.
In 2006 and 2007 he spent with photographer Tim Hetherington nearly a year embedded with US troops in the Korengal valley, Afghanistan’s most dangerous areas. The documentary Restrepo they made together, was applauded by both the US Army as well as anti-war activists. After Hetherington was killed by a mortar attack in Libya in 2011, Junger stopped as war reporter and started RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) to provide war reporters with first aid training: “If his fellow journalist would have known how to apply a tourniquet, Hetherington probably could have been saved.”