Admissions to mental hospitals dropped during the London Blitz. Psychiatric patients reported fewer symptoms. Suicide rates dropped too. The same thing happened in the U.S. after 9/11. Why? People joined together and shared in a common experience. It may have been grim, however they were all in it together. Previous divisions between them became unimportant. Survivors of the Blitz say it was a time they felt most alive and most connected to their fellows. They often slept in bomb shelters and walked to work through rubble on streets. And were working together.
The same things happen in combat. Interestingly, those in combat have a lower rate of PTSD than those in support positions, probably because they become a band of brothers and rely on each other to stay alive. It’s a tribe.
The US military has a very high rate of PTSD. By contrast, PTSD is almost non-existent in Israel. Everyone there serves in the military. The war is omnipresent and close by. Traumatized soldiers came back to civilian life and everyone knows what they’ve been through. It’s a tribe, and they take care of their own. (The same probably happens to Palestinians.) By contrast, returning military in the U.S. are greeted by a hugely fragmented society which too often is at war with itself. Most civilians have no idea what soldiers experience and aside from well-meaning but mostly useless greetings like “Thank you for your service” have no idea what to do or how to treat them. There is no sense of a tribe. So it takes them much longer to heal, and some never do.
Sebastian Junger, filmmaker and author of The Perfect Storm and Fire, has spent extended periods in combat zones as a journalist. He came back with short-term PTSD after a friend was killed. His primary point is, I think, as a society the US is so at war with itself that we cannot provide for those with PTSD. Worse, as a nation, we practically have PTSD ourselves. I just heard him on PBS. He is scathing about our supposed elites who have mostly sneeringly abdicated from responsibility to the society at large, and has fears our warring political factions that essentially accuse each other of treason are rupturing the country. He says the most egalitarian situation he has ever been in was in Afghanistan filming Restrepo, with fifteen U.S. soldiers in a beyond-dangerous combat zone. No one cared what race, creed, color, or class you were from. We need this attitude at home too.
This book is about why tribal sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It’s about why—for many people—war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind duress, 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.