Lately my social media and news feeds are too often an open sewer of ranting hatred towards those with differing political views. Maybe yours is too. It’s not healthy. In fact, it’s diseased. In his new book Tribe, war journalist and adventurer Sebastian Junger talks about the very high PTSD rates returning US soldiers have. Maybe, he says, it’s because when they were in the military, they had a purpose, they were part of a tribe that protected and took care of each other. Then they return, see the open sewers of hatred, wonder WTF happened to my country, and get depressed. Not only is there not a tribe to come home to, our country is at war internally.
Excerpts from his Ted Talk video, available on his home page at SebastianJunger.com.13 minutes and absolutely worth listening to.
“Maybe what determines the rate of long-term PTSD isn’t what happened out there, but the kind of society you come back to. And maybe if you come back to a close, cohesive tribal society, you can get over trauma pretty quickly. And if you come back to an alienating, modern society, you might remain traumatized for your entire life. Maybe the problem isn’t them, the vets. Maybe the problem is us.
40% of US military have filed for PTSD compensation. They were not in combat. Maybe they had an experience of sort of tribal closeness when they were in their unit overseas. They were trusting each other with their lives. And then they come back to a modern society which is hard on people who weren’t even in the military. It’s just hard on everyone.
The highest rates of depression in the world are urban woman in North America. They are also the wealthiest.
Israel has a PTSD rate of 1%. Maybe that’s because everyone serves it, comes home, and everyone understands the situation they are in. It’s as if they’re all in one big tribe.
After 9/11, the murder, suicide, and violent crime rate in New York City went down. The reason is, if you traumatize an entire society, we don’t fall apart and turn on each other. We come together, we unify. Basically, we tribalize.
US soldiers used to come back to a unified country. We were sticking together. But that’s changed. Now, American veterans are coming back to a country that is so bitterly divided that the two political parties are literally accusing each other of treason, of being an enemy of the state.
Veterans know that any tribe, any platoon that treated itself that way would never survive. They come back, see the country with new eyes. No wonder they are depressed.
We ask, can we save the vets. I Think the real question is, can we save ourselves. If we do that, the vets will be fine. It’s time for this country to unite.”
From Sebastian Junger’s newsletter:
I’m thrilled to announce that my new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, is out now from Twelve Books. The book started as an attempt to explain the high rates of PTSD among American soldiers, but wound up as an inquiry into why people tend to be happier and healthier in small, tightly-knit communities–“tribes.” That was as true along the American frontier – where settlers were constantly running off to join the native population – and it still seems to be true. One of the most complicated reactions soldiers have about war is that they miss it: they miss the platoon, they miss the closeness they had with others, they miss having something that was so important that they would die for it. Today’s America is a deeply divided country where many people live without any such connection. Tribe explains what this has cost us, and what we still may be able to do about it.
First, disclosure, I have not read the book. I coach/help as I can with people who are surviving PTSD. My definition of a “survivor” is someone who is still alive. Generally speaking I strongly disagree with the premise that our overly-self absorbed society is whats “wrong” with the survivors of PTSD returning to society in the USA. I don’t disagree with the idea that a well connected family/village would decrease the time required to heal/recovery/integrate for the survivor. I will attempt to simplify my proofs the best I can.
PTSD is a shortcut of learned behavior to avoid death. When any semi-sentient being is in a context through time where they have to consider if their context will kill them today, after lunch, in a minute, etc an emergency response builds up in that sentient or semi-sentient being to remove as much cognizant processing as possible so the body can act-now, think later.
An easy way to appreciate this is with the idea of pressure. If everyday you have to put on a kevlar vest, a helmet and strap on your gas mask before rolling off your sleeping bag – that is a pressure that the average non-survivor in The West doesn’t experience. If you must repeat those behaviors enough, that “pressure” becomes normal. Your internal pushback to that pressure has adapted to that level of pressure. Your coping responses will reflect that pressure with your peers. You “play rough” and “talk tough” as a way to decompress just like all the other survivors you are surviving with.
You return home (to the US or some part of Western Society). My guesstimate is that for every second you spend in a context of fearing-for-my-life – you require 10-20 minutes of decompression. Normal people who have a traumatic fright – might take anywhere from 5-30 minutes to calm down, so my 10-20 minutes per second spent in “the shit” is based on measurable responses.
The premise about a well connecting/connected family/group isn’t false, but the amount of safe-persons and PTSD-aware non-traumatized sentient and semi-sentient beings (service dogs and other animals that help)required to accelerate the overall decompression of the survivor would probably be at least twice as large as the “Tribe” the survivor survived with. Lets start with a number like 40 – that is 4 squads of 10 in-harms-way. So we double that number because you have to compensate for all the PC and I’m-a-victim-because-I’m-bored non-traumatized participants of society. There is the initial Tribe so you know you are safe then there is the new Tribe to help you adapt. So lets say 80 people.
Who is going to find that 80 people for a human being that is so wound up that he’s looking for booby traps in the men’s room of a fast food joint? Here is the bottomline. The government is responsible for a great deal more than just the “heroes” PTSD and if they are not careful every person who REALLY has PTSD from surviving the 20th century where beating your kids and wife was a SOP and then all the millennials who’ve survived the pre-internet parents who achieved complete disassociation by the age of 30 – a larger number than would be convenient would all need about 80 people at least for a few years to begin to achieve functionality to a degree of personal self-awareness and appropriate responses to being triggered.
Even if we just focus on the “heroes” PTSD – the reality check is that the politicians and desk-commanders that sent those human beings into harms way ALREADY KNEW how many of them would come back like recovering (but not really) meth burnouts looking for jobs with tools they could beat someone to death with.
Last thought for now. If the chain-of-command leads all the way back to a Secretary of some-armed-forces-branch and even the President, then when even 1% of the PTSD survivors harm people/things after returning as a direct response to surviving death in a death zone – who is really responsible for those human beings achieving that state and helping them heal from that state. If you have to acquire a license to drive a car, shouldn’t you have to demonstrate social functionality before you can come back and get married and have kids and get a job and join clubs…I have no disrespect for the men and women who choose that life, but I don’t believe there is any real profit for the people sending them “over there” to fix them or help them before they bring them back “here”.
When I work with someone surviving PTSD I start with acceptance. Acceptance is a powerful path to peace. I don’t mean acquiescence when I use the word acceptance, I mean seeing a situation, a person or anything else FOR WHAT IT REALLY IS instead of projecting your desperate needs and unrealistic hopes onto the disassociated world around you.
Last last thought (sorry) the only victims are dead people, everyone else survives to adapt and carry on. This limited view of “victims” doesn’t mean I or the idea lacks empathy or sympathy, but the question begs – how long will you identify with being a victim before you start doing something about your condition – whatever that maybe. The challenge with the victim mindset for PTSD survivors is if they cling to each other – they may not get better, they may only reinforce (trigger) each other into frenzied states.
Thanks Bob for the article.
Thank you for the thoughtful, amazing reply.
I think in some cultures the tribe is already there. A Hawaiian musician, whose name I currently can’t remember, says he was raised in an extended family and didn’t know who his birth parents were until he was 18 and it didn’t make any difference. If he came back with PTSD, his tribe would be there.
Maybe that’s Junger’s real point, most of us no longer have tribes.
Thank you for your quick response. I’ve been to Hawaii twice in my life and am a big fan of Israel “Iz” KamakawiwoÊ»ole’s music (just a segue I don’t think that he is the musician you meant). Nothing has ever tamed my trauma based nervous system like swimming in the Ocean in Hawaii. I have swam in many oceans and many fresh water rivers and lakes but for some reason swimming that far out into the deep blue pacific was one of the most healing experiences of my life. I suppose my first response was a bit reactive (apologies) – I don’t disagree with our need for a Tribe, “it takes a village” isn’t just true for raising children. My concern was the “victim” ideation caused by what someone else “didn’t do”. I think more people would volunteer to help survivors of PTSD if that had a more personal way of identifying with a survivor. Especially the aspect of how survivor begets survivor. Any human being that can break the generational chain of trauma induced periodic insanity of PTSD wouldn’t just be helping that one person, but perhaps thousands of people here and now and even more generationally. Perhaps one day sooner than later modern society will have laws governing trauma based behavior, which will automatically trigger help for both the transmitter of the trauma and the receiver of the terror.
Last time I was in Hawaii I was participating at a Seminar on Ho’oponopono – a Hawaiian tradition based on healing families through forgiveness.
My wife’s parent’s live in Maui for ten years fairly recently and her brother lives on the Big Island.
The musician wasn’t Iz. He is a slack guitar guy, I think…
Yes, tribes can help, maybe quite a lot. I hope so. Listening to Junger’s Ted Talk (posted on his website) is both fascinating and sobering. Our society is splintering and it’s not healthy.