I came out of the woods at the four-mile point after offloading some coffee. Someone yelled, “Shmo!” I looked over and there was my flight doc, Jay, running down the road and waving. He used to be the full colonel in charge of the medical group at my Air National Guard unit in Duluth, Minnesota. I retired a few years before he did. We currently see each other every six months when he gives me my airline physical. He’s a fit and friendly guy who climbs peaks in the Andes and just ran Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon. We ran together for the next twelve miles and talked. You know the annoying people in the marathon next to you that never shut up? Well, it was my turn to be “that guy.”
I asked him how he was adjusting to retirement. He said, “Nobody cares what I think anymore.” He summed up my similar experience in one sentence. I nodded. I’m an airline pilot. He’s a doctor. We’re not drooling into a cup on the porch. Even so, his comment resonated
Retirement isn’t the same as coming back from combat. But, as a friend once told me, “You think retirement is a great deal. I just see it as losing my job.” Jay and I both made several deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. We know about returning from deployments, too. Retirement and redeployment both involve returning to society at large.
In the very beginning of Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger, he addresses the same issue:
Humans don’t mind hardship, 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.
I feel the same thing when I watch commercial after commercial on TV that shows the Stupid Husband: The bumbling idiot who can’t do anything right. He’s unnecessary. I think they’re funny commercials, but there’s truth behind most humor.
Junger’s book is ostensibly about veterans and the challenges of integrating them back into society. It’s a small, short book, but there’s a lot to unpack. He covers much familiar ground regarding this topic. I’ll try to focus on the two things that stood out to me as new.
First, he suggests that more people have PTSD when they return home than they should. That’s almost heresy to a nation that views vets as either heroes or broken. He’s careful to say that there are people who are truly damaged, and they need help. But, I think his observation was motivation for the book as a whole:
…there are still enormous numbers of people who had utterly ordinary wartime experiences and yet feel dangerously alienated back home. Clinically speaking, such alienation is not the same as PTSD–and maybe deserves its own diagnostic term–but both result from military service abroad, so it’s understandable that vets and clinicians alike are prone to conflating them. Either way, it makes one wonder exactly what it is about modern society that is so mortally dispiriting to come home to.
The second point follows from the question in his first point. In short, he says the problem for returning veterans is our society at home in the United States. A couple angles on this point were interesting. One issue is the discussion of what society values today. Another issue is that our country is splintered and divided, which makes homecoming more difficult for veterans. Going after all of society is a tall order for such a short book. In many ways the book poses more questions than it answers. Frankly, that’s fine by me.
Regarding the values of today’s society, Junger introduces the idea of self-determination theory. This states that people want to feel competent, authentic, and connected. These are intrinsic values. As opposed to the extrinsic values that have come to prominence lately: beauty, money, and status.
This passage reminded me of a book I read before 9/11. It was an enormous, brick-sized book by Susan Faludi called Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. After reading this vast collection of case studies, I came away with a simple takeaway: people want to be useful. Michiko Kakutani reviewed this book for the New York Times in 1999 and highlighted a section about the values of modern society and how they are failing us:
…men’s current predicament stems less from economic uncertainties or advancements made by women than from more fundamental changes in the American culture at large, in particular the shift from a traditional society that valued loyalty, team play and the mastery of a vocation to an “ornamental culture” driven by celebrity and image, “a society drained of context, saturated with a competitive individualism that has been robbed of craft or utility, and ruled by commercial values that revolve around who has the most, the best, the biggest, the fastest.”
Junger also addresses the societal issue of our divisiveness and partisanship. I often ask myself: What happened to E Pluribus Unum? Out of Many, One? It was our de facto national motto until 1956. When I was with my fighter squadron, I knew people had my back. We were one: The Bulldogs. It’s jarring to come home to see people wish each other ill within our own borders. Junger points this out:
The earliest and most basic definition of community–of tribe–would be the group of people that you would both help feed and help defend…Soldiers experience this tribal way of thinking at war, but when they come home they realize that the tribe they were actually fighting for wasn’t their country, it was their unit. It makes absolutely no sense to make sacrifices for a group that, itself, isn’t willing to make sacrifices for you. That is the position American soldiers have been in for the past decade and a half.
Junger gets even bolder about society’s problems. He steps right past the well-worn statement that there is a civilian-military divide that’s widening. He says that society as a whole is separated from everything, not just the military:
The public is often accused of being disconnected from its military, but frankly it’s disconnected from just about everything. Farming, mineral extraction, gas and oil production, bulk cargo transport, logging, fishing, infrastructure construction–all the industries that keep the nation going are mostly unacknowledged by the people who depend on them most.
Society is splintered. So what? Our presidential candidates bicker and sling mud. There are no consequences for that right? Wrong. I personally believe that there will come a time when our nation faces another existential crisis. One on the scale of the Civil War. One where we have to come together or be destroyed. I worry that if we keep hating each other, we’ll be crippled when the time comes to preserve our way of life. I still believe that our Constitution is the greatest invention of mankind. To me, this is the most powerful paragraph in Junger’s book:
…the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone. That way, American’s ugliest partisan tendencies could emerge unimpeded by the unifying effects of war. The ultimate betrayal of tribe isn’t acting competitively–that should be encouraged–but predicating your power on the excommunication of others from the group. That is exactly what politicians of both parties try to do when they spew venomous rhetoric about their rivals. That is exactly what media figures do when they go beyond criticism of their fellow citizens and openly revile them. Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredibly stupid thing to do, and public figures who imagine their nation isn’t, potentially, one huge combat outpost are deluding themselves.
When I ran with Jay in Grandma’s Marathon in June, I saw Eva, another flight doc I know, handing out water at an aid station. I saw my daughter’s friend’s dad, Tim, playing in a band at around the 21-mile mark to keep the runner’s motivated. I saw Patti cheering beside the road. I used to help her coach cross-country skier kids. I waved to Tony who works at the running store where I sometimes buy my shoes. I helped him coach a running club a couple times at my daughter’s elementary school. I waved to Eric and his family who were waiting to cheer on Deb. Their kids are my son’s XC skier teammates. Nathan sprayed me with a hose. His kids ride mountain bikes on the team with my kids. I high-fived my wife and two kids at Lemon Drop Hill. One mile from the finish, I greeted Mike, waiting to cheer on his wife at the bridge over the interstate. We worked together at the alert facility up at the guard base. I haven’t mentioned half the people I saw.
I have a tribe. I feel connected. I often joke that I can’t give anybody the finger while I’m driving in Duluth because I probably know them. I’m connected to them. Junger offers a suggestion for how we might all be able to come closer together:
Acting in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community–be that your neighborhood, your workplace, or your entire country. Obviously, you don’t need to be a Navy SEAL in order to do that.
Sebastian Junger wrote a short powerful book. Go buy it and read it. I’m writing this as citizens and law enforcement are gunning each other down in the streets. We’ve got to be better than this. This book is a place to start. For veterans. For all of us.