The idea of cities may not be new, but they aren’t how things were always done. Back when people hunted and gathered from landmass to landmass, people lived in small groups of about 50 to maybe 150 members, according to Sebastian Junger, American journalist, author and documentarian.
It was very natural for humans to settle into these smaller groups. Human brains are wired to create small tribes, and our capacity hasn’t evolved for the large cities many of us tend to live in now. So it’s no coincidence that the army isn’t just one large sea of soldiers, it’s divided into smaller platoons averaging about 40 to 50 men. This number was a natural choice as it felt comfortable, satisfying the old hunting-gathering needs that still tick inside modern-day humans.
Platoons abide by the old wiring in human brains, which allows soldier to quickly, neatly, and naturally fall into a “communal existence,” as Junger says. Platoons do almost everything together, from fighting, to sleeping, to eating.
This is what many of soldiers miss when they come back from war. They don’t miss the violence and life or death situations, but the community that being in a platoon creates.
One thing Junger focuses on in his latest book Tribe is the incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is very hard to measure, meaning it’s hard to precisely quantify how many soldiers have it and how many don’t. But for an interesting and telling comparison, the rate of PTSD in the Israeli military that is roughly 1%. In the American military, it’s closer to 20%. Even with all variables considered, that’s a huge difference.
Junger sought the explanations for these figures and among them were two key factors. Most of the Israeli wars are fought close to home, including the Yom Kippur war, where many soldiers could walk home from the battles. And unlike in the United States, Israel’s mandatory service law means that when young soldiers come home to their cities, more than half of the population understands what they’ve been through, because their neighbors, parents, and friends from school have all been in the service. American soldiers come home to a society that generally can’t relate - their experience leaves them isolated.
While he believes it’s unethical to make people fight in any war, Junger is an advocate for mandatory national service in the US, with non-military options. There are many ways to contribute to society that don’t involve taking up arms. And perhaps with a higher rate of shared experience and many more small tribes of people who come together for a year or two, from all races, classes and walks of life, it could build a stronger country and bridge the immense divides within American society.