Inhale, Exhale, Now Let’s Discuss Mandatory National Service in the U.S.
Author and documentarian Sebastian Junger reframes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and raises the question of mandatory national service for Americans.
Sebastian Junger is the #1 New York Times Bestselling author of THE PERFECT STORM, FIRE, A DEATH IN BELMONT, WAR and TRIBE. As an award-winning journalist, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a special correspondent at ABC News, he has covered major international news stories around the world, and has received both a National Magazine Award and a Peabody Award. Junger is also a documentary filmmaker whose debut film "Restrepo", a feature-length documentary (co-directed with Tim Hetherington), was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
"Restrepo," which chronicled the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, is widely considered to have broken new ground in war reporting. Junger has since produced and directed three additional documentaries about war and its aftermath. "Which Way Is The Front Line From Here?", which premiered on HBO, chronicles the life and career of his friend and colleague, photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who was killed while covering the civil war in Libya in 2011. "Korengal" returns to the subject of combat and tries to answer the eternal question of why young men miss war. "The Last Patrol", which also premiered on HBO, examines the complexities of returning from war by following Junger and three friends--all of whom had experienced combat, either as soldiers or reporters--as they travel up the East Coast railroad lines on foot as "high-speed vagrants."
Junger has also written for magazines including Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Outside and Men's Journal. His reporting on Afghanistan in 2000, profiling Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated just days before 9/11, became the subject of the National Geographic documentary "Into the Forbidden Zone," and introduced America to the Afghan resistance fighting the Taliban. He lives in New York City and Cape Cod.
Sebastian Junger: All of the archeological and anthropological evidence from prehistory and current day hunter-gatherer societies shows that we’ve thought to live in small groups of 40-50 people, maybe 100-150 people. Those were the typical living sizes based on encampments that have been found and of course people living in those conditions today. The size of our brain seems to be correlated to groups of about that size when compared to other primate species. Clearly we live in a modern society and we organize ourselves in much larger groups. But our wiring, our evolutionary wiring seems to be backdated to a period of time some tens of thousands of years ago when we lived an existence of hunter-gatherers in a very harsh environment.
Our evolutionary design has a lot of implications for how we live in modern society and of course for how we conduct warfare. A platoon is around 40 or 50 soldiers not by coincidence. That’s around the size of a typical hunter-gatherer group in our evolutionary past. One of the things that soldiers find when they’re deployed in combat or even at a rear base is that they very naturally fall into a kind of communal existence with their platoon mates. They’re sleeping shoulder to shoulder. They’re eating meals together, doing missions and patrols together. They’re doing everything together. You’re never out of sight of another person. And you basically live for the group. There’s no individual survival outside of group survival in our evolutionary past and often in combat as well. Because we’re wired for that, because we evolved for that it feels very, very good when you experience that. And I’ve experienced it as a civilian reporter in a platoon. It feels instantly right. The only analogy I can think of is holding a baby in your arms for the first time. I just feels like oh my god, this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. This is right. And that kind of communal existence feels deeply correct and natural in the same way. And so when soldiers come back from deployment often they miss the war but what they really miss I believe is that communal connection. Not so much the combat and the killing of course – they’re not psychopaths, they’re just like the rest of us. But they do miss that communal connection because modern society is pretty much gone. And they don’t really notice that until they return to it.
One thing that interested me in researching my book Tribe was the high rates of PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, in the U.S. military. And estimates vary but they range as high as around 20 percent and much higher percentages than that claiming disability from it. In the Israeli military by contrast the rate is as low as one percent. PTSD is a hard thing to measure. That’s why there’s some variability. But it’s as low as one percent. It’s way lower than in the U.S. And I wanted to know why. They are roughly equivalent militaries, modern societies. What is the difference? And Israeli psychologists that I spoke with pointed to a couple of things. One was that the wars that Israel has fought in the last couple of generations have been like right on their doorstep. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 saw Israeli soldiers fighting literally on the outskirts of their own villages, fighting an invading army. And the psychological damage that comes from fighting in that kind of circumstances is greatly lessened as compared to traveling thousands and thousands of miles to fight a war that doesn’t seem to bear any relation to your home, to your country. It’s a distant affair that maybe doesn’t seem necessary sometimes.
The other difference between Israel and America is that Israel has mandatory military service. Roughly half of Israeli citizens serve in the military. So if you’re a soldier and you saw combat in Lebanon or whatever when you come home you’re coming home to a community where an enormous number of people were also in the military. So there really isn’t a transition from military to civilian life. It’s all blended. There’s a lot of civilian life in the military experience and vice versa. So that transition is easier and as a result the psychological consequences are diminished.
So the question is during a very fractured time in American society the gap between rich and poor is widening. We often live in racially segregated communities. There’s a really ugly vitriolic content to political discourse these days. There are politicians talking with real contempt about their president, segments of the population. When you have a country that’s in such a state of disrepair what can you do to bring it together? One possibility is mandatory national service with a military option. Personally I think it’s immoral to force someone to fight a war they don’t believe in. But mandatory national service would not just mean actually during war time. It would be continual. And it would allow young people to contribute to us all, contribute to this country without having to carry a gun. You could do it in many other positive ways and I think it would do enormous good not just for the young people themselves but also for this country as a whole.
This country doesn’t require anything of its citizens. And when you don’t have to invest in something you don’t value it. One of the advantages of mandatory national service is that it enforces an investment of a year or two by a young person in the collective good of this country. And when you do that you create value.
It takes all the races, all the social classes, everything, all the educational levels and it puts them in a big pot and stirs them up together and gives everyone the experience of investing in the collective good. The downside of course is that we’re in a very sort of anti-government state of mind right now in this country. And that there might be objections to it. One of the reasons we might be in an anti-government state of mind is precisely because no one in this country is required to spend any time at all contributing to the collective good. It’s a self- fulfilling prophecy. It’s a feedback loop. How do you break that feedback loop? Well you break it by changing the law. It will take courageous politicians who are willing to buck a national sentiment to do something good for the country. I think at some point politicians have to put their country before their careers and simply vote for what’s right in the long term.
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.
Sebastian Junger's book is Tribe.