Betraying His Adopted Tribe?

How Afghan “veteran” Sebastian Junger promotes PTSD denial and dismissal.

Ever since they defeated the British in 1783, former soldiers in the newly minted army who returned with physical or emotional wounds were faulted for their improper re-adjustment to civilian life. Their pleas for post-war assistance—in the form of pensions, jobs, land grants, or debt-relief – were dismissed as a raid on the treasury.

Long before there was a well-established federal system of healthcare or service-related disability payments, veterans were discouraged from forming an unhealthy dependency on public welfare. Even after the terrible traumas of the Civil War, politicians like Illinois Governor Richard Oglesby told them not to expect “soup…with a silver spoon.”

Tribe book coverIn New York City, Rev. Henry W. Bellows, a leading Protestant minister, dispensed similar self-help advice. By no means, Bellows warned, should any local government encourage dependency or related “mendacity” among those disabled by war in the 1860s. Instead, the nation should uniformly “resist what temptations of a sentimental nature there will be to favor a policy which will undermine self-respect, self-support, and the true American pride of personal independence.”

Our blame-the-casualty legacy is well described in The Wages of War: When America’s Soldier’s Came Home—From Valley Forge To Vietnam, a book published in 1989 by four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Richard Severo along with co-author Lewis Milford. In their comprehensive 500-page study, Severo and Milford chronicle the abysmal treatment of veterans from my own 1960s generation, including persistent skirmishing about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Is it a real and widespread problem or instead akin to the sketchy claims of civilian “slip-and-fall case” plaintiffs seeking a quick insurance settlement?

It has taken years of scientific studies and determined advocacy by veterans themselves as well as the researchers and clinicians – particularly those at the Veterans Health Administration – to win that argument. We now know that PTSD is very real, the result of physiological, emotional, and cognitive response to trauma. It has also been connected to the kind of traumatic brain injuries (both mild and severe) so frequent in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the New York Times Sunday magazine reported earlier this month, these blast injuries, which have affected 350,000 service members over the last 15 years, can cause lasting damage to the brain and psyche. Thankfully, the Veterans Administration is now providing better care and wider occupational injury compensation for the many PTSD sufferers, new and old. (According to the VA’s National Center for PTSD, over thirty percent of male Vietnam veterans are estimated to suffer from PTSD over their lifetimes. Of service members and veterans returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, 18 percent suffer from PTSD. )

Republicans in Congress are not very happy about the budgetary implications of this new benefit entitlement. Sadly, Sebastian Junger, the well-known author and war correspondent, has now joined Capitol Hill conservatives. In his new book, The Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger turns a Vanity Fair article, published last year, into a lightly researched 168-page book.  In this slender, large-type volume, he revives many of the same hoary myths about alienated and self-disabled ex-soldiers “milking the system” that Severo and Milford debunked three decades ago.

The core of The Tribe consists of Junger’s reinterpretation of the science and research on PTSD and his critique of current compensation and treatment for millions of sufferers. Junger disputes the notion that PTSD is the result of very real changes in neuroanatomy and physiology that occur when soldiers suffer trauma on the battlefield. Because not all of those who suffer from PTSD have been in combat, Junger asserts that “the problem doesn’t seem to be trauma on the battlefield, so much as reentry into society.” He claims that those who are, in his view, genuinely afflicted with chronic, complex PTSD, are not “victims” of what they experienced in combat, but suffer instead from some preexisting psychological damage that occurred before they ever went into the military.

”While a diagnosis of PTSD may give veterans access to sympathy and resources,” he writes, it “also creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery.” Junger proposes to substitute current evidence based treatment protocols like Cognitive Processing Therapy and Prolonged Exposure Therapy with a shared sense of purpose and sacrifice as well as rituals that welcome the returning service member.  He recommends that veterans be invited to talk about their experiences on Veterans Day; points to the benefits of native American purification rituals which helped one Native American veteran he interviewed; and contends that veterans will also be helped by being allowed to “vent their feelings” to a wider community.

While Congress and much of the media bashes the VA for failing to quickly process disability claims, Junger accuses the agency of being far too hasty in granting benefits.  This will be a big surprise to those who have waited for years for a Veterans Benefit Administration disability rating and to groups like San Francisco’s Swords to Plowshares. Veterans groups all over the country have been fighting for the over 300,000 veterans denied any VA benefits because their PTSD and other mental problems resulted in behavior that led them to be separated from the military with Other Than Honorable discharges, which renders them ineligible for any VA benefits.

Disability payments, (some with a 100% disability rating may receive up to $3000 a month), the author warns, may turn some veterans into cheats.  “Today,” he writes, “most disability claims are for hearing loss, tinnitus, and PTSD – the latter two of which can be imagined, exaggerated, or even faked.”  Some, he insists, “fraudulently claim money from the government,” and are thus  “ultimately stealing from your friends, family, and neighbors – or somebody else’s friends, family and neighbors.  That diminishes you morally far more than it diminishes your country financially.”

Junger’s un-sympathetic post-war stance seems particularly surprising because, as a reporter, he spent much time embedded with active duty military personnel at a fire base in Afghanistan (an experience documented in his film Restrepo). He followed the same soldiers home to record their vivid and disturbing post-war memories in his 2014 documentary, Korengal.  Many readers may agree with the outlines of Junger’s critique of modern society.

As a young teenager, growing up in the affluent Boston suburb of Belmont, Massachusetts, he lamented that, “Nothing ever happened in my town that required anything close to collective effort.  Anything bad that happened was taken care of by the police or the fire department, or at the very least the town maintenance crews.” “How,” Junger asks, ‘do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice?  How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?”

Some readers may also find the idea that the kind of tribal solidarity found in Stone Age and Native American warrior cultures as well as in the modern war zone could provide, as Junger argues, a serious antidote to the selfishness, greed and anomie he correctly identifies as a characteristic of modern society. He has well described what some of the literature he cites documents. In wartime, people do indeed pull together and share a heightened sense of purpose.   And soldiers on the battlefield do, in fact, develop an intense sense of solidarity which is hard to replicate in civilian society – particularly in an America whose political elites have, since Vietnam, ensured that the burdens and sacrifices of our foreign wars have been shouldered by the few, not the conscripted many.

While correctly identifying numerous problems in our modern society and economy, Junger ignores other equally relevant models of contemporary social solidarity and struggle. His analysis of life in Boston and its suburbs, for example, totally overlooks the sacrifices made by teachers, nurses, or those fighting for social justice, workers’ rights, against racism or other social ills in his own or other communities as well as the dangers experienced by African Americans or the poor in nearby Somerville or Boston itself.

Most importantly, he over-romanticizes the benefits of war, misconstruing what really happens to an important subset of people who experience the cluster of symptoms known as PTSD for more than a month and sometimes a lifetime. While early abuse or trauma is, in fact, one among many risk factors for PTSD, it is not the cause of the problem amongst those who have served. As researchers and clinicians at the VHA and elsewhere have established, military training and programming can sometimes be as hard on service members as combat.  Without ever going near a combat zone, young recruits whose brains are not yet fully developed learn to think about the world in black and white terms – your buddies and people out to get you – and have trouble adjusting to a more nuanced civilian world.  New studies now report that even blasts experienced in training can damage the brains of service members who may never see combat.

Community support is, to be sure, important for returning service members.  And thankfully today, many are heartily welcomed back and are frequently invited to speak at Veterans Day celebrations.  For those severely afflicted with PTSD, this has, however, not been not much help.  What has been helpful is treatment and compensation.

Some veterans may indeed fail to seek help because they don’t want to lose that compensation.  A few may even become the military equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens.  The solution to this is not to brand all of them as welfare cheats but to figure out an equitable way of compensating people for what may have been years of suffering (which means expanding benefits to veterans who have received other than honorable discharges) and better evaluating their trauma.  Junger’s flawed and oversimplified arguments, on the other hand, may provide convenient cover for those who would like to limit or even deny veterans compensation for PTSD and other similar conditions.  They may also prove to have significant implications for traumatized civilians.  For example, should victims of rape and first responders of disasters like 9/11, the recent Orlando mass shooting, or Hurricane Katrina forego current evidence-based therapies?  Should their problems be treated as those of reentry and instead be addressed in Jungerian fashion?

Women may also fail to welcome Junger’s notion that a return to warrior culture is the solution to the problems of the modern world. The stone age and tribal cultures Junger idealizes have been, to put it mildly, hard on women.  So has the modern military.  An estimated eighty percent of women in the military have suffered from some form of sexual abuse.  In the course of working on a book about the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), I have interviewed dozens of women who have been raped, mercilessly harassed and traumatized as a result of the kind of male solidarity Junger extols.  While the modern Veterans Health Administration is just coming to grips with the myriad mental and physical problems of female veterans, their plight and concerns are invisible in Junger’s paean to the virtues of male bonding.

Most disturbing of all is how much The Tribe contradicts Junger’s past stance as a defender of both veterans and active duty service members. Now he is accusing many veterans with PTSD of being frauds and begrudging them the paltry $36,000 a year they get in compensation for decades of suffering.  With media friends like the author, our “wounded warriors” don’t need enemies.

Suzanne Gordon

Suzanne Gordon is an award-winning journalist, lecturer and author/editor of 18 books. She has written for New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic, among other publications. Much of per professional focus is on patient safety and on helping to teach and encourage better communication and teamwork in healthcare settings.