Sebastian Junger recently wrote a book, Tribe-On Homecoming and Belonging. It has been reviewed by the New York Times, and a very brief synopsis is this; veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have had a difficult time reentering American society. Why? Why do half of returning veterans have PTSD when only ten percent saw combat? Could it be that the cohesive order, basic equality, and fraternity – in the French sense – are missing in American society; that American society is broken?
The military boasts that, unlike previous periods of our history when we relied on the draft to support our military ranks, the all-volunteer military is able to pick and choose and get the best to send into harm’s way. Perhaps that is the problem. If, they get the best and brightest perhaps they get thinkers who are able to ask the question,
“What have we been fighting for?”
I recently heard a Unitarian/universalist chaplain, who joined the Army in order to go to Afghanistan and serve the troops, speak about his experience. This man was certainly not typical of the chaplain’s service. A few years ago only 5% of U.S. troops identified themselves as Evangelical Christians. Despite that fact, 30% of chaplains were Evangelical Christians. Unitarian/universalists aren’t even particularly Christian. Secondly, he was an independent thinker. He did not register for the draft at eighteen because he did not want to be in a military that fought, not for the safety of America, but to protect the corporate interests of big business around the globe.
He gave as his sermon one morning in Afghanistan, a talk about the basic lack of fairness in a decision that trades the lives of innocent civilians for the protection of U.S. troops in the form of drone strikes. The lesson was well received by the troops, but those in command heard about it, and he was relieved of duty and sent back to the States, to receive a less than honorable discharge. He asked for a hearing and was ultimately returned to duty where he served out the last three years of his enlistment and returned to civilian life.
Military non-combatants are placed in a position of privilege in the military; the rest of the troops look up to the “doc”, nurse and chaplain. In return they ask for protection; relief from physical, spiritual and emotional pain, and comfort in dying.
Returning to civilian life can be as difficult for a combat medic as an infantryman. Medics may come back into civilian life with a lot of experience in treating trauma, experience that is often equivalent to that of nurse practitioners or physician’s assistants, and are unable to put any of that to use without retraining in a civilian program.
I have an Iraq war veteran friend who went through an EMT/Paramedic program and is certified. He has been in nursing school for some time, but can’t get any of his experience in the military counted as curriculum. He is married, has two beautiful girls, and has only recently been referred for evaluation for PTSD. I don’t think he has PTSD. I think he is suffering from basic unfairness. The tours he spent in Iraq count for nothing.
I asked him whether he volunteered for the military out of a sense of duty to country. It turns out that there were no jobs in the area of Maine where he grew up at the time he got out of high school, and joining the military was the only way he saw to get gainful employment. I do think the military got the “best and brightest” with him, but not for the reasons that they would have you believe.
So, to return to Junger’s hypothesis, America is broken. The tremendous wealth disparity, lack of meaningful, gainful employment, and bitter divide in society along a number of axes, creates a hostile environment for returning veterans, one more hostile than the mountains of Afghanistan or the plains of Iraq.
It is as though the returning veterans have been cast out of the tribe.
The rest of us who have been here the whole time have never known the beauty of being part of a group in which everyone pulls together, protects his fellow soldier’s back, and is willing to die to protect the unit. That sort of cohesiveness does not happen by accident. A lot of shaping of people takes place, those who can’t be molded are rejected, and individualism is discouraged.
It could be argued that that is abnormal. It could also be argued that it was normal in our pre-history, an argument that Junger, whose background is anthropology makes.
Think about the biblical stories that are set in the time when the people of Israel were tribes living in the desert. What was the worst sentence possible for someone who broke the law? Exile.
This is the Homecoming we all want to believe in.