Why Veterans Get Back and Miss the War

Sebastian Junger says Tribe is his last book about war. As last words go, it’s an excellent way to end, as this monograph might end-up shaping — and changing — how the current generation of soldiers feels about battle and getting back.

“Why is it that you go through this terrible experience of war where you witness death and destruction, and you come home and there’s part of you that misses it?” questioned former-Marine-turned-Congressman Seth Moulton.

“All of the sudden, it all makes sense now,” he stated of how the book of helped him comprehend why he missed his own four bloody trips in Iraq.

Moulton and his brethren came home to a fractured society where nearly no one knows their next-door neighbour and talks by text or Facebook have changed in-person interaction, the reverse of the cheek-by-jowl closeness of troops in fight. Author Junger, 54, argues convincingly that Americans need to regain the finest part of their tribal starts, when small bands of people depended upon each other for survival therefore developed deep social ties that protect, bind, and even heal, as a remedy to the persistent self-centeredness and solitude that afflict contemporary living.

The slim volume, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, is part anthropology argumentation and part Malcolm Gladwell-style musings on American society, with a dash of how the military experiences war and homecoming. Released in May 2016 by Grand Central Publishing imprint Twelve Books, it’s noted as a best-seller by both Amazon and The New York Times.

Anecdotal evidence shows a number of those purchasers are in the military. Its ranks have lots of fans of Junger’s previous book War, and the Oscar-nominated companion documentary, Restrepo, about a militant-besieged US outpost in Afghanistan. An award-winning journalist and contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Junger invested much of his time in war zones after the attacks of 9/11, eventually leading to composing Tribe.

“It’s really making the rounds in military circles,” Moulton stated of the book, in a telephone interview from his district. “I can’t believe how many people I mention it to and they’ve read it or have it in their bag with them.”

Yet only a little part of the book points out the military.

“The book is miscast as about war,” Junger said in an interview at The Half King, a New York city bar he co-owns. “It’s about modern society and how we’re all affected by the catastrophic loss of communal relations.”

It’s only halfway through the book that he gets around to discussing how that loss is why soldiers — even those who never ever really saw combat — feel bereft when they come home from battle zones, missing the brotherhood, the sense of sacrifice and the objective that includes war.

“You’ve got veterans coming back to a society that not only does it not have that very close human cohesion of your group of people around you, but also seems to be losing its cohesion at the macro level of 320 million people,” Junger said at a book event in Washington, DC, sponsored by veterans group The Mission Continues.

“Spiritually, this country is bleeding right now,” he added, to nods in the crowd of veterans. “It’s fractured economically, politically, socially,” whether you’re left or right, spiritual or agnostic, he included.

In short, the American community lacks the social abilities to connect with each other, much less welcome veterans home. So, returning troops don’t miss the blood, guts, and trouble as much as they miss their tribe, or any tribe.

Current and former members of the military stood and provided their own impressions, at the Mission Continues occasion at Junger’s invitation, after listening to him give a shortened variation of his TED talk on Tribe.

“After this last tour, I knew that coming home was going to be the hardest thing I had ever done in my entire life,” said Pentagon civilian Dane Bowker of his last combat tour in southern Afghanistan. “There were guys that I absolutely hated in my team, and I would die for them, and I know they would do the same thing for me.”

“I get back home and … I get stuck in a cubicle,” he said. “I make a living, which is great … but that sense of purpose is gone.”

US Army Major Dana Savage spoke of discovering the love of her life in battle zones, followed by divorce, and feeling detached from fellow Americans when she returned home, and now her enjoyment at returning to an overseas mission.

“To be able to contribute is something that keeps me going,” she said. “You stay physically fit because somebody depends on you. You stay hard to kill.”

“I think as a society, we’ve forgotten how to do that, and we need to go back and teach people what it is to live in this communal tribe and rely on each other,” she included.

Those reactions are normal of what Junger has heard on his book trip and through social networks.

“What I keep getting is ‘Oh, my god, this is it, this is the thing we’ve all been feeling but didn’t know how to say it,'” he said. “Soldiers, heartbroken ex-wives of combat veterans. It’s endless. The level of resonance that this message had, I wasn’t even prepared for.”

The book helped explain a disconcerting homecoming many troops experience to previous Marine Corps-turned-CIA-paramilitary officer Ian Allen.

“Even with guys who don’t really like you, you assume they will lay their life down for you, and then you come home and it’s this angry nation assuming the worst intent of everyone else,” he said.

Allen handled his sense of seclusion by going back to serve his previous tribe, assisting run nonprofit Third Option Foundation to take care of CIA paramilitary forces and their families.

Allen’s wife basked in Junger’s description of his own hypervigilance when he returned from reporting on war in Afghanistan, a state of anxiety where the body is constantly searching for hazards, culminating for Junger in panic attacks when he discovered himself in large crowds. Allen said his spouse experienced similar stress and anxiety after her return from two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in a hazardous part of Africa, where she was under continuous danger of violence.

“He said something new, and truthful, which is a hard thing to do,” Allen stated.

When they come home, former Air Force psychologist and Iraq veteran Craig J. Bryan stated the book is assisting the veterans he counsels to understand why they feel detached.

“The US is increasingly becoming a society of individuals where the value system is ‘I want what I want,'” stated Bryan, who is executive director of the University of Utah’s National Center for Veterans Studies.

“We have this collectivism in the military,” he said in an interview. “It’s a different value system than when you return home. So, you feel like you are pushed outside and separate from the community.”

He stated reading the book assists a lot of the veterans comprehend it’s not them, it’s everyone. They’re simply as disassociated as every other American.

Junger isn’t without his detractors, nor the book without its flaws, including an apparent mistake in one of the most-quoted phrases in the book — that “roughly half of Iraq and Afghan veterans have applied for PTSD disability,” though only 10% of soldiers are exposed to battle. It was that contrast that led Junger to very first wonder what else troops were missing when they got home if it wasn’t battle.

In questioning for this story, Junger and his researcher Rachael Hip-Flores searched for the initial source of that declaration and identified they’d likely conflated two lines from a single 2012 research study, which noted that “45% of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have applied for service-connected disability compensation for psychiatric and nonpsychiatric medical problems,” and noting further that PTSD is the third-most widespread factor of service-connected special needs granted in 2012, after tinnitus and hearing loss.

Junger says future editions of the book will clarify that, and he’s likewise trying to get a more updated figure from the VA, which still hadn’t produced one when this post was made.

The book’s line mentioning that 45% of troops had looked for PTSD disability was challenged in a Wall Street Journal book evaluation by previous Marine David J. Morris. An author and sufferer of PTSD himself, Morris likewise implicates Junger of claiming PTSD rates are higher than in previous wars, whereas Junger stated he was attempting to figure out if PTSD impairment claims had risen.

Dr. Brian Marx, at the VA’s National Center for PTSD, says reported rates of PTSD from Vietnam to existing disputes are in fact about the very same.

“Rigorous studies of current PTSD rates among veterans suggest that it occurs in 15–20% of both Vietnam veterans and Iraq and Afghan veterans,” he stated in a telephone interview. He based that conclusion mostly on a re-analysis of one of the first-ever “population representative” PTSD research studies of Vietnam veterans, and a Rand Study of present veterans.

“And the number of veterans who are receiving PTSD compensation is increasing over time,” as is the variety of veterans reporting experiencing PTSD, he included, which supports Junger’s assertion that rates of application for PTSD are rising.

Morris also takes issue with Junger’s use of Air Force studies about PTSD in drone pilots, claiming that the Air Force has a beneficial interest in attempting to “humanize the air crews,” which have been slammed for turning war into a computer game. Morris, reached by telephone Saturday night, said he “was not convinced” by the research study since non-Air Force scientists hadn’t duplicated the research study.

VA PTSD professional Marx counters that it’s not surprising that pilots would develop anxiety disorders like PTSD, particularly over the unexpected killing of innocents, including that he thought about the Air Force’s testing scientifically rigorous.

As for Morris’s critique of Junger’s observation that PTSD is reported more frequently by US veterans than by allies like the UK, Marx explained that British veterans report a higher occurrence of alcohol abuse than Americans, showing that they may be experiencing the exact same rates of PTSD, however utilizing different coping mechanisms.

More hurtful for Junger have been the personal attacks in social media echoed in the Wall Street Journal review. Morris quotes an unnamed soldier who calls Junger a “war tourist,” and wonders why a civilian who “has never had to dig a fighting hole, fill sandbags or take orders from an idiot who just happened to outrank him,” ought to be speaking for soldiers.

“He’s basically accusing me of creating a problem where there isn’t one so I’d have something to write about,” Junger stated. “I don’t even know where to begin with that one.”

“Sebastian is one of us,” wrote Lt. Col. Daniel Kearney in an e-mail from Fort Bragg, NC.

“He filled sandbags with my paratroopers, was shot at with my paratroopers, and he and Tim observed our paratroopers give the ultimate sacrifice. They shared in the blood, sweat and tears with my paratroopers,” he wrote.

“His ability to speak on the American Soldier is because he has deployed with him, cried with him, and sacrificed with him,” Kearney included. “Tim’s sacrifice is an example of the position Sebastian speaks from when he writes about our Soldiers and their lives during and after war.”

Junger’s prescription for the rest of us, to imitate the people he lived with in the Korengal? Get closer.

“Sometimes people say to me ‘Well, what can we do about this?’ and I say jokingly, well, ban the car. You ban the car, then you’re spending your life within walking distance of your home, and you’re getting to know the people who live near you … because suddenly you’re depending on them, and vice versa.”

More seriously, he called for obligatory national service for American youth, to make them feel like they’re serving the nation — and becoming part of a tribe — without needing to sign-up with the military and fight.

“National service would allow every young person to experience that,” he said.

When it comes to helping link veterans with their neighborhoods, Junger and Congressman Moulton intend to release similar events at town halls across America annually each Veterans Day, where veterans can speak and come as they did at the Mission Continues event. The very first one was held this past fall in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in Moulton’s district.

“Several hundred showed up,” townsfolk and troops, to hear military stories, Moulton said. “It’s the single most rewarding thing I have done since joining Congress,” he included.

Junger himself is trying to take his own guidance, producing a tribe where he now lives on the Lower East Side of New York, in an economically blended community where security is sometimes a concern and neighbours take notice of each other as a matter of courtesy and survival.

“We do look out for each other, in really lovely ways.”

As for his next project, he has no concept.

“I emptied out the refrigerator into my book — everything I’ve been thinking about for the last 30 years about tribal societies and about war,” Junger stated. “It’s a wonderful feeling. I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to next.”


  • I tried to fix the world, but God wouldn't give me his source code.

    Formerly, CEO and lead developer of a technology company, focusing on the merchant services space. Formerly, of WHMCompleteSolution (WHMCS).

    An avid gamer.

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