Going Beyond "Thank You For Your Service"
What PTSD teaches us about victimhood, community, and supporting veterans
Hello, good people! I hope you are doing well. Let’s get to today’s Stuff!
ONE FROM THE AGES
Napoleon Bonaparte showing respect to soldiers:
“The army is the true nobility of our country.”
ONE (… OR THREE) FROM TRIBE BY SEBASTIAN JUNGER
“In humans, lack of social support has been found to be twice as reliable at predicting PTSD as the severity of the trauma itself.” (pg. 95)
“Israel is arguably the only modern country that retains a sufficient sense of community to mitigate the effects of combat on a mass scale. Despite decades of intermittent war, the Israel Defense Forces have by some measures a PTSD rate as low as 1 percent. Two of the foremost reasons may have to do with the proximity of the combat - the war is virtually on their doorstep - and national military service. ‘Being in the military is something that most people have done,’ I was told by Dr. Arieh Shalev, who has devoted the last twenty years to studying PTSD. ‘Those who come back from combat are reintegrated into a society where those experiences are very well understood….
According to Shalev, the closer the public is to the actual combat, the better the war will be understood and the less difficulty soldiers will have when they come home.” (pg. 96)
“Because modern society has almost completely eliminated trauma and violence from everyday life, anyone who does suffer those things is deemed to be extraordinarily unfortunate. This gives people access to sympathy and resources but also creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery.” (pg. 98)
Source: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger
ONE FROM US
My older brother was an infantryman in the Army. He served one tour in Afghanistan from the spring of 2010 to the summer of 2011. Near the midpoint of this tour, he was granted a one week leave to come home and help his wife get settled after she was finally able to come over from Mexico. I drove from Texas to St. Louis to spend the week with my big bro. What stands out about his visit was how harsh, rude, and contemptuous of normal American life he was. I remember being embarrassed at the movie theatre as he cursed loudly and heckled anyone who gave him a sideways glance.
Looking back now, I was the jerk for judging him critically rather than trying to understand him better. His attitude was unsurprising, even expected, given the extreme dissonance he must have been experiencing. Days prior he had been in a war zone. His unit was back in Kandahar conducting missions, storming buildings, and avoiding literal landmines. And here we were behaving as if none of this were going on. Here we were, in the thick of the holiday season, obsessing about all the things we wanted and that we, somehow, felt entitled to.
As Junger explains in Tribe:
“The earliest and most basic definition of community - of tribe - would be the group of people that you would both help feed and help defend…. Soldiers experience this tribal way of thinking at war, but when they come home they realize that the tribe they were actually fighting for wasn’t their country, it was their unit. It makes absolutely no sense to make sacrifices for a group that, itself, isn’t willing to make sacrifices for you.
I believe my brother was grappling with this reality. Eleven years later, big bro is an undeniably admirable, happy civilian who has been successful in business, education, and most importantly, family life. He has acclimated very well, but, as Sebastian Junger suggests, this is often not the case.
According to Junger, the ill-effects of war are exacerbated by a culture that is not interested in what war is like for soldiers and, which is very eager to consider them damaged, traumatized victims. It is wonderful that veterans have access to support, but that support often delays their progress. Soldiers have varying experiences and will need varying degrees of assistance, but most of all, they need genuine respect. You don’t insist on perpetual sympathy and a separate set of standards for people you respect. You listen to them and make a point of valuing their perspective. You attach a meaning to their experience and honor it by making these perspectives a focus of the entire community.
Many soldiers have witnessed, done, or experienced brutal things. They need an outlet to vent their feelings with people who earnestly want to understand them better. They need their society to care about their experience. Junger suggests that America could help veterans by creating a Veteran’s Day tradition where veterans all over the country are given an audience at their local town hall to speak honestly about their experience. As he says, “The bland phrase, ‘I support the troops,’ would then mean showing up at the town hall once a year to hear these people out.”
Memorial Day is this coming Monday. It is often seen as the official kick off to summer. Like many of you, I’ll be outside grilling. I’m embarrassed to say that this is usually the entire point of the day for me. But this year I plan to do my first Murph workout in honor of Lt. Michael P. Murphy, who died after moving to an exposed position to get a clear signal to call for backup—a conscious self-sacrifice to save the lives of his team. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions, which are reenacted in the movie, Lone Survivor. I don’t know that doing a Murph is doing much, but I want to have a tradition that puts my focus back on the many amazing soldiers who have sacrificed so much. Hopefully, we can all find some time next Monday to honor the real reason for this holiday.
Thanks for reading today!
Having no military experience, I was far less comfortable writing on this than most other topics. But Junger’s insights were very eye opening for me and felt like something we could all stand to think more about. Tribe is an amazing, short book that is worth the time. Junger also has a new book called Freedom, which I’ve just begun reading. If you want to know more about it, I recommend his recent interview with Tim Ferriss.
Life is too short to be normal,