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How going to war brings out the best and worst in people

Sebastian Junger is not a military veteran. He makes that clear, but he sure sounds like one. Maybe it's because he's covered conflict zones from Sierra Leone to Nigeria to Afghanistan as a journalist. It's safe to say he's seen more conflict than many in the United States military.

If there's an expert on modern warfare and the long-term effects of those who live it, that person is Sebastian Junger.


He sees war and its effects through the lens of an anthropologist. This not only gives him the perspective to look back on his homecoming—and the homecomings of U.S. troops—to see the problems and abnormalities with how societies deal with their combat veterans, it allows him to put those ideas into words. Some words returning and transitioning veterans may not have ever known to use.

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"We try hard to keep combat at a distance," he says in the new PBS documentary Going to War. "But when we talk about war, we talk about what it means to be human."

In Going to War, Junger and fellow author Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War) examine the paradox of fighting in combat: how the brotherhood and sense of purpose contrast with the terror, pain, and grief surrounding the violence and destruction. It starts with the training. Whenever young men (and now women) are placed in a situation where they would be fighting for their lives, the training would diminish perceptions of the individual in favor of the group.

"If you have people acting individualistically in a combat unit, the unit falls apart and gets annihilated," Junger says. "So you need them to focus on the group. The training, beyond firing a weapon, is an attempt to get people to stop thinking of themselves.

This is not just the U.S. military. This is every military around the world.

The United States is "orders of magnitude" more capable than most. What the U.S. is having trouble dealing with is what comes after its veterans return home and then to civilian life. For returning vets, sometimes the problem is returning to an unearned hero's welcome.

Only about ten percent of the military will ever see combat. Those who don't still get the welcome home, but feel guilty for feeling like they never did enough to earn that accolade.

For those who were in combat, the experience of being shot, shot at, and watching others get killed or wounded is a traumatic experience that our increasingly isolated society doesn't handle well.

Sebastian Junger, journalist, author, and host of the new PBS documentary "Going to War."

When veterans leave the military, separation becomes a more apt term than we realize. Our wealthy, individualistic modern society rips military veterans from their tribal environment while they're in the military and puts them back into a cold, unfamiliar and far less communal world.

Junger thinks a fair amount of what we know as PTSD is really the shock of a tribal-oriented veteran being put in an individualized environment.

"Going to War did a fantastic job of capturing the experience of fighting in a war and then coming home," Junger says. "For me one of the most powerful moments wasn't even on the battlefield.

Junger goes on to describe what, for him, is the most poignant story out of a slew of emotional, true stories of men fighting nearly a century of wars:

"A young man, a Marine describing his final training, a ruck march. They had heavy packs and the guy had an injury so he couldn't walk very well. Another guy comes along and carries his pack for him, so the second guy is carrying 160 pounds maybe, and says 'If you're not gonna make it across the finish in time, then neither will I. We're gonna do it together or fail together.' And that is the central ethos to men in combat in the military."

For more of Sebastian Junger and his thoughts on war and the men and women who fight it, be sure to download or listen to this podcast. If you still can't get enough Junger (and we totally get understand), check out his amazing books or our previous podcast with him where we talked about his latest book, Tribe.

Going to War airs on PBS on Memorial Day at 9 p.m. Eastern. Check your local listings.

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