Thursday, May 19, 2016

Returning Soldiers and a Divided America

Sebastien Junger has published a book expanding on an argument he first made last year: that our returning soldiers suffer not so much from combat fatigue as the dramatic contrast between the camaraderie of military life and the anomie of contemporary America:
After months of combat, during which “soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion and politics within their platoon,” they return to the United States to find “a society that is basically at war with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about — depending on their views — the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president or the entire U.S. government.”

It’s a formula for deep despair. “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country,” he writes, “they’re not sure how to live for it.” . . .

Mr. Junger’s premise is simple: Modern civilization may be swell, giving us unimaginable autonomy and material bounty. But it has also deprived us of the psychologically invaluable sense of community and interdependence that we hominids enjoyed for millions of years. It is only during moments of great adversity that we come together and enjoy that kind of fellowship — which may explain why, paradoxically, we thrive during those moments.

War, too, for all of its brutality and ugliness, satisfies some of our deepest evolutionary yearnings for connectedness. Platoons are like tribes. They give soldiers a chance to demonstrate their valor and loyalty, to work cooperatively, to show utter selflessness. Is it any wonder that so many of them say they miss the action when they come home? . . .

Our veterans re-enter an unstable working class. They are awkwardly thanked by strangers for their service — which, as Mr. Junger ruefully observes, only highlights the schism between the few who have served and the great many who have not. And instead of jobs, they are offered lifelong disability.

Soldiers go from a world in which they’re united, interconnected and indispensable to one in which they’re isolated, without purpose, and bombarded with images of politicians and civilians screaming at one another on TV.

“How,” Mr. Junger asks, “do you make veterans feel that they are returning to a cohesive society that was worth fighting for in the first place?”
This brings me back to a comment David made yesterday: given that Americans are so fundamentally divided against each other, is it worth trying to keep the country together? I have lately heard several people arguing for a more relaxed national system and more power for the states, so that each community can be governed as it wants. I am not attracted to this notion, because I think that any unit large enough to function in the modern age is going to be highly diverse. Up here in the blue northeast we tend to think of Georgia and Texas as conservative southern states with a sort of unified outlook, but of course that isn't really true. Both have large black and Hispanic populations and both contain millions of liberals. It's just that with the country as a whole so closely divided in politics, a state that is 66% Republican seems unified by comparison.

I think we are stuck with our divisions. But I do wish we were more polite about them. Which is why I regard Donald Trump as such a danger and am increasingly frustrated with Bernie Sanders.

6 comments:

David said...

I did ask if it was time to part, but I'm not particularly attracted to this notion either. I tried to suggest this would lead to more bitterly divided small polities.

I'm dubious, though, about the idea that contemporary American divisions are somehow a product of modern anomie as opposed to some notional pre-modern, more "tribal" life. Pre-modern polities were often--perhaps usually--bitterly divided, the Greek polis being a premier example.

John said...

I think Junger was closer to the truth when he said that we feel great togetherness only in times of crisis.

I wonder if this is the reason some wars are fought.

David said...

Well, Texas Gov. Sam Houston, an ardent anti-secessionist, famously suggested a new war with Mexico as a way to prevent civil war in the US after Lincoln's election. Some German officials suggested war as an antidote to the new electoral strength of the Social Democrats after the 1912 election. Etc., etc.

But these are hardly examples of officials seeking Junger's more intimate, personal form of "tribal" experience--they're just hoping they can use others' experience of the same. Overall, I would say that, once war policy is determined by groups of bureaucrats and politicians, the togetherness of war we are postulating would only be one among many factors, and probably not the decisive one.

On the other hand, when it is a soldier making the decision--certainly it is has often been suggested that, for example, a longing for another grand campaign ultimately determined Napoleon's decision to invade Russia. But are the excitements of command the same as Junger's togetherness?

David said...

I wonder too if the extremely intense and seeming frequency of the togetherness experience of US soldiers doesn't reflect more the nature of the contemporary US military than generic war experience. My limited reading in war memoirs doesn't indicate that this feeling, or the postwar pining for it, are universal. Frequent across cultures and times, yes, but by no means universal.

Perhaps the issue does have something to do with modern anomie, in the family rather than the community sense. The well-known "Diary of a Napoleonic Footsoldier," for example, has little to say about small-unit solidarity that I remember, but seems to indicate tight family bonds (the author constructs his memoir as conveying to his apparently large family what his war experience was like).

"Confessions of a Mullah Warrior" does express some intense affection for some of his mujahideen comrades, but his real relationships are clearly with his large, extended family.

Perhaps this is something in general that we're missing in our bensozia discussions about the loss of community ties. Perhaps we should look first to family, rather than community.

John said...

I think many communitarian conservatives would agree that America's problems start with family breakdown, which is why they worry more about divorce and unwed parenthood than anything else. The solidarity of my family is certainly a huge factor in my life.

Lisa was recently telling me a story about a birth in her hospital and said something about "the stepfather." I said, "How can a newborn baby have a stepfather?" She said, "It just means that the mother isn't with the biological father any more. Happens all the time." (These were white people, in case you were wondering.) I think that is a big part of what Junger is talking about.

I also once read a story about why men commit suicide after getting divorced, which said that many had had no community other than their wives and children so divorce left them completely alone.

So, yes. And it may be that one reason Americans are moving less is that they are trying harder to keep in touch with their kin, in the absence of any other sort of community they could join in a new place. Which drives economic conservatives crazy.

David said...

Interesting. On a slightly different topic, your comment suggests to me why the Republican coalition *may* be more prone to fission than the Democratic one. The conservatives are divided into various schools, all with passionate and mutually-contradictory ideas about what constitutes the good life, from your communitarian, family-oriented paleocons and religious fundies, to hyperindividualist economic conservatives, to neocons who think the good society is a militarized machine on a imperial crusade. The only thing that unites them is they all think they hate Democrats more than they disagree with each other.

Democrats, on the other hand, seem *for the moment* to be a pretty solid alliance of ethnic and other identity groups who know the other coalition isn't for them, with white liberals who think that, whatever else happens, the sine qua non of a good society is one with as little racism, sexism, etc., etc., as possible (however hypocritical they--we--may be in our personal lives). There are fissures--the old hardhat union faction, Bernie, ethnic activists suspicious of white liberals--but when it comes down to it in a presidential election, they seem to stick together. The main problem is too many don't vote in any other kind of election.