Sebastian Junger’s PTSD Hypothesis

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Sebastian Junger’s work as an author and documentary filmmaker has been, for the last 10 years, been largely centered on the War on Terror, often going into the field in Afghanistan with the US military. His newest book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, is on the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of returning soldiers. His very direct, hands-on experience has given him some very unique insights into the warrior psyche, including what becomes of these fighters when they come home.

Junger describes PTSD as a “disorder of transition,” explaining in a recent TED Talk that “maybe what determines long-term PTSD isn’t what happened out there, but the kind of society you come back to. In close, cohesive, tribal society, you can get over trauma pretty quickly. If you come back to an alienating, modern society, you might remain traumatized your entire life. Maybe the problem isn’t the vets, maybe it’s us.”

As he spoke, I thought of the other large group of traumatized people in our society: rape victims. There’s no shortage of personal accounts to be found where rape victims have described their experiences in a similar way—that while being violated was terrible, trying to report the crime was even worse than the crime itself. Too often, rape victims report being met with indifference and/or disbelief when seeking out help from the law enforcement and healthcare professionals who are supposed to have their best interests in mind. In the Pulitzer Prize winning article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” a woman who already has mental health issues is raped during a home invasion, and is so disbelieved by police and her own guardians, that she ends up being charged with filing a false report. Video evidence made by the rapist of that assault is eventually found when he’s caught continuing to rape women in another state.

That story, to me, is a good illustration of what Junger is talking about in regard to the relationship between alienation and trauma. In the intervening years between the woman’s assault and finally being vindicated, the agony of her situation must have been unbearable. While this may be an extreme example, it’s not terribly unusual. As much as everyone says rape is a terrible crime, and perpetrators need to be held accountable, we’re not very good at following through on those words.

Nowhere is that clearer than in regard to prison rape. American society is notoriously short on sympathy for criminals as it is, and that lack of sympathy gets in the way of our pragmatism. What I mean is this: nearly everyone who goes to prison will eventually get out. Whatever trauma they endure in prison stays with them. While going out into the world as a former prisoner is itself already alienating, I can see where society’s condoning attitude about prison rape can make it even more difficult to work past the trauma and work to rebuild one’s life. It’s likely an overlooked component as to why the recidivism rate is so high.

To bring this back to the military, rape still remains a complex problem. To focus on the nature of alienation, less than 1% of Americans have served since 9/11. When we talk about military rape victims, we’re talking about an even smaller group. Throw the trauma of war into that mix, and coming to home to feelings of isolation is inevitable.

That so many PTSD sufferers remain isolated and alienated, it’s on us. We remain beholden to bad ideas, and forget that ideas can be altered. New information and research breakthroughs are happening all the time. Our unwillingness to adapt to newer ideas is rooted in a fear of looking like we’re weak, or wrong. But putting our own stupid pride ahead of the legitimate needs of others is what makes us weak.

In an interview with MSNBC, Junger went off on the social and political polarity that impedes progress on veterans’ care: “To sustain a national conversation we have to see ourselves as a unity. We don’t. The political parties are at each others’ throats, we live in racially segregated communities, economically segregated communities. There are politicians and leaders in media who literally talk about some fellow citizens as if they are traitors…As if they are rivals who actively want to hurt the country. They talk about [the] president that way, they talk about members of Congress, elements of the population, as if they are actually trying to harm their own country. When you talk like that, you are talking non-tribally. When you use that about people inside your own camp, you are dividing a society. And interestingly, it is a very deeply unpatriotic thing to do. If that is the norm, if that is acceptable to voters, to have people talk like that, you are never going to have a national conversation about anything.”

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