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Veteran belonging and the decline of American communities discussed by journalist and author at Amherst College

(Courtesy of the Amherst College facebook page)

As the common refrain goes, man is by nature a social animal. To award-winning author, journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger, today’s society may demonstrate that such socialization is in jeopardy.

Addressing a crowd of about 120 in Amherst College’s Johnson Chapel on Tuesday evening, Junger shared experiences that culminated in his career as a journalist, as well as those behind his recent book, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” in which he analyzed the sense of community developed by humans living in the harshest conditions, as well as such communities’ absence within the comforts of a modern America.

Having reported in war-torn regions, such as the Balkans in the 1990s and Afghanistan in the 2000s, Junger’s intimate understanding of the bonds built by American soldiers living and fighting together, and their subsequent shock upon their return to society, formed not only the background to his work, but also the subject of his lecture.

“[Soldiers] miss being part of a small group, dependent on each other,” Junger said to the crowd consisting of students, college faculty members, community members and a number of veterans.

According to Junger, increasing rates in post-traumatic stress disorder may be less a result of exposure to violence, and more a reaction to the struggle of reentering society after a period of removal.

“Maybe [soldiers] have very high rates of PTSD not because of the trauma, but because of the transition,” Junger said.

Pulling from his experience as a journalist in a combat zone, he later continued, “The thing that I missed wasn’t the war, wasn’t the killing…what I missed was that communalism.”

According to Junger, while 10 percent of American servicemembers see direct combat, 20 percent develop some form of PTSD after returning home.

Contrastingly, Israeli service members experienced some of the lowest rates of PTSD in the world after returning from combat. Junger hypothesized that the combination of a mandatory service requirement for Israeli citizens, as well as a strong sense of community identity within the country, contribute to a divide between the U.S. and Israel.

With this in mind, Junger sees a solution.

“I think mandatory national service would be incredible,” he said to a crowd that erupted in one of the few applauses of the evening. “The more you sacrifice for something, the more you value it.”

That ‘something,’ to Junger, is the opportunity provided by living in the relatively safe and free United States. In prefacing his lecture for the evening, Junger shared that belief in the same manner his father and grandfather – who immigrated to the United States in World War II to avoid persecution by the Nazis – shared it with him.

In a period allotted for questions, Katherine Hague, a senior at Amherst College and a member of the Student Steering Committee that helped plan the event, asked Junger if families have the ability to provide the sense of community and belonging that he spoke so strongly in favor of. Hague pulled from her experience abroad in Brazil to exemplify how families can provide support systems and social outlets to one another, especially in certain cultures.

To Junger, while family involvement is necessary for healthy socialization and community building, there needs to be more interaction and support.

“It’s super important, but it’s not the only food group,” he responded.

Junger was also asked about the effects of social media, whether it provides a different context for interaction beyond the more traditional form of face-to-face socialization.

“One thing it’s not providing is human interactions,” Junger said. “The phrase social media is the big lie of our generation.”

Touching on a concept discussed in his book, Junger pointed to what appeared to be the deterioration of mental health in relatively affluent global societies. According to Junger, as social media grows in its prominence, so do rates of suicide, depression and anxiety.

However, Junger made it clear that he does not believe there is evidence directly correlating the two; their coupled rise in prevalence within societies is more than a matter of circumstance.

Eli Sears, a veteran with PTSD now living in Easthampton, believed that Junger’s recounting of what soldiers experience while deployed to combat zones is as accurate as any journalist he has seen.

Sears first heard about Junger from his girlfriend two years ago, a journalist who spent 10 years in the Middle East. His familiarity with Junger is primarily through his film work, including “Restrepo,” which explores combat on the ground in Afghanistan.

“We tend to be more isolated because all our needs are basically met,” Sears said, on the subject of the lecture. “As humans, we function better when we live in a community…I think that’s what’s missing in American culture.”

Sears continued, “You can’t live the American dream all by yourself.”

Will Soltero can be reached at wsoltero@umass.edu and followed on Twitter at @WillSoltero

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