National Writers Series Brings Two Renowned War Writers to Traverse City
Sebastian Junger and Philip Caputo will be interviewed by former U.S. diplomat and Vietnams Vet Jack Segal
By Clark Miller | Nov. 11, 2017
Why do so many returning soldiers now fall into depression when they return from war?
Bestselling authors Sebastian Junger and Philip Caputo tackle this question when they appear on stage together this Wednesday, Nov. 15, at 7 pm at City Opera House as part of the National Writers Series. Doors open at 6 pm. Host for the event will be Northern Express columnist and retired U.S. diplomat Jack Segal, who served as an Army officer in Vietnam.
Junger, a war journalist, filmmaker, and author of "Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging," postulates that for a vast number of veterans, a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) reflects what happens to them after war as much — if not more — than their direct experience of wartime violence.
He in no way diminishes the severity of deep-seated, chronic PTSD. But those cases represent a relative small minority of reported diagnoses. He focuses mostly on how we might better understand and support veterans with lesser, more easily treatable symptoms.
The Great Divide
In this era of multiple deployments and seemingly endless conflicts, a big part of the problem with reintegrating into civilian life for that large group of returning soldiers, Junger argues, is that modern society “has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary” — and that feeling is the exact opposite of the wartime experience.
He says that, at a minimum, we need to give vets the opportunity to make their stories part of the fabric of American life. They need to be able to contribute to the country for which they have fought. Most urgently, they need jobs that pay a living wage.
Relying on the Tribe
Junger says veterans re-entering civilian life face another problem: During war they have become members of a close-knit “tribe.” For many, that bond is hard to give up.
Junger knows without doubt that war is hell, but it is also life (or at least the struggle to stay alive), writ large. Soldiers have a clear role to play, and even those who gripe about it, know that it is more than just a job.
They live in cramped quarters with members of their unit, with whom they share the drudgery and dangers of war. Respect is earned through service and sacrifice — values that define daily life in a war zone. Close personal bonds arise, generally most intensely at the small-unit level.
Like those who have preceded them in countless other wars, today’s warriors might start out fighting for country and flag. But as Junger points out, priorities change. In the end, most simply want to do everything in their power — including, if necessary, giving up their lives — to keep their buddies safe from harm.
To understand that level of commitment, consider what happens when a “tribe” member goes rogue, as happened with Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who, of his own accord, abandoned his post in Afghanistan.
“Any of us would have died for him while he was with us,” said former platoon mate, Sgt. Josh Korder. “And then for him to just leave us like that, it was a very big betrayal.” (Korder has a tattoo on his back. It lists the names of the three soldiers who died trying to rescue Bergdahl.)
The flip side of this intense loyalty to the tribe is all too often a psychological crash upon returning home. There is nothing to replace that closeness, that feeling of belonging. It seems that everything has suddenly changed. As Junger has written, “In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.”
A Rumor of War
Junger’s perspective on war is rooted in his experiences as a journalist in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, and is backed up by extensive research. By comparison, Philip Caputo’s 1977 classic, "A Rumor of War," comes from his harrowing service as a young Marine lieutenant in the early days of the Vietnam War.
A Rumor of War is a visceral, personal tale of war — just the sort of book Caputo felt was needed at the time. In a postscript to the latest edition, he writes, “I did not want to tell anyone about the war but to show it.”
His underlying purpose was to “make people uncomfortable — in effect, to blow them out of their snug polemical bunkers into the confusing, disturbing emotional and moral no-man’s land where we warriors dwelled.”
Fast forward to today, and Caputo believes the societal fissures made apparent during the Vietnam era still plague America.
“It would be inaccurate, dangerously so, to say that that disruption has ended,” he writes, adding that the social divisions “between hawk and dove, black and white, have spread and spiderwebbed, so that now the great American tribe is split into subtribes: Hispanic or Anglo, gay or straight, feminist or antifeminist, pro-choice or pro-life.”
To that list, Junger has added the problems of widening income disparities between rich and poor, ever more frequent shooting rampages and a trend toward making false accusations against political rivals.
In short, both authors seem to agree that America’s social ills make for a sharply divided country, and that creates special challenges for veterans as they try to reintegrate into civilian life.
Tickets to the National Writers Series can be purchased online at cityoperahouse.org, by phone at 231-941-8082 or by visiting the City Opera House box office at 106 East Front St., Traverse City.