Twenty years after the siege of Sarajevo, I returned to the people talking a little sheepishly about how much they longed for those days. More precisely, they longed for who they had been back then. Even my taxi driver on the ride from the airport told me that during the war, he’d been in a special unit that slipped through enemy lines to help other besieged enclaves. “And now look at me,” he said, dismissing the dashboard with a wave of his hand.
For a former soldier to miss the clarity and importance of his wartime duty is one thing, but for civilians its quite another. “Whatever I say about war, I still hate it,” one survivor, Nidzara Ahmetasavic made sure to tell me after I interviewed her about the nostalgia of her generation. “I do miss something from the war. But I also believe that the world we are living in – and the peace we have – is very fucked up if somebody is missing war. And many people do.”
A modern soldier returning from combat – or a survivor of Sarajevo – goes from the kind of close knit group that humans evolved for, back into society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good. Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively. Whatever the technological advances of modern society – the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.
“You’ll have to be prepared to say that we are not a good society – that we are an anti-human society”, anthropologist Sharon Abramozitz warned when I tried this idea out on her. Abramowitz was in the Ivory coast as a Peace Corp volunteer during the start of the civil war in 2002 and experienced first hand the extremely close bonds created by hardship and danger. “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.”
First, cohesive and egalitarian tribal societies do a very good job of mitigating the effects of trauma, but by their very nature, many modern societies are exactly the opposite: hierarchical and alienating. America’s great wealth, although a blessing in many ways, has allowed for the growth of an individualistic society that suffers high rates of depression and anxiety. Both are correlated with chronic PTSD.
Second, ex-combatants shouldn’t be seen – or be encouraged to see themselves – as victims. One can be deeply traumatized, as fireman are by deaths of both colleagues and civilians, without being viewed through the lens of victimhood. Lifelong disability payments for a disorder like PTSD, which is both treatable and non-chronic, risks turning veterans into a victim class that is entirely dependent on the government for their livelihood. The United States is a wealthy country that may be able to afford this, but in human terms, the veterans can’t. The one way that soldiers are never allowed to see themselves during deployment is as victims, because the passivity of victimhood can get them killed. It’s yelled, beaten and drilled out of them long before they get close to the battlefield. But when they come home they find themselves being viewed so sympathetically that they are often excused for having to fully function in society. Some of them truly can’t function, and those people should be taken care of immediately; but imagine how confusing it must be for the rest of them.
Third, and perhaps most important, veterans need to feel that they’re just as necessary and productive back in society as they were on the battlefield. Iroquois warriors who dominated just about every tribe within 500 miles of their home territory would return to a community that still needed them to hunt and fish and participate in the fabric of everyday life. There was no transition when they came home because – much like Israel – the battlefield was an extension of society, and vice versa. Recent studies of something called “social resilience” have identified resource sharing and egalitarian wealth distribution as major components of a society’s ability to recover from hardship. And societies that rank high on social resilience – such as the kibbutz settlements in Israel – provide soldiers with a significantly stronger buffer against PTSD than low resilience societies. In fact, social resilience is an even better predictor of trauma recovery than the level of resilience of the person himself.
Unfortunately, for the past decade American soldiers have returned to a country that displays many indicators of low social resilience. Resources are not shared equally, a quarter of children live in poverty, jobs are hard to get, and minimum wage is almost impossible to live on. Instead of being able to work and contribute to society – a highly therapeutic thing to do – a large percentage of veterans are just offered lifelong disability payments. And they accept, of course, why shouldn’t they? A society that doesn’t distinguish degrees of trauma can’t expect its warriors to either.
There are many costs to modern society, starting with its toll on the global ecosystem and working ones way down the to the toll on human psyche, but the most dangerous loss may be to community. If the human race is under threat in some way we don’t yet understand, it will probably be at the community level that we either solve the problem or fail to. If the future of the planet depends on, say, rationing water, communities of neighbors will be able to enforce new rules far more effectively than even local governments. It’s how we evolved to exist, and it obviously works.
Two behaviors that set humans apart were the systematic sharing of food and altruistic group defense. This is the Warrior Ethos, this is the platoon. Other primates did very little of either, but increasingly, homonids did, and those behaviors helped set them on an evolutionary path that produced the modern world. The earliest and most basic definition of community, of tribe, would be the group of people that you would both help feed and help defend. A society that doesn’t offer it members the chance to act selflessly in these ways isn’t a society in any tribal sense of the word: it’s just a political entity that, lacking enemies, will probably fall apart on its own. Soldiers experience this kind of tribal thinking in war, but when they come home they realize that the tribe they were actually fighting for wasn’t their country, it was their unit. It makes absolutely no sense to make sacrifices for a group that itself is not willing to make sacrifices for you. That is the position American soldiers have been in for the past decade and a half.
The public is often accused of being disconnected from its military, but frankly it’s disconnected from just about everything. Farming, mineral extraction, logging, fishing, infrastructure construction – all the industries that keep the nation going are mostly unacknowledged by the people who depend on them most.
This fundamental lack of connectedness allows people to act in trivial but incredibly selfish ways. Rachel Yehuda pointed to littering as the perfect example of an everyday symbol of disunity in society. “It’s a horrible thing to see because it sort of encapsulates this idea that you’re in it alone, that there isn’t a shared ethos of trying to protect something shared”, she told me. “It’s the embodiment of every man for himself. It’s the opposite in the military.”
Today’s veterans often come home to find that although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it. It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. The income gap between the rich and poor continues to widen, many people live in radically segregated communities, the elderly are mostly sequestered from public life, and rampage shootings happen so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two. To make matters worse, politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country – a charge so destructive to group unity that most past tribal societies would have probably have just punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness, and the veterans know this. 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.
I know what coming back to America from a war zone is like because I’ve done it so many times. First, there’s a kind of shock at the comfort and affluence that we enjoy, but that is followed by the dismal realization that we live in 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 US government. It is a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime except that now it is applied to our fellow citizens. Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits. Contempt is often used by governments to provide rhetorical cover for torture or abuse. Contempt is one of four behaviors that, statistically, can predict divorce in married couples. People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long.
The most alarming rhetoric comes out of the dispute between liberals and conservatives, it’s a dangerous waste of time because they’re both right. The perennial conservative concern about high taxes supporting a nonworking “underclass” has entirely legitimate roots in our evolutionary past and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Early hominids lived a precarious existence where freeloaders were a direct threat to survival, and so they developed an exceedingly acute sense of whether they were being taken advantage of by members of their own group. But by the same token, one of the hallmarks of early human society was the emergence of a culture of compassion that cared for the ill, the elderly, the wounded, and the unlucky. In today’s terms, that is a common liberal concern that also has to be taken into account. Those two driving forces have coexisted for hundreds of thousands of years in human society and have been duly codified in this country as a two-party political system. The eternal argument over so-called entitlement programs—and, more broadly, over liberal and conservative thought—will never be resolved because each side represents an ancient and absolutely essential component of our evolutionary past, it's in our genes.
The United states is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorists strategy would be to just leave the country alone. That way, America’s ugliest tendencies could emerge unimpeded by the unifying effects of war. The ultimate betrayal isn’t acting competitively – that should be encouraged – but predicating your power on excommunication of others from the group. That is exactly what politicians of both parties try to do when they spew venomous rhetoric about their rivals. That is exactly what media figures do when they go beyond criticism of their fellow citizens and openly revile them. Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredibly stupid thing to do, and public figures who imagine their nation isn’t, potentially, one huge combat outpost are deluding themselves.
Soldiers in an army platoon are functioning as an early hominid tribal unit for survival of the group; all are equal, there is no wealth, survival of the group is the reason d’etre, which leads to altruism and selflessness. Recall the story of soldiers in the trenches in World war I? The enemy lofts a hand grenade in the trench, the closest soldier dives onto the grenade, it goes off, he dies but the platoon goes on. All for one, one for all. Survival of the tribe, survival of the species. This ethos resulted in our becoming the dominant and only human species on the planet and is presently hardwired into our evolutionary genetic neural consciousness.