Battlefield PTSD, the healing power of community and one giant religion ghost

Sebastian Junger is as fine a reporter specializing in war and conflict coverage as there is today. He shot to fame in 1997 with his book "The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea" (a non-military saga, of course) and ever since has been producing award-winning journalism for print and screen, most of it conflict related.

His work includes the extraordinary feature documentary "Restrepo," a 2010 Academy Award nominee. Restrepo resulted from his spending a full year embedded along with photojournalist Tim Hetherington with an Army airborne platoon manning a highly vulnerable forward position in the mountains of Afghanistan. Restrepo was the name of a platoon member KIA.

Junger's now produced an absorbing piece of long-form magazine journalism (more than 7,100 words) published in the June issue of Vanity Fair on the subject of battlefield PTSD, now more prevalent than it's ever been for U.S. military personnel. Junger writes that it's also probably the highest military PTSD rate in the world, following more than a decade of American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

(Exact PTSD rates are hard to determine for various reasons, including some fraud cases and some conflating of military PSTD with pre-existing conditions. Here's some numbers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.)

But Junger's piece is about way more than psychological battlefield wounds that often do not manifest until a soldier reenters civilian society.

Junger ledes with a review of battlefield PTSD (which he personally experienced after an earlier reporting trip to Afghanistan), but segues to an exploration of the widespread, breakdown of cohesive community in modern Western society and its correlation to military PTSD rates. He likens this state of affairs to a sort of civilizational post traumatic stress disorder.

Moreover, he explores in depth the determinative difference that supportive community -- including a strong religious community -- can make in dealing with PTSD. He specifically mentions the shared Christian faith that helped Londoners pull through the Blitz, as the sustained 1940 German bombing campaign of Britain was called. (Yes, targeted civilians can also suffer from PTSD, as can those who experience trauma in non-military life.)

That makes his piece a welcome change from the usual religion journalism fare of he-said, she-said culture war rhetoric; the rise or fall of this-or-that faith group, and the latest pastor-with-his-pants down scandal. However, I doubt Junger would consider his piece to be religion reporting, even as he writes about religion's deeply embedded and oh-so-subtle role in cultural bonding. That's because he writes not about overt religious faith but of humanity's inclination toward organized religion, the part of us that evolution has hard-wired to need a community of shared values and experiences. 

At its core, then, his piece is a recognition of that part of us that requires human connection to overcome trauma, be it from combat or personal and communal misfortune, the part of us that needs an often inarticulable transcendent experience to feel whole. Junger's piece is a deeply insightful look at the sociology of religion, a rare media bird that, to my mind, qualifies as a huge religion ghost, or missing element in the serious journalistic coverage of the human condition.

That ghost is the recognition that communitarianism is the key to a successful inner life. Sadly, from my perspective, that recognition is being lost in the West as the number of "nones," those disconnected from organized religious life, steadily increases in our individualistic age, thinking they can do it on their own.

Our major media offer us only glimpses of this need, in large part because of time and space limitations for sure, but also because very few journalists are capable of presenting the issue as empathically as Junger.

We may catch a glimpse when some innocent, sweet-faced kid is killed by gang members for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The family, neighbors and a few local politicians attend a church service at which communal grieving is celebrated by TV, print and radio reporters who may or may not understand the community in question. We also catch a glimpse following massive public traumas, such as after the 9/11 attacks, deadly natural disasters or the death of a beloved public figure.

But almost never is there sufficient follow up reporting on the lingering trauma felt, for example, by the murdered kid's loved ones unless the tragedy has some exceptional quality, such as its horrifying nature or racial or class distinction. Moreover, Junger tells us that when it comes to military-induced PTSD, our consumer society, coupled with -- in the U.S., at least -- an all-volunteer military, has undercut our ability to relate as as an authentically cohesive group to the warrior's experience. 

He notes that the closest the vast majority of Americans get to war and its psychological toll today are via dramatized TV and cinema offerings --  think "The Hurt Locker" or "American Sniper" -- that highlight PTSD. 

The Western nation that Junger says comes closest to dealing successfully with PTSD is Israel.

Israel is arguably the only modern country that retains a sufficient sense of community to mitigate the effects of combat on a mass scale. Despite decades of intermittent war, the Israel Defense Forces have a PTSD rate as low as 1 percent. Two of the foremost reasons have to do with national military service and the proximity of the combat -- the war is virtually on their doorstep. “Being in the military is something that most people have done,” I was told by Dr. Arieh Shalev, who has devoted the last 20 years to studying PTSD. “Those who come back from combat are re-integrated into a society where those experiences are very well understood..."
According to Shalev, the closer the public is to the actual combat, the better the war will be understood and the less difficulty soldiers will have when they come home. The Israelis are benefiting from what could be called the shared public meaning of a war. Such public meaning -- which would often occur in more communal, tribal societies -- seems to help soldiers even in a fully modern society such as Israel.

When he says Israel, Junger of course means Jewish Israel, the Israel that is majority secular. But as I've noted previously, to be secular in Israel is, by and large, to retain far more religious memory than in the U.S. or France. That is to say, Israel is steeped in Jewish religious culture that makes it a society with a strong sense of community that serves its military well.

But it's not just Israel. Religion-beat journalists would do well to view every society as having been shaped -- for better or worse, recognized or not -- by religious mores that still influence all regardless of personal belief. You might say that all of human society consists of religion ghosts just waiting to be revealed.

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