Junger speaks on war and community

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Junger speaks on war and community

Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger

Jacob Greenia

Sebastian Junger

Jacob Greenia

Jacob Greenia

Sebastian Junger

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It can be hard to imagine feeling more comfortable sleeping on the perimeter of a battlefield, a threat of enemy gunfire looming around the clock, than in your bed at home.

 
Such circumstances, however, can unite a diverse selection of individuals into one “tribe” or community, according to author Sebastian Junger, whose message of inclusion and belonging was the topic for discussion during his keynote speech on the Dibden stage on Nov. 10.

 
His book “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” was selected as the common book at JSC for the 2016-17 academic year.

 
Junger (“The Perfect Storm,” “War”), a best-selling and award-winning author, journalist, and filmmaker, discussed his experiences with communities brought together by war, and delivered his accounts of war reporting in the Middle East through the 90s and 2000s, and more recently in this decade.

 
“Sebastian has done much work since then,” said JSC professor Dr. Sawyer Alberi, who welcomed Junger to the stage, “including the founding of ‘RISC.’ Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues is a nonprofit organization which trains and equips freelance conflict journalists in battlefield first aid. Sebastian founded RISC to honor his good friend Tim Hetherington, who was killed while reporting conflict in Libya in 2011.”

 
Alberi said that between them, she and Junger have worked together to train 288 freelance conflict journalists in battlefield first aid in places ranging from Bronx, New York, to Kiev, Ukraine, and Turin, Italy. All donations collected at this event benefitted RISC.

 
The idea of war reporting intrigued Junger because of his interest in writing about dangerous occupations. However, once he discovered what war reporting entailed, he realized how the war itself can act as an adhesive to those communities it affects.

 
“There was a war in Bosnia, a civil war, the U.S. was not involved yet,” said Junger. “We came in around ’95-’96 to keep the peace after the end of the war. This was a full-out civil war. The city of Sarajevo was besieged by the Bosnian Serb Army. They basically used the population at that city for target practice for several years. They killed and wounded one-fifth of the city — people like me and you — just civilians, children, old people . . . Everybody.

 
“That was my first exposure to war,” Junger said. “I grew up in a suburb and I didn’t know my neighbors, particularly. The first thing I noticed was how communal life was because of the circumstances. People did everything together — they had little victory gardens to grow food because there was no food there. It was a besieged city.”

 
Junger, who studied anthropology as an undergrad, observed that the people in Sarajevo slept in close quarters throughout the conflict. He understood this from his studies as vestigial in human ancestry, dating back hundreds of thousands of years.

 
“It’s a completely natural thing to do. It’s not natural to sleep by yourself in a room,” Junger said. “That is not a part of our evolutionary past. So they practiced close-quarters sleeping in the basements of their buildings. I had this strange feeling. I was like, ‘I know this sounds self-indulgent, but I wish I was part of that.’”

 
He further examined how the tight sense of community he found with 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team strengthened his feeling of security when he slept, even under threat of enemy attack.

 
“The ultimate nightmare was somebody would attack this whole position, enough enemies could overrun us. You never really quite knew when you went to sleep — some of the biggest attacks on these outposts were at five in the morning — so you never really knew when you went to sleep that you might wake up to an apocalyptic battle that was the last thing that ever happened to you.

 
“You’d think that would make for an uneasy sleep,” Junger continued, “but what was so interesting was that you actually sleep quite well when you’re surrounded by a lot of people, it makes you feel safe.”

 
A Bosnian journalist named Nidzara Ahmetasevic, who interviewed Junger in Sarajevo, echoed the sentiments of the U.S. soldiers he accompanied in Restrepo, an outpost in Afghanistan named after fallen platoon medic Juan Sebastian Restrepo. Though the conflicts they were a part of traumatized them physically and emotionally, Junger said Ahmetasevic and the soldiers missed the communal ties they built during times of war.

 
“If you’re alone,” Junger added, “your evolutionary wiring is screaming at you, ‘You’re in danger! You’re in danger! This is not safe! Find people!’ So these guys were starting to suffer real consequences, and I got there and this whole other mood had set in and many of them said to me, ‘You know? We don’t want to go back to the United States. If we had the choice, we’d go back to Restrepo right now if we could.’ I thought that was awfully odd, and my book tried with a lot of effort to explain it.

 
“[Ahmetasevic] said there was graffiti in Bosnia referring to the war that says, ‘Things were better when they were bad,’” Junger added. “What an interesting thing about human nature that it works that way.”

 
The premise of his book and discussion at JSC, Junger said, was to further explore the role that community plays in human life from an evolutionary perspective.

 
“It’s not breaking any secrets. The information in my book, you already know intuitively,” said Junger. “What I did was do some research on our intuitive knowledge about what we need as human beings.”

 
“We live in a wonderful, liberated and affluent society where individuals can make completely individualistic choices about how to lead their lives,” Junger continued. “Where to live, what to do — that’s a fantastic liberation from what you could call the tyranny of a group. But there’s also a real loss there, so my book is about what it costs us to live in this miraculous way that we do. The idea came to me after hearing these soldiers saying they wanted to go back to Restrepo.”

 
Junger’s discussion on community focused on the psychological benefits of community as it is rooted in human nature. He acknowledges through his studies that species such as humans living in close communities can turn internal pain into empathy for others suffering pain.

 
“One of the most powerful arguments for not focusing on your own troubles is that doing so increases them,” Junger said. “It makes them feel worse. When you focus on other people’s troubles by having empathy or helping them, one of the great dividends to that is that you’re actually sparing yourself a certain amount of psychic pain.”

 
Junger implored his audience to ponder how an increasingly individualistic human society, as it stands, can enjoy its modern benefits while promoting community values.

 
Looking to an uncertain and potentially divisive future of the United States, Junger praised veterans within the audience and the entire country for their dedication to building community regardless of their peers’ skin color, class, gender or sexual orientation.

 
“I think the example that you all serve, of being blind to race, economic status, and everything else, and really evaluating people as individuals, will save this country if it needs saving,” Junger continued. “Right now, we need you to act as an example of love, dignity and acceptance.”