Sebastian Junger: How Does War Teach Soldiers About Love? Journalist Sebastian Junger was embedded with soldiers during the war in Afghanistan. He says many veterans miss war because it fulfills a deep human need to belong to a trusted group.
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How Does War Teach Soldiers About Love?

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How Does War Teach Soldiers About Love?

How Does War Teach Soldiers About Love?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

OK, so we've taken care of the basic set of needs - physiological, security. And then comes what Abraham Maslow called the higher-order needs, things like love and belonging.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, there are different kinds of love. Obviously, one can have the love of one's spouse, one's friends, one's children in this society, but the bonds of community, of tribe, are a very, very particular thing.

RAZ: This is the journalist Sebastian Junger.

JUNGER: And in modern American society, the main unit is the family. And that's great, but we evolved as a species to live in groups of 30, 40, 50 people in a very hostile environment, completely inter-reliant on one-another.

RAZ: And so in the modern world, he says, the closest you can get to that kind of group...

JUNGER: That's a platoon in combat.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "RESTREPO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'd like to take you up over there, sir, maybe just trying to give a once-over the world here.

RAZ: This is audio from a documentary Sebastian shot back in 2007 in Afghanistan. It's called "Restrepo."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "RESTREPO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is the southern Korengal. This is - I guess you could call it - this is the war zone. And this is where it's all happening.

RAZ: Sebastian and his friend Tim Hetherington documented the lives of American soldiers at a remote outpost in the northeastern part of the country.

JUNGER: They're absorbing almost 20 percent of all the combat in Afghanistan.

RAZ: It was one of the most dangerous places in the entire country.

JUNGER: That little area was just very, very intense.

RAZ: And what Sebastian found was that the bond, the sense of belonging, among the men stationed there was more powerful than anything they'd experienced in civilian life. Sebastian described his time there on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JUNGER: The guys were up there for a month at a time. They fought. They worked. They slept. There was no Internet. There was no phone. There was no communication with the outside world. There was nothing up there that young men typically like - no cars, no girls, no television, nothing except combat, combat they did learn to like. To understand that, let's think about what happens in your brain when you're in combat. Time slows down. You get this weird tunnel vision. It's almost a slightly altered state of mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "RESTREPO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's a big firefight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's great [expletive] packing up rounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JUNGER: What's happening in your brain is you're getting an enormous amount of adrenaline pumped through your system.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "RESTREPO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That was fun, though. Man, that was fun. You can't get a better high. It's like crack, you know? Once you've been shot at, you really can't come down. There's nothing - you can't top that.

JUNGER: How're you going to go back to the civilian world, then?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I have no idea.

RAZ: Sebastian heard this from a lot of soldiers, that's combat was addictive. And so when many of them got home, they started to miss it. They started to miss the feeling of being there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JUNGER: I was particularly close to a guy named Brendan O'Byrne. I'm still very good friends with him. He came back to the States. He got out of the Army. I had a dinner party one night. I invited him, and he was - he started talking with a woman - one of my friends. And she knew how bad it had been out there, and she said Brendan, is there anything at all that you miss about being out in Afghanistan, about the war? And he thought about it quite a long time and finally said, ma'am, I miss almost all of it. And he's one of the most traumatized people I've seen from that war. Ma'am, I miss almost all of it. What is he talking about?

So it wasn't just Brendan. It was a really common sentiment. And I think what they're talking about - and they're not psychopaths. They don't miss killing people. They don't miss almost getting killed, getting injured themselves, losing their friends. What they miss is brotherhood. They miss being part of a very tightly bonded group where pretty much everyone in that group is willing to risk or even sacrifice their life for the safety, for the welfare of everyone else.

RAZ: Did you meet young men at Restrepo who didn't have that sense of belonging in their home lives, in their personal lives or didn't grow up with it and seem to be searching for that? I mean, maybe they weren't searching for it consciously, but you kind of could detect that.

JUNGER: You know, I would say that someone who had a very tightly bonded home life would recognize a similar feeling once he's in a platoon. And I think the desire for inclusion is so powerful and hardwired into our brains so permanently that even if you didn't have that kind of inclusion at home, once you experience it for the first time, it feels powerful and familiar and the thing that you want above everything else.

Brotherhood's different from friendship. It's a mutual agreement in a group that you will put the welfare of the group, you will put the safety of everyone in the group, above your own. In effect, you're saying, I love these other people more than I love myself. Brendan was a team leader in command of three men, and the worst thing that happened to him in Afghanistan was one of his men was hit in the head with a bullet in the helmet.

It knocked him over. They thought he was dead. It was in the middle of a huge firefight. No one could deal with it. And a minute later, Kyle Steiner sat back up from the dead, as it were, because he'd come back to consciousness. The bullet had just knocked him out. It glanced off the helmet. As he was sort of half-conscious, he remembers people saying, Steiner's been hit in the head. Steiner's dead. And he was thinking, I'm not dead, and he sat up. And Brendan realized, after that, that he could not protect his men. And that was the only time he cried in Afghanistan was realizing that. That's brotherhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RAZ: This is something that's really hard for, you know, for most people who haven't experienced this to understand.

JUNGER: I think the soldiers themselves mostly don't even understand it. I think it's actually quite puzzling. The analogy, you know, I sort of make with people is, for those of you who've been divorced, sometimes people look back with real nostalgia on the good times of a marriage that had to end. Combat's a little bit the same way. It's like, my God, it was the worst thing that ever happened, but still, I kind of miss that. You know, soldiers are very puzzled by it, and of course, their spouses are puzzled by it. I mean, they come back from combat, and they want to go back. And it's very hurtful and painful to the spouses.

RAZ: Because there, they felt something that they can't quite explain.

JUNGER: Yes. I mean, we live in a postindustrial, modern society where we don't function in large groups. And as a species, we're wired to function that way. And when there's a calamity, when 9/11 happens, when a hurricane hits New York City, for a little while, neighborhood by neighborhood, people are extremely collaborative, and they really like it. And then they think a little bit nostalgically about those difficult days.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JUNGER: And I think what you're seeing is a longingness not for hardship and danger and pain and loss, but a longing for connection.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Journalist Sebastian Junger - his documentary "Restrepo" was nominated for an Academy Award. You can see his entire talk at ted.npr.org

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