Why veterans miss war

Sebastian Junger filmed the famous documentary “Restrepo”. The documentary was largely famous due to it being filmed in one of the most combat-intense regions of Afghanistan. It’s remote location in the mountains left it incredibly exposed and Junger was there to film the many assaults.


Although “Restrepo” may have been the most intense of all his journalistic endeavors, he’s been a journalist in war zones several times prior. What’s most interesting is that, after all his time in war zones, he makes the argument that soldiers miss war when they are without it:

I’ve been covering wars for almost 20 years, and one of the remarkable things for me is how many soldiers find themselves missing it. How is it someone can go through the worst experience imaginable, and come home, back to their home, and their family, their country, and miss the war?

The award winning film “The Hurt Locker” presented this idea several years ago. Although it was a Hollywood movie, the screenplay was written by a journalist who followed a bomb team in Iraq.  The movie shows both sides. One soldier is haunted by his failure to shoot a man with a cell phone, who he thinks may be trying to remote detonate a bomb. The man finishes dialing the number and the soldier watches his friend be killed by the detonation. But the movie follows another soldier who lives for the war. Love would be the wrong word but ‘lives for it’ might be right. When he returns home and is wandering the endless cereal aisle in a Wal-Mart, the feeling drives home…

How dull might a normal, Western life feel after fighting a war, defusing bombs, and feeling as though you’re serving a purpose? 

In this TED talk, Junger points out that:

If I asked all of you in this room, who here has paid money to go to a cinema and be entertained by a Hollywood war movie, most of you would probably raise your hands. That’s what’s so complicated about war. And trust me, if a room full of peace-loving people finds something compelling about war, so do 20-year-old soldiers who have been trained in it, I promise you. That’s the thing that has to be understood.


The thing that most people don’t talk about, is how mundane an ordinary life can be. It’s not necessarily a complaint; the lack of eventfulness means that we don’t have bullets flying by our heads like in war, and we aren’t chasing our food with spears like neanderthals, or running from lions like the earliest humans in Africa. But we are certainly asking less of our brains than we used to. You might argue that your job is hard and you think a lot… but within a few decades most people’s jobs will be automated and it might only take a few thousand lines of code to automate each job. Try teaching a computer how to survive in the woods for years on end… most robots have a very difficult time walking across a room. We just don’t demand that much of our minds and senses anymore.

Maybe it is because men were largely the hunters, but the desire to fill that sensory void is incredibly present in men and you don’t have to examine a war to see it.

Junger points this out in talking about what combat is like:

Time slows down. You get this weird tunnel vision. You notice some details very, very, very accurately and other things drop out. It’s almost a slightly altered state of mind. What’s happening in your brain is you’re getting an enormous amount of adrenaline pumped through your system. Young men will go to great lengths to have that experience. It’s wired into us. It’s hormonally supported. The mortality rate for young men in society is six times what it is for young women from violence and from accidents, just the stupid stuff that young men do: jumping off of things they shouldn’t jump off of, lighting things on fire they shouldn’t light on fire, I mean, you know what I’m talking about.

The point Junger goes on to make is that young men miss the adrenaline and they miss the brotherhood of war. It creates a deep rut in their brain that becomes avoid when they return home and cannot fill it. I don’t think this is entirely unrelated to problems outside of war. I think many behavioral issues, such as ADD, are linked to this problem of brains that aren’t wired for the mundane. In an odd way, I think society looks down on the brains that beg for stimulation and rewards those who can easily bury their head in a textbook.

When society is finally equipped to harness the brilliance of a young brain with ADD or ADHD, I think it will also be better equipped to deal with brains that have been altered by war. Resolving PTSD will still remain. Part of PTSD, though, is the severity of being unable to reintegrate into society. The typical internal business structure, social adjustment, and sense of purpose are all dramatically different in war and society. The really big question, from my view, is which is the problem:

Are we failing to reintegrate their brains into our slower, less demanding way of life?

Or are we failing to build a society that is stimulating and socially connected enough to absorb brains that are geared for stimulation and intense social bonds?


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