Evolution explains why soldiers long to be back in the battle
I listened to an interview with Sebastian Junger recently about war, belonging, and his new book Tribe.
His take comes from evolutionary biology and the idea of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. This term is used to describe the context in which organisms evolve. It’s an tacit argument that we are best suited for a particular environment and that, when put in a novel circumstance, we may or may not be able to perform at our best or in predictable ways. (And many people believe that all of modern civilization is a novelty that we are unprepared for.) It’s the putative explanation for the ‘paleo diet’ (that and money) and for deer standing still in headlights: there is nothing in their evolutionary past that prepares them for a three thousand pound piece of steel moving toward them so fast that they aren’t able to respond.
Junger is a war reporter and, among other things, argues that human beings are happiest living in groups. Groups provide meaning and purpose to individuals who tend to be lost when unconnected. He notes that while women tend toward thoughtful organization, young men are hard-wired to protect and provide. He reports of repeated findings that young men, after returning home from overseas duty, long for the days of battle. They had a noble purpose, camaraderie, and a common goal. In one study, cortisol levels were checked in a group of soldiers in the battle field. The results were reversed from what was expected. Without an enemy, the stress hormone was high. When the enemy was spotted, and a timeframe for the potentially lethal battle was known, nerves calmed and cortisol dropped. The explanation is that there is uncertainty before the battle. But when the enemy is spotted, then training kicks in. Polishing guns and stacking sandbags and loading ammo all become part of a familiar dance that you will perform with your closest friends. Like Northmen ravaging England, soldiers are happy to die in this way. Then, imagine the confusion of coming home. After being relied on to defend and to save the country, we bring these men and women home to relative isolation and treat them as broken.
Junger notes that problems with these mostly young people don’t show up in the field but at home back on friendly soil. Once the homecoming parties are over, the vet is left alone without any overarching purpose except for whatever he or she can generate for themselves. Our prosperity and safety, it seems, contribute to our national problems by leaving people wired to do things with nothing to do. In the past, this was different. During WWII, the men who fought came home as heroes with a new charge of rebuilding the country. Plumbing and truck driving were honorable professions that contributed to the country. Vets went to college in droves. Today we put vets on permanent disability when they self-identify as having PTSD. We treat them as broken and, when they recognize their brokenness, we reward them for it.
So what does this all mean? The ramifications swing from enormous to simple. It helps me understand why humans search for meaning. It makes me wonder how isolation contributes to health issues for Westerners everywhere. It makes me wonder how much life I’ve missed out on by keeping away from groups? It tells me to let the young kids sleep in the same room as mom and dad – this is, after all, how all animals live. It tells me, as evolution always seems to, that our history is a key to our future.