Sebastian Junger: Meaning from War and Technological Isolation in America – #29
Steve: Thanks for joining us, I’m Steve Hsu.
Corey: And I’m Corey Washington, and we’re your hosts for Manifold. Our guest today is Sebastian Junger. Sebastian was a war correspondent for 15 years, has covered war for over 25. His writings have appeared in the New York times, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and the National Review. He’s the author of five books, The Perfect Storm, A Death in Belmont, which won the 2007 PEN/Winship Award, Fire, War and Tribe. His documentary work includes the trilogy, Restrepo, Korengal and The Last Patrol about war and it’s effects on soldiers.
Corey: Restrepo won the Grand Jury Prize for domestic documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It was nominated for Academy Award for best documentary in 2011. His 2017 documentary Hell on Earth, The Fall of Syria and The Rise of ISIS. Documents the early years of the Syrian conflict and the origins of ISIS from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He’s currently working on a documentary on Mexico for National Geographic television due out in 2020. Welcome to Manifold, Sebastian.
Sebastian: Thank you.
Corey: I’d like to begin with Syria, ISIS and the Kurds, the subjects of Hell on Earth. Last month, president Trump announced the U.S. was pulling troops out of Northern Syria, troops that were there in part to protect Kurdish civilians and fighters from Turkey. Many of our listeners might not know good deal about the Kurds of Northern Syria. Can you tell us something about the situation on the ground that is community faced?
Sebastian: I’ve never worked there. I’ve always wanted to go to Kurdistan and I never got there. So, what I know is from what I read the paper and talking to people, but the Kurdish people have never had their own autonomous country. Their population that’s spread over several countries, all of the autocratic, and they have worked very hard to establish pretty enlightened to egalitarian society, many women in leadership roles and female generals. I mean, the heart of the Arab world, women’s rights are quite prominent in Kurdistan.
Sebastian: I think that has been quite inspiring to American who have volunteered to fight over there as well as American forces that are over there. I can’t claim to know what President Trump was thinking in his decision to pull American forces out of that area, but clearly his own military has said that the consequences in human terms, in military terms and in strategic terms, the consequences have been very, very severe and arguably catastrophic.
Steve: I thought they quickly formed an Alliance with the Syrian government and so they’re actually hasn’t been a genocide or even large scale Turkish invasion of that area.
Sebastian: I mean, you don’t have to have a genocide for the consequences to be catastrophic, our biggest rival in the world arguably is Russia, they now have taken over American military basis. They own that territory now, we are no longer there. I’m not a general, right? I’m just speaking as a news consumer, but it seems like we’ve lost a piece of the global Chessboard to arguably a dangerous rival.
Corey: Is your underscore in Hell on Earth and strong ISIS, the Kurds, for the brunt of the suffering. We basically carried airstrikes and the Kurds with the ground forces. So I think there’s a sense in which among many that sense that we owe them something. And is this a sentiment you found, perhaps among soldiers that you’ve talked to?
Sebastian: I mean, all countries owe their allies loyalty. I’m not sure we owe the Kurds something as a people, but when you form strategic alliances with other groups, their usefulness disappears if they get the sense that you don’t feel a sense of obligation to them as well. So, I think always is the wrong word, but certainly there is a probably a strategic loss in introducing the idea that an alliance with the United States is something that can disappear overnight.
Corey: I don’t know about you guys, my first awareness, the Kurds came back in the late eighties. This was paying attention to Iraq and the on fall campaign against them that Saddam carried out. I think like as you mentioned, like a lot of liberals you the sense for due to their statelessness, due to them being haven’t developed a lightened society, due to the targeting of chemical weapons, that they’re sensitive population that one should care about and protect.
Steve: So Corey, I just want to question you on that. Are you for or against the Iraq war?
Corey: So it’s interesting-
Steve: Was it a huge geopolitical blunder by the United States? And if so, liberating the Kurds maybe it wasn’t worth invading Iraq.
Corey: Note that the Kurds actually had some autonomy pretty early on. We basically, introduce a no fly zone to protect the Kurds, but it’s complicated, right? I think, and Sebastian gets into this in an article in Vanity Fair, right? There’s a question of humanitarian intervention and in some case it seems to work, in some cases it doesn’t. In Iraq, it looks like it was a largely mistake, but there are other cases in which I think it’s been successful.
Steve: But you can constantly say, if we were not to intervene in this part of the world, right? A lot of people would suffer. So you can just constantly make cases across all parts of the world that we should be intervening but of course then you have to be realistic about what our resources are and what our actual larger geopolitical goals are. So, I think it’s a very false calculus just to say people are suffering here, Americans have to go there and die now.
Sebastian: Well, yeah. I mean, I don’t think that it’s either or. I mean, there are clearly situations where people were dying and unconscionable numbers, for example, World War II, when American entry into that war arguably in the immediate term and the longterm, I think probably spared humanity quite a bit of suffering at a smaller scale in Bosnia, then Bosnia was my first war, in NATO intervention in Bosnia in 1995 brought a halt to three years of warfare, arguably of genocide, certainly of ethnic cleansing, with a two week bombing campaign that where no NATO lives were lost, there was a minimum of civilian casualties.
Sebastian: It was the right thing to do, strategically and in humanitarian grounds. Rwanda, there was a chance lost there. I think it would have been very easy for Western military to intervene in Rwanda the way the French did in Mali few years ago and bring a stop to a war that was incredibly costly and horrified to anyone who was paying attention.
Corey: And extraordinarily low tech, right? People kill over months with effective machetes, right? I think with a few Marines, you could have stopped that genocide.
Steve: Ironically, I think it’s a straw man to say that there are never a good cases of U.S. intervention, I think the question is by and large is the U.S. intervening too much in the outside world not enough. I think Trump ran on a platform of saying that he wanted to reduce U.S. entanglements abroad. That’s a very traditional old stance among certain aspects of our political establishment, but of course he’s taken the heat from the military-industrial complex and War Hawks and neocons and all the people that want to keep us involved in everything.
Sebastian: Just to jump in, the Iraq war was not a humanitarian intervention. I mean, let’s not confuse Bosnia with President Bush’s escapades in Iraq. They’re really different things.
Steve: But the case is often made as you beat the drums for war, then you can immediately invoke a certain subpopulation of people that are suffering, they would be better off if we got rid of Hussein et cetera, et cetera. I mean, you can hear the same thing about Iran right now. I mean, there are certain parts of the establishment that want to go to war with Iran. I think Trump just kicked out Bolton who would love to go to war with a 100 countries tomorrow if we let him.
Sebastian: I think you’re conflating two different things. I mean, the humanitarian intervention that France did in Mali, that NATO did in Bosnia, it could have happened to Rwanda, are very, very different from agenda of war in Iraq over a false issue of WMD. I mean, no one was saying that Iraq was a humanitarian intervention, even President Bush wasn’t cynical enough to say that. So I mean, I think you do have to keep those [crosstalk 00:09:00]
Steve: Yeah. I wasn’t trying to make an equivalence between those things. I think I was talking more about the Kurds. So here’s a sympathetic population that maybe we could help, but very complicated region, a lot of forces at play, Turkey, Iran, Syria, the Russians. What price threshold is it worth helping these people? I think that’s the more difficult question.
Corey: Well, not that Northern Syria was relatively quiet at that stage, that we were not invading their country, we had troops already there. We were not taking huge numbers of casualties, Northern Iraq, we had a no fly zone which was fairly stable. So I don’t think you can argue … Again conflate humanitarian invention with the decision of pull out troops in Northern Syria. They’re really different issues, and liberals argued for it, but that wasn’t Bush’s motivation.
Sebastian: Also, ISIS is a real threat to the world, they’ve killed a lot of people. The combination of American forces with air power and are tactical wizardry on the ground with local forces like the Kurds, were extremely effective in combating ISIS, and that collaboration resulted in the collapse of the caliphate, which is an entirely good thing for the world. So, again, I don’t think anyone thinks America was there for humanitarian reasons with the Kurds. I think that was, I mean, a secondary outcome that a lot of people applauded. But really we were there to contain ISIS and I think that was a job that had to be done.
Steve: I have … just a backup a little bit, maybe Sebastian you can answer this question because I’ve been confused for years about ISIS. So, in the late Obama administration, the media was full of stories about how ISIS was our number one enemy, our biggest security threat, all the while, the Chinese economy is hollowing us out and building much more advanced weapons, et cetera, et cetera. But attention was focused on ISIS. So as a dutiful reader, I would look on a map and say, “Wait a minute, this is a landlocked place we control, we have total air superiority over this region.
Steve: We totally control the periphery of this region. How exactly are these guys surviving? Unless there’s some kind of deeper issue going on here, which allows them to survive.” So, I never understood the story of ISIS and I was totally unsurprised that once Trump took power, he would be able to completely eliminate ISIS very quickly, which is what happened.
Sebastian: I’m not sure what you’re asking, how were they able to survive?
Steve: If the Obama administration had been serious about eliminating ISIS years ago, it seems to me they could have done it. I think that perhaps there were other reasons they weren’t completely eliminated. For example, they might’ve been instrumental in an effort to replace Assad in Syria.
Sebastian: Well, I mean, my understanding is that ISIS was started by ex-military officers from Saddam Hussein’s regime that created a really radical jihad in Iraq, in the vacuum left by the pullout of American forces conducted by Obama. So ISIS really started to gain steam at the very end of Obama’s presidency and was really only stopped when American forces and Kurdish forces were able to collaborate on the ground along with American air power and defeat them. I don’t think ISIS was ever a threat to mainland America in the sense of like invading it, I mean, of course that’s a silly idea.
Sebastian: But their actions on the grounds in the middle East were extremely dangerous to people and horrifying to people who live there. And of course, they haven’t had an ideology that an inspired lone wolf attackers in Paris and the United States, in Belgium and Denmark, I mean, in Holland rather, I’m trying to remember, it’s a few years ago, but their ideology spawned some absolutely horrific attacks against civilians all over the world. So, the collapse of the caliphate, I think just in terms of human welfare and human dignity was probably a good thing. I don’t think it could have been achieved without some kind of action by the West along with the Kurds.
Corey: I think there’s some reason to believe that actually, Assad saw ISIS as an advantage to him, right? Many of these people were in Syrian jails and were released because having ISIS out there, but the muddied the waters as to who his opposition was and he could claim that position is these terrorists rather than these more moderate opponent figures.
Steve: So me that few year history is very unclear what was going on because it seemed obvious we could crush these guys if we wanted to, which Trump accomplished relatively quickly. But it was strange that so much attention was focused on these people. People in orange jumpsuits having their heads sot off with KA-BAR knives. If you look on the map, they look like an extremely vulnerable entity that we could take out immediately but we didn’t do it. And so I was very surprised by that.
Sebastian: You can’t defeat anyone with their power, it doesn’t work. I mean [crosstalk 00:14:06]
Steve: Well, if they can’t get food, water and oil and money then … they are also landlocked.
Corey: They get money by controlling areas and taxing people.
Steve: Well, but if you could cut off that entire region if you wanted.
Corey: Cut off the entire middle East, it’s an economy, right?
Steve: No, no. The whole region that was occupied by the caliphate.
Sebastian: No, you couldn’t . How could you do that?
Steve: It was a completely landlocked, surrounded by ostensibly hostile forces region. The cities that were controlled by ISIS.
Sebastian: You can’t cut off anyone with their power. It doesn’t work. I mean, the Russians would have won in Afghanistan. They were possible. The Americans would have won [crosstalk 00:14:38]
Steve: This is not Afghanistan, this is the desert.
Sebastian: Yeah. So it was Afghanistan. I mean, air power just does not, it’s not magic. It doesn’t do that.
Corey: It’s a cross state Steve, right? It’s across Iraq and Syria, States that have economies, right? So you can get money by tax and businesses there.
Steve: So for example, one of the things that was widely discussed was whether Turkey was allowing oil to come in and out of that region, and what exactly were the delicate geopolitical reasons why that was being allowed. So, I’m saying, I think the whole situation is quite complicated and not very well understood.
Corey: So I’d like to talk about Afghanistan, because it’s a war that you spent enormous amount of time covering, if all the wars I think we were in, it was thought to be, I think the most justified. It was in many ways, I think perhaps historical reasons thought to be perhaps the most unwinnable. You’ve got a passage in war where you write about captain Dan Carney. I just want to quote this to you because it really struck me, “As he’s turning around a corner in a road hitting a wall of Taliban fire power, I was blown away by the insurgence ability to continue fighting about everything American thrown at them, from that point on, I knew it was number one, a different enemy that I’d fought in Iraq, and number two, the terrain offered some kind of advantage I’d never seen or heard about in my entire life.”
Corey: So I think there was a sense of soldiers that this was a really different kind of conflict and one to be extremely difficult. Now over the years, we’ve kind of a stalemate now, and I’d just be curious about what soldiers you’ve talked to have a sense about the war looking back, given that we haven’t won it.
Sebastian: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know that many soldiers that … I mean, I don’t really talk to them about that stuff, but the sense that I get is, even when I was over there … sorry, it’s New York City in the background. The sense that I got was that Iraq was the questionable war. I mean, even among grunts in the U.S. military, they had the sense that like, “All right, there were no WMD to interact. What exactly were we doing there?” I mean, everyone had a great time and everything, but seriously, like what were we doing there? Afghanistan was not questioned because there was such a direct link between Afghanistan and 9/11, unless you believe these stupid conspiracy theories. But the soldiers I was with, they understood that there was a moral, legal and a strategic rationale for going to Afghanistan after 9/11.
Sebastian: I don’t know how they see it now. I mean, clearly the reason we went to Afghanistan to me was two fold. I mean, one was to kill and capture the Al-Qaeda leadership, which happens, and probably could not have happened had we just flown SEAL teams out of Northern Virginia. The other was to stabilize that country, normalize it so that it was not the kind of rogue state that a group like Al-Qaeda could find safe haven in and plan and conduct attacks against the West. I mean, that was the two fold strategy as far as I saw it. I mean, for me, when you say the war in Afghanistan, I don’t necessarily picture American soldiers.
Sebastian: I mean, I was there in 1996, when the Taliban took over, we met despicable regime. I was there in 2000 with Massoud while he was fighting the Taliban. I mean, when you say the war in Afghanistan, to me that includes the Soviet invasion includes 10 years of absolutely ghastly civil war and then the relatively peaceful era that started with NATO involvement in that country. By peaceful, I mean, civilian casualty rate plummeted but NATO forces got there. Because the civil war effectively stopped and the Taliban reoriented their firepower on Americans, American soldiers.
Sebastian: So to me, when you say the war in Afghanistan, it could be any one of those three things. American soldiers are focused on the last one of course. I think Afghanistan has a fighting chance of being a relatively stable country that brings the war to an end. I hope they do for their sake and our sake, but of course I can’t see the future. I don’t know.
Corey: I think many Americans, including myself probably do see through the lens of just being U.S. soldiers at work there and you’re right, it’s an incredibly long history and perhaps we can’t expect to change it all that much. But you just spent enormous hard time there with men in that situation, and they were fighting for something and off it seemed like from your description but they’re often fighting for their own brothers and their own [inaudible 00:19:15] and without seeing a much larger purpose in life.
Corey: That seems to forge incredible a cohesion but to very different, I think how many Americans view that war as fighting for removing the Taliban, creating some stability. This always struck me as a interesting gap, maybe it’s typical of wars, but it struck me as a very interesting gap between what we saw as the function of the war and what actually motivated men on the ground.
Sebastian: Yeah. I mean, there’s different levels to the decisions that go into joining the military and fighting. I mean, maybe you go to college because you have this idea of a career in your mind, but in the night before a test, you’re cramming for the test because you want to pass the test. Right? So in combat, the thing that motivates you to act the way soldiers do in combat, those causes are completely proximal. Right? They’re your own safety, the safety of your brothers like that’s all you’re thinking about, all you should be thinking about, that’s all you need to think about to fight effectively.
Sebastian: Why would a young man or a young woman join the U.S. military in the first place? Any number of reasons. One of them might be a sense of patriotism, but one of them might be in the days after 911, a sense that we need to strike the enemy after they struck us. I mean, a lot of guys out there, it was all men in the platoon that I was with. That beeping is from the streets of New York, if that’s what you’re wondering about. So, the soldiers that I was with, it was all men out there. It was combat infantry. It was all male. A lot of them joined because their fathers had fought in Vietnam and the grandfathers in World War II but honestly, they saw themselves as bad asses and they wanted to know what it was like to be in combat.
Sebastian: I mean, straight up they wanted to experience combat and when they found out they were supposed to go to Iraq in ’07, but when they found out they’re going to Afghanistan, they thought, “Oh God, there’s not going to be any fighting, we’re going to have to sit around and drink tea with elders all year.” They were wrong. But that was their fear, was that they were going to have a 15 month deployment where they did absolutely nothing at all. When they got there and there was a lot of combat, it was disturbing and hard and everything else, there was also well and keeping with their identity, their vision of themselves and what they felt they train for. So, like what motivates people to do that, it’s very, very complex. A lot of it has to do with the vision, their own particular vision, cultural vision of manhood, what it means to be a man.
Steve: Could you comment on what aspects of this experience of combat is timeless and universal? So, would have been the same for people in Vietnam or in Normandy as you observed in Afghanistan versus what’s especially unique about the modern experience that these soldiers went through?
Sebastian: I mean, on material level, there’s different weapons, different technologies. I mean, at the outpost I was at, there was no communication with the outside world, but at the COP, at the company headquarters, you could actually get on the phone to talk to your girlfriends, which is obviously recent in the military experience. But at a more fundamental human level, I think it’s completely universal that the bond between combatants, the vilifying of the enemy, the dehumanizing of the enemy, the incredible grief and sorrow at losing your brothers.
Sebastian: The sense of guilt that someone who caught a bullet in the forehead, that happened somehow, it was your fault that that happened. That’s obviously ridiculous, but it feels that way. Their sense of meaningfulness like it said, to being needed by others. I mean, you can see elements of that if you read the Iliad, I mean it’s just a universal part of combat and it was very interesting to see those ancient themes in the lives of modern American boys, who grew up playing video games and whatever, but there it is, it’s as ancient as can be.
Corey: This is actually a real big theme in your last book Tribe. What happens to these men after they leave the military. I guess I asked a similar question. You talk about speaking with the men and often none of them expresses how to go back, and those issues about, you’re trying to find meaning after war. Is this against something you think is utterly universal or is there something particular about what happened after Afghanistan to the experience of people leaving and then searching for meaning?
Sebastian: Well, humans are social primates. We are wired to belong to groups and we function in small groups. In fact, we cannot survive without that. I mean, you put a human in nature, they die immediately. Humans survive because they function in groups and in fact they thrive. So we get our emotional safety in that from the same place that we get our physical safety from the proximity of others. One of the ironies of modern society is that we’re wealthy enough for … Example, a lot of middle class families and up, each child has their own bedroom. That’s insane, right? I mean, it’s in terms of human history and the history of our species, it was very, very recently that broad swaths of the society were wealthy enough to get every child their own room. Right?
Sebastian: So of course that’s great. They have autonomy, they can listen to whatever music they want to without their siblings complaining, blah, blah, blah. But there’s a real downside to it, right? Which is that you lose this sense of communal living, that sense of connection when people sleep in groups, shoulder to shoulder, they feel safer. If you don’t believe me, try going camping by yourself, try to fall asleep in the mountains like in a sleeping bag all alone under the starry sky, you will not sleep very well. Not because you’re cold, not because the ground is hard or whatever, but because you know that when you’re asleep you are incredibly vulnerable. And if you’re in a group of 30 guys and everyone’s got M4 lying by them, you are not vulnerable.
Sebastian: I got to say I slept better out at Restrepo, surrounded by all those guys than I’ve ever slept camping by myself in the woods of new England, even though I was far less safe out there. So if you just think about humans in those terms and those tribal terms, that’s what we need, is what infants need, that’s what adults need, then you take people and you put them in combat in situations like Restrepo where they are very, very close together for a year. They’re depending on each other for their lives and for their emotional safety, and then you pick them up and you bring them back home and you drop them down in American society and suddenly everyone’s in their own bedroom with the air conditioning on and watching TV. There are advantages to that, but the downside is this profound alienation.
Sebastian: You don’t have to be a soldier to experience that. You could … One quarter of Peace Corps Volunteers struggle with significant depression after they come back from two years overseas to American society, one quarter, which incidentally is just about the rate of psychological struggle that you find in American soldiers that have come back and veterans that have come back regardless of whether they were in combat or not.
Sebastian: I mean, what are the interesting things to me is that people struggle almost as much when they come home from tours of duty, whether they were in a combat unit or not. I mean, only about 10% of the U.S. military is actually engaged in combat, but enormous number of people struggle with the reentry. To me that is a symptom, that’s an evidence of this fact that we really … once we get exposed to being around people, we have a very hard time giving it up and then we’re depressed when it happens.
Corey: Have you extended other countries to see how they actually accept their veterans back? Because it’s pretty well know it’s the general sense of American society is a lot more individualistic than perhaps some African societies or middle Eastern societies. So you’d expect that other countries have a better time, would be much better basically easing the way for their veterans back into society and so lower rates of depression.
Sebastian: Yeah, I mean, as in most of the world, people sleep collectively in rows of extended families and infants sleep with their parents, and people take their meals together. I was just in Liberia and it’s too poor for people to have phones. You don’t see kids walking around staring at their stupid iPhone. I mean, they’re playing to get you in or whatever. It’s a poor country, but there are terrible things that come with poverty. But one of the good things is that you don’t have all this awful technology that’s distracting everybody. By the way, I do not have one of those phones, I have a flip phone in case you were going to pounce with the question.
Sebastian: So I mean, this is anecdotal, I haven’t studied this. It wasn’t in my purview when I wrote Tribe, but anecdotally I’ve heard that Afghan combatants and Iraqi combatants really do not know what American soldiers are talking about when they talk about PTSD. They just say it’s just a puzzler to them. They go home to their villages, their communities or whatever, and you go back with a certain amount of trauma. But trauma, I mean, we’re wired as a species, we’re wired to survive and we have a trauma with psychologically incapacitating to people for their lifetime. The human race wouldn’t exist, right? We evolved in an environment that was very dangerous and traumatizing both for predators and from rival human groups.
Sebastian: If an incident of trauma paralyzed people, psychologically we would start. Right? The question is not, are you traumatized by combat, but how long does your trauma last? There’s every indication that people are traumatized in groups if they have to heal by themselves, they have a hard time healing. So I think what you get with Afghan fighters and Iraqi fighters and people all over the world is that, when they fight, they come back to a community with other fighters that they were with, and then that healing process is much, much easier than it is in the suburbs of America.
Steve: So, when would you say in the West we started having PTSD, World War I, civil war, prior to that.
Sebastian: Oh, I know, a trauma reaction has always been with us of course. I mean, you can see it in other animals as well, it’s not just humans.
Steve: But in of returning to an environment where you’re isolated and you don’t have a brotherhood that you can rely on to make sense of what you just went through.
Sebastian: Well, I’ll put it this way. I mean, it’s not, there isn’t a bright line, I think society has been changing continually. Western society has been changing continually for the last few hundred years, since the industrial revolution probably. But just as an example, my wife is the youngest of 12. Her dad was quite, quite old when she was born. He fought World War II, the whole deal from North Africa, Sicily, Italy, right through France on foot. He was a lieutenant and a captain in infantry unit. Imagine what he saw, right? He came back both physically and I’m sure psychologically wounded. I think he probably suffered far more trauma than most American soldiers have in the last 18 years of warfare, in these current wars.
Sebastian: And he came back to his neighborhood in the Midwest where all six of his brothers from his family, blood brothers had all served and they all lived within a few blocks of him. Right? Most of the men in that neighborhood related to him or not had also served. Right? American society is more and more mobile, and I don’t think that’s conceivable anymore. I think it would be quite hard to find someone who had that experience, did that help him reenter society and recover from his trauma and be able to function as eventually the mayor of his town and the president of a community bank, where he helped the community enormously for the rest of his life? I’m sure it helped him, absolutely.
Sebastian: Our society unfortunately is not heading in that direction, it’s heading in the other direction. I think you see it in the rates of longterm PTSD, the rates of addiction, the rates of depression, of suicide, all of them are sky high in a country the that boasts the largest economy in the world, one of the highest standards of living in the world, the most powerful may be, the most everything, and yet psychologically we’re in pieces.
Corey: If you look at rates of other kinds of psychiatric diseases not related to war, something anxiety, they’re like an order of magnitude higher than in other countries. I think I was looking at the rate of anxiety disorders a little while ago. In Nigeria, it’s 0.2%, and I was just in Nigeria over the summer, and it’s very interesting because it’s a middle income country, people have cell phones. But what’s clear is that the degree of social connectivity among people is just much, much greater than it is in the United States. You’re constantly surrounded by people and any of these connections you can’t see.
Corey: Some of them may seem to American’s onerous, one discussion I had with people there was how much … and these are pretty well off people, how much of your money goes support family members economically? And they’re just deep financial ties. People give money to family members, family members constantly visiting. There’s a sense which are around people, and so I think it creates a connectivity that may not be visible, but it’s really … American’s may find economically and distasteful because you can’t get rich because much money goes to other people, but yet there’s incredible benefits to it psychologically.
Steve: I was in Armenia over the summer and I was shocked to learn from some medical doctors and university professors that, so the State doesn’t have a well-functioning healthcare system and none of them have private healthcare insurance. So they’re essentially all uninsured. When I said, “How does that make you feel?” They said, “Well, we rely on our families, so if something bad happens to me and I need a procedure, then we’ll get the money from my extended family.” So yeah, it’s a very different setup.
Sebastian: Yeah. What I would say is that, Armenia, I’ve never been there, certainly, Nigeria, I have been there. Those are less complex, less modern societies. In American, you have 400 and some million people, whatever it is in this country. It’s a modern society where that community fabric has been worn away in many places, where people’s children get up and move to the West coast or the East coast or whatever. I mean, one of the great things about this society is that it’s so mobile and that a young person has just decided to make their life anywhere in whatever way they would.
Sebastian: I mean, that’s a beautiful thing, right? But there’s a loss there, right? There’s the loss of community fabric. So if you have a country like this with all of its great blessings, you might need some institutional care to step in where extended family and community might otherwise do the job and other kinds of societies.
Corey: Years ago, a friend from Sweden once said that Americans talk to the psychiatrist when they should be talking to their friends. It’s something I’ve seen, I think you mentioned this in Tribe. I don’t know if it’s your current wife or your ex wife is from Bulgaria, you mentioned, and in Western Bulgaria too, she used to talk about how, and still true, she’s from Plovdiv, which is the second largest city that you simply release your kids out of the house and there are many playgrounds there and people play collectively. I think you referred, you describe, I think it’s a late Soviet housing where kids would run most freely between different apartments. I don’t know if that’s still true there, but I still sense of this greater collectivity there then even in the most traditional societies communities here.
Sebastian: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, there was a collective effort in the neighborhood to manage and take care of the children of the neighborhood. As those children grew older and became teenagers, they were sent off to, to us sounds horrible, communist work camps. Right? I mean, does that not sound horrible or what? But actually the reality is that they were great fun and the boys would live in one barracks and the girls would live the other, and there was of course, a lot of crosspollination late at night and they’re away from their parents and they worked during the day, and they led an ideal collective life for the summer.
Sebastian: My former wife, Daniella, she grew up very poor in a very poor country. Even, she said that some of her fondest memories are from that collective experience with other young people during those work camps. I should say that in Sarajevo, I mean, I was in Sarajevo during the siege, during the war, there was a lot of collective defense of the city. The children sheltered in the basements of these buildings, there were neighborhood militias that defended the neighborhoods. Everyone was thrown into the breach to keep the city from falling to the Bosnian Serbs who were shooting at everybody with tanks and sniper rifles and everything else, it was ghastly.
Sebastian: So later, I went back to Sarajevo after the war, just a few years ago and, this is in my book Tribe, but one woman I talked to almost lost her leg during a bombardment. I mean, this woman as a teenage girl really paid the price for this war having happened, and she said, Despite all that, she said, “The war is over and it’s so much better, et cetera, et cetera. But we all miss it. We missed the war.” They don’t miss getting shot at, they don’t miss all the horror of the death of course and starving and everything else. I mean, a fifth of that city was killed and wounded during the war, imagine, as civilians. Right? What she said that they missed was that they were together, and they were stuck together.
Steve: And they felt more alive maybe.
Sebastian: Yeah. But also alive and connected and like they were needed and that, the people needed them and there was a shared experience. When humans can share an experience with other humans, it feels meaningful and it feels good and life feels fulfilling even if that experience is extremely hard. There’s graffiti in Bosnia that this woman told me about. There’s a graffiti in Bosnia that said on a wall that said things were better when they were bad. And that says something very, very profound about humans and about the kind of difficult circumstances that we undoubtedly involved in as a species, have been allowed just to survive and thrive. In some ways, ironically thrive to the point where life feels a little bit less meaningful than it might if it were harder.
Steve: So Sebastian, I want to ask you, you’re obviously very sensitized to the atomization that modern society is producing. So, for example, you mentioned you carry a flip phone rather than a smartphone. But on the other hand, you’re a world famous writer and filmmaker, and your products can be beamed out to millions or even billions of people through all these advanced technologies. So how does it feel like to be both the nexus of all this and also aware of all the shortcomings that come from these technologies?
Sebastian: Well, I mean, everything has an upside and downside. I mean, I drive a car, right? I mean, the cars, it’s a miracle machine. I mean, and I don’t get me started on the airplane, right? It’s just a car. I mean, you can get into a car, push your foot down half an edge, and you’re zooming across the country, right? It’s magic, right? But there’s enormous costs to having a car into the environment, to the way our cities are laid out and ultimately to the kind of communities that we can or can’t afford because we’re so highly mobile. When you take the car away, the Amish in Pennsylvania for example, when you take the car away, what you find in these communities is because people can only get as far as they could walk in a day away from their community. Because of that, you find much lower rates of suicide and depression.
Sebastian: Is that worth? I mean, is having a car worth higher suicide rates? Yeah, maybe, I don’t know. But the point is there’s an upside and the downside to everything. I don’t use a smartphone because I don’t want to look like everyone else look that’s walking down the street looking at their stupid email. But that’s just me. I feel like I lead a more pleasurable, meaningful life being less distracted on the street but to each of its own.
Corey: It’s interesting. I remember reading article about the Amish a few years ago and the elders said that they can pretty much keep every technology out from the community, but they can’t stop the kids from having smart phones. It would begin to erode.
Sebastian: I mean, they were designed to be addictive, right? Addictive within one use. So much so that recently in the New York Times, there was an article about how Silicone Valley parents will not let their children have screen time or it’s severely limited. Now this is a product that they designed, right? They designed it to be addictive and addiction plays two very ancient human responses that were beneficial and helpful in a different environment but for us, there’s an enormous downside, which is this lack of human connectivity.
Sebastian: I mean, people call it social media, but when you see a table full of people not relating to … at a restaurant, not relating to each other and staring at their laps, I’m sorry, that’s not social behavior, it’s anti-social behavior. We know that anti-sociality is correlated with suicide and anxiety and depression and everything else, and this exactly what you can see in the young generation in this country, like astronomical levels of psychological distress. Can I prove that it’s because of social media and the iPhone? No, I can’t prove it, but it’s possible enough that they’re connected, that we should be concerned.
Steve: I want to run something by you Sebastian. So I was shocked to learn from my kids, my kids are 14 now, but when they were younger, I asked them, I used to kid them sometimes and say, “Hey, was there a fight at school today? Did anything interesting happen?” My kids looked at me like I was crazy because apparently there are no fights in schools now, that kids have been so … I don’t want to say feminized or socialized, but the boys don’t even fight. They understand that if they fight, it’s huge a deal, there’ll be … it’s like a nuclear Holocaust or something. So, my son claims he’s never actually seen one kid punch another kid in the face, which to me is unbelievable because it seemed to happen like pretty much every day or every week when I was a kid.
Sebastian: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know where you live, what kind of school it is, but I think I’m going to say that there’s plenty of schools and plenty of communities where there’s plenty of fighting, for better or worse. I think that’s a huge, that’s not necessarily a universal in America right now.
Corey: Sebastian, I think we’re almost at our end of time with you. This idea of a trade-off is something that really struck me. I actually have unusual policy with my kids, which is I allow them to watch unlimited amount of screens, but in foreign language.
Sebastian: That’s great, I’m got to remember that, I have a two and a half year old. That’s excellent.
Corey: So my daughter is … I speak French too at home. I speak okay French, but she has acquired effectively a native quality French accent from YouTube. It’s perfect.
Sebastian: That’s amazing.
Corey: Incredible comprehension. Her grandmother’s Bulgaria comes to visit for six months, a year. And a French comprehension is much better Bulgarian comprehension, and but it’s an obvious trade-off, right? Because she spends a lot of time staring in front of the screen, but yet I’m trying to make her kind of a citizen of the world of roll through this. It’s experiment, right? I’m waiting to see what happen but it looks like at this stage, I’m seeing a possibility in the future for being able to travel quite widely throughout the society and I’m just curious as to, I’d like to get your reaction to the experiment, right? Because you’ve traveled fairly widely, most Americans don’t. I think it’s really limits our perspective on the world to some degree.
Sebastian: Absolutely. Listen, I mean, look, the internet provides all of human knowledge to everybody almost instantaneously. I mean, if there’s anything … if a collective human consciousness is possible, it’s the internet, right? So a very, very powerful thing. I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m just saying, look, I play an instrument, right? I don’t have a teacher, I can go on YouTube and see other people play my instrument and learn from them. Right? It’s a miracle. Right?
Sebastian: I’m just saying that along with every miracle comes the potential for a downside, and if you don’t mitigate the downside you are possibly endangering yourself, your society, young people, this is whole new, right? This is a whole new era, and we have to be aware of the psychological consequences of all of these new inventions because some of them really could be quite damaging to people. They clearly are damaging people.
Corey: Well Sebastian, I think our time’s up for you. Thank you very much for taking time to speak with us.
Sebastian: My pleasure, thank you guys.
Steve: Thank you.