Coming Home in a Fractured Society, National Writers Series Hosts Authors Phil Caputo and Sebastian Junger

There’s a saying that coming home is sometimes the hardest part of serving in war. You’ll get no argument from two legendary authors Phil Caputo and Sebastian Junger, who will appear at a National Writers Series event at 7 p.m., Wednesday, November 15, at City Opera House in Traverse City with guest host Jack Segal, a former diplomat and Vietnam veteran. (The event is sold out, but there will be a stand-by line for tickets.)

In his most recent book, Tribe, Sebastian Junger writes of what he believes is the source of soldiers’ post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it’s not necessarily due to combat experience. He points out that about half of veterans suffer from the malady, but only 10 percent of soldiers serve in active combat roles.

Junger writes that returning soldiers often suffer from a devastating sense of isolation that comes from leaving their tribe—a tightly knit group of soldiers who are committed to keeping each other alive. Within a 24-hour plane ride, soldiers leave their tribes, their sense of purpose and the respect a uniform confers. They may land a job, but it likely lacks the same sense of meaning. They feel that no one can understand what they’ve been through—except a fellow soldier.

Coming home, Junger asserts, is exacerbated by the soldiers’ return to suburbia, where neighbors often feel isolated from each other and depression is common. Moreover, we’ve become a deeply divided country. In war, “soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion and politics within their platoon,” Sebastian writes. But they return to a splintered America, “a society that is basically at war with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about—depending on their views—the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president or the entire U.S. government.”

To get an idea of what a soldier might have experienced in war, no one needs to go further than Phil Caputo’s book, A Rumor of War, a memoir of Caputo’s combat experience in 1965–66. First published in 1981 and selling more than two million copies, a 40th anniversary edition was released this fall.

“I like to think about it as a moral book,” he said in an interview last week. “Moral in the sense of Joseph Conrad and his book Heart of Darkness. What happens when there are no guidelines, when there are no signposts to behave in a certain way. All these nice things that keep people civilized.”

Like Junger, Pulitzer Prize winner Caputo has written about the returning solider, most compellingly in this 1981 article published in Playboy. (He’s also a successful novelist, having just published Some Rise by Sin).

Jack Segal interviewed Caputo last week and discussed his recent essay on how the Vietnam War cleaved America in two, a divide that he believes has only deepened.

SEGAL: When you think about our conversation on Wednesday, how do you think the homecoming side of it might play out?

CAPUTO: I believe that the many divisions we are now experiencing in the country—the rupture in our national consensus and our national conversation—began with the Vietnam war. We are now becoming a kind of tribal society. Not tribes based on ethnicity or history or actual racial ethnic, but a tribe centered in morality and a certain set of beliefs and attitudes. Sometimes when I look at the country, I think of the break in the Vietnam era was the first crack in the windshield. If you don’t tend to it, it crazes the whole windshield and you get a spider web effect and even though you can’t trace it to the initial break, it’s there. If this vision of mine is correct, we’re a shattered piece of glass in the frame, and it wouldn’t take much of a shock to break it altogether.

SEGAL: I could look at the tribal categorization, those who have been to war and those who have not, and also, there is a tribal element to those who love Trump and those who don’t.

CAPUTO: Yes, there are our two tribal groupings and some in between those two—it’s the opinions and interchange on gun control, gay rights, taxes even. It runs the gamut from nuts-and-bolts pragmatic issues to social and cultural issues. A lot of these beliefs have almost a religious component to them. Sometimes it seems, you can only talk about sports.

SEGAL: It’s hard. Even in professional sports you end up talking about Kaepernick.

CAPUTO: In my own view, the divisions in our society are harder than they were then. The passion is not as intense, and I think that’s partly due to the fact that most of the radical revolutionary fervor back then was a result of the simple raw fact that a lot of young men got drafted into a war they didn’t believe in and died in it. By 1976, pretty much all of that rebellion and revolt and protest was over with. And it stayed over with.

SEGAL: How did people react to you when you came back from Vietnam?

CAPUTO: There was actually only one truly unpleasant experience with my return. I had some guys, I think they were college guys, in a Volkswagen throw a bag of fast food scraps in my face. In general, the reception ranged from mildly accepting of me, to people looking at me like I’d come back from Mars. And in many ways, I thought I had.

SEGAL: You couldn’t possibly describe what you’d been through?

CAPUTO: I couldn’t. I bet if you talked to guys who were in the Battle of the Bulge or Tet, they’d say the same thing, they couldn’t describe it.

SEGAL: Did you feel resentment about the protestors?

CAPUTO: I didn’t feel that bitter. Maybe by the late 1960s, I couldn’t blame anybody for opposing the war or even being indifferent to it. By that point, it was a futile exercise of killing all sorts of people. If I had any resentment it was toward the U.S. government which perpetuated this conflict when everybody in the government, as we now know for historical fact, knew it was pointless and futile.

SEGAL: Shockingly early on, they were telling each other, we couldn’t win but we couldn’t stop. It leads you to ask questions about current wars. We are in the same environment again.

CAPUTO: My former friend Charles Glass, a news correspondent, wrote in a blog that Afghanistan is simply ungovernable and it’s useless for us to be there. We can’t convince the government to pull itself together to defeat the Taliban on its own.

SEGAL: How did you feel when people say, ‘Thank you for your service’?

CAPUTO: It has become a rote response like saying “bless you” after you sneeze.

SEGAL: It is better than getting scraps of fast food thrown in your face.

CAPUTO: I went back to college to finish my undergrad education at Boston University, the hotbed of radicalism, and I wasn’t treated badly. People were a little bit scared of me. Sometimes I cultivated it. “Watch out for me, I’m a walking time bomb.”

SEGAL: What’s your view on PTSD personally?

Phil: I hate the phrase. It is so overly medical sounding. I much prefer “battle fatigue” or “shell shock.” They are nice, sharp phrases. They call it a disorder. My main objection is, if you experience something like intense combat or you experience a terror attack as a civilian or any kind of violent, traumatic experience and you’re changed by it, you really are disordered. I think Sebastian said there are two kinds of PTSD, the kind that’s healthy, a normal reaction to a very abnormal event, and then there’s the kind that lingers on and on, and it becomes an affliction that prohibits you from functioning in the world. In extreme cases, people become drug addicts, commit suicide and so forth. That part of it is a disorder.

SEGAL: It was 50 years since I was in Vietnam. I’ve never described to my daughter what it was like being in war, but I can say to her, “I have this book, and you can read this.”

CAPUTO: That’s what I do.

SEGAL: People should thank you. There are not a whole lot of books out there like it.


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