The Great American Schism


A UN observer outpost in the contested Golan Heights.

PHOTOGRAPH BY GABE GRESCHLER / GRESCHLERPOLITIK

Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

This article is not in any way an endorsement of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) policies, merely an observation of life in Israel.

In a Psy 101 class in freshman year of college, I wrote a paper connecting drone pilots and their ability to develop PTSD. I came across an article by one of my favorite authors, Sebastian Junger, which introduced me to many ideas I have not been able to shake off. In the article, which was later turned into a book titled “Tribe: On Belonging and Homecoming,” Junger describes the intense and stark differences in community that exist around the world.

As a writer and a journalist who has written extensively about war, Junger uses PTSD rates from armies all around the world to expose this divergence. American soldiers see some of the lowest rates of front-line combat in the world, but paradoxically, have the highest rate of PTSD.

In contrast, an army such as the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), which sees much higher rates of front-line combat, have very low rates of PTSD. While there are certainly exterior forces at play in this comparison, recognition of the disorder, varying types of combat, Junger sees this pattern all around the world, and in many different militaries.

Why is this?

For Junger, it all comes down to how the soldiers come back home. For an American soldier posted in Afghanistan, he or she is constantly surrounded by people. Sleeping, eating, peeing, no matter what they are doing, they are no more than an arm's length from another person. In many ways, Junger sees this type of lifestyle as mimicking how many humans use to live, in small, tight-knit tribes.

However, upon coming home and transitioning back into everyday life, there is an immediate adverse reaction to the shift in community. Whereas before a soldier was in that tribe-like community, he or she could now go back to living alone, and for the first time in close to a year, be very far away from another human being. Add on traumatic experiences from a tour, and it is no wonder an American soldier could develop PTSD very quickly without a community to depend on.

Junger's example opens up a large number of questions for us as Americans. Do we lack a sense of community within our nation? What is it about our culture that seems to reward individualism yet tear apart our bond?

Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Israel for two weeks, and there were several moments during the trip in which I was able to start to scratch the surface off of those questions. A fascinating form of community and an underlying bond between many Israelis was revealed to me, something that I rarely saw while back home in the states.

On my third day abroad I found myself in a hummus joint during lunchtime in the beautiful city of Tel Aviv, where I sat with an IDF soldier named Elana, along with two other Americans. As I had found pretty early on, arguments and debate in the country occurred at almost every meal, and for the next fifteen minutes, I observed an eye-opening exchange between Elana and the American sitting to my right.

The conversation had turned to what exactly was the reason for us visitors being here, including Elana's as well. For the American, he had family living in the country. Elana stated how it was about protecting the area she had grown up in, and her livelihood.

There was a misunderstanding between the two, as it was not exactly clear what the actual clear-cut reason for being in the country should be. It went back and forth until voices were raised, and tears were involved on Elana's side. It was startling yet refreshing to see such raw passion. For a brief second I saw years of built pride and a deep tie to belief in community.

From my own personal end, I can think about crying about family, friends, or in frustration. But how many times can I say that I have become so impassioned about my own background, my lifestyle, my heritage? Not many.

I felt deep down not pity, but in fact a sense of jealousy and envy. As selfish and short-sighted that may be, I found a part of me which hungered for such passion, something I could cry so earnestly about. And maybe that is wrong.

As an American, I have always found myself struggling what it means to be American. There is no defined or single American narrative, and as evident in the upcoming election, the country is currently struggling with who should be the writer of that story. In a country that has so many authors, it is hard to define where one's place is in it all.

There must, however, be a place to find this community in this void, and the conclusion I found is that you have to believe in something. As a Jew, a writer, an inhabitant of San Francisco, a Boston-native, a traveler, a brother, and a son, I carry with me many identities.

These very roots from which you grow and where beliefs are formed create a bond between you and a community. I have slowly started to learn that I do not need to join a war to find it, but rather look to my past, and continue to support and fight for the people who gave me my right to the livelihood I have here in the US. It is with this deep gratitude for the privileges and rights that one can continue the very community from where they flourished.