Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become a major problem facing the brave men and women who return from serving in the U.S. military, even as it is more closely studied and better understood by doctors and researchers. In this gripping study of the problem of PTSD, Sebastian Junger takes a look at how and why IDF soldiers have been less likely to suffer its effects:
Israel is arguably the only modern country that retains a sufficient sense of community to mitigate the effects of combat on a mass scale. Despite decades of intermittent war, the Israel Defense Forces have a PTSD rate as low as 1 percent. Two of the foremost reasons have to do with national military service and the proximity of the combat—the war is virtually on their doorstep. “Being in the military is something that most people have done,” I was told by Dr. Arieh Shalev, who has devoted the last 20 years to studying PTSD. “Those who come back from combat are re-integrated into a society where those experiences are very well understood. We did a study of 17-year-olds who had lost their father in the military, compared to those who had lost their fathers to accidents. The ones whose fathers died in combat did much better than those whose fathers hadn’t.”
According to Shalev, the closer the public is to the actual combat, the better the war will be understood and the less difficulty soldiers will have when they come home. The Israelis are benefiting from what could be called the shared public meaning of a war. Such public meaning—which would often occur in more communal, tribal societies—seems to help soldiers even in a fully modern society such as Israel. It is probably not generated by empty, reflexive phrases—such as “Thank you for your service”—that many Americans feel compelled to offer soldiers and vets. If anything, those comments only serve to underline the enormous chasm between military and civilian society in this country.
Another Israeli researcher, Reuven Gal, found that the perceived legitimacy of a war was more important to soldiers’ general morale than was the combat readiness of the unit they were in. And that legitimacy, in turn, was a function of the war’s physical distance from the homeland: “The Israeli soldiers who were abruptly mobilized and thrown into dreadful battles in the middle of Yom Kippur Day in 1973 had no doubts about the legitimacy of the war,” Gal wrote in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 1986. “Many of those soldiers who were fighting in the Golan Heights against the flood of Syrian tanks needed only to look behind their shoulders to see their homes and remind themselves that they were fighting for their very survival.”
In that sense, the Israelis are far more like the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho at Little Bighorn than they are like us. America’s distance from her enemies means that her wars have generally been fought far away from her population centers, and as a result those wars have been harder to explain and justify than Israel’s have been. The people who will bear the psychic cost of that ambiguity will, of course, be the soldiers.