- Tim Hetherington
- Author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger
If anyone can shed light on the alliance of veterans and Native Americans who faced down the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, it would be author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger, who we last interviewed in July 2014.
In his latest book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger explains how both groups have suffered the loss of community and purpose they felt while banding together in the face of adversity. Junger's award-winning documentaries Restrepo and Korengal — which were filmed while he was embedded with a unit of American troops in Afghanistan — explore similar themes.
A week after the alliance in North Dakota brought the pipeline to at least a temporary halt, we talked to Junger about the showdown at Standing Rock, the scarcity of human connection in modern life, and the lingering question of what comes next in an uncertain America.
Indy: In Tribe, you draw parallels between the experiences of Native Americans and war veterans, two groups who came together at Standing Rock. What went through your mind when you heard about the plan to bring thousands of veterans to protect the protesters from eviction?
Sebastian Junger: Well, I wasn't there and all I know is what I read in the paper, but my guess is that those particular veterans felt some of the intoxication that comes with having a sense of purpose defending a larger group, something of value. In other words, they saw that the interests of the nation were somehow represented in that issue at Standing Rock, and all of a sudden these veterans felt they could serve their country again.
Serving your country seems like a burden and a duty, but actually it gives people an incredible sense of meaning that I think is actually quite hard to give up. And one of the struggles that veterans have when they come back from combat is that they have to give up that sense of meaning, that sense of being important and necessary for the nation. And all of a sudden, I think Standing Rock was a chance to regain that for a moment.
Even after construction was halted — at least temporarily — a lot of protesters have vowed to stay on through the winter, or however long is necessary. If you had to guess, what do you think could happen next?
Well, you know, the larger that groups are, the more powerful they are. But at the same time, the larger they are, the more liable they are to fracturing and splitting. And so one of the things you might find is a kind of fracturing where different factions who have different core beliefs sort of go their separate ways. I mean, that happens in all political movements. And, you know, I think at some point Standing Rock will go from a protest to some sort of political movement, and you'll probably see some dividing of people along the lines of their particular concern.
So in this case, it might be environmentalists parting ways with Native American rights activists?
You know, I'm just guessing that this movement will follow the course that every other movement in history has followed. Which is, as it gets bigger and more powerful, it starts to divide itself into interest groups within the movement who take up their own standard. I'd be surprised if that didn't happen. I'm not saying that's a good or a bad thing. It's just what movements do.
When it comes to veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, you've suggested that the actual trauma can be as much from coming back home as it is from being over there. And as a lot of the longer-term Standing Rock protesters experience their own sense of culture shock, even though they're returning to a life that's essentially the same as the one they left. Can you talk about what goes on in those kinds of situations?
Well, our evolutionary path is characterized by very small groups — 30, 40, 50 individuals — existing in a very challenging environment. We're clearly wired for that. And when we're in a situation like that, it feels good. When we feel needed by a small group of people, it's very empowering and emboldening.
So that positive response to being in a group can happen in war with a platoon. It can happen in a cancer ward. I mean, I was speaking with a woman at one point who survived cancer, and she said that she really missed the community of the cancer ward, believe it or not, that people on the outside didn't understand what she went through. Only other cancer survivors understand, and she missed them.
Humans are willing to go through incredible danger and hardship in order to belong to a group and have that good feeling that comes with it. And so it's no surprise at all to me that soldiers miss their platoon when they come back to the Great American Suburb. Or that protesters at Standing Rock — who enjoyed that very close community in incredibly difficult and frightening conditions for two weeks or more — when they get back to wherever it is that they live in America, they miss that.
So what can they do after that, when they resume some kind of ordinary life? How can they replace that?
I don't think they can. You know, I think our society has painted itself into a corner, in a sense. We have a degree of safety and affluence and control over the natural world that allows us to spend most of our lives — all of our lives — without being directly dependent on the group around us. I mean, there are a lot of good things that go with that, too. But the downside is that many people experience some sense of alienation and lack of meaning, lack of purpose.
And that's why, when there's a disaster like the Blitz in London — or even a bad blizzard or a power outage or what have you — many, many people will say later that those were sort of the best times of their life, that they really miss those terrible days when the whole neighborhood banded together to get through the difficult times. ...
I think it has amazed people that a Native American group could, along with the help of veterans — I mean, that alliance already is a surprise to people, I'm sure, and I think to some extent a threat to the establishment. And the fact that they can face down the nation and an oil company, I mean, that's sort of stunning. And I imagine, to a lot of people, it's inspiring. And then, to an equal number of people, it's actually quite threatening that two very different groups of people could see common ground in their highest ideals, and face down such a powerful interest group. I think on some level that will be quite threatening to the establishment.