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What Soldiers at War Can Teach Us About Surviving Financial Warfare

In times of mortal danger, soldiers unconsciously create a sense of purpose and community and kinship. We must do the same if we are going to survive on the financial battlefield where millions of Americans find themselves.
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On last week's Real Time, Bill Maher had a fascinating conversation with Sebastian Junger about Junger's new book, War.

Recounting the months Junger spent embedded with a 30-man platoon in Afghanistan's remote Korengal Valley, the book is divided into three parts. The first two deal with Fear and Killing. In the last section, Junger explained to Maher, he wanted to explore why, even after a soldier is put through "the worst experience possible," he often misses it when he returns home. "What's missing in society," Junger asked, "where he would say something like that?"

According to Junger, the answer is not the obvious -- that the soldiers are adrenaline junkies. The answer, in fact, is Love -- the title of War's third section.

"These guys are junkies, kind of, for the brotherly love," observed Maher.

"That's exactly right," replied Junger. "This one guy said to me 'you know there are guys in the platoon who straight up hate each other, but we would all die for each other.' Every guy in that platoon was necessary to everyone else and that necessariness, I think, is actually way more addictive than adrenaline is. I think that's what people are talking about when soldiers say 'I miss it over there.' You have an unshakable meaning in a small group that you can't duplicate in a society."

"Unshakable meaning." And "necessariness." We can duplicate both outside the battlefield. Indeed, we have to. In times of mortal danger, soldiers unconsciously create a sense of purpose and community and kinship. Right now, the perils we are facing here at home are not as tangible and immediate as those faced by our soldiers in Afghanistan. Nobody is shooting at us -- and I don't mean to draw an equivalency to the deadly threat our men and women in uniform are bravely facing every day. But 26 million people are unemployed or underemployed, with over four percent of U.S. workers having been unemployed for more than six months -- nearly twice the percentage it was back in 1983. And more and more people are entering the ranks of "the 99ers" -- those who have been unemployed for 99 weeks, after which all unemployment benefits end.

As Sandra Pianalto, the President and CEO of the Cleveland Fed, said on Tuesday, "our journey out of this deep recession [will] be a slow one."

Make no mistake: though it's not war, it is financial warfare -- and there's an enemy out there that does not wish you well. A few reform measures aren't going to change the fact that there are hugely powerful banks looking to ensnare you and your family in a cycle of debt. Foreclosures continue to surge. Health care costs are going to continue to skyrocket -- even for the insured. And long-term unemployment is going to be a fact of life for the foreseeable future.

The results of these can be deadly. "The suicide rate has already gone up, and my suspicion is that it will not go down," said Paula Clayton, director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "There are data to substantiate a relationship between unemployment and suicide."

A 2002 study by researchers at Yale found that "high unemployment rates increase mortality and low unemployment decreases mortality and increases the sense of well being in a community." According to M. Harvey Brenner, one of the study's authors, economic growth is the single biggest factor in life expectancy. "Employment is the essential element of social status and it establishes a person as a contributing member of society and also has very important implications for self-esteem," he says. "When that is taken away, people become susceptible to depression, cardiovascular disease, AIDS and many other illnesses that increase mortality."

This economic crisis has put into question the American Dream and threatens the very survival of the middle class as the economic and cultural engine of our country.

It's also become clear -- not just in the United States but throughout the industrialized world -- that we're not going to be able to rely solely on government to fix things. Yes, we need the government to do all it can to create jobs and to wisely spend our tax dollars, but the question is, what can we do to help ourselves -- and each other? How can we recreate the sense of "unshakable meaning" and "necessariness" Junger describes? How can we create our own bands of brothers -- and sisters -- in communities all across the country that will not only give us that sense of purpose and necessariness, but allow us to face down these threats?

The truth is, we are hardwired to seek out unshakable meaning. The longing for necessariness is in our DNA. In The Fourth Instinct, I wrote about this part of ourselves -- the instinct that compels us all to go beyond our impulses for survival, sex, and power, and drives us to expand the boundaries of our caring beyond our solitary selves to include the world around us: "The call to community is not a hollow protestation of universal brotherhood. It is the call of our Fourth Instinct to make another's pain our own, to expand into our true self through giving. This is not the cold, abstract giving to humanity in general and to no human being in particular. It is concrete, intimate, tangible."

This is what the soldiers Junger wrote about were missing when they left the battlefield. And we can create it in our own lives. If we choose to. Evidence shows that when we look outward, reach out, and connect -- especially in times of trouble -- good things follow.

Take the case of Annette Arca, a Las Vegas commercial real estate professional. After she lost her job, she began to spend some of her newfound free time volunteering in her community. Even though she couldn't afford to make the payments on her townhouse, she figured there were still people in worse-off situations who needed help, so she set aside a chunk of hours each week to help deliver lunches to medical centers and work with homeless families. "It's a great opportunity to get involved, to help other people," she told the Las Vegas Review Journal. But volunteering also lent Arca a sense of purpose and positive outlook that complemented her job search. "If I'm negative, nothing's ever going to happen for me," she said.

Or Seth Reams, who lost his job as a concierge in December 2008. He took an energetic approach to his job hunt, circulating his resume to more than 300 potential employers. But when he got no bites, Reams told KOMO News, he felt useless, "like I wasn't a member of society anymore, like I wasn't contributing to [my] household anymore." Frustrated, he and his girlfriend, Michelle King, who worked as an assistant administrator analyst at a health insurance company, brainstormed ways for him to stay productive during his job search. And together, they came up with We've Got Time To Help, an online platform for locals who have extra time -- generally people who were laid-off -- and want to contribute to the community in Portland, Oregon, where Reams and King live. For the blog's first project, Reams helped a single, pregnant women, who also cared for her three siblings, move furniture into her home. And more projects soon followed: painting a room in a battered women's shelter, teaching refugees how to drive, helping a needy family repair the roof on their home. Within sixteen months of the site's launch in January 2009, We've Got Time To Help assembled more than a hundred volunteers, who've assisted hundreds of struggling locals.

If we're looking to create this sense of purpose and meaning, the Internet and social media can be valuable tools to connect us. The website was conceived by Bronx high school social studies teacher Charles Best. It provides a forum for public school teachers from all over the country to post funding requests for classroom needs. Users then browse the listings -- which run the gamut from notebooks and pencils to projectors -- and donate. As of this month, ten years after the site launched, it has raised over $52 million for over 130,000 different proposals.

Even more locally focused is, started by Connecticut web developer Ben Berkowitz. It invites users to post non-emergency problems in neighborhoods, such as a broken street lamp or potholed roads. Other members then chime in with solutions, and sometimes neighbors reply with fixes within minutes.

Then there are sites like,,,, and, which are being used to share tips about finding work and getting by, and also give comfort by allowing people to safely voice anxieties and fears about the future. Or the aptly named I Need A Freakin' Job, which describes itself as "a grass roots American movement, giving voice to the millions affected by the crazy unemployment numbers."

And in this recession, those crazy numbers don't only represent those on the lower end of the economic spectrum. The Wall Street Journal has an entire blog devoted to the stories of those with MBAs who are unemployed and looking for work.

One thing is clear -- we're not going to be able to face the perils of this new economic landscape alone. And those of us who are under less of a threat need to reach out to those who have already been ensnared. When soldiers talk about being in a foxhole, it's always about who they are in the foxhole with -- it's not a place you want to be by yourself. There's not just strength in numbers -- there's purpose and meaning if we reach out and connect.

As Pablo Neruda said: "To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and weaknesses -- that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being and unites all living things."