Human beings are not designed for the modern technologically advanced societies of today, whose abstraction and lack of unity are alienating and dangerous to individual mental health and the health of nations. This is the central premise of war correspondent Sebastian Junger’s short and powerful new book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.
Junger, a self-described liberal atheist, is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and has reported on wars around the globe, from Sarajevo to Sierra Leone. He is well known for his Academy Award-nominated 2010 documentary Restrepo about his time embedded with an American platoon in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, and his earlier book (later made into a film) The Perfect Storm.
In the wake of Brexit, in the clamor of Trump’s America, and with nativist movements finding broader appeal and success across Europe, Tribe is the start of a conversation worth having.
The book focuses on the evolutionary need for cohesive, small societies with clear purpose, rules, and values. It looks at the paradox of how tragedy and conflict can create strong bonds and meaning. Individuals develop rock solid inter-reliance as they depend on each other for survival and courage. Junger contrasts this with affluent, advanced societies, which, from Europe to East Asia to North America, appear to be moving away from the bloodshed of the past.
The Beauty And The Tragedy
Junger contends that living in a society where everyday life is increasingly independent and safe can, ironically, lend itself to the kind of malaise and mental health issues now gripping people at record rates in the developed world:
What people miss presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender. There are obvious stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even greater stresses on a person in isolation, so during disasters there is a net gain in well-being. Most primates, including humans, are intensely social, and there are very few instances of lone primates surviving in the wild. A modern soldier returning from combat—or a survivor of Sarajevo—goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for, back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good. Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively. Whatever the technological advances of modern society—and they’re nearly miraculous—the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.
Junger touches on crucial points about the deracination and ennui of post-industrial, pluralistic First World society, but then doesn’t really offer an alternative, suggesting instead that Americans, for example, should be much more respectful of those of differing views and and focus on what they have in common.
The book essentially romanticizes American Indian life before whites (despite the fact that Junger writes about his colonial American ancestor who narrowly escaped slaughter by a group of roaming American Indian warriors by hiding in a cornfield), doesn’t really address the topic of race (except by referring to situations where it’s overridden by group unity), glosses over the topic of religiosity and its place in finding meaning, and provides scant solutions to what is otherwise a convincing diagnosis of the alienation of postmodern man.
However, what Tribe lacks in historicity or tangible answers it more than makes up for by pointing to many of the crises facing First World societies and their relation to the need for belonging and purpose. As Junger writes in Tribe, “The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good.”
War, What is it Good For?
Junger’s approach in Tribe is bold and unapologetic. He builds on related themes brought up by liberal minds searching for meaning in the past, including, for example, economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society (1958) and professor Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000).
Junger, however, looks at these subjects from the perspective of veterans and those directly grappling with the implications of social fragmentation in the mental health field and in treating military veterans, bringing a visceral reality to the topic sometimes lacking from more academic works. Junger’s experience as a war correspondent engaging firsthand with the connection between belonging and survival rings true in the pages of Tribe. As he writes, “I know what coming back to America from a war zone is like because I’ve done it so many times.”
Junger has given TED talks about some of his views on why some veterans miss war, and also expounded about his belief that skyrocketing PTSD rates in the U.S. military are primarily caused or at least worsened by the fragmented, directionless society that veterans return to rather than the trauma they suffered in combat. Rather than being seen through the “lens of victimhood,” Junger posits that veterans should be given more of a voice in society, and priority in being given good jobs. In Tribe, Junger expands on his ideas about disaster, combat, and PTSD at some length.
“Soldiers experience this tribal way of thinking at war, but when they come home they realize that the tribe they were actually fighting for wasn’t their country, it was their unit,” he writes. “It makes absolutely no sense to make sacrifices for a group that, itself, isn’t willing to make sacrifices for you. That is the position American soldiers have been in for the past decade and a half.”
Several particularly surprising passages in Tribe describe how the suicide rate in New York dropped by 20 percent in the six months following 9/11, the murder rate dropped by 40 percent and even veterans who were undergoing PTSD treatment experienced “a significant drop in their symptoms in the months after the September 11 attacks.” Other passages describe much higher rates of psychiatric breakdown among soldiers and civilians who were close to, but not directly involved, in combat in conflicts such as World War II Germany and England during the Blitz, as well as the “Troubles” in Ireland. Israel, where military service is compulsory, has a PTSD rate “as low as one percent,” which Junger assesses as “arguably the only modern country that retains a sufficient sense of community to mitigate the effects of combat on a mass scale.”
In brutal wars he’s covered, Junger recalled interviewing people years later to find a surprising nostalgia for what the war had brought out in them and others, despite the expected lamentation of the death and horror that had occurred. Natural disasters also can cause a coming together of people and a sudden return to a tribal way of life. “What catastrophes seem to do— sometimes in the span of a few minutes— is turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution,” Junger writes. “Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.”
Liberal Versus Conservative
The solidarity brought on by armed conflict is not without political consequences. Junger makes the contention that the British welfare state was boosted by experiences of collective national trauma:
The coming-together that societies often experience during catastrophes is usually temporary, but sometimes the effect can last years or even decades. British historians have linked the hardships of the Blitz— and the social unity that followed— to a landslide vote that brought the Labour Party into power in 1945 and eventually gave the United Kingdom national health care and a strong welfare state. The Blitz hit after years of poverty in England, and both experiences served to bind the society together in ways that rejected the primacy of business interests over the welfare of the people.
In response, Junger goes on to take a crack at Margaret Thatcher, whose election in 1979 ostensibly signaled a political rebuke to group solidarity and concern for ordinary citizens. But Junger insists he isn’t out to score partisan points.
“The most alarming rhetoric comes out of the dispute between liberals and conservatives, and it’s a dangerous waste of time because they’re both right,” Junger writes, claiming the left and right both have valid perspectives about matters like taxation and the proper role of government in society, points of view whose rectitude fluctuates in historical context. Although political disagreement is healthy and inevitable, Junger writes that liberals should not be actively contemptuous of their political opponents as disloyal or vile citizens, and vice versa.
Having nations in which elites can get away with things, such as the bankers who caused the 2008 recession, without significant punishment does enormous damage to the idea of a tribe in Junger’s view. In a tribe, punishment for betrayal or theft would be swift and harsh, and would likely result in permanent expulsion.
Junger contrasts the “betrayal of the American people” by people like Joseph Cassano (“Mr. Credit-Default-Swap”) and Robert Rubin of Citibank, with the story of Martin Bauman, who served in the military and upon coming home opened a job placement firm. One year when it was not doing well he gathered the employees, who agreed to all take a 10% wage cut to avoid anyone having to be fired. Bauman also did not pay himself a salary that year, which the employees only found out when the bookkeeper told them.
Junger in interviews has indicated he sees Trump (and many other politicians) as divisive, manipulative figures “misusing” tribalism to seek power. Although Junger expresses admiration for Trump’s “great words” that “either you have a country or you don’t,” he believes the real estate tycoon’s rhetoric encourages internal divisions that harm the idea of an overall tribe and group solidarity. Similarly, Obama is known to many conservatives for his penchant to claim he wants to bring all people together while he denounces a large sector of those people. It’s this skill in part that’s made Obama one of the most polarizing presidents in history.
Moving the Goalposts
In Tribe, Junger brings up concerns that should be of interest and worry to conservatives, liberals and everyone in between. He also isn’t afraid to point out hypocrisy from the Left:
There was a period during the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003 when a bumper sticker that read NO BLOOD FOR OIL started appearing on American cars. Implicit in the slogan was the assumption that the Iraq War was over oil, but the central irony of putting such a message on a machine that runs on oil seemed lost on most people. There is virtually no source of oil that does not incur enormous damage to either the local population or the environment, and driving a car means that you’re unavoidably contributing to that damage. I was deeply opposed to the Iraq War for other reasons. But the antiwar rhetoric around the topic of oil by people who continued to use it to fuel their cars betrayed a larger hypocrisy that extended across the political spectrum.
Indeed, Junger seems to want to live not just in a more unified political environment, but in an older time not beset by the pressures and injustices of modern industrial society. However, waving away disagreement between liberals and conservatives in favor of emphasizing tribal allegiances is easier said than done.
When disagreement means moving the goalposts on former shared values and definitions (such as something as basic what defines a male and female) how is a tribe defined? Junger’s point about angry political rhetoric is well-taken, but when political division reflects genuinely divergent ideas on how to live life and whose tribe you are actually in, it seems inevitable and perhaps even necessary. Junger clearly points out some things that should be regarded by everyone as wrong—bankers bilking their countrymen—but doesn’t specify much about what should be regarded as right other than inspiring, but nebulous, ideas such as self-sacrifice.
In or Out
Some of the most compelling passages of Tribe are ones in which Junger talks about himself and his life and work. In the introduction to Tribe Junger describes growing up in suburban Boston feeling disconnected from neighbors, alienated by an advanced society that outsourced its survival needs and didn’t require much interaction. If there was a fire: call the fire department. If there was a crime: call the police.
“How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?” he asks. Junger longed at the time for some great calamity like a tornado to bring a meaningfulness that was lacking. In retrospect, Junger observes what he really wanted was not disaster but connection. “What I wanted,” her writes, “wasn’t destruction and mayhem but the opposite: solidarity.”
In an early passage Junger describes a formative experience when he hitchhiked to Wyoming in search of the “real America.” Walking along the road with a week’s supply of food and basic camping gear, he watched as a downtrodden-looking man approached from far off. The man, who stopped to talk to Junger, lived in a broken car and worked on days when work was available at a local coal mine. He asked where Junger was going and whether he had food and the young future war correspondent, worried he was about to be robbed, lied that he had only a small amount. Instead the man, who wasn’t needed that day at the mine, offered Junger his lunch.
The lunch box contained a bologna sandwich, an apple, and a bag of potato chips. The food had probably come from a local church. I had no choice but to take it. I thanked him and put the food in my pack for later and wished him luck. Then he turned and made his way back down the on-ramp toward Gillette. I thought about that man for the rest of my trip. I thought about him for the rest of my life.
He’d been generous, yes, but lots of people are generous; what made him different was the fact that he’d taken responsibility for me. He’d spotted me from town and walked half a mile out a highway to make sure I was okay. Robert Frost famously wrote that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. The word “tribe” is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with. For reasons I’ll never know, the man in Gillette decided to treat me like a member of his tribe.
Who would you share the last of your food with if it comes down to that? Junger’s point is powerful and enduring: Being nice or generous isn’t the thing when it comes to life, it’s being in or out.
A Disconnected Society
In Tribe, Junger asks the reader to seriously consider how the many benefits and advantages of modern life may also be leeching meaningfulness from community life. The book is definitely worth a read, and is sure to get people thinking about important and counterintuitive realities that need thinking about. It’s a stark challenge, with no opposing counter offer, as much of the developing world is mired in poverty and conflict. The ills of a disconnected, modern society where people go it alone are clear for all to see, but the answers may perhaps only be given one person and act of solidarity or group cohesion at a time. And so Junger asks a provocative and powerful question:
What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss.
Junger ends Tribe throwing down the gauntlet to the reader to find some way to reach out to others and help or get involved in order that civilization retain some meaning and viability. Tribe, though it doesn’t offer many suggestions, encourages the reader to find ways to achieve solidarity and social meaning without needing a full-scale crisis to prompt it. “[The] sense of solidarity is at the core of what it means to be human and undoubtedly helped deliver us to this extraordinary moment in our history,” Junger writes. “It may also be the only thing that allows us to survive it.”