Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is a book written by Sebastian Junger. Junger is a war journalist, perhaps most famous for his documentary, Restrepo, of which he and fellow journalist Tim Hetherington embedded themselves with a US Army unit in Afghanistan to film.
Tribe is as much a book about dealing with the experience of war as it as a book about dealing with the experience of life without war. If the book has an explicit thesis, it might be taken from the introductory chapter:
“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
Tribe is, in some sense, a defense of war — Junger suggests in passing that war would not happen so often if it were really so bad — but his focus isn’t on the politics of going to war or on ‘just-war theory.’ Junger believes that war can offer essential experiences missing from modern life. I don’t think Junger would attempt to argue that immoral or unethical or terrible or traumatic things don’t happen in a war, but he would and does argue that these things will be less important to a given soldier than the community that he (or she) will develop with his unit, and the community to which he’ll reenter at home.
To Junger, an individual’s relationship to the collective seems to be the most important indicator of happiness and fulfillment in an individual’s life — so much so that bonding over violence and combatting a common enemy, he believes, will trump most ill effects, given proper rehabilitation and social structures. Junger cites studies and anecdotes that cities during WWII which saw the most violence — that were bombed the heaviest — had the lowest incidents of depression, mental health problems, and crime. He particularly focuses on the London bombings during WWII, finding quotes from survivors suggesting that they were a better people during the destruction, that their lives are now dull without it.
PTSD, Junger argues, shouldn’t really be blamed on trauma from war. He cites studies indicating that units who see less combat suffer from higher rates of PTSD. Junger feels PTSD is less about trauma, and more about the lack of community and feeling useful to others upon their reintroduction to civilian society.
Junger acknowledges that Americans pay homage to the idea of war and of being a soldier, but he feels this homage is mostly meaningless ceremony. He scoffs at thanking soldiers for their service, and asserts that in Israel, where service is mandatory, they have lower rates of PTSD, yet culturally there’s little to no pull to thank a soldier for his or her sacrifice, as all have sacrificed. Junger relates that three researchers, Kohr, Hoffman, and Abramowitz, identified three factors that affect a combatant’s rehabilitation:
Junger seems to maintain relatively leftist politics. He repeatedly mentions, as a theme throughout the book, that no banking executives or traders have been imprisoned for their role in the financial crisis. He discusses how incidents of treason, punishable by death, result in less deaths than recessions (Junger claims there’s a high correlation between the unemployment rate and suicide; also, he takes it for granted that greed and an obsessive focus on ‘the individual’ caused the financial crisis). Junger’s condemnation of “Wall Street” and his seeming enthusiasm for war stem from the same sentiment: the importance of the collective over the individual.
There’s something of an anarcho-primitivist theme throughout the book, though he never uses such terms. When Junger discussed the predilection of American colonialists to join with Native American tribes, when Junger dismissed the raised quality of living standards from technological advances in recent years — I thought of the time I saw “Aragorn” introduce the publication Black Seed in Boxcar Books.
In Tribe, there’s a sense that depression and modern political structures should be added to the list of diseases of civilization. Junger suggests that people evolved to live as a tribe, and that the tribe was the center of life. As such, we evolved to feel satisfaction from sacrificing for the tribe, and we feel our best when we feel connected to the tribe.
Junger doesn’t just argue that the struggles of primitive societies resulted in more meaningful lives, but that the standard of living was actually higher. He uses the !Kung tribe as a model of what life would have been like, and says studies suggest the !Kung only worked about 12 hours per week, despite living in some of the least hospitable conditions on Earth. Separately, Junger cites quotes from female American settlers who were captured by or that chose to live with Indian tribes (Junger says he was asked by Native Americans to refer to them as Indians while writing the book) stating that they had more freedom and rights amongst the Indians.
When Junger talks about sacrificing for the collective, though, he’s generally not envisioning a collective as large as the population of the United States of America. He suggests that a typical tribe may have had about 50 people. A government representing 50 people could act much more swiftly while accommodating input from each member. Junger believes our society and government has lost touch with itself. He says our way of speaking to each other with contempt indicates we’re a society at civil war:
Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits. Contempt is often used by governments to provide rhetorical cover for torture or abuse.
Tribe is a book that I’d recommend anyone read. It’s well written, relatively short, and could cater to a variety of interests — whether you’re specifically interested in the topics of war and PTSD, or trying to assess questions such as “what’s important in this life” and “what should I be doing right now, while I’m alive” — Tribe provides an interesting framework to think from that’s ‘not wrong.’
I’d also recommend listening to Sebastian Junger’s appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast: