Tribe: On Homecoming and Belongingby Published 24 May 2016
|Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.pdf|
Sebastian Junger, the bestselling author of War and The Perfect Storm, takes a critical look at post-traumatic stress disorder and the many challenges today’s returning veterans face in modern society.
There are ancient tribal human behaviors-loyalty, inter-reliance, cooperation-that flare up in communities during times of turmoil and suffering. These are the very same behaviors that typify good soldiering and foster a sense of belonging among troops, whether they’re fighting on the front lines or engaged in non-combat activities away from the action. Drawing from history, psychology, and anthropology, bestselling author Sebastian Junger shows us just how at odds the structure of modern society is with our tribal instincts, arguing that the difficulties many veterans face upon returning home from war do not stem entirely from the trauma they’ve suffered, but also from the individualist societies they must reintegrate into.
A 2011 study by the Canadian Forces and Statistics Canada reveals that 78 percent of military suicides from 1972 to the end of 2006 involved veterans. Though these numbers present an implicit call to action, the government is only just taking steps now to address the problems veterans face when they return home. But can the government ever truly eliminate the challenges faced by returning veterans? Or is the problem deeper, woven into the very fabric of our modern existence? Perhaps our circumstances are not so bleak, and simply understanding that beneath our modern guises we all belong to one tribe or another would help us face not just the problems of our nation but of our individual lives as well.
Well-researched and compellingly written, this timely look at how veterans react to coming home will reconceive our approach to veteran’s affairs and help us to repair our current social dynamic.
"Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging" Reviews
Is Western civilization the pinnacle of human achievement? In Tribe, Sebastian Junger questions this notion by looking at, among other examples, why colonial Americans left behind the burgeoning settlements to live with the tribal Indians; why, as technological advances have sped up over time (and accelerate still faster today), we are all “connected” and yet more and more of us feel isolated, depressed and unsatisfied with life in the Information Age; and why comfort is killing us and, rather than avoiding it, hardship and intense trauma like war can be the greatest and most cherished experiences life can offer.
Loved it. Sebastian Junger’s done it again (check out his last book, War, for an equally remarkable and powerful read)! Tribe is a fantastic book that’s very relevant to our time, containing a lot of useful insights on our turbulent era.
Junger manages to tackle the enormously complex and deeply important issue of societal disconnection, and break it down clearly, accessibly and compellingly. His thesis is that humans need three main things to be happy: struggle, community and purpose, and that the lack of these things in the West is why so many people today feel unfulfilled and directionless.
And it’s a convincing argument, backed up with several fascinating examples. Junger covered the Bosnian war back in the ‘90s and went back to Sarajevo to interview the survivors who said that was the happiest time of their lives! Everyone was forced to live together, pool their resources so they could all survive, and all other worries were pushed aside as peripheral. And this is a sentiment echoed from survivors of the Blitz in WW2 to soldiers from the most recent Gulf war. There are also studies showing depression and suicide decrease in the wake of tragedies like 9/11 or devastating natural disasters.
And it’s because you’re suddenly and viscerally reminded how small and trivial everyday bullshit is when you’re surrounded by death, deprivation and suffering and you realise what’s important is your common humanity with others around you. Junger talks about the military’s “brotherhood of pain” where soldiers are united by their circumstances which goes back to the plains Indians with their clearly defined roles and how there is a base need for this kind of close unity with others and a shared purpose in all humans. This need is ignored by most people in the West today to our psychological, emotional and physical detriment. In the words of anthropologist Sharon Abramowitz, today “we are an antihuman society”.
The most striking observation Junger makes is how Western society needs to more fully recognise the military as part of the everyday rather than single it out as separate and other. He mentions how in other cultures, like in Israel where military service is mandatory, there’s far less post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because that aspect of their society is a big part of ordinary life. Whereas in America soldiers are very clearly singled out, for better or worse, and that this distinction can be harmful when it comes to reintegrating back into civilian life.
Because life is too comfortable now and most people don’t suffer violence or trauma (at least not on the same level as soldiers), we highlight those who do and view them as unfortunate victims, making them feel alienated from the rest of us. Obviously there are legitimate cases of PTSD among veterans but if the idea that all veterans are assumed to be victims with PTSD, it almost forces them into the role of victims in order to claim disability (disability claims have gone up inordinately for vets while casualties have gone down). This renders them useless going forward because they won’t be able to have jobs and disconnects them further from society and the country they fought for. Junger poetically notes that while these people were willing to die for their country, they don’t know how to live for it.
Even if you don’t agree with Junger’s conclusions, which I absolutely do - and it’s hard not to, particularly with the recent case of the Las Vegas shootings; who else but someone so profoundly disconnected from his fellow man could do something so unthinkably brutal? And that’s just the latest atrocity - mass shootings have been an American fixture for decades now! - it’s worth taking to heart the egalitarian message. To make your community better for everyone by caring beyond our immediate family and close circle of friends, to stop focusing on our differences and look to our similarities, and realize that we could learn from less “civilized” societies, that the West haven’t gotten everything right.
Technological change is great but it’s a mixed blessing; in many ways it’s made our lives better and, in some, worse. And as technology continues to rapidly change, year after year, it’s worth remembering that human nature doesn’t change as fast and that we shouldn’t ignore our basic nature and needs. Struggle and recognise it - you’re alive, this is temporary, so live while you have the chance. Help others because it’s right or for no other reason than to make yourself feel better. And in those actions, you’ll find purpose and satisfaction.
I could go on a lot more but I’ll stop here and encourage you to read it for yourself, that is if any of this struck a chord. I found Tribe to be a fascinating, brilliant book full of thoughtful new ideas (to me at least) and rewarding and enlightening information with an inspiring message at its core.
There are many good ideas in this book, including disorders of trauma as disorders of integration, isolation, and group dynamic, however I had too many issues with the way this story was told to fully embrace the important message it meant to convey.
When I read “tribe” in this book, I imagine only men. Men at war, men at work at construction sites, male aggression, and male friendship. Where are the women? His main example of a “female” style of leadership is about … MEN! (The dual roles taken by men stuck in a collapsed coal mine.) If what Junger implies is true and there are differences to the gender roles in close-knit societies, especially in times of stress, I would like to read more about the female experience and female sacrifice. Even in the Bosnian war story, Ahmetasevic’s quotes were largely centered around the men, taking no account of what the women did when they were alone. The military, for example, would be a fantastic place to expand on the leadership roles and altruistic behavior of women. Yes, historically the military has been a male-dominated institution, however when he is talking about contemporary PTSD statistics, we have to recognize the existence of women in the military. This could have been a chance to explore the potential further isolation caused by being women in a historically “man’s world.” Do they fare better on return because of their female friendships and support systems? Or do they fare worse, because we tend to ignore the existence of female veterans, as this book does? By not discussing women, he misses a potential opportunity to strengthen his argument. If we are to truly become the functioning society that Junger imagines - communal and supportive - I should hope we include the experiences of both/all genders.
Additionally, Junger fails in his attempts to invoke science to support his claims by either being inconsistent with his analogies or getting the analogies wrong altogether. In the chapter, War Makes you an Animal, I struggle to understand if Junger believes that the “tribe” society is an animal behavior, or a human one. In a confusing misuse of biology, he sites group selection as a basis for altruism, an idea generally discredited by evolutionary biologists, except in eusocial animals like bees, ants, or termites (see Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene”; John Maynard Smith 1964; Abbott et al 2011). By writing, “[altruistic choices] are profound acts of selflessness that distinguish us from all other mammals, including the higher primates we are so closely related to,” and that “risking male lives to save female lives makes enormous evolutionary sense,” Junger claims that it is the evolutionary course that pushed humans toward acts of heroism, as we have evolved past our close relations towards greater group unity. But, at the same time, he writes, “virtually all mammals seem to benefit from companionship; even lab rats recover more quickly from trauma if they are caged with other rats rather than alone.” This is true because, as scientists who study them know, rats are social mammals, however many mammals (male deer, most big cats, etc.) are predominantly solitary, and prefer to be. So, I still don’t understand, is being part of a tribe what makes us animals? Or makes us human? In another, unrelated, but equally vexing quote, Junger describes a “state of hyperarousal” as having a “firm basis in the neurobiology of the brain.” A vague hand waving in the direction of an authority called “science,” though this fact means nothing without further discussion.
It is too bad Junger doesn’t research the science as thoroughly as researches the history of war and experiences of soldiers. It has made the reading much less enjoyable than I had anticipated picking it up.
A fascinating book about community and belonging, and how modern society has moved us away from our roots in potentially signifiant ways. The book opens with a thought provoking fact: in early America, there were numerous instances of white people joining primitive, native Indian societies - but zero instances of the opposite, because "the intensely communal nature of an Indian tribe held an appeal that the material benefits of Western civilization couldn’t necessarily compete with."
The book also argues that the wealth we enjoy in modern society is isolating, against the grain of millions of years of our evolution, and can lead to depression, because our happiness is in large part rooted in a need to feel connected to others. While this feels right and intuitive, it doesn't seem to be the way we are optimizing our lives.
"A wealthy person who has never had to rely on help and resources from his community is leading a privileged life that falls way outside more than a million years of human experience. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society— but a trade it is."
Another loss the book points out is the loss of the transparency and social justice that being in a small community used to bring. When your neighbors and community members all know each other and what is going on with each other, group peer pressure tends to reward good actions and punish bad ones. The book points out that people wouldn't for instance cheat unemployment if their neighbors were paying for it and everyone knew what was happening. In anonymity we have lost a sense of responsibility to each other.
Another data point about the power of human connection that a disaster, such as a war, can bring to a society. Junger talked about this in a recent guest post on the Goodreads blog, saying "Time and time again in history, civilians have forged incredibly strong bonds in the face of wars and earthquakes and floods and gone on to miss those heady times of cooperation. Also demonstrating the power of bonding is the fact that one of the most devastating thing a soldier can face is the loss of a buddy. "Interestingly, a strong bonding experience can also lead to social change - for instance: "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 book basically concludes that the largest cost or risk of modern society is the loss of community. This is something worth giving a lot of thought in terms of our priorities.
This book provides a convincing articulation of reasons why modern society is ill suited to the innate social needs of homo sapiens (i.e. human beings). Our ancestors lived—and evolved—many thousands of years in hunter gatherer groups that were closely bonded together in a cooperative bond in order to survive dangerous surroundings. Everybody in the group knew that they were dependent on others, and the group expected loyalty, cooperation, and sharing of resources from individuals in the group.
Modern society in contrast emphasizes competitive individualism, and the sharing of resources is generally limited to the family and sometimes extended family. The mismatch between this modern environment and innate human social needs can lead to clinical depression, anxiety and chronic loneliness.
The book begins with observations made by American colonialists that there was something about the life of the indigenous peoples that was very attractive to some people of European ancestry. Benjamin Franklin observed the phenomenon in 1753, writing, “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.” In contrast to this there were many examples of kidnapped young whites who after living with the native Americans for several years did not want to return to white Colonial life. Colonial society was richer and more advanced, and yet people were voting with their feet the other way.
On a personal note let me mention here that I had an ancestor who was taken captive during the French-Indian War and resisted returning to "civilized" life. THIS LINK is to my review of a historical novel based upon the facts of my ancestor's life.
Next the book moves on to various examples of war and times of great stress during which rates of depression dropped, differences in status were erased, and a spirit of cooperation prevailed. The examples include the London blitz and Siege of Sarajevo. In these and other cases the author quotes people who lived through these horrific events who expressed nostalgia for the spirit of group common purpose that prevailed at the time.
What those events have in common with aboriginal tribal life is the low differences in status and wide spread sharing of resources. These conditions are lacking in modern industrial societies.
Then the book moves on to the experiences of American soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The prevalence of PTSD is way off the charts. The book explains that PTSD is primarily a maladjustment of return to American society. Veterans suffering from PTSD are having difficulty separating the danger of war from its pleasures. Returning soldiers are leaving an environment of group living where they have been sleeping and working together while being surrounded by danger. A close-knit group of fellow warriors returning to a highly individualised and fractured civilian world is “deeply brutalising to the human spirit”.
The author then explains reasons why American life is probably the most difficult society in the world for a combat veteran to return to. He compares the incidence of PTSD in Americans with veterans of other nations—Israel in particular—and then explains reasons for the differences.
The author points to the American disparity of wealth and income and the lack of jobs for returning soldiers as glaringly examples of lack of sharing and support in our society that differentiates it from a tribal society. The author makes scathing comments regarding the money market and fund managers who wrecked the economy in 2008 and received bonuses instead of prison sentences.
The contrast described in this book between what's needed and what's actually provided to the returning soldier I found to be emotionally moving. Surprisingly, the author suggests that saying "thank you for your service" makes matters worse by reinforcing the differences between civilians and military. If you want to understand the author's reasoning on this issue I suggest you read the book rather than asking me to explain.
Here's a link to a N.Y. Times article written by David Brooks published August 9, 2016 titled "The Great Affluence Fallacy" in which he references this book:
I first learned about this book from the above article.
Here's a link to another N.Y. Times article on a related subject titled "How Social Isolation Is Killing Us."
Junger's most recent work - his documentaries, as well as his books - have been keen observations of the lives of soldiers. This is a short meditation on PTSD, where front-line troops and other veterans have a difficult time reintegrating into society - that war, for all of its hardships, creates a feeling of belonging and absolutely unbreakable bonds, and that returning to contemporary society leads to feelings of incredible isolation.
how many. He gives the unusually high figure of almost 40% compared to other wars, to show how demonstrably worse it was compared to Vietnam. I wasn't able to find that - other studies give a range from 4-17%. Likewise, war veterans are not the only people with PTSD - the idea that PTSD comes from losing a brotherhood or being forced out of a community is not the case for victims of assault. Another case Junger cites is a fall in crime rates in New York immediately after 9/11. It could be 'community feeling', or greater vigilance, or an increased police presence, or less tourists leaving cars to break into. Not so clear-cut.
Yet despite these disagreements in method, I am drawn to the moral force of Junger's argument, and the need to sacrifice or to help others. Volunteering, or veterans' support groups, charity, anything. Likewise, veterans and all others who have seen conflict absolutely need a community to support them, and we need to understand how a society of material abundance has grown so detached from the endless wars in far away places.