Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
“The prose is refined, even beautiful, which is unexpected when such a difficult subject is being discussed.”
“What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves.” It is also the premise of Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. The work is an absolute must-read for anyone involved in veteran’s affairs and anyone who wonders why contemporary soldiers/sailors/airmen/Marines/coast guardsmen have such a difficult time reintegrating into American society once they return from duty. Tribe is also an indictment of American culture that foreshadows some dire outcomes for the nation if we continue to demonize and hold in public contempt our fellow Americans.
On the level of craft, any reader will appreciate this book for the quality of its writing and the clarity with which Junger makes his arguments. The prose is refined, even beautiful, which is unexpected when such a difficult subject is being discussed. Junger makes his case well, using first-hand accounts, interviews, and academic research on the subject. Not a word is wasted. It would be no surprise to find many readers who consume the book in a single sitting, then begin again with a pencil in hand to underscore choice points.
Junger’s main theme is that subsistence level cultures, tribal societies, small military units, and disaster survivors have something in common: they band together to help one another through trying times. Instead of adversity negatively affecting these groups, it serves to give them a shared bond and uplift the community. In dozens of examples, Junger shows how in adversity people help one another survive. Individuals become more egalitarian and suicide rates and mental health problems diminish during hardship. Adversity gives people purpose. So does war.
A major problem with contemporary American society, as Junger describes it, is that it devalues the moral courage of the warrior by not adequately reintegrating fighters into society after their duty has ended. The culture also fails to provide the most meaningful opportunity available to a returning warrior: work and a chance to feel like a valued part of the community. This leads to maladaptive responses to reintegration, such as chronic PTSD and suicide.
There are some difficulties with Tribe. As a journalist, Junger has a talent for telling a specific story and making a well-honed point; however, while he acknowledges that dissenting ideas exist, he does not integrate those ideas into the book.
This is particularly problematic with regard to his discussion of PTSD in returning war veterans. Junger makes the case for a direct causative link between the lack of meaningful reintegration programs for U.S. war veterans and increased rates of PTSD and suicide. That there is a connection between these events is without a doubt true. But Junger fails to address in any way the neurological changes some veterans undergo either through their service or the lack of appropriate support they receive upon return from deployment. Once those neurological changes have taken place, it is easy for PTSD symptoms to become entrenched and harder for individuals to recover. A more nuanced and broader discussion of PTSD might have improved the book.
Additionally, while Junger does an outstanding job of describing the positive aspects of tribal cultures, particularly the benefits they have for helping individuals make meaning and experience community, there is little discussion of the problems of tribalism, the xenophobia and willingness to meet others with violence that can also be prevalent in tribal societies.
In fact, Junger sees value in conflict as an opportunity for men to prove themselves in battle. In Junger’s worldview, battle is a type of initiation into manhood and a way to gain status in community. Perhaps it is true—that we are a violent species that needs to engage in war—but the brutality of tribalism is a stark contrast to the picture of tribal societies being places largely of egalitarianism and community punctuated by conflict.
This book is not only for veterans or those involved in veteran’s affairs. It’s for any person who looks at American culture and wonders, “What’s wrong here?” Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging explains why rampage shooters attack and sets the groundwork for others to look at the growing anti-immigrant feelings in the nation and the vehemence of both Sanders and Trump supporters. It makes an impressive case for researching further at why so many Americans are frustrated and fed up with just about every aspect of the nation.
“The earliest and most basic definition of community—of tribe—would be the group of people that you would both help feed and help defend.” Who are those people? It’s a question each of us should ask ourselves. How we answer will indicate the path to follow toward more meaningful and happier relationships with those around us.