Book Review: Tribe by Sebastian Junger

Reviewed by Robert Schlack* - I have never been a soldier nor a journalist embedded with American combat troops,  putting their lives on the line fighting our "unending wars" on selected middle eastern dictators, terrorists, and terrorism more generally over the past quarter century. Nor have I known  first hand Native American cultures, their traditions, and tribal wisdom.  Finally, I’ve never had to pick up the pieces of my after living through some catastrophic natural disaster, major civil war, or complete economic collapse.

Yet, after reading the award-winning, best-selling author Sebastian Junger's latest book, Tribe:  On Homecoming and Belonging, I ask myself "How much have I thus missed about what it really means to be human?"  How have these omissions diminished my understanding of how rich human life sometimes can be?  

The thesis Junger puts forth is both simple and convincing, and centered upon the anthropological record and evolutionary biology.  How, he asks, did our species separate itself over millennia from other branches of the primate family?  "Two of the behaviors that set early humans apart were the systematic sharing of food and altruistic group defense,” he writes [p.109].  What each of the above circumstances and selected others have in common is, for Junger, the core  “. . . of community—of tribe . . . the group of people that you would both help feed and help defend. . . . A society that doesn’t offer its members the chance to act selflessly in these ways isn’t a society in any tribal sense; it’s just a political entity that, lacking enemies, will probably fall apart on its own,” [p. 110].

From this perspective, Junger guides us through selective parts of the historical record offering empirical evidence from psychology, sociology, and economics to buttress his case. Local readers may find his extended discussion of the contrast between tribal and Western culture on the basis of happiness, mental health, childrearing, egalitarianism, the value assigned to cooperative vs.competitive behavior, and the source of legitimacy for a group leaders  of particular interest.  Junger argues that tribal societies do what most would see as a better job with these kind of things.  One small piece of evidence he submits for this is the overwhelmingly one-way intercultural migration of people from "the civilized to the tribal" throughout the period of European and American settlement of our continent that "left Western thinkers flummoxed to explain this rejection of their society," [p.2]. 

 In addition to published research (30 pages of notes and citations), Junger also draws from living and reporting with our troops in Afghanistan.  He also integrates into his arguments his covering of other recent wars and natural disasters, first-hand accounts of others, and  what was learned by observing group behavior in the WWII bombings of London and Dresden. The differences in gender roles that often emerge when groups experience extreme stress, or in life-threatening emergency situations, is also supportive of this evolutionary imperative.  Finally, he   shares with readers his own “short-term PTSD," and uses it as a foil to consider the long-term, debilitating, and often deadly form of this mental illness. 

Junger recognizes, of course, his own good fortune in returning home from war to a job, a supportive family, an expanding group of friends, and a certain degree of fame (he directed an academy award nominated documentary using footage of his Afganistan experience).  It was all of these things that helped validate for him the “primitive” instinct evolution has hard-wired into most human brains; to be wanted, to feel integral to the collective whole, to feel truly human.  

Since the First Iraqi War, American society has become increasingly more competitive and divisive, less communal, less egalitarian, and in ways more unjust.  At this point, four U.S. presidents have sent Americans off to fight in our recent wars, and unlike was true with Vietnam veterans, most of their fellow citizens have sought to honorably welcome them back home.  Yet we have too often failed to take the necessary policy measures that actually would do this, that would give returning soldiers a true sense of “belonging” in the mainstream of American culture today.  While Junger offers only one suggestion in this regard, policies are not the point of his book.  Rather it is intended to raise our awareness of what the bumper  sticker "I support our troops" really should mean for us.  As Junger writes in his introduction,  “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," [p. xvii].

With a new commander-in-chief, one who has repeatedly professed to "love our vets" and was the candidate who received a majority of their votes, the ball is once again in our court.  I highly recommend this book to not only readers in our community, but to every national, state, and local political leader who sees him or herself as in the service of our country.  


*Robert Schlack is an economics professor retired from four decades of teaching who currently resides in Franklin, Wisconsin, and who very much enjoys his seasonal home outside Bayfield.