Sebastian Junger examines our need for a tribe of our own

TRIBE: On Homecoming and Belonging. Sebastian Junger. Twelve. 168 pages. $22.
TRIBE: On Homecoming and Belonging. Sebastian Junger. Twelve. 168 pages. $22.

Sebastian Junger begins his new book with an observation about a peculiar phenomenon in frontier America: From the late 17th to the late 19th century, hundreds of white settlers were seized by Indians, and almost all chose to remain with their captors when offered a chance to return to their families. They chose to be with the Indians because they found the intensely communal, egalitarian nature of tribal life preferable to Western civilization.

Junger postulates that the modern equivalents of those white captives are war veterans who come home longing for the intimacy of life with their platoon or company — their military tribe, so to speak. He says the lack of closeness and sense of purpose in civilian life may account for their extremely high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder. And he goes further.

He proposes that many of the ills in modern Western society are due to the loss of tribal sentiments lying deep in our evolutionary past. We remain hunter-gatherers in our souls while our bodies (and our minds) dwell in a culture that, for all its material blessings, is inimical to tribal virtues: cooperation rather than competition, affinity rather than alienation, a spirit of sharing rather than one of rugged individualism.

“This book is about … what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning,” Junger writes in the introduction. “It’s about why — for many people — war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship; in fact, they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary.”

Tribe is as thought-provoking as it is slender. Blending anthropology, psychology and history with social criticism, it’s a model of synthesis and brevity but would have benefited from some expansion. Junger seems to try to do too much with too little. I found myself underlining many passages, each one striking me as a gem of careful observation and thorough research (Junger’s source notes cover 29 pages for a book of 133 pages of text). At the same time, I’m not sure that these jewels hang together as tightly as they should.

From the early American frontier, Tribe abruptly leaps to the London Blitz, the Siege of Sarajevo and a Nova Scotia mine disaster in the 20th century. This section examines how war — and certain natural catastrophes — make us more human by drawing us together in a common cause. Citing sociologist Charles Fritz, Junger argues that wars and disasters turn us all into tribesmen. They thrust us back into ancient modes of cooperative behavior, creating a “‘community of sufferers’ that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others.”

This probably accounts for the paradoxical nostalgia many people feel for experiences that, you would think, they’d be better off forgetting. In the Siege of Sarajevo, which Junger covered as a war correspondent, one-fifth of the city’s population was killed or wounded. But when he returned to Sarajevo 20 years later, he found survivors longing for those days and “for who they’d been back then.” During the siege, self-sacrifice overcame self-interest.

“Whatever I say about war, I still hate it,” a woman tells him before admitting that she does “miss something from the war. But I also believe that the world we are living in … is very f---ed up if somebody is missing war. And many people do.”

That comment serves as preamble to the second half of Tribe. For the most part, the book examines the psychological problems of today’s war veterans, which result not from what they endured on the battlefield but from the dysfunctions of the society to which they return.

I was delighted to see Junger dispelling many of the myths and misconceptions about post-traumatic stress disorder. He observes that there are two kinds of PTSD: short-term, which is not really a disorder but a normal reaction to abnormal events; and long-term or chronic PTSD, which is crippling and unhealthy.

Counter to popular understanding, rear-echelon troops are more likely to suffer from PTSD than combatants, who account for only 10 percent of the armed forces. How, then, to explain the fact that the U.S. military today has the highest PTSD rate in its history? Junger concludes that the “majority of vets claiming to suffer from PTSD seem to have been affected by something other than direct exposure to danger.”

What is that something?

“Studies from around the world show that recovery from war — from any trauma — is heavily influenced by the society one belongs to,” Junger writes, “and there are societies that make that process relatively easy. Modern society does not seem to be among them.”

For “modern society,” read “American society,” which he describes as one where “personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good.” Cold, isolating, hyper-competitive, overly technological, it is “deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”

Social media, which was supposed to bring us closer together, has driven us further apart by providing echo chambers wherein conservatives and progressives, evangelicals and secularists, rich and poor can reinforce their prejudices and hone their contempt for one another.

We have become, Junger warns, a society that is “basically at war with itself,” unable to offer its members a chance to act selflessly; it “will probably fall apart.” He is to be commended for starting a conversation about how we can avoid that fate.

Philip Caputo reviewed this book for The Washington Post.