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Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging


Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

How have societies historically reintegrated warriors, and why is the modern-day United States so bad at it? These are the main questions of bestselling author Sebastian Junger’s latest book, TRIBE: On Homecoming and Belonging. He brings to bear information gleaned from sociologists, historians, anthropologists and his own experiences with soldiers returning from war zones. Though most of the book focuses on combatants, Junger also explores why civilians appear to benefit in certain ways from nearby warfare. 

The book begins with the earliest conflict on American soil between tribalism and civilization: the clash between American Indians and European settlers. Despite pioneers’ lives being much more materially luxurious than those of native tribespeople, many accounts describe how American Indian captives would gladly return to their tribes if given the opportunity, while settlers often refused or ran away after being returned to their towns and families. This apparent contradiction is the underpinning of Junger’s main thesis. He argues that those societies we consider advanced lack the quality essential for human happiness: loyalty to the group over the self. 

"[Junger] brings to bear information gleaned from sociologists, historians, anthropologists and his own experiences with soldiers returning from war zones."

The idea that the collective’s needs should trump all else is not a call for a new political system. It’s a proposition that a society that values the group above the individual is better able to account for issues that otherwise tear individuals and communities apart. A single person’s lack of utility or belonging is a problem for the whole society --- something Junger claims is recognized in tribal societies but not in the modern U.S. Such marginalized populations often include people with mental illness or disabilities and veterans, who may fall into either of those groups. 

Junger describes how people who live in proximity to large-scale violence tend to have higher resilience. Indicators of mental health such as number of suicides and people reporting depression or anxiety plummet during wartime or after events such as terrorist attacks. He includes observations from a woman who lived through the siege of Sarajevo, who describes compatriots as being “the happiest” during that time, and a doctor who marvels during the WWII Blitz that “chronic neurotics of peacetime now drive ambulances.”

While interesting, Junger has a tendency to go too far during his analysis of crisis situations. In one passage, he declares that there are two leadership roles during crises: the immediate decision-maker role and the longer-term caregiver role. It’s disappointing to see him ascribe these roles to the two sexes, male and female, respectively, despite pointing out that people of any sex can take on either of them.

Though soldiers experience real trauma when in war zones, Junger asserts that much of the damage caused to veterans in our society is during their reentry. In tribal societies, he maintains, either everyone is personally engaged in a war or there are mechanisms in place to spread understanding of trauma throughout the group, reintegrating rather than alienating warriors. He points to Israel (though not a tribal society) as an example of the former, and American Indian tribes such as the Lakotah and the Papago as examples of the latter. Until we find a way to address the general population’s distance from war, the difficulties of homecoming will continue to grow and destabilize our population. The book suggests that, in general, the best medicine for the societal ills we face is a greater cohesion. But what does that entail?

Junger’s ideas are compelling, but the book reads as it was originally written --- as an extension of an article for Vanity Fair. This is a perfectly valid format, but one that should be considered for those taking it as an authoritative text. There is significant danger in romanticizing war. Its devastations are concrete and should not be discounted. Additionally, although modern civilizations have long unfairly discounted tribal societies, we have also built a society in which some people do more than survive. And our dearest hope is to keep increasing that slice of the population.

Audiobook available, read by Sebastian Junger

Reviewed by Rebecca Kilberg on June 10, 2016

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
by Sebastian Junger

  • Publication Date: May 24, 2016
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Social Sciences
  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve
  • ISBN-10: 1455566381
  • ISBN-13: 9781455566389