Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, explores the ties that bind small groups together though the lens of men that go to fight and die for their country. Tribe was an impulse buy for me. I listened to an interview that Junger did on the Tim Ferriss podcast while mowing, pulled my iPhone from my pocket, did a search, “Buy Now” and two days later (Thanks Prime!) I was cracking it open. Sorry to all the other books on my “to read” pile…sometimes something just catches my fancy.
I was hoping to get some insight into why tribes form and why they are important to human well being. The subject of tribe has interested me since I first learned about the Dunbar number. Part exploration, part lamentation, Tribe is not a deeply scientific work. There are no anthropologically verified per bonding models discussed. There really isn’t any evidence to speak of. There is however, plenty of anecdotal narrative, direct experience and some deep reflection on that experience.
Junger is probably most well known as the author of The Perfect Storm, which was made into a movie. I first heard about him when I watched Restrepo, a documentary he directed that follows a group of soldiers through a deployment in Afghanistan. Regardless of your views on the war in Afghanistan, you should watch and reflect on Restrepo (available on Netflix last I checked).
In Tribe, Junger is attempting to explain why those that we send to war to kill and die in our name are suffering the effects of PTSD in increasing numbers. He starts with an exploration of the “going native” phenomenon of the early colonial days. In the decades before the founding of the US, and for some time afterwards, there were numerous stories of white colonials leaving their cities, towns or villages and joining the local native american tribes. There were even stories of people being taken by the tribes against their will, and after being “rescued”, returning to the tribes that had kidnapped them, drawn by something more than an early version of Stockholm syndrome. What Junger points out about all of these stories, is that there are almost no examples of a native american leaving his/her tribe to live in a colonial city, town or village.
The conclusion that Junger draws from this is that there was something fundamentally better about the native way of life that even colonists that had never experienced it before immediately recognized when they saw it. He argues that the natives live in a way that we are more adapted to from an evolutionary standpoint and that:
“First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day – or an entire life – mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”
The rest of the book takes place in more recent history, from the big wars of the previous century through the present conflicts in the middle east. Junger credits his very existence to war, tracing the series of events that lead his ancestors to move from here to there, driven on by wars or rumors of war. He talks about his own refusal to sign his draft card when it arrived shortly after the end of the Viet Nam war and the conversation he had with his anti-war father that changed his mind.
Junger never served, but through a series of twists and turns eventually became a press correspondent assigned to various conflict zones. So while he was never a “tigger puller” he has been in the line of fire (with nothing more than a camera and a microphone). At one point in Tribe, Junger relates his own experience with PTSD, which first surfaces in the New York Subway.
“Suddenly I found myself backed up against an iron support column, convinced that I was going to die. For some reason everything seemed like a threat: there were too many people on the platform, the trains were moving too fast, the lights were too bright, the world was too loud. I couldn’t really explain what was wrong, but I was more scared than I ever was in Afghanistan.”
Junger relates this experience as a launching point to talk about the increasing occurrence of long term PTSD in todays vets. He points out a few factors which are contributing to it’s rise.
First, in very traditional (read: tribal) societies, war was always very close to home. In most modern conflicts at least one of the armies (and almost always ours) is fighting far from home. As a result, the war fighters are the only once that experience the war first hand. This asymmetry of experience between war fighters and those they leave at home leads to a feeling of separateness that pushes against the bonds of tribe that may have motivated them to go to war in the first place.
Next, he talks about studies which show those that are the most aggressive are actually the least affected by long term PTSD. He concludes from this that overall we have become less aggressive. I’m not sure whether he views this as an overall good or bad thing, but he does make pains to point out that it has left our soldiers less capable of dealing with the long term impacts of fighting.
Lastly, he focuses on the near instantaneous transfer from battle front to home front that modern soldiers experience due to the wide availability and use of air transport. He relates stories of soldiers riding boats home after WWII, and the time that gave them to decompress and process what they had seen in the company of others who had seen the same before they were confronted with re-assimilating to the the home they had left to go and fight. Modern soldiers can be on the front lines one day and mowing their lawn the next.
He concludes the book with some recommendations including using public holidays that used to mean something (anyone happen to know what we are memorializing on memorial day) as a chance for veterans to speak to their local community about their experience. I do think that might do a lot to heal the unseen wounds many of these veterans as well as make those that decide to send them to war (or not oppose those that do) more awake to the realities of exactly what they are asking someone else to do in their name.
On the larger point about tribe, war and what we’ve lost in the modern world, I can understand where Junger is trying to go, but I think he misses an important connection and sequence. While his assessment of the modern catalysts for the increased rates of PTSD is right on, he stops short of naming the root cause: war itself. He can’t quite bring himself to reach the obvious conclusion that without war there would be no PTSD. In fact he still sees war as having some redeeming qualities:
“If war were purely and absolutely bad in every single aspect and toxic in all its effects, it would probably not happen as often as it does. But in addition to all the destruction and loss of life, war also inspires ancient human virtues of courage, loyalty and selflessness that can be utterly intoxicating to the people that experience them.”
I have no reason to doubt that this is true. But I have to ask is this the only or even the best way to inspire these ancient human virtues? Does the means justify the ends? Can war be considered just, or perhaps even valuable, since it makes those that fight in it courageous, loyal and selfless? Is it worth it, even to the individual, to experience those virtues if in exchange they are faced with being more scared of a crowded space for the res too their life at home than they were on the battlefield? While Junger concludes correctly that a greater sense of tribe can heal those suffering from PTSD, I have to wonder if a greater sense of tribe could prevent the wars that create the need for healing in the first place?