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Although the word tribe has long been used in a more-or-less neutral way for a certain type of social organization, tribalism has lately been re-purposed to label ugly behavior — the retreat from tolerance, curiosity and acceptance of others into mistrust, name calling and fear: retreating to be with your own. Much of this century’s vicious hatred and killing has been described as being tribal: Serb against Croat, Shia against Sunni; Tutsi against Hutu.  So it’s interesting to find a world-traveled and war-experienced author see this, tribalism, as a good thing, as a cure for what he sees as wrong in the world — or at least in America– today.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (Hachette, 2016) by Sebastian Junger caught my attention last year as I was reading much about homo-sapiens’ millennial long addiction to war.  Why do we keep returning to such destructive behavior, and with such alacrity?  Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites, Russel Jacoby’s Bloodlust (reviewed,)  and James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War all look deep into human psychology and tribal behavior, trying to find answers.  Organized, human violence has been recorded from the beginning of history.  It must be rooted is something, such writers say, in the cosmos, in the punishment of the Lord, in human psychology, in the genetic makeup not only of the species but the genus.  Why, if it is so terrible, in experience and appearance, so destructive of individuals and indeed, of civilizations, hasn’t evolution bred it out of us?  Why don’t memories and stories warn us away from committing another?

There must be rewards more powerful than caution, fear and certain catastrophe, or at least rewards working in tandem with forgetting.  Many novels and testimonials from serving soldiers, WW I to the present, even those we read as “anti-war,” speak not only of the horror and sadness but the thrill and the comradeship.  Hillman’s starting point is General George A Patton’s apocryphal quote: “I love it. God help me I do love it so. I love it more than my life.”

Tribe, doesn’t go directly at my question as to “why war?” but speaks to it often.  Junger, never a soldier but a journalist who has gone with them, is interested in the sense of  bonding and community he has seen among men in danger and in its lack in contemporary American society.  Why he wonders, when soldiers return from war, in recent times, is the incidence of post-war trauma so high, higher, he observes, than in other cultures in other times?

Why does PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder) grips such a high percentage of returning troops, many of whom have never been in combat?  There must be something in the society to which they return,  he tells us, that contributes to the ‘disorder.”

In common with other writers on war he finds themes of courage, loyalty and selflessness.  He cites authorities on men’s higher disposition for risky and aggressive behavior; the deep structures of mind for altruistic behavior, the template for a tribe as being those who share food and the common defense.  But he gives them to us not as a set of interesting possibilities, but to show that what he believes must be so.

This is the nugget from which he builds:

“This book is about why [tribal feeling] is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging  and the eternal human quest for meaning.  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 hardships. In fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.”

It’s the kind of book, and thought, I am attracted to: Why war?  Aggression vs cooperation? Evolutionary roots of behavior and morality? Individual vs society?   It is a book that makes me think.  Often, however, what I thought was: is this so? How do you/we know? If so, is it relevant?  What about counter-examples?
The opening chapter, with an unabashed Rousseauian view that life was better, more healthy and less warlike during pre-agriculture times and that modern folks live fragmented, disjointed, unhappy lives set the tone. Really? All tribes? Comanche as well as Oholone, Bambara as well as Alyawarre? When, if modernity is so fragmenting,  did it begin? How was life in the Dark Ages, for example?

The more I read, the more skeptical I got.  Broad sociological claims are created out of anecdotes — always a risky move. An old man on a highway who shared a last bit of food with Junger becomes an icon for “tribe,”  — “those people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with.”  He doubles down in the closing pages with an anecdote from an anthropologist traveling with an America-Indian who gives all of his supplies to another, going without himself.  When she asks him why he replies with some surprise, that if he had not he “would have been dead inside.”

Both are nice stories, and so is the Biblical one of the Good Samaritan.  Are they evidence of man’s deep tribal instincts?  In fact aren’t they the opposite — pointing to the fundamental fear of strangers?
The stories are told because the action is so unusual; the background expectation is that strangers will be robbed and beaten, enslaved and raped.

Junger tells of his leaving home as a young man, looking for adventure.

“The sheer predictability of life in an American suburb left me hoping … for a tornado or hurricane or something that would require us all to band together to survive.”

Well, maybe.  If what he was looking for was collective action, he was a strange lad indeed.  I left home early also.  I longed for (survivable) disaster, but it was for the thrill of it, to test my strength, my quickness of wit, to be noticed, not because I imagined working shoulder-to-shoulder on a flood threatened dike, or serving food to tornado victims.  I don’t know if boredom is a consequence of modernity but the young often want adventure.  For some a Ferris-wheel is enough, for others bungee-jumping.  For a substantial number what they want is, they imagine,  is firing big guns, driving big machinery, blowing stuff up, knocking things over, doing heroic deeds.  Soldiers going off to war “to be part of the show,” “so as not to miss it,” “to prove myself” are part of almost every war memoir and fiction from WW I on, and those images came from pre-mechanized warfare, from tales of colonial combat, man-against-savage in India and Africa.

Even though in our idealized versions of tribal conflict, men fight only to defend their own people against the raids of another or to obtain resources badly needed, it seems not to be so.  Even then, young men went on raids to test themselves, to whoop and holler; women were taken not because of a dearth at home, but because it proved dominance and power, it brought status.  I don’t know yet the deep causes of war among men but I suspect it is because amygdala medicine is stronger than frontal lobe medicine.

 Tribe is divided into four sections:
  • Bonding, belonging and meaning in tribal life compared to western society;
  • the strongly positive feelings for war experienced by some,  woven with a claim that during crisis people often respond selflessly, not selfishly;
  • the surprising rise of PTSD in modern warfare and the ways it manifests in different groups, with suggestions that it is over-diagnosed and occurs, not because of war trauma itself but from society’s inability (because fragmented) to share and make meaning of the experience;
  •  war stress and the strangeness of the societies to which fighters return, comparing American Indian communities to suburban, modern America,

The end of the often interesting, if contestable, essay is two fold.  Joining with former marine Karl Marlantes (here and reviewed) he calls from fuller re-integration of returning “warriors” through ritual and open, shared listening to what they’ve been through.  If they’ve been defending the tribe, it should be honored, and by more than the cheap and easy, ‘thank you for your service.”  Troubling him, however, is the possibility that this is not possible, that American society is so fractured and at war with itself that there is no there to come home to.  War, he has implied through the book, has often been an antidote to that.

“Bauman … clearly understood that belonging to society requires sacrifice, and that sacrifice gives back way more than it costs. (“It was better when it was really bad,” someone spray-painted on a wall about the loss of social solidarity in Bosnia when the war ended.) That sense of solidarity is at the core of what it means to be human and undoubtedly helped deliver us to this extraordinary moment in our history.

It may also be the only think that allows us to survive it.”

For all that is interesting in Junger’s ideas and in those he cites there is, to my ear, a clear echo of the same old, dangerous nostalgia that society today is degraded, weak and soft (feminine) and that to return to robust health means re-instituting stronger, more masculine norms.  Even though he speaks of self-sacrifice in civil circumstances — into a fire or river or overturned car to save a life– sacrifice is almost always understood as shadow or promise of military sacrifice, the gold standard.

 That others read this in Junger is borne out by those who take his book as evidence that America would be a better, stronger place if a universal draft, women included, were re-instituted.

Junger depends on his experience to inform his understanding.  Allow me.

 I was struck, as he has been,  during the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 at the way people responded, some standing at darkened cross-roads for hours, directing traffic, others giving strangers a ride home, neighbors gathering for clean up and solace.  The popular news is filled with such accounts, from around the world.  Can a theory of human behavior and origins be adduced from that?
My reading tells me of behavior in crisis that was entirely the opposite — looting, arson, armed robbery.   A crisis is an opportunity for many things not done in ordinary times.  Why one behavior and not the other, and is it to be found in our “given moral structure,” or our “learned moral structure,” and that dependent on time, surroundings, example, opportunity?

I also spent some years, 7 to be exact, in the US military.  I had friends, there was bonding. We did dangerous work. But that is not where I learned the lessons of community, shared struggle, dependency on others and aiding complete strangers.  That came later,  during 7 years of organizing against what the military, and the larger society was doing.  We were bonded not because we were in constant danger — though sometimes we were– but because acting together for ourselves and others was “better” as the Bosnian graffiti said.  It doesn’t take war to knit the fragments together.  It does take shared tasks and purpose; it does take letting the necessity of community and the necessity of individuality to abide together.

We had something like what William James called for in his 1910 essay “The Moral Equivalent of War.” James cites, as does Junger, the virtues of loyalty, courage, heroism, conscience cultivated in war.  The standard pacifist argument, which he himself accuses himself of,  does not take this into account; there should be a moral equivalent, of sacrifice and fellow feeling, but certainly not in war. Thus, his call for a moral equivalent — actions with the same values, without the murderous aims.

Junger does not mention James, so I don’t know if he has read him.  Though I agree that re-integrating those who have gone to war is vital both to them and their families and larger society, it is more vital that we come to understand and move away from the ancestral/genetic/god-given sense that such values only appear in war and that, as they are necessary, so to is war.


Here are a few other reviews, this first by Ann Marlowe in the Jewish tablet, much more dismissive than I am.
Another, calling it “half-baked 

From The Washington Monthly, “Sadly, Sebastian Junger, the well-known author and war correspondent, has now joined Capitol Hill conservatives. In his new book, The Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger turns a Vanity Fair article, published last year, into a lightly researched 168-page book.  In this slender, large-type volume, he revives many of the same hoary myths about alienated and self-disabled ex-soldiers “milking the system” that Severo and Milford debunked three decades ago.”

More positive here: When Junger explained in War that many combat veterans do have these feelings — that they do miss war and have many fond memories of war, up to and including killing other humans, it struck me as jarringly honest. He didn’t apologize for their feelings or explain why they were wrong for feeling that way.

Phillip Caputo, whose Rumor of War is justly praised,  mostly likes it,  but also thinks it is a bit thin