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Book Review: Tribe (Sebastian Junger)

Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe” is in some ways an original book, and in some ways not. It’s original in that it applies the truism that modern Western life is alienating specifically to the mental issues afflicting veterans. It’s not original in that, although he seems not to know it, his book is an entry in a long line of books identifying and analyzing the alienation of individuals common in modern American society. Those books long since identified and discuss what Junger ignores—that intermediary institutions, now largely defunct, alleviated this alienation in times past. Instead, Junger posits a false dichotomy—between the tribal life of community and modern American life, ignoring that society long since developed structures, now fallen into abeyance, to provide that small-scale community in the midst of a large society.

In a nutshell, “Tribe” tells us (a) in many ways relating to personal satisfaction, tribal life is superior to modern life; (b) counterintuitively, most modern people are happier and less alienated during war and war-like conditions; (c) acute post-traumatic stress is common in all societies, but long-term post-traumatic stress is much more common in modern societies, or more precisely, in modern societies such as America that are not organized to regard war as a community activity; (d) our society, both veterans and the broader society, can benefit from more tribal solidarity and less contempt for each other.

Junger begins with a discussion of tribes. All the tribes Junger talks about are American Indian tribes (and he correctly uses that term, rather than the inaccurate “Native American”); presumably Indian tribes are a good proxy for all tribal societies, but in a short book Junger obviously can’t spend time on differentiating types of tribes. He notes that not uncommonly colonial-era Europeans “defected” to live with Indian tribes, but the reverse rarely happened. Thus, tribal life must be attractive to the “modern” person. Indian tribes were, as all tribes, largely egalitarian societies, small-scale, generally with a tribal leader whose tenure lasted as long as he could deliver the goods to the tribe’s members, all of whom were of course personally known to him. In addition, tribal life involves lots of personal leisure time and lots of personal control; rarely or never being alone; and attachment parenting. Mental illness is rare and suicide for mental reasons nearly nonexistent. All these things are certainly attractive to some members of a modern society.

Most importantly, each tribal member is strongly committed to each other tribal member. Internal betrayals such as theft are severely punished (which Junger compares to the lack of punishment for financial crimes in modern America). And, of course each tribal member is strongly committed against outsiders, usually involving combat. In sum, in a tribe, everyone feels like he is part of something large than himself, that he is not alone and that he is necessary, and this the most attractive thing of all.

Of course, when praising tribal life for its virtues, it’s easy to fall into the myth of the “noble savage.” For the most part, Junger avoids this. He notes the constant violence inherent in all tribal life, and the extreme savagery common among American Indians, although he mars this by inapt and trite analogies to the Spanish Inquisition, shying away from ever implying that perhaps tribes were nastier than states, even though that’s clearly true, given that in many cultures, more than 50% of men in tribes died by violence.

Junger then turns to a discussion of human reactions to hardship, mostly the hardships of war and conflict. He notes that, contrary to popular perception, the universal result in modern Western societies of natural or man-made disasters on the local level is to create not anarchy, but its opposite—they become, for a time, “more just, more egalitarian, and more fair to individuals.” This includes places like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Hardship simply does not make any already coherent society break down; in fact, it usually strengthens societies, or at least the bonds among their members. “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.” And war in particular makes people feel actively engaged in a cause, so their lives have purpose and meaning. “[I]n 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 who experience them.”

According to Junger, who perhaps over-likes the pat and non-falsifiable reasoning of evolutionary psychology, humans developed their tribal societies surrounded by threats, so such cooperative behavior in dangerous times was adaptive and therefore biologically encouraged, and is therefore natural to humans. Junger gives the example of how people will risk their lives to help strangers (although not equally—women of child bearing age receive vastly greater such help than elderly men). The vast majority of such risk-takers are men. This makes sense from Junger’s evolutionary perspective, according to which men should risk their lives for others, especially women, and as he notes, men’s brains are hard-wired to basically reward them for taking risks in a way women’s are not.

Junger tries to balance the apparent sexism of this of this by alleging that women show “moral courage,” an unquantifiable concept related to keeping communities intact in the face of less-immediate threats. Of course, to note men risk their lives more is not really sexist at all. Just like you’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you, you aren’t sexist if you recognize one of the many real and immutable differences between men and women. Few realists would disagree, though, that women are generally tougher in long-term difficult environments, and better at keeping society together, what Junger calls “empathetic leadership.” Junger views these roles of men and women as two sides of the evolutionary coin, together forming a viable evolutionary strategy.

In fact, throughout the book, Junger repeatedly highlights the differences between men and women as they apply to his analysis. For example, he repeatedly notes the importance in tribal societies of ceremonies and activities marking a boy’s passage to manhood, and how, in aboriginal Australian societies, “those who refused or failed these tests weren’t considered men and lived in a kind of gender twilight.” This is, of course, counterpoised to the modern question, “How do you become a man in a society that doesn’t require courage?” Junger does not play the PC game of pretending that men and women are alike or materially interchangeable. He views this differentiation on the basis of sex, in fact, explicitly as “vital for group survival.” I doubt if Junger thinks much of women in combat, although he is too smart to say so. This approach is refreshing.

Junger then turns to the specifics of veterans and PTSD. He notes that short-term trauma, or acute PTSD, is common among tribal societies, but they (using the example of the very warlike Iroquois) were set up to recognize this and readily integrate the warrior back into society. The same is true for modern low-level societies that are endemically violent, such as African failed states, and for some states, such as Israel and Sri Lanka. It is not true for America (though it was largely true in World War II), where half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability, despite only 10% of the armed forces having experienced combat. More generally, for decades as combat deaths have dropped, disability claims have risen in inverse proportion. This is not, Junger says, because veterans are faking (although some are, given the incentives to claim benefits, and Junger dislikes the tendency to encourage veterans to view themselves as victims, which is never the case in tribal societies). He attributes it to difficulties in re-integrating into society, such that returning soldiers feel alienated from society.

Soldiers feel alienated from modern American society because they miss the sense of cooperation and community they found in the military. Israel, on the other hand, has that sense of community, and rates of PTSD are miniscule. “[T]he closer the public is to actual combat, the better the war will be understood and the less difficulty soldiers will have when they come home.” Junger calls this “shared public meaning.” It is not created by 10% discounts for veterans, letting them board planes first, and thanking them for their service (although that’s presumably better than spitting on soldiers, as liberals did on a huge scale after Vietnam, something they now try to deny despite voluminous documentary proof).

Finally, Junger addresses our society as a whole. Yes, modern society is “a kind of paradise.” (Noble savage or not, though, from the perspective of human advancement, tribal life is undeniably terrible. See, e.g., Papua New Guinea.) But “there are many costs to modern society . . . [and] the most dangerous loss may be community.” It’s not just veterans, but, among other things, that the most dangerous jobs are the most necessary and the most socially denigrated (and all performed by men). It’s littering. It’s the “me first” mentality, the “greed is good” mentality (although Junger does not actually refer to that classic phrase). It’s rampage shootings. Many of the things we do are the very opposite of what members of a tribe would do, and that means we have massive alienation and a range of resulting pathologies.

What is to be done? Junger notes Indian customs of catharsis such as the Sioux Ghost Dance. “Contemporary America is a secular society that obviously can’t just borrow from Indian culture to heal its own psychic wounds. But the spirit of community healing and connection that forms the basis of these ceremonies is one that a modern society might draw on. . . . If contemporary America doesn’t develop ways to publicly confront the emotional consequences of war, those consequences will continue to burn a hole through the vets themselves.” Junger expands this to say that our society is “at war with itself,” in particular with each side of every political debate increasingly expressing contempt for those with whom they disagree. He ends by calling for an increased “sense of solidarity.” He does not suggest how this might be accomplished.

This is not a new insight. It was first (leaving aside 19th Century German Romanticism and early 20th Century Marxisms) analyzed by Robert Nisbet in his 1953 book “The Quest For Community.” Many other books have since focused on this, including Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” and, most recently, Yuval Levin’s “The Fractured Republic.” All of these writers, and many more, noted that modern America had lost the benefits of community—they, for the most part, did not put this as a contrast with tribal life, but the analysis is essentially the same.

But they saw clearly that it was not that America had suddenly lost tribal virtues. Instead, they recognized, as Junger seems not to, that until the 20th Century, Americans had the best of both worlds—modern tools and technology provided by the society as a whole, and the virtues of community provided by a huge range of intermediary institutions: labor unions, churches, reading groups, Elks lodges, bowling leagues, knitting societies, 4H, and many, many more. It’s the loss of those that’s caused what Junger complains of, not the change from a tribal society to what we have today. Such institutions traditionally balanced and alleviated the American urge to compete, to believe that life is merely “greed is good,” to experience alienation from frequent movement and urbanization.

Junger therefore fails to advocate what seems like an obvious solution to his dilemma: strengthening intermediary institutions in order to give Americans, veterans and others, the benefits of tribe without the downsides. For example, Junger might have advocated greatly strengthening local veterans’ social groups, and encouraging greater integration of those groups into revitalized local community organizations. Instead, he focuses on what amounts to public emotional catharsis, in a way more suited to actual tribes than to a modern society. But that makes his book incomplete, not bad, and it’s worth reading.

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