“When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.” – Benjamin Franklin
In his novel “Tribe”, Sebastian Junger explores what it means to be human, why we yearn to belong, and why we bind together in hardships. Junger begins by exploring the societies of the American Indians. As Benjamin Franklin noted, American Indians rejected the Colonist society, yearning to be with their people. Colonists would also eschew colonial life in favor of tribal society regularly, but American Indians never joined the colonists. Tribal life with the American Indians was not far removed from the life of our ancestors when they spread from the horn of Africa. Humans are biologically pre-disposed to tribal life. In modern society, Junger argues, the closest experience to tribal life is in the military. The disconnect between the tribal life of the military and our modern world is responsible for the psychological damages of war. The damage is not because of war itself, but because society is separated from it.
“Tribe” is a unique outlook on what it means to be human. The arguments presented are well researched and validated through Junger’s personal experiences. I found to book remarkable and it reframed the way I think about our world. Violence is a rare thing in our modern age. Our ancestors were under constant threat from wild beasts and war with neighboring peoples. Violence against a group serves to strengthen cohesion and cooperation. Junger includes examples from Kosovo during the Serbian genocide and European cities during WWII. In times of struggle, people cooperate across racial and wealth boundaries. I witnessed this myself after a massive snowstorm hit my area a couple of years ago. All of our neighbors came out the day after to dig out cars and clear walkways. People shared shovels, pitched in a hand for strangers, and bound together as a community. As soon as the snow cleared, that comradery was gone.
One area where tribal life still thrives is the military. Military unit’s sleep together, eat together, and fight together. So did the American Indians, and so did our ancestors. Junger spent time embedded with the US military in Afghanistan. Even though mortar rounds were falling in the distance, he never slept better than when he had snoring soldiers on either side of him. When men and women in the military are in a fire-fight, they are not fighting for their country, they are fighting for their friends in battle with them. When staring down the face of death, our body is flooded with chemicals to keep us hyper-alert. It’s only afterwards that the long-term consequences such as PTSD settle in.
PTSD rates are not universal. People who serve the frontlines are less likely to suffer from long-term PTSD than those who were in the rear. States such as Israel where everyone is required to serve in the military have lower rates than the United States. Front-line units under fire develop a strong unit cohesion which is known to reduce rates of psychological breakdown. There is also evidence that how we transition soldiers back into society plays a significant role in PTSD. According to Junger, Israel has PTSD rates as low as 1% because war is always on the doorstep and everyone serves. When Israelis return from combat the members of society have also served, which provides a relatively easy transition into civil society. In the United States, the reality is much different. Wars happen in far-away places that most Americans cannot find on a map. When soldiers return home to America, they do not have a tribe to return home to which leads to a feeling of isolation. Most American have not served, myself included, and have no reference for what soldier’s experience. It is impossible to know unless you have been there. Long-term PTSD results from a lack of re-integration into our society.
In my mind, “Tribe” is required reading. At only 192 pages, it provides powerful insights into why our society seems so fractured. Our natural desire is to be surrounded with familiar people, but our children are educated by strangers and we don’t know our neighbors. How much longer can our society last as the human connections which drive us continue to be eroded by vitriol from political leaders, widening inequality, Facebook highlight reels and Amazon delivering everything to your door. Human interaction is fading, and it’s the only thing that’s holding us together.