Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

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The latest book from Sebastian Junger is a short, yet very thought-provoking read. Tribe is an exploration into human nature and the root cause of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suffered by soldiers after they return home.  Junger attempts to shed light on a puzzling paradox. How come despite our constant search for peace we do not realize our greatest potentials unless we are at war. Why do we find greater meanings in adversity than we do in prosperity? By taking a journey through available research from human history, cultural anthropology, and psychology, we may be able to find answers that help us come together in a meaningful way.

Junger shares some valuable insights he gained from his time as a war reporter using his background in anthropology where he studied First Nation tribes. He asks why is it do we have an increase in disabilities afflicting U.S. soldiers while modern warfare has reduced the level of intense combat and casualties since World War II. What is the prevalence of PTSD in the Israeli army only 1%? Reading the book I found a general determinism theme running through it to answer these questions, which reduces all human behaviour to an evolutionarily wired desire to be part of a group, where all behaviour is hard-wired and the complexity of human life is oversimplified.

The second chapter is titled “War Makes You an Animal”, which was taken from a reflection made by Nidžara Ahmetašević, a prominent Bosnian journalist that Junger interviewed about her experience during the Bosnian siege by the Serbs. She refers to the basic human instinct during war “to help another human being who is sitting or standing or lying close to you.” This poses the question then of how exactly does war make you an animal? Is it that become a herd?

When a group of animals is attacked by a predator, they flee. It is a situation in which every individual animal fends for themselves in a real display of survival of the fittest. They do not come back together until the danger subsides, or if the attack does not go in favour of the predator and they realize it. However, what we witness with humans during war is a dichotomy of human potentiality, both of which transcend being merely an “animal”. We either answer a higher calling and overcome our selfishness, or we turn into demons. Even in the case of fleeing an attack, our behaviour does not exactly mirror animal behaviour.

One thing that struck me about Junger’s reasoning in his comparisons between pre-modern societies and modern ones is his designation of pre-modern as closer to animal nature. In the chapter “In Bitter Safety I Awake” he brings up an example of how the Iroquois Nation function with respect to war and peace. Hunger reasons that “defeat [for the Iroquois warrior] meant that a catastrophic violence might be visited upon everyone they loved, and in that context, fighting to the death made complete sense from both an evolutionary and an emotional point of view.

This materialist reasoning omits the spiritual aspect of the Iroquois Nation, which includes a belief in an afterlife and a reward of being united with the Great Spirit if one led a good life that honoured it. This lack of acknowledgment for their beliefs, which are an important and I would argue an indispensable factor in what motivated Iroquois warriors and how it helped them cope with the trauma of war makes Junger’s analysis quite deficient. It is ironic that Junger laments how anti-human our modern society is, while at the same time using the materialist reasoning that made modern society anti-human in the first place.

In the final chapter, “Calling from Mars”, Junger suggests that America in its modern form can draw from the spirit of community healing seen in Indian culture. This is untenable in a society that rejects the very foundation of community – a transcendental spiritual commitment that binds individuals together to make a community. Modern society does not require its members to share objectives higher than their own selves. On the contrary, it praises individuality and uniqueness in the extreme. While this may not get in the way of forming social relationships, such relationships will not be transformed into the deeper connections that can only be made by having a shared worldview.

The experiences and anecdotes Junger shares are invaluable to understanding human nature and how we are affected by our societal setting. It is a damning commentary on modern society and the illusion of human progress. Despite my misgivings about Tribe I do highly recommend it.

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