Sebastian Junger

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

“Humans don't mind hardship in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.”

In 1962, towards the end of his life and the year he won the Nobel Prize, John Steinbeck drove around the United States with his French poodle, Charley, hoping to find an America he had lost.

The place of my origin had changed, and having gone away I had not changed with it. In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me.

[…]

When I went away I had died, and so became fixed and unchangeable. My return caused only confusion and uneasiness. Although they could not say it, my old friends wanted me gone so that I could take my proper place in the pattern of remembrance—and I wanted to go for the same reason.

From John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America

Steinbeck was removed from his past world by money and fame, as a result he felt alienated upon his return. He lacked a feeling of belonging, kinship and reciprocal social responsibility.

travels with charley
Watertower in Marfa, West Texas. “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession.” wrote Steinbeck in his re-discovery of America. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

A half century after Steinbeck’s sorrowful expedition, American sociologist Robert Putnam would parse through a mountain of data to unearth his monumental thesis that Americans are “withdrawing from those networks of reciprocity that once constituted our communities.” What Putnam found is what Steinbeck felt: society was fracturing across numerous fault lines and many people felt they didn’t belong.1

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

This lack of belonging is the theme of Sebastian Junger’s (born January 17, 1962) sweeping yet intimate book Tribe.

“Humans don’t mind hardship in fact they thrive on it;” observes Junger, “What they mind is not feeling necessary.” What began as an article on PTSD in American soldiers grew into a study of tribalism as a means of social engagement, emotional ballast and general fitness of the group morals.

It’s revealing, then, to look at modern society through the prism of more than a million years of human cooperation and resource sharing. Subsistence-level hunters aren’t necessarily more moral than other people; they just can’t get away with selfish behavior because they live in small where almost everything is open to scrutiny. Modern society, on the other hand, is a sprawling and anonymous mess where people can get away with incredible levels of dishonesty without getting caught. What tribal people would consider a profound betrayal of the group, modern society simply dismisses as fraud. Around 3 percent of people on unemployment assistance intentionally cheat the system, for example, which costs the United States more than $2 billion a year. Such abuse would be immediately punished in tribal society.

What Putnam famously referred to as “social reciprocity,” and social psychologist Erich Fromm called “brotherly love”2 Junger calls tribe: “The people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with.”

The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good. Protected by police and fire departments and relieved of most of the challenges of survival, an urban man might go through his entire life without having to come to the aid of someone in danger—or even give up his dinner. Likewise, a woman in a society that has codified its moral behavior into a set of laws and penalties might never have to make a choice that puts her very life at risk. What would you risk dying for—and for whom is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss. It is a loss because having to face that question has, for tens of millennia, been one of the ways that we have defined ourselves as people. And it is a blessing because life has gotten far less difficult and traumatic than it was for most people even a century ago.

Illustration of American flags by Maira Kalman featured in Kalman's "And the Pursuit of Happiness" in the Examined Life Library.
Washington, D. C. “Hallelujah for the vast sea of nearly two million people holding madly fluttering flags in the bright noonday sun.” Illustration by Maira Kalman, courtesy of And the Pursuit of Happiness.

War, of course, is the contradiction to our modern distance from the collective good. But it is not as simple as war is bad. The brutal irony of war, Junger finds, is that often its shared suffering builds social cohesion.

During the London Blitz, the sheer regularity of the air raids seemed to provide its own weird reassurance, and the intense racket of the antiaircraft batteries – however ineffective – helped keep Londoners from feeling completely vulnerable. The total amount of beer consumed in the city did not change much, and neither did the rate of church attendance.

Towards the end of his nine-decade life my grandfather, a WWII veteran in the American Pacific, began talking about the War. For the first time that any of us, including my mother or grandmother could remember. He lit up, as if he was recalling childhood. He didn’t speak of death, but rather of people. People of all sorts.

Once he brought out a dollar bill, worn within an inch of its life, covered in faded ink.

“There were three of us headed over. We all had a dollar, signed it for the others.” He held it, chuckled and looked at it for a long time, drifting in and out of a memory that was vastly more complicated than we – than anyone – could fathom.

“What happened?” Someone asked, maybe me.

“I dunno, I kept it.” It wasn’t remorse, or sadness, it was just a deep memory which he pulled around his shoulders.

“Did they?”

“Oh no. They all died. A few days after.”

After what? The friendship? The pact? The trip across the ocean? After they saw the enemy? After enemy fired on the boats? My grandfather’s memory ended there, the story ended there, part of him ended there. There was no after.

At first I thought Grandpa spoke of the War to inform us. Now I know it was to reclaim part of himself, to step into memory. To exist in those friendships, a “brotherhood of pain.”3

The subtitle of Tribe is On Homecoming and Belonging because Junger’s research is primarily focused on U.S. troops who have returned from military service and have higher rates of PTSD (both short-term and long-term) than any other nation in the world, despite only 10% of the troops seeing active duty.

“If contemporary America doesn’t develop ways to publicly confront the emotional consequences of war,” he argues “Those consequences will continue to burn a hole through the vets themselves.”

Modern society rarely gives veterans – gives anyone – opportunities to [vent emotions]. Fortunately, freedom of speech means that, among other things, veterans are entitled to stand out on street corners with bullhorns and “disturb the peace.” More dignified might be offer veterans all over the country the use of their town hall every Veterans Day to speak freely about their experience at war. Some will say that war was the best thing that ever happened to them. Others will be so angry that what they say will barely make sense. Still others will be crying so hard that they won’t be able to speak at all. But a community ceremony like that would finally return the experience of war to our entire nation, rather than just leaving it to the people who fought. The bland phrase, “I support the troops,” would then mean showing up at the town hall once a year to hear these people out.

Photography by Andrew Wurster. Featured in Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" in the Examined Life Library.
Florinian Social Club in Melbourne, Australia. Would have been used for social gatherings of local community members. It is still active. Photograph by Australian photographer Andrew Wurster.

So many people need that stage right now. Need our ears, our time, our grace. What a perfect notion.

Connect the graceful, impassioned plea for community and emotional open-heartedness in Junger’s Tribe with Olivia Laing’s compassionate gaze into and out of isolation and loneliness, Simone Weil’s philosophical essay on the need for rootedness as a means to rebuild post-war societies; Wilfred Owen’s elegy for his brothers in arms, and my observations on the alienation of returning home as an adult, and the need for brotherly love.