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Book Review: Tribe

Tribe by Sebastian Junger Book Review by Bob Schoultz All American Leadership

To Read More Book Reviews by Bob Schoultz, click here.

Why this book: I listened to Tim Ferriss’s interview with Sebastian Junger on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast and was impressed with his ideas. A couple of my friends, also Tim Ferriss devotees, who were similarly impressed. We all agreed to read the book and get together to discuss it. We did so within a week.

My impressions: This book makes a single point, and makes it from a number of different perspectives: We are genetically, and socially programmed to function in close, relatively small, and inter-dependent groups, working closely together to deal with adversity. Adversity draws us together, brings out the best in us, and holds us together, because we know that united we stand, divided, or as individuals, we fall – that is, we do not survive. It is what we and other primate species have learned over the millennia. And natural selection and evolution have made this a key part of who we are.

But Western Civilization has taken much of the existential adversity out of our lives – in most settings, we no longer have to work together to merely survive. Our culture promotes individualism and independence, more so than tribalism and inter-dependence. Junger brings in a variety of examples and studies to help make the point that as a whole, humans are happier living in more communal societies, working together to deal with threats and challenges, than they are living independently, as individuals, or in smaller separate entities, with little need to depend on, or contribute to the social structure. One of the examples he gives is of American Indian tribes which had kidnapped and adopted whites, during the 18th and 19th centuries. Very often, the captured whites, after integrating with the native American tribes, did not want to return to white society – in fact often whites left white society to go live with the Indians, who by and large integrated them fully into their tribes. There are few if any instances of Indians choosing to live in white society. He offers other similar examples that make his point that when people experience a close knit, interdependent and egalitarian society, they are happiest.

He offers examples of how Westerners can become more tribal and inter-dependent – temporarily – when faced with disaster, or an existential threat. After 9-11 people all over the US set aside differences to create a unified response to a threat – just like our ancestors did regularly. Once the newness of the threat wore off, we reverted to competitive behavior and fostering internal competition that dissipated the unified feeling we experienced after 9-11. He looked at London during and after the German bombing Blitz in 1940, and gave examples of how natural disasters seemed to melt away class and income distinctions and bring people together. And once the immediate threat and requirement to support each other was past, people reverted to arguing, fighting, competing and undermining each other. And he notes, depression increases, suicides increase.

Indeed I’ve heard of recent research that says that a sense of belonging is one of if not the most important on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and may be more fundamental than the need for food, shelter, or security. Junger says we ignore that at our peril.

His more controversial point is that much of PTSD is a result of servicemen leaving a tribal, communal, purpose-driven life in the military in combat, and return to peacetime life disoriented and with less of a sense of community and common purpose. He makes the case that a certain percentage of PTSD sufferers are in fact suffering from inability to re-adapt to an atomized and alienated culture when they return from the intense and very cohesive environment of combat. They are missing that innate need to be part of a close-knit tribal inter-dependence, taking care of each other in response to threats to the tribe.

The book is a short and compelling read and I enjoyed it. Tim Ferriss’s interview with Junger covers much of the content of the book in about 2 1/2 hours. The interview and the book complement the other, but if you are interested in the topic, but don’t have time to read the book, listen to the podcast, entitled, “Lessons from War, Tribal Societies, and a non-fiction life.”

Possible shortcomings:

  1. David Morris, author of The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder sharply disputed Junger’s claims about the extent to which PTSD may be related to inability to adapt to peacetime or civilized society. In his Wall Street Journal review of Junger’s Tribe he argues that Junger’s statistics are severely skewed to help him make his case. I thought Morris’s review made some good points but was unfair in calling Junger a “war tourist” – Sebastian Junger has seen more of combat and war as a journalist than the vast majority of people in uniform. Whether a fair percentage of PTSD is a indeed a consequence of an inability to adapt from a tribal to a modern world as Junger claims, his argument that the epidemic of depression, suicide and “existential despair”that one finds in Western societies is probably in large part due to people feeling isolated from each other and protected from the requirement to work together in adversity, makes sense to me.

  2. I felt that Junger could also have given credit to the many advantages that accrue from societies where individual effort, striving, and competition are primary. Some people indeed attain their greatest achievements and fulfillment when unhampered by often suffocating social and communal requirements. Small villages and tribal societies are notorious for their conservatism, for squelching innovation and believing in tradition and superstition, in the face of new ideas and arguments for change. I didn’t think Junger adequately offered counter-arguments to his points in Tribe.

SOME QUOTES from Tribe: (page numbers from hardback Twelve Hatchett Book Group edition)

“How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t require sacrifice? How do you become a man in a society that doesn’t require courage?” xiv

“As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.” 19

“The mechanism seems simple: for people are forced to share their team and resource more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live inclosed communities.” 21

“..the evolutionary basis for moral behavior stems from group pressure.” 27

“To the extent that boys are drawn to war, it may be less out of an interest in violence than a longing for the king of maturity and respect that often come with it.” 38

“Communities that have been devastated by natural or man-made disasters almost never lapse into chaos and disorder; if anything, they become more just, more egalitarian, and more deliberately fair to individuals.” 44 (note: Junger goes on to dispute how the press reported how the majority of people in New Orleans responded to Katrina)

“<Charles> Fritz theory was …that disasters thrust people back into a more ancient, organic way of relating. Disasters, he proposed, create a “community of sufferers” that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others.” 53

“As soon as relief flights began delivering aid to the area, class divisions returned and the sense of brotherhood disappeared. The modern world had arrived.”55

“That risk-taking tends to express itself in vary different ways in men and women….risking male lives to save female lives makes enormous evolutionary sense… But women are more likely than men to display something called moral courage.” 55-57

“The beauty and tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good.” 59

“What catastrophes seem to do – sometimes in the span of a few minutes – is turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.” 66

“But in 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.” 77

“…the National Research Council found that a person’s chance of getting chronic PTSD is in great part a function of their experiences before going to war.” 82

“…high unit cohesion is correlated with lower rates of psychiatric breakdown.” 85

“Horrific experiences are unfortunately a human universal, but long-term impairment from them is not..”. 87

(Quoting Sharon Abromowitz) “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow drop of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.”94

“..three factors seem to crucially affect a combatant’s transition back into civilian life….First, cohesive and egalitarian tribal societies do avery good job a mitigating the effects of trauma. …Secondly, ex-combatants shouldn’t be seen – or be encouraged to see themselves – as victims……Perhaps most importantly, veterans need to feel that they’re just as necessary and productive back in society as they were on the battlefield.” 101-102

“More dignified might be to offer veterans all over the country the use of their town hall every Veterans Day to speak freely about their experience at war. ” 123

“Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.” 124

“How do you make veterans feel that they are retuning to a cohesive society that was worth fighting for in the first place?” 127

“Acting in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community – be that your neighborhood, your workplace or your entire country.” 131


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