TRIBE, by Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger

“What people miss [about combat] presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender. There are obvious stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even greater stresses on a person in isolation” (p. 92-93).


It’s been over a week since I finished Sebastian Junger’s TRIBE (2016), a slender work of non-fiction by the bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, War, and Fire. Since completing this quick read, I have found myself repeatedly glancing at its matte black cover and feeling drawn uncomfortably to its title — the word TRIBE. For nearly ten days something has bothered me about it. Not until this afternoon, while copying passages from the book onto a yellow legal pad, did I finally determine why the title provokes me. Its typeface features a camouflage pattern. On the surface, this is fitting. But symbolically, the camouflage is indicative of a troubling fact about our society.

For a book that often refers to military service in order to explore the differences between tribal societies and modern Western culture, the use of camouflage is ideal. After all, the external face of the U.S. military – especially the Army and Marines – mixes olive drab, dark brown, chocolate, and greenish-yellow. Thus the camouflage typeface is not only appropriate in its connection to soldiers’ fatigues, but it appeals to shoppers whose passing gaze may fancy the green-brown-yellow pattern that adorns everything from women’s yoga pants to pre-teens’ school backpacks. Camouflage is cool.

But this afternoon I realized why the pattern has been nagging me. I value Junger’s use of military references to help readers understand the distinctions between tribal societies (both historical and contemporary) and modern Western culture. But it dawned on me today that it is the purpose of camouflage that has been provoking my discomfort; camouflage helps its host disappear. Drawing on influences from the natural world, humans have disguised their appearance for well over a hundred years through the use of specially-crafted garb. The goal of such clothing is to blend in to one’s surroundings, to become invisible against the background.

Understandably, on the battlefield and behind enemy lines, soldiers want to achieve invisibility. If you can’t be seen, it’s much less likely that you will be shot or bombed. But when soldiers return from duty and re-enter civilian life, what occurs if they are still camouflaged? Not from face-paint or jungle fatigues, but from the fact that most civilians in modern Western culture are at least partially – and in many cases largely — invisible inside their communities. Junger’s thesis asserts that disconnection has become widespread in the United States and western Europe, and that servicemen and women are not the only ones feeling lost. Rather, the entirety of modern Western culture is showing signs of alienation from community-centered values.

Junger believes that this disconnection, this sense of feeling invisible, is due to several causes: (1) the lack of a crisis around which people must band together in order to survive, (2) the affluence of modern society and the fact that its luxuries are prized when they are amassed instead of shared, and (3) the belief that success has become a solo effort, not one measured by improvements in group health and welfare. He writes: “Whatever the technological advances of modern society – and they’re nearly miraculous – the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit” (p. 93). These are heavy words.

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Much of the work’s 136 pages features a fascinating historical analysis of why our human spirit has been eroding over the last several centuries. The first quarter of the book documents stories from the American frontier, a time during which a striking number of European settlers found more appealing living conditions with Native American cultures than they did with the colonies that they were, by nationality, a part of. As a result, both men and women migrated from colonies to tribal encampments. And even when rescue parties were sent out to bring these individuals home, they often resisted; in fact, more than a few hid from their rescuers. For those who left the colonies to join tribal life, the tight bonds of Native American cultures were more reassuring than what they were experiencing in “civilized” settlements on the east coast.

For the remaining chapters, the author turns toward World Wars I and II, conflicts during which the need to band together (as both civilian communities and military units) witnessed dramatic decreases in people’s self-reported depression, anxiety, and stress.  Because the members of those populations joined together for a common cause, they formed connections with strangers. They focused on others instead of themselves because their well-being (if not their survival) could be ensured only if the group remained viable. One of the most powerful examples that the book features is the well-documented phenomena that manifested in London during the Blitz. Despite weeks of brutal aerial bombardments by the German Luftwaffe, the citizens of London experienced a pronounced increase in spirit and emotional intimacy at the very time that their lives were most threatened. Imminent danger catalyzed relationship building.

The author writes: “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” (p. 66). With the exception of natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, and wildfires, most Americans are largely insulated from anything resembling a true catastrophe. Although global warming, poverty, and discrimination are very pressing problems, they do not possess the commanding immediacy of an invasion by a foreign army, the outbreak of a communicable disease, or a power outage that puts half of the nation in the dark. Consequently, we rarely depend on others. This results in a situation where Junger writes: “A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day – or an entire life – mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone” (p. 18).

Supporting Junger’s argument are interviews with scholars and social scientists, who attest to the strengths of tribal cultures. These experts also provide sobering commentary about the ways in which modern society is falling far short of upholding the values that more primitive cultures maintain through their reliance on group dynamics. In response to Junger sharing some of his observations with anthropologist Sharon Abramowitz and asking her how suitable they are to disclose to readers, she responds this way: “You’ll have to be prepared to say that we are not a good society – that we are an antihuman society” (p. 93). She continues by saying that, “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group 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” (p. 94).

My only regret about TRIBES is that it is not twice as long. In my estimation, Junger has just scratched the surface on this provocative subject. Whether you are interested in Colonial American history, the impact of PTSD on servicemen and women, the dynamics of fraud and greed in the financial sector, or the health of your suburban neighborhood, I recommend investing a few hours in Sebastian Junger’s book. It is a quick read, but its content will stick with you. And after considering the author’s observations, you may understand why camouflage is both a blessing and a curse. Invisibility is beneficial on the battlefield, but it harms everyone — soldiers and civilians alike — back home.


Interested in learning more?  

  • Sebastian Junger’s TED talks are worth your time. Here is a link to his most recent one, a presentation recorded in May 2016 entitled Our lonely society makes it hard to come home from war.
  • Sebastian Junger’s film Restrepo, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, is riveting.

Note — The images contained in this post were obtained from Sebastian Junger’s website and Unsplash.com.

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