Written by the award-winning filmmaker and author Sebastian Junger, Tribe is a short book about community and solidarity.
Tackling from the angles of anthropology, psychology and history, Junger discusses war and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the perils of modern society and the loss of human “tribes”—warmth, community, solidarity and looking out for each other.
His main thesis is that modern society is lacking the tribal warmth early humans used to have. This has resulted in the increasing feeling of loneliness, depression and other associated mental disorders.
However, tragedies like earthquakes and wars have the ability to bring people together with a common cause. And perhaps, subtly suggested by Junger (he did not explicitly say so in the book), we might need these common causes to feel together again.
Sounds preposterous? I thought so too. But Junger (apparently) had strong scientific/psychological evidence to prove his point.
I thought the book was pretty thought-provoking. Many of the points raised by Junger were counter-intuitive and not things you would think about when discussing those topics.
It’s an interesting point-of-view that I would have never thought about.
However, just to be sure, I am not advocating for his perspective. As many reviewers have justly pointed out, Junger glamourises war and conflict. His book covers the benefits of such trauma and tragedies, but glosses over the losses, deaths and abuses suffered by others.
Junger was a war journalist—and perhaps he might have felt something during those dangerous periods—but I highly doubt that any of us truly want to be at risk for our lives just to feel less than lonely.
Anyway, here are my key takeaways from Tribe.
Table of Contents
An interesting comparison between Native Americans and European-Americans
- It may say something about human nature that a surprising number of Americans—mostly men—wound up joining Indian society rather than staying in their own. They emulated Indians, married them, were adopted by them, and on some occasions even fought alongside them.
- And the opposite almost never happened: Indians almost never ran away to join white society. Emigration always seemed to go from the civilised to the tribal, and it left Western thinkers flummoxed about how to explain such an apparent rejection of their society.
- “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European,” a French émigré named Hector de Crèvecoeur lamented in 1782. “There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.”
- It’s easy for people in modern society to romanticise Indian life, and it might well have been easy for men like George as well. That impulse should be guarded against. Virtually all of the Indian tribes waged war against their neighbours and practiced deeply sickening forms of torture. Prisoners who weren’t tomahawked on the spot could expect to be disemboweled and tied to a tree with their own intestines or blistered to death over a slow fire or simply hacked to pieces and fed alive to the dogs.
- For all the temptations of native life, one of the most compelling might have been its fundamental egalitarianism. Personal property was usually limited to whatever could be transported by horse or on foot, so gross inequalities of wealth were difficult to accumulate. Successful hunters and warriors could support multiple wives, but unlike modern society, those advantages were generally not passed on through the generations. Social status came through hunting and war, which all men had access to, and women had far more autonomy and sexual freedom—and bore fewer children—than women in white society.
- “Here I have no master,” an anonymous colonial woman was quoted by the secretary of the French legation as saying about her life with the Indians. “I am the equal of all the women in the tribe, I do what I please without anyone’s saying anything about it, I work only for myself, I shall marry if I wish and be unmarried again when I wish. Is there a single woman as independent as I in your cities?”
- The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious on the face of it—but why Western society is so unappealing.
- But as societies become more affluent they tend to require more, rather than less, time and commitment by the individual, and it’s possible that many people feel that affluence and safety simply aren’t a good trade for freedom.
The problem with modern society
- First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good.
- And as society modernised, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. 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.
- Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society—despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanisation 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.
- According to The Ethics of Suicide: Historical Sources , early chroniclers of the American Indians couldn’t find any other examples of suicide that were rooted in psychological causes. Early sources report that the Bella Coola, the Ojibwa, the Montagnais, the Arapaho, the Plateau Yuma, the Southern Paiute, and the Zuni, among many others, experienced no suicide at all.
- This stands in stark contrast to many modern societies, where the suicide rate is as high as 25 cases per 100,000 people. (In the United States, white middle-aged men currently have the highest rate at nearly 30 suicides per 100,000.) According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities—like the United States—run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders.
- Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasise extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result, mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth. The more assimilated a person is into American society, the more likely they are to develop depression during the course of their lifetime, regardless of what ethnicity they are.
- The alienating effects of wealth and modernity on the human experience start virtually at birth and never let up. Infants in hunter-gatherer societies are carried by their mothers as much as 90 percent of the time, which roughly corresponds to carrying rates among other primates.
- In America during the 1970s, mothers maintained skin-to-skin contact with babies as little as 16 percent of the time, which is a level that traditional societies would probably consider a form of child abuse.
- Only in Northern European societies do children go through the well-known developmental stage of bonding with stuffed animals; elsewhere, children get their sense of safety from the adults sleeping near them.
- Compare the self-soothing approach to that of a traditional Mayan community in Guatemala: “Infants and children simply fall asleep when sleepy, do not wear specific sleep clothes or use traditional transitional objects, room share and co-sleep with parents or siblings, and nurse on demand during the night.”
Men no longer have initiations
- Modern society obviously doesn’t conduct initiations on its young men, but many boys still do their best to demonstrate their readiness for manhood in all kinds of clumsy and dangerous ways. They drive too fast, get into fights, haze each other, play sports, join fraternities, drink too much, and gamble with their lives in a million idiotic ways.
- To the extent that boys are drawn to war, it may be less out of an interest in violence than a longing for the kind of maturity and respect that often come with it.
On war and tragedy
- The one thing that might be said for societal collapse is that—for a while at least—everyone is equal.
- “An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain,” one of the survivors wrote. “The equality of all men.”
- 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.
- The question of societal breakdown in the face of calamity suddenly became urgent in the run-up to World War II, when the world powers were anticipating aerial bombardments deliberately calculated to cause mass hysteria in the cities. English authorities, for example, predicted that German attacks would produce 35,000 casualties a day in London alone (total civilian casualties for the country were not even twice that).
- No one knew how a civilian population would react to that kind of trauma, but the Churchill government assumed the worst. So poor was their opinion of the populace—particularly the working-class people of East London—that emergency planners were reluctant to even build public bomb shelters because they worried people would move into them and simply never move out. Economic production would plummet and the shelters themselves, it was feared, would become a breeding ground for political dissent and even Communism.
- On September 7, 1940, German bombers started hitting London in earnest and did not let up until the following May. For fifty-seven consecutive days, waves of German bombers flew over London and dropped thousands of tons of high explosives directly into residential areas, killing hundreds of people at a time. Throughout the Blitz, as it was known, many Londoners trudged to work in the morning, trudged across town to shelters or tube stations in the evening, and then trudged back to work again when it got light.
- Conduct was so good in the shelters that volunteers never even had to summon the police to maintain order. If anything, the crowd policed themselves according to unwritten rules that made life bearable for complete strangers jammed shoulder to shoulder on floors that were at times awash in urine.
- “Ten thousand people had come together without ties of friendship or economics, with no plans at all as to what they meant to do,” one man wrote about life in a massive concrete structure known as Tilbury Shelter. “They found themselves, literally overnight, inhabitants of a vague twilight town of strangers. At first there were no rules, rewards or penalties, no hierarchy or command. Almost immediately, ‘laws’ began to emerge—laws enforced not by police and wardens (who at first proved helpless in the face of such multitudes) but by the shelterers themselves.”
On war and the effects on mental health
- Not only did these experiences fail to produce mass hysteria, they didn’t even trigger much individual psychosis. Before the war, projections for psychiatric breakdown in England ran as high as four million people, but as the Blitz progressed, psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down.
- Psychiatrists watched in puzzlement as long-standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids. Voluntary admissions to psychiatric wards noticeably declined, and even epileptics reported having fewer seizures.
- The positive effects of war on mental health were first noticed by the great sociologist Emile Durkheim, who found that when European countries went to war, suicide rates dropped.
- Researchers documented a similar phenomenon during civil wars in Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. An Irish psychologist named H. A. Lyons found that suicide rates in Belfast dropped 50 percent during the riots of 1969 and 1970, and homicide and other violent crimes also went down. Depression rates for both men and women declined abruptly during that period, with men experiencing the most extreme drop in the most violent districts.
- “When people are actively engaged in a cause their lives have more purpose … with a result ing improvement in mental health,” Lyons wrote in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research in 1979. “It would be irresponsible to suggest violence as a means of improving mental health, but the Belfast findings suggest that people will feel better psychologically if they have more involvement with their community.”
- American analysts based in England monitored the effects of the bombing to see if any cracks began to appear in the German resolve, and to their surprise found exactly the opposite: the more the Allies bombed, the more defiant the German population became. Industrial production actually rose in Germany during the war. And the cities with the highest morale were the ones—like Dresden—that were bombed the hardest. According to German psychologists who compared notes with their American counterparts after the war, it was the untouched cities where civilian morale suffered the most.
- Intrigued by the fact that in both England and Germany, civilian resilience had risen in response to the air raids, Fritz went on to complete a more general study of how communities respond to calamity. After the war he turned his attention to natural disasters in the United States and formulated a broad theory about social resilience.
- Fritz’s theory was that modern society has gravely disrupted the social bonds that have always characterised the human experience, and 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. As people come together to face an existential threat, Fritz found, class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group. It is a kind of fleeting social utopia that, Fritz felt, is enormously gratifying to the average person and downright therapeutic to people suffering from mental illness.
On post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Long-term PTSD, on the other hand—the kind that can last years or even a lifetime—is clearly maladaptive and relatively uncommon. Many studies have shown that in the general population, at most 20 percent of people who have been traumatised get long-term PTSD.
- “Treating combat veterans is different from treating rape victims, because rape victims don’t have this idea that some aspects of their experience are worth retaining,” I was told by Dr. Rachel Yehuda, the director of traumatic stress studies at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
- Multiple studies, including a 2007 analysis from the Institute of Medicine and 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. Statistically, the 20 percent of people who fail to overcome trauma tend to be those who are already burdened by psychological issues, either because they inherited them or because they suffered abuse as children.
- According to a 2014 study in the American Medical Association’s JAMA Psychiatry , men with military service are now twice as likely to report sexual assault during their childhood as men who never served. This was not true during the draft. Sexual abuse is a well-known predictor of depression and other mental health issues, and the military suicide rate may in part be a result of that.
- Studies from around the world show that recovery from war—from any trauma—is heavily influenced by the society one belongs to, and there are societies that make that process relatively easy. Modern society does not seem to be one of them.
- A modern soldier returning from combat—or a survivor of Sarajevo—goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for, back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good. Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively. Whatever the technological advances of modern society—and they’re nearly miraculous—the individualised lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalising to the human spirit.
- “PTSD is a disorder of recovery, and if treatment only focuses on identifying symptoms, it pathologises and alienates vets. But if the focus is on family and community, it puts them in a situation of collective healing.”
- Despite decades of intermittent war, the Israel Defence Forces have by some measures a PTSD rate as low as 1 percent. Two of the fore- most reasons may have to do with the proximity of the combat—the war is virtually on their doorstep—and national military service. “Being in the military is something that most people have done,” I was told by Dr. Arieh Shalev, who has devoted the last twenty years to studying PTSD.
- The Israelis are benefiting from what the author and ethicist Austin Dacey describes as a “shared public meaning” of the war. Shared public meaning gives soldiers a context for their losses and their sacrifice that is acknowledged by most of the society. That helps keep at bay the sense of futility and rage that can develop among soldiers during a war that doesn’t seem to end.
- Because modern society has almost completely eliminated trauma and violence from everyday life, anyone who does suffer those things is deemed to be extraordinarily unfortunate. This gives people access to sympathy and resources but also creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery.
- Anthropologist Danny Hoffman, who studied Mende tribal combatants both during and after civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, found that international relief organisations introduced the idea of victimhood to combatants who until then had rarely, if ever, thought of themselves in those terms. “The language of ‘I am a victim too’ did not originate from the combatants themselves,” Hoffman told me. “[Aid organisations] would come in and say, ‘This is how you’re supposed to be feeling … and if you do, then you’ll have access to food supplies and training.’”
- Anthropologists like Kohrt, Hoffman, and Abramowitz have identified three factors that seem to crucially affect a combatant’s transition back into civilian life. The United States seems to rank low on all three. First, cohesive and egalitarian tribal societies do a very good job at mitigating the effects of trauma, but by their very nature, many modern societies are exactly the opposite: hierarchical and alienating. America’s great wealth, although a blessing in many ways, has allowed for the growth of an individualistic society that suffers high rates of depression and anxiety. Both are correlated with chronic PTSD.
- Secondly, ex-combatants shouldn’t be seen—or be encouraged to see themselves—as victims. One can be deeply traumatised, as firemen are by the deaths of both colleagues and civilians, without being viewed through the lens of victimhood.
- The one way that soldiers are never allowed to see themselves during deployment is as victims, because the passivity of victimhood can get them killed. It’s yelled, beaten, and drilled out of them long before they get close to the battlefield. But when they come home they find themselves being viewed so sympathetically that they’re often excused from having to fully function in society. Some of them truly can’t function, and those people should be taken care of immediately; but imagine how confusing it must be to the rest of them.
- Perhaps most important, veterans need to feel that they’re just as necessary and productive back in society as they were on the battlefield.
“The only one capable of destroying the U.S is the U.S itself”
- 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. It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. The income gap between rich and poor continues to widen, many people live in racially segregated communities, the elderly are mostly sequestered from public life, and rampage shootings happen so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two.
- To make matters worse, politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country—a charge so destructive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness, and the veterans know this. In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.
- I know what coming back to America from a war zone is like because I’ve done it so many times. First there is a kind of shock at the level of comfort and affluence that we enjoy, but that is followed by the dismal realisation that we live in a society that is basically at war with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about—depending on their views—the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire US government.
- “If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different—you underscore your shared humanity,” she told me. “I’m appalled by how much people focus on differences. Why are you focusing on how different you are from one another, and not on the things that unite us?”
- The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone. That way, America’s ugliest partisan tendencies could emerge unimpeded by the unifying effects of war. The ultimate betrayal of tribe isn’t acting competitively—that should be encouraged—but predicating your power on the excommunication of others from the group.
- In an article published in 2012 in The Lancet , epidemiologists who study suicide estimated that the recession cost almost 5,000 additional American lives during the first two years—disproportionately among middle-aged white men. That is close to the nation’s losses in the Iraq and Afghan wars combined.