‘Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging’: Sebastian Junger explores the warrior’s alienation after the war
August 7, 2016 12:00 AM
"Tribe," by Sebastian Junger.
By Donald E. Simpson
Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” is an extended reflection on the need for inclusion and belonging to be found today perhaps mainly in the onslaught of war and in the wake of large-scale disaster, but paradoxically absent in our comfortable, everyday life. It is written by an impassioned war correspondent less concerned with the scars of battle than the psychological dislocation experienced by those returning home, who have experienced tribal inclusion, but now face a future without it.
"TRIBE: ON HOMECOMING AND BELONGING"
By Sebastian Junger Twelve ($22).
For Mr. Junger, tribalism is a wholly positive term to describe a category of values and behaviors that have served the human race for millennia, but are tragically lacking from our modern, divided, competitive world. To this innate tribal impulse are ascribed the desire to belong, to live meaningfully, to be recognized and appreciated by our fellow human beings, and to live equitably and fairly. Even in the most alienated, imbalanced and exploitative modern societies, these virtues are never far below the surface, and are naturally evoked in times of war and disaster.
Combat veterans experience this sense of purpose, selflessness and belonging in their tight-knit battalions, as Mr. Junger has observed firsthand. In the line of fire, there are no individuals, no one is more or less important. There is only one organism: the tribe. Problems surface only when these veterans come home to a disjointed, abstract, incohesive culture of competition, selfishness and rampant material values. It is everyone for themselves. Those who can’t reintegrate are treated as victims, diagnosed with PTSD, and further isolated from the communal healing they most need.
In simpler, more primitive cultures, Mr. Junger argues, such issues never occur. The sense of belonging one might only encounter on the battlefield or in emergencies in our world is intrinsic to more holistic societies. Hostilities may break out among tribes, but community and belonging in both war and peace remain a constant. But for us, peace paradoxically does more violence than war.
Such indictments of modernity are nothing new. The abject admiration Mr. Junger exudes for primitive cultures is at least as old as Rousseau’s Noble Savage, untouched by modern greed or guile. Indeed, the desire to recover our more integrally human past is as old as anthropology itself, when the West first became aware of cultures outside itself that it might profitably study. American colonists fleeing to join Native American tribes, or tribal warriors returning even from the bloodiest battles without the slightest maladjustment or thought of suicide are just two examples Mr. Junger culls from sources as far back as the 1960s. Set against these are the latest data on post-traumatic stress disorders, social costs and Wall Street greed.
Absent from the book is any consideration of tribalism in the pejorative sense. Street and biker gangs, terrorist networks and fringe extremist movements are certainly tribes, too, negative examples of what civilization can expect should it continue to fail to inculcate inclusion and fairness. Consideration of such perversions of the same impulse to belong would only strengthen the book’s argument.
Mr. Junger’s critique of modernity is refreshingly free of ideology, and the complaints cited are those any thoughtful person might point out as aspects of civilization we could do without. But “Tribe” is also free of any practical guidance on instituting these changes. Assuming we are persuaded of the auspiciousness of swapping the worst attributes of modern life for the most obvious advantages of tribal cultures, there is no suggestion on how such fundamental social relations could be implemented on a wide scale, in a more communal lifestyle, or even on the level of a personal philosophy.
Donald E. Simpson is at work on a satirical graphic novel “Megaton Man: Return to Megatropolis” for release in 2017.
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