On Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

An audio presentation of this essay is available below, recorded as STW Episode #17.

Tribe-On-Homecoming-and-Belong-Sebastian-Junger-31l2h8hna9gwka3k369qf4-217x300In his new book, Tribe, Sebastian Junger attempts to expand on one of the most daringly alert and off-message observations made in his 2010 book, War.

War is generally portrayed as a terrible experience which must be endured, but no one is supposed to like it. While talking to soldiers who served in Afghanistan and other wars, Junger recognized that while war may be terrifying and exhausting and painful, men often miss the experience of war when they return to civilian life.

Men and boys are routinely encouraged by public health institutions, educators, therapists, women and the media — everyone but their peers and the occasional stern father figure — to “open up” and “express their feelings.”

A lot of guys I know will joke around and say that they, “have no feelings.”

When men say that they, “don’t have feelings,” what they mean is that they don’t want to luxuriate in emotions that make them feel weak, they expect that anything they say can and probably will be used against them, and they know their honest thoughts and feelings probably aren’t the thoughts and feelings that most people want to hear.

Men and boys in the modern world spend a lot of time hearing about why their feelings are wrong. They aren’t supposed to sexually objectify women the way men have always sexually objectified women. They aren’t supposed to want to help women, because that’s wrong, too. If they hit a woman it is always wrong, unless she wants to take martial arts, and then they are supposed to treat her like a man. Sometimes. Kind of. Men aren’t supposed to want to protect their own interests or be wary of the motivations of strangers or outsiders — because that’s xenophobic or racist.

Men are still theoretically supposed to be prepared to be heroes and fight to protect their loved ones if necessary, but if they attempt to acquire the tools and skills to actually do those things — instead of just expecting to magically download them like Trinity in an emergency — they are called paranoid or labeled “gun nuts” and treated with suspicion. Men are supposed to be prepared, theoretically, to use violence, but they are never supposed to actually like it. To hope for some kind of opportunity to use violence, to enjoy the idea of being violent, to enjoy actually being violent, to kill another human being and not feel bad about it — these are the most taboo of feelings. These are not the kinds of feelings people want to hear.

When men reveal or even hint at having the wrong kinds of feelings, those feelings are either shouted down or condescendingly explained away in some perverse and convoluted manner. Usually, more education is recommended. Educated people are supposed to know better than to have the wrong kinds of feelings. The recommended education will just be more people telling men why their feelings are wrong.

This was probably similar to what being a woman or a girl was like for many females in some pre-feminist societies. Women who liked sex, who wanted to do things women weren’t supposed to do, who didn’t want children, who didn’t care about the things women were supposed to care about…they were probably all told they were having the wrong kinds of feelings and should get back to their needlepoint.

Likewise, as we are often reminded, men who wanted to do the things women were supposed to do were bullied and told they were having the wrong kinds of feelings.

Now the old outcasts are applauded, and men and women who feel drawn to traditional gender roles get the equivalent of, “shut up and make me a sandwich,” which is, I guess, “shut up and take Women’s Studies and Diversity courses until you feel differently.”

Telling people to have different feelings doesn’t exactly help them process those feelings, it just teaches them what feelings to reveal and what feelings they can never talk about.

When men today return from combat, they are returning to the society they grew up in. They know how they are supposed to feel about violence. They know they are supposed to feel victimized by it. They know they are supposed to suffer from having been exposed to violence, and they know they are supposed to feel guilty about having killed or having helped someone else to kill. They know they are supposed to want, more than anything, to get a good job and buy an SUV and start a family and have barbecues and drink Coors Light responsibly.

They aren’t supposed to wish they were back in the Middle East. They aren’t supposed to say they feel more connected to the men in their units than to their families and old friends. They aren’t supposed to say that that no matter how stressful it was at the time, the experience of fighting for their lives made everything else seem boring and trivial. They aren’t supposed to admit they ever enjoyed it.

When Junger explained in War that many combat veterans do have these feelings — that they do miss war and have many fond memories of war, up to and including killing other humans, it struck me as jarringly honest. He didn’t apologize for their feelings or explain why they were wrong for feeling that way.

Actually listening to how men feel, instead of telling them how they are supposed to feel, is going to be essential to helping them work through a problem.

In the context of war, this has obvious applications for helping veterans who have symptoms of PTSD.

In Tribe, Junger, relates his own account of having PTSD-related panic attacks when he returned to the “bitter safety” of New York City from a particularly perilous reporting assignment in Afghanistan. He goes on to explore responses to trauma, danger and loss from war, disease epidemics, and rape.

Setting Junger’s conclusions, proposed solutions and missed opportunities aside, Tribe is worth reading for anyone interested in the phenomenon of PTSD. It contains some sugar-free statistics about the number of vets who claim benefits for PTSD versus the number of vets who actually experience combat, as well as some interesting thoughts regarding the discrepancy between the two and some reasons why it isn’t always as simple as fraud — though there is surely that, too. Junger also presents a wide variety of useful information, evolutionary theories and relevant anecdotes about processing responses to extreme stress.

Short-term PTSD is a normal and, Junger argues, evolutionarily adaptive response to life-threatening experiences. It may act as a reminder to remain in a heightened state of awareness immediately following an event to be sure the danger has passed. However, Junger seems to suggest that acute PTSD becomes chronic PTSD and lingers because there is something missing from modern Western society.

Junger thinks that while life in the modern West is safe and comfortable, some of the reasons returning soldiers find themselves yearning for the war, and why even civilians who have lived through conflict or disaster find themselves remembering their ordeals, “more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations,” may be because they miss being in a situation where their actions truly mattered, and people helped each other out. He writes:

“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”

This is absolutely true, and I’ve written basically the same thing about the general ennui of men in modern post-feminist nations — where their natural roles are performed by corporations and government institutions, and they are reduced to mere sources of income and insemination.

Junger says people in modern society are missing a sense of tribe, and he’s right, but he stops short of either truly understanding or being willing to address the totality of what it means to be part of a tribe. The elements of tribalism that make it fundamentally incompatible with pluralism and globalism go unmentioned or unexamined in Tribe, and what remains is a handful of vague, disappointing bromides about not cheating and treating political opponents more fairly and helping each other so we don’t “lose our humanity.”

He fumbles at the truth with statements like this…

“In a country that applies its standard of loyalty in such an arbitrary way, it would seem difficult for others to develop any kind of tribal ethos.”

…and then resolves them with cotton candy like this…

“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.”

Junger seems to think that tribalism can be reduced to the old Boy Scout slogan, “Do a good deed daily.”

The question is, for who? Is your tribe just anyone?  What does being a Good Samaritan have to do with tribalism?

Indiscriminate love for humanity, which is what Junger preaches in Tribe, is, even at the most basic dictionary level, the exact opposite of tribalism.

Tribalism is human, but it is not humanitarianism.

Tribalism is defined as, “strong loyalty to one’s own tribe, party, or group.” Tribal belonging is exclusive and the camaraderie and generosity that Junger admires in tribal people is functional because the group has defined boundaries. Tribal people are generally not wandering do-gooders. Tribal people help each other because helping each other means helping “us,” and they know who their “us” is. In a well-defined tribal group where people know or at least recognize each other as members, people who share voluntarily are socially rewarded and people who do not are punished or removed from the group. Reciprocity is also relatively immediate and recognizable. There is a return for showing that you are “on the team.”

Junger writes that, “It makes absolutely no sense to make sacrifices for a group that, itself, isn’t willing to make sacrifices for you.”

He recognizes that American tribal identity, to the extent that it ever existed, is collapsing internally when he warns that, “People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long,” and remarks, “…the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone.”  

Junger strongly criticizes the media for promoting divisive rhetoric, he damns the stock market and banking industry opportunists for the economic damage they have done to the country and their betrayal of their fellow Americans, and he criticizes average men and women for claiming benefits fraudulently and…littering.

It’s clear from the runaway popularity of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump that the average American suspects that the government is corrupt and probably aids or even encourages financial malfeasance in big business and especially the banking industry. This completes a three-way web of finger-pointing and fuck you’s between average Joe and the government and big business.

There’s been a complete breakdown of trust that probably can’t be repaired, in part because the failure of nationalism — which is basically just large-scale, bureaucratically-aided tribalism — in the West stems from the failure of the idea of “national pluralism” that is built into the structure of modern society. You can’t have a tribe for everyone, and nations without physical and cultural boundaries effectively cease to be nations. Without a unifying culture that provides a collective tribal identity — a sense of who “we” are, and where the boundaries of that group end — it makes no sense to make sacrifices for that group. These people are all essentially strangers to each other, and there’s no way to know if anyone would actually be willing to return any favors.

The nationalistic pluralism of the early United States was a project started by men with similar religious beliefs (however ready they were to die over the details). Those men also shared a similar European cultural and racial heritage. They all looked alike, and while they came from different regions, each with its own quirks and sometimes even a different language, they were all the genetic and cultural heirs to a broader Western heritage that stretched back to the Classical period.

American pluralism was initially a pluralism within limits, but those limits were either so poorly defined or relied so heavily on implied assumptions that membership was progressively opened to include anyone from anywhere, of any race, of any sex, who believes absolutely anything.

At one point in Tribe, Junger mentions that Israel is the, “only modern country that retains a sufficient sense of community to mitigate the effects of combat on a mass scale.” He credits this with compulsory national military conscription, and quotes an expert as saying that the Israelis have a low rate of chronic PTSD because they are benefiting from a “shared public meaning” of the war, which gives them context for their experiences and a robust network of people who understand exactly what soldiers who have experienced combat are going through.

While this may be true, the Israelis are not a pluralistic hodgepodge of people of different races with different religions and different cultures. Israel is an explicitly Jewish nation, run by and for the Jews. It’s worth noting that their Arab citizens are not conscripted. Jews in Israel are able to maintain “a sufficient sense of community to mitigate the effects of combat on a mass scale” because they are not just behaving tribally — they are actually a tribe. They are known as THE Tribe. They share a common culture and a common heritage and a powerful common narrative, which is why they have a country in the first place. If you want to emulate the success of the Jews in maintaining a sense of community, you have to be willing to admit that they have more going for them than some government policies. The Israelis have a collective ethnic identity, the like of which is being actively undermined by the governments of every nation in the European Union, and is completely taboo in the United States. Imagine the public outrage if the US did something as simple as making Muslims ineligible to register for the draft?

Given how much time he’s spent in the Middle East, Junger should know that arbitrary borders aren’t enough to make people come together as a nation and share a singular tribal identity. Despite some neat lines drawn on a map for Westerners, Iraq and Afghanistan remain zones where tribal and religious identities continue to supercede any attempt to construct and impose a meaningful national identity.

Borders do not make a people. People make borders.

Francis Fukuyama observed in The Origins of Political Order that the natural human group is the small survival band, with kin-oriented or “patrimonial” loyalties. The tribal level of human social and political organization requires a unifying narrative, usually the acceptance of a common, often mythical ancestor who unifies the kin groups.

The Jews have that kind of unifying ancestral narrative.

People in Western nations haven’t “somehow lost” the kinds of ancestral narratives and common cultures that unite people and encourage them to look out for each other and stick together. Those cultures and narratives have been systematically undermined by the institutions of Western governments, in favor of a “multicultural” approach that better serves the interests of globally oriented corporations.

Junger is right. Tribalism is the solution to the loneliness and alienation of modern societies — to “not feeling necessary.” Tribalism is the solution to unchecked greed, and it encourages people to be helpful and more generous to other people within the tribe.

But what Junger is promoting isn’t tribalism. It’s some feel-good Hollywood humanitarianism that’s going to sound great on NPR. It’s not going to change anything. Until people get brave enough to start creating exclusive communities with segregated, clearly defined identities, Westerners will remain mere consumers, lost among strangers. They’ll feel no loyalty to each other, and they’ll keep screwing each other over to get a little more money to buy a little more stuff.

Then, to satisfy the nagging part of them that isn’t “dead inside,” they’ll indulge in a little cheap, fashionable humanitarianism and convince themselves they are saving the world.


Readers can find my 2010 review of Junger’s excellent book War, here.

My review of Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order can be found at Counter-Currents, here.


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