review of Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Tribe, On Homecoming and Belonging


written by sebastian junger

5 out of 5 disquieting questions raised and left hanging

Author’s note: I fussed with this review more than I ordinarily do, but couldn’t find the right place to slip in a few things.  Hence this awkward intro, a crummy local band trying to open the crowd. First, what I took to be the book’s thesis statement, something that informs this review: ‘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.’  Second, tribe is a perfect exercise in brevity (unlike, say, everything below) at roughly ninety pages.  Third, if you only read ninety pages this year, make sure it’s those. The book is pristine.  Alright, here we go, get ‘em off the stage already.

‘All great and precious things are lonely,’ john steinbeck supposedly said.  Anyone who made his name writing about the great depression can safely be considered an authority.  After all, they don’t hand out nobels for nothing. I submit, though, that this is an insidious quote.  We (‘we’ henceforth referring to WEIRD cultures, as they’ve been popularized: western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) have an uneasy relationship with loneliness.  It’s something to fear and something to venerate.  Maybe it fosters kaczynski, maybe holmes, maybe thoreau.  But all of us lonely together, societal loneliness, is a killer. It erodes good will, batters our psyche, and sneakily raises walls between us. Tribe captures our predicament beautifully.

As you might expect from the title, junger spends a lot of time with american indian history (he also has some evidence for using ‘american indian’ instead of ‘native american’---I’ll ride piggyback).  Amid the details, one thing sticks out: there are thousands of cases of european settlers abandoning whitedom to join the indian nations but not a single documented reverse case. No indian voluntarily defected to the euros [is this true?  Not a single one?  I don’t know, but I’m willing to trust junger, skeptically.  And yes, I know it’s quibbling, what’s important is the large imbalance of numbers.  Shutting up now]. And when indians were obliged to return settlers to their ‘native’ society---generally as part of a truce or armistice agreement---the returned had to be forcibly kept in white arms.  ‘The reluctance of...captives to leave their adopted tribe raised awkward questions about the supposed superiority of Western society,’ junger points out. Now, a few hundred years later, that awkwardness lingers.  ‘The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing...but why Western society is so unappealing.’ (emphasis junger’s)  

‘It’s possible that many people feel that affluence and safety simply aren’t a good trade for freedom.’  Indeed, who hasn’t sat in their cubicle, besieged by spreadsheets, thinking that some grievous threat to life and limb would break the tedium nicely?  There’s a whiff of fight club in the air---by embracing a life of (western, industrialized) comfort have we neutered our capacity for courage, for sacrifice?  Are we pale versions of our more meaningful, fulfilled selves?

Here, junger leads us into uncomfortable territory.  Safety’s sacredness is up for debate. Our welfare is all but assured, day to day.  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.’  Junger spends nearly the entire stern of the book backing this sentence, gathering examples of veterans missing combat, refugees longing for the war zone, and even people escaping a siege only to sneak back in. It’s not the violence they seek, each is clear about that; it’s the heightened camaraderie, the community.

A major benefit of closer, more tribal bonds is how they reinforce loyalty, junger argues.  Betrayal of the tribe is a high crime, punishable by exile or even death. But he takes pains to base his argument in compassion, not retribution.  It’s not the threat of punishment that should deter, it’s the communal bonds and obligation that people should feel to each other. The integrity that comes from loving those around you so much that taking advantage of them would be unthinkable.

In 2009, the country and military came to furious life when sgt bowe bergdahl purposefully left his post in afghanistan.  ‘...his absence triggered a massive search by the US military that put thousands of his fellow soldiers at risk...But in purely objective terms he caused the country far less harm than the financial collapse of 2008, when bankers gambled trillions of dollars of taxpayer money on blatantly fraudulent mortgages [more quibbling: as far as I know, which is not far, the mortgages were wrapped into baroque financial instruments, i.e. the famed ‘credit default swap,’ that surpassed any previous wall street creation in sheer bizarreness.  They weren’t blatantly so much as complexly fraudulent.  Shutting up for real this time.].  Almost 9 million people lost their jobs...5 million families lost their homes, and the unemployment rate doubled.’  Junger makes the devastating point that the suicide rate mirrors the unemployment rate, then goes on to detail how those responsible for the mortgage bubble have largely been allowed to ride into the sunset.  Mostly, companies were bailed out and executives congratulated themselves with multimilliondollar bonuses. By the end of this section, junger is practically begging us to recognize that, based on our inconsistent treatment of bergdahl and the bankers, something has gone deeply wrong.  We’re afflicted by what david foster wallace called american loneliness, ‘the prospect of dying without even once having loved something more than yourself.’

A longtime war correspondent, junger is careful with his book.  He’s comprehensive with facts, figures, and history. He successfully strings a tightrope through and over the bramble patches of war trauma, disability, horror, and PTSD.  This, fortunately, is not a screed against our way of life (‘there’s no use arguing that modern society isn’t a kind of paradise...the poorest people...enjoy a level of physical comfort that was unimaginable a thousand years ago, and the wealthiest people literally live the way gods were imagined to have’), it’s a troubling look at why so many people might wish for alternatives, whether aboriginal hardship or the danger of combat.  And why, for those of us who stay here, swaddled and warm with a chipotle just down the street, there might be an emptiness where meaning should be found.

My interpretation aside, everything you need to know about this book is in the following two vignettes.  The first is the poem ‘sick leave’ by siegfried sassoon, that junger cites midday through the chapter on war.  It says

In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
‘When are you going out to them again?
Are they not still your brothers through our blood?’

The second is in the postscript, a story from an anthropologist who was tagging along with a cree man named thomas on a hunting trip.  They ran across two strangers who were halfstarved, lost, and out of food. Thomas gave them all his food, even though that meant he had to end his own trip.  The anthropologist kept questioning thomas why he’d done this, until ‘he finally lost patience with her.

“Suppose, now, not to give them flour, lard,” he explained.  “Just dead inside.”’


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