Book Review – Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

The January 2017 Women’s March and other protests happening lately have demonstrated how important a tribe can be.

The jury might still be out on the overall impact of the recent gatherings, but history has proven time and again that, in working together, organized groups get shit done for the greater good. And while they do, they also fill a very important need for the individual: the need to belong to a tribe of sorts.

1462325005329In his latest book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, the brilliant nonfiction author and journalist Sebastian Junger picks apart modern society’s tangled mess and shows how civilization’s progress—away from a tribal way of life–has, in some very important ways, been bad for all of us.

The lost art of the common good

Junger begins with a look back to the American Indian way of life before European settlers came along. Many native tribes were far more egalitarian than our modern society was then–or is now. Personal property was limited to whatever you could carry when it was time for the group to move. Women had more autonomy (and fewer children). Food was shared, and tribal citizens, working together for the common good, were generally loyal to one another.

When white Europeans moved in, a surprising number of them defected to the native tribal world. Conversely, it was rare for an American Indian to run away to the white world, and when Indian children were brought up in a white society, according to the very wise Benjamin Franklin, they quickly became “disgusted with our manner of life…and [took] the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.”

What leisure time?

Fast forward to modern times. You’d think that with all our agricultural, economic, and technological advances over the last couple of centuries we’d be living the life of leisure. But Junger writes that, as societies have become more affluent, they have demanded more time from the individual and afforded us less time to relax. This is in part because we have more belongings and opportunities, and in part because we don’t share with one another. For us, it’s every man or woman out for him- or herself in a never-ending and sometimes desperate cycle of work and financial obligation.

Good for shrinks, bad for the rest of us

Modern society has been especially unhealthy for our mental health.

  • According to Junger, mothers have less skin-to-skin contact with their babies than ever before.
  • We spend far too much time alone. “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.”
  • As community’s role decreases, overarching authority increases. We currently live in an alienating, hierarchical society whereas, in tribal societies, arbitrary authority is nonexistent and cooperation is the norm. Biologically speaking, cooperation triggers far more feel-good hormones, like oxytocin and dopamine, than tyranny does.

The need to be needed

Junger has been a war correspondent for decades. He’s seen a lot of death and destruction. He’s experienced PTSD. (If you haven’t seen the documentary Restrepo, which he co-directed with the late Tim Hetherington, you should.) Obviously, Junger doesn’t like war.

But war, like natural and manmade disasters, can actually have some positive, if impermanent, impact on the individual. Remember Band of Brothers? Soldiers develop a strong sense of community and form tribes. They’re rarely alone. Likewise, communities dealing with catastrophes are drawn together. Social bonds are strengthened. And organizationally, we often become more just and egalitarian in makeshift times of recovery. We find purpose—even if it’s simply to survive.

In today’s society, many of us have never worried about day-to-day survival or felt an overwhelming sense of being necessary. We bumble along from job to soccer game to The Walking Dead. We change our kids’ diapers. We organize our seasonal decorations. We deposit paychecks, buy houses, sign mortgages, and mow the lawn. We workout. We cheer for the Atlanta Falcons. We drink. But we don’t feel terribly needed, at least on a societal scale.

“Humans don’t mind hardship,” Junger writes. “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.” At least, on the battlefield, a soldier feels needed.


But if that’s the case—if soldiers feel like they belong and are important to their tribe—why do so many vets suffer from PTSD? Junger probably goes on about this longer than I would have liked. In reading his book, I felt like the PTSD discussion was a bit of a detour away from the underlying principle of belonging. But he does make some strong points worthy of consideration.

  • Much of the PTSD a soldier experiences probably happens after returning home, where he feels unwanted, unheard, and unnecessary.
  • Furthermore, upon returning home, soldiers often realize they weren’t fighting for country. They were fighting for their units. To believe they were fighting for their country would be ludicrous because the country clearly wouldn’t make sacrifices for the individual solider in the way other soldiers would.
  • The Tohono O’odham (formerly Papago) people of southern Arizona, who already had that close-knit tribal community, thought of war as “a form of insanity.” When they were forced into combat by enemy tribes, the entire community would undergo a 16-day purification ritual afterward because they believed they were all in it together. It wasn’t a soldier vs. us mentality. Imagine if we embraced our vets, upon their return, that way.

* * *

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging addresses a few societal truths that seem so obvious and simple but that we have miserably failed to recognize or address. Published last year, the book preceded the 2016 presidential election and the aftermath of protests and rallies we’re now experiencing. I’ve been unable to find anything written by Junger in the last few months, but here’s what he had to say last spring.

“To sustain a national conversation we have to see ourselves as a unity,” Junger said. “We don’t. The political parties are at each others throats, we live in racially segregated communities, economically segregated communities. There are politicians and leaders in media who literally talk about some fellow citizens as if they are traitors. As if they are rivals who actively want to hurt the country…When you talk like that, you are talking non-tribally…you are dividing a society. And interestingly, it is a very deeply unpatriotic thing to do.”

There’s been a lot of banter on social media these days about whether all these marches and protests are doing any good. Those who suggest they aren’t should read Junger’s book. Actually, everyone should.

Protests and marches draw us together. They make us feel good. They give us strength. I believe this to be true now more than ever–now that we live in this post-election world where authoritative leadership has risen off the charts, divisiveness is the new norm, and the individual feels less important to our society than ever.

Junger defines a tribe as those people you’d “feel compelled to share the last of your food with.” I’m heading to Olympia, Washington next Monday for the Salish Sea Stands on Capital Hill gathering to support a bill for oil transportation safety. It’s going to be a long day, and I’m going to bring some munchies along. Which I’ll gladly share with my tribe.



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