Book review of "Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging" by Sebastian Junger
Twelve – Hatchett Book Group, New York, NY, 2016, 168 pages, ISBN-10: 9781455566389.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is written by Sebastian Junger, whom many Americans know through his books and films even if they might not readily recognize his name. They should. Junger is a best-selling author (The Perfect Storm and others), a war journalist, and director of acclaimed documentary films, including Restrepo, Korengal, and others. He has been nominated for an Academy Award for his work. Junger was embedded as a war journalist with a US Army platoon in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. This combat experience was the basis for the film Korengal. In the Korengal Valley, Junger experienced combat and suffering first-hand. He bonded with his fellow soldiers in a way that only those of us who have served in combat can understand. They formed a tribe – they considered him one of them. Yet how warriors return to society, and specifically American society, is at the core of this book. It resonates with me and should do the same for others who have served in any of the numerous war zones since 9/11, especially Afghanistan.
I have also been fortunate enough to hear Junger speak publicly and his words highlighted his insights into the lives of combat veterans and difficulties – because he now shares them. In short, “he gets it.” Since returning to “normal life” in the US, he has stayed in touch with most of the Army platoon with which he served in combat. These combat veterans have each other’s backs – even if our society does not. Junger was not a soldier, but based on his own combat time he acts like one. He writes that he played soldier as a kid - just as many of us did who went on to serve in war as soldiers.
Junger makes a good case that our modern society is not equipped to deal with, or welcome home properly; those who have been in intense combat like that experienced in Afghanistan or Iraq. He provides examples from American Indian tribal culture that worked better to reintegrate those returning from war. He muses on the Indians’ ability to track, hunt, “and stalk game and move quickly and quietly in the woods...”
Post 9/11, we have in essence created two cultures - a culture of warriors who served together in war and the modern culture of wealth and isolation in the United States that has no clue what to do with, or how to help, the warriors when they return. The result can be of course alienation and detachment in both directions. The exposure of the United States to war is only a small percentage of our population these days. When the warriors return home they are separated and divorced from the bonds of loyalty and brotherhood that they shared with fellow warriors. The cohesive units that held them together are gone.
Junger has studied of how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects combat veterans. He points out that some service members are more protected, or susceptible, to PTSD based on their experiences before combat. This would include how they were raised, any traumatic incidents in their lives, but on the flip side any training that prepared them or made them more resilient. This explains why many elite military special operations units seem to have lower rates of PTSD because they have had more training and conditioning to prepare them for combat and make them resilient before actually experiencing it. Junger cites some examples of this and those who have served in these units know it to be true from their own experiences. Junger identifies Israel as a country that has a strong community that can “mitigate the effects of combat on a mass scale.” This is because the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) comes from almost half of the population and yet has a very low PTSD rates.
Junger bemoans the loss of the sense of community in our modern society and culture. As mentioned he looks frequently to the example of American Indian tribal life. In many ways Indian tribal culture resembles Norse/Germanic tribal communities and evokes the spirit of what Odin’s Warrior Tribe is trying to achieve with our tribal culture. Junger “gets it” and he writes that tribal societies can teach us about what loyalty, selflessness, and belonging really mean. Junger’s thoughts are that we are wired to best function in close, relatively small, and inter-dependent communities and that some suffering and sacrifice is not bad at all, but actually a good thing. It brings out the best in us. Our modern society instead celebrates individuality - movie stars, rich people, athletes, and con artists. He is critical of our modern society and I agree with his assessment that a person who deliberately litters is committing a crime because not only do they not care about the society they live in.
In tribal society going off to war is the way to obtain honor and fame. Think about it. News about Medal of Honor awardees rarely makes the mainstream media, except for small military journals like Military Time, Army Times, Marine Corps Times, Navy Times, etc. Junger points out that in
Junger makes the case that men need to display courage to become or be men. No truer statement has ever been made. Yet, those that “don’t get it” are hypercritical of him for this statement. They fear courage because they have never known it and so make excuses that courage can be shown in all kinds of other pursuits other than combat or life threatening situations. Like what - cooking?
Junger writes that mankind need three basic things to feel content, competency in what they do, authenticity in who they are and being connected to others. Junger notes, “Soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion and politics within their platoon.” Reading Junger reminds me of when I go to military reunions. No one at these reunions ever says they are glad they got out of the military – rather they recall it as one if not the best period of their lives and wish they had stayed in longer. They miss it. Junger covered the Siege of Sarajevo as a war correspondent and noted that one-fifth of Sarajevo’s population was killed or wounded. He was surprised though when he returned 20 years later and found that people actually missed those days because it brought out the best in them.
I have not seen it yet, but Junger’s documentary, The Last Patrol, sounds intriguing. It has been on HBO and in it he looks at his life and that of three military friends who were in combat together.
The book is an easy read. More than anything it stimulates thought rather than holds all the answers. If you are a combat veteran of any war you should read Tribe. If you think you may become a combat veteran you should read this book. If you live with a combat veteran you should read this book. And, if you want to be in Odin’s Warrior Tribe – you should probably think about reading Tribe.