Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging – review

Sebastian Junger’s lament on the failings of modern western communities suffers from a surfeit of nostalgia and disregard for historical fact

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is a strange book. It is written by Sebastian Junger, a prize-winning author, war journalist, and maker of two outstanding documentaries on the conflict in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, then, in his new book, Junger is particularly insightful when he is discussing combat soldiers and the difficulties they experience when returning from war zones.

He makes the provocative, but plausible, observation that one of the reasons American combat veterans suffer such high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is because they find it difficult to separate out the harm of war from its pleasures. He also cites some interesting research showing that the likelihood of a veteran suffering PTSD is “in great part a function of their experiences before going to war”. In other words, servicemen who were abused as children, came from dysfunctional families, or experienced the death of a loved one are significantly more at risk of developing traumatic disorders. These elevated risk factors are present even if the veteran had never experienced the terrors of combat. Junger infers that leaving the close-knit group of fellow warriors and returning to a highly individualised and fractured civilian world is “deeply brutalising to the human spirit”.

Junger is correct to draw attention to the major faultlines in affluent societies, including the dismantling of a sense of community. A growing proportion of people are suffering from clinical depression, anxiety and chronic loneliness. He rightly observes that wealth is not the route to happiness. Being loved and giving love are fundamental to human happiness and health.

But in many other ways, this is a deeply unsatisfactory book. The chief problem is that Junger is nostalgic for a world that never existed – at least not for most people. He admits to growing up in a comfortable American suburb where nothing happened. As a young man, he longed for “a hurricane or a tornado or something that would require us all to band together to survive. Something that would make us feel like a tribe.” He hastens to add that he was not looking for “destruction and mayhem”. Rather, he claims, he wanted “the opposite: solidarity”.

The problem is that, for much of the world’s population, something dangerous is happening all the time. And it doesn’t inevitably lead to solidarity. Indeed, quite the opposite. Abject poverty does not necessarily make for harmonious living. I grew up in some of the poorest nations on the planet – including Haiti and Zambia – and the idea that “poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities” simply does not ring true. In many countries, desperate poverty leads to devastating civil wars.

To make his argument, Junger draws heavily on his analysis of Native American communities. He believes that “tribal societies” can teach us about “loyalty and belonging”. He makes the intriguing observation that “a surprising number of Americans” (thus, implicitly excluding Native Americans from that category) joined Indian societies, while “Indians almost never ran away to join white society”. To illustrate this point, he cites the French politician François Barbé-Marbois’s conversation in the late 18th century with a white woman who had worked as a servant in a wealthy planter’s home but had run away to live with the Oneida people. She explained: “Here, I have no master, I am the equal of all the women in the tribe. I do what I please without anyone’s saying anything about it.”

Junger takes Barbé-Marbois and the white woman at their own word, thus dangerously glamorising Native American cultures. Violence within these communities was rife, and not only directed against enemy tribes. Women were certainly not the equal to men; everyday labour was brutalising; disease led to early deaths. It is also an exaggeration to say Native Americans did not abscond to white settlements. Indians frequently came to colonial communities, not only to trade but also to marry, live and work. Native females served as indentured servants. Hannah Freeman, for example, lived and worked so long among white settlers that by the 1790s she was said to have “forgotten to talk Indian and not liking their manner of living so well as white people’s”. The reason Junger is able to find so much commentary about Europeans deserting to live alongside Native Americans is because Europeans at the time found it so anxiety-inducing. In contrast, the movement of Native Americans to European “civilisation” made perfect sense to them.

I don’t understand Junger’s glamorisation of violence, disaster and catastrophe. He claims that “modern society has almost completely eliminated trauma and violence from everyday life”, ignoring the routine experience of sexual violence for many women as well as children of both sexes. I reject his claim that “for many people” war “feels better than peace”. That is true for some survivors, but not for orphans, widows, the battle-mutilated, and those veterans who witnessed their comrades slaughtered.

The blitz is frequently cited as a time when stoical Britons “pulled together” in defence of their way of life. This is not wholly fanciful, but to claim (as Junger does) that “conduct was so good in the shelters that volunteers never even had to summon the police to maintain order” is simply wrong. Police and wardens were crucial to maintaining order and breaking up fights that erupted on a regular basis. The often-cited reduction of hospital admissions for psychiatric breakdown during the blitz was probably due more to mentally disturbed patients being evicted to make way for the war wounded and to changes in the way patients were diagnosed than to any improvement in morale as a result of solidarity under attack.

Junger makes use of the highly influential work of the sociologist Charles Fritz. In the 60s, Fritz defined disaster as “an event, concentrated in time and space” that disrupts social structures and places communities in danger. He argued that disasters create a “community of sufferers”, because they force people to establish strong social bonds in order to survive. The problem with this analysis is that so many of the threats facing us today (for example, cyberterrorism, nuclear accidents and epidemics) lack the temporal and spatial boundaries that are fundamental to Fritz’s analysis.

Near the beginning of Tribe, Junger asks: “How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?” I am tempted to remind Junger that sacrifice and courage are necessary in many fields of life, from parenting to volunteering in refugee camps. He could also join a solidarity movement. That is what he claims he is seeking, after all.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is published by 4th Estate (£12.99). Click here to buy it for £10.39


Joanna Bourke

The GuardianTramp

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