Journalist and adventurer Sebastian Junger says our current culture lacks community and purpose, and that’s a primary reason why combat vets feel lost when they return home. During war, they had purpose, relied on each other, were bonded to each other. It was a tribal life. When they return home to some tedious suburb, all that disappears. Then there can be PTSD, alcoholism and drug addiction, and even suicide. This is a societal problem, and requires societal solutions.
‘If I’m not feeling good in my life, in my world, it’s not necessarily that I have a problem. I’m living in an alienating, fractured society that’s psychologically hard on everybody.’ And even just knowing that—it’s not me, it’s society—takes off a psychological burden.”
But it’s not only combat vets who can have problems, it’s all of us. Our society is atomized, disconnected, and increasingly fracturing. It doesn’t have to be that way, he says, and discusses this and more in his new book Tribe, out May 24.
Tribe touches upon an overall disconnectedness people have, not just with veterans, but within society as a whole.
Junger: I realized researching this book, the economy takes a downturn, the unemployment rate doubles, and suddenly 5,000 people are dead that wouldn’t be dead otherwise because they killed themselves. So there’s real consequences. You don’t have to be on the battlefield to have people’s lives ruined. Everyone is worried about veteran suicide, but what about the 5,000 people who died because they lost their jobs? That’s all the causalities of Iraq and Afghanistan combined in one year, just because the economy dipped. It’s very easy to be distracted by the drama of warfare, but it requires a certain respect for ordinary lives to understand that for better or for worse there’s an awful lot of drama everywhere. It isn’t just gunfire.
What do you want readers to take away with from Tribe?
J: To think about their lives in real human terms. Do I feel close to people? Who would I give my life for? Obviously your wife and kids. But anyone else? Is that it? Would you risk your life for your community? No? Then you don’t really live in a community. If you are not willing to risk your life, then it’s not really a community in the very ancient sense of the word. You’re living in a modern version of the community in which people care more about themselves than the collective. It’s just to get people thinking.
We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding–“tribes.” This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.
Decades before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin lamented that English settlers were constantly fleeing over to the Indians-but Indians almost never did the same. Tribal society has been exerting an almost gravitational pull on Westerners for hundreds of years, and the reason lies deep in our evolutionary past as a communal species. The most recent example of that attraction is combat veterans who come home to find themselves missing the incredibly intimate bonds of platoon life. The loss of closeness that comes at the end of deployment may explain the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today.
Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, TRIBE explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. It explains the irony that-for many veterans as well as civilians-war feels better than peace, adversity can turn out to be a blessing, and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. TRIBE explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.