Magazine article The Christian Century

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Magazine article The Christian Century

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Article excerpt

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

By Sebastian Junger

Twelve, 192 pp., $22.00


Sebastian Junger is a masterful documentarian of modern warfare. His 2010 book War, along with companion films Restrepo (2010) and Korengal (2014), invited those who have not been to war into the inner life of a U.S. army combat platoon at a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. Those works vividly display the alternating boredom and exhilaration of war, the anguish of loss, the unit's pervasive distrust of Afghan civilians, and the intense and complex love of soldiers for one another.

If War is about making war, Tribe is about returning from war. It lacks the keen focus on individual soldiers that made the earlier book so powerful. Junger acknowledges that many veterans are struggling to integrate into civilian life after their military service, that "the U.S. military now has the highest reported PTSD rate in its history," and that the suicide rate of American veterans now exceeds that of the population. A study released in July 2016 by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs documented that in 2014 an average of 20 veterans per day died by suicide, with especially high rates among male veterans aged 18-29.

Junger rejects several common assumptions about these problems: that suicide among younger veterans is associated with deployment (it is not); that combat intensity is the primary driver of posttraumatic stress disorder (factors like premilitary trauma and current social support are also important), and that the best response to struggling veterans is medical treatment and lifelong disability income. He points out that these responses ignore the ways that war can constructively bind service members and civilians within powerful and healing systems of "shared public meaning."

For Junger, the primary problem is not with veterans, nor even with war itself, but with a "modern society that is so mortally dispiriting to come home to." Modern American culture is too individualistic, too self-centered, too materialistic, and too divided. Veterans return from the close-knit experience of war and find themselves adrift in a civilian culture that is unwilling to hear veterans' stories, lacking in basic employment opportunities, and missing any sense of broad communal purpose. Unsupported and unable to accommodate themselves to this culture, many veterans remain disaffected and disengaged. They find themselves drawn into the economically but not existentially sustaining systems of disability and medical care.

The solution, Junger argues, is to return to what he regards as our human evolutionary roots in "tribe." Tribe, loosely defined as "the group of people you would both feed and help defend," is "the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for." Anecdotally surveying a number of nonindustrialized cultures (and also, notably, the modern state of Israel), Junger calls modern Americans to reclaim a tribal identity characterized by common purpose, common meaning, and common defense.

There are very important moments of wisdom and insight in this book. Junger rightfully names many sins of modern American life, especially its growing socioeconomic disparity. …

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