It is a strange time to mount a defense of tribes in America. Many of us feel that our political culture suffers from both an overabundance of tribes and an intensification of tribalism. And this is of our own doing: most of us spend a remarkable amount of energy cultivating and defending highly curated tribal identities, and then broadcasting them to the world with a few keystokes. In some important ways, then, tribes seem to be at the root of our most enduring problems.
But a defense of tribes is precisely what Sebastian Junger provides in his short book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016). The basic premise of Junger’s work is that modern life, despite all the abundance and comfort it affords, has left us deeply susceptible to feeling alienated and useless. “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary,” Junger writes. “Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
As we learn in the introduction, Junger’s quest for community (to borrow the title of Nisbet’s famous work) begins in his childhood. Growing up in a leafy American suburb, Junger found himself anesthetized by a life without many serious obstacles to overcome. “The sheer predictability of life in an American suburb,” he says, “left me hoping—somewhat irresponsibly—for a hurricane or a tornado or something that would require us to all band together to survive. Something that would make us feel like a tribe.” Junger explains that what he wanted “wasn’t destruction and mayhem” but “just the opposite: solidarity.” “I wanted the chance to prove my worth to my community and my peers,” he continues, “but I lived in a time and place where nothing dangerous ever really happened.”
This hunger for the deep sense of belonging that can emerge in catastrophic circumstances drove Junger to a journalistic career chronicling humanity in dangerous and precarious places. Junger’s primary interest in Tribe is what he calls the “transformative power of war.” “If war were purely and absolutely bad in every single aspect and toxic in all its effects,” he writes, “it would probably not happen as often as it does.” War, in Junger’s view, can “ennoble people rather than just debase them.” For all its brutality, ugliness, and loss, war can inspire ancient virtues like “courage, loyalty, and selflessness that can be utterly intoxicating to the people who experience them.” And as Junger’s attention to Londoners during the Blitz and the citizens of Sarajevo during the 1990s attests, this is true not only for soldiers, but whole societies enduring conflict as well.
But what do today’s warriors find when they return from the battlefield? Material wealth and comfort, yes—but also profound social isolation. This gives rise to Junger’s basic question: what can we learn when we compare the homecoming experiences of contemporary American veterans with those of other nations, or those of other historical eras? Junger’s (somewhat controversial) claim is that the dis-ease today’s American veterans experience at home is not necessarily due to the brutality of war but, rather, the lack of social cohesion and meaning within the America to which they have returned. Junger explains it like this:
What people miss presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender. There are obvious stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even greater stresses on a person in isolation, so during disasters there is a net gain in well-being....A modern soldier returning from combat—or a survivor of Sarajevo—goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for, back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good….Whatever the technological advances of modern society—and they’re nearly miraculous—the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.
I can find no better description of America’s recent election than a ritualized brutalizing of the human spirit. The ugliness, self-righteousness, scapegoating, and willed misunderstanding that marked the campaign—and have continued into this lame-duck period—speak to a crisis of confidence in the basic concept of a national identity. This makes Junger’s thesis seem not just counter-intuitive, but odd. How could a defense of tribes help us in an time of fragmentation, hyper-polarization, and entrenched patterns of distrust across racial, economic, religious, and political lines?
Junger’s answer is that small, tight-knit groups provide the powerful experience of belonging that forms the basis for larger-scale communal self-understanding. If, as Benedict Anderson puts it, nations are first and foremost “imagined communities,” then they are always imagined on the basis of the actual experience of local communities. Perhaps, in this way, the profound distrust and estrangement we see on a national scale can be traced to forms of detachment and malformation on the local scale. “The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world,” in Junger’s view, “is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good.”
Bemoaning the poverty of our “national conversation” on any number of topics is cheap and easy; belonging to communities that can make substantial claims on the ways we use our bodies, wealth, and time is neither. But it may be a place to begin.
To read and hear more about Junger's Tribe, see the interviews in the sidebar to the right.