Tribe Sebastian Junger

Tribe: Why Humans Were Designed to Thrive During Conflict

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

Author and war journalist Sebastian Junger, famous for his novel The Perfect Storm, has made the argument that there is genuine benefit to our psychological well-being in the presence of catastrophe. Junger’s version of catastrophe goes beyond dropping your cell phone, getting fired from work or wrecking your car. The events he refers to are life-changing: hurricanes, genocides, war. Coincidentally, these are the same events society has worked the hardest to insulate the average citizen from experiencing. Junger argues this may have a detrimental effect.

I want to begin this article by addressing the bad-press Junger received in the aftermath of Tribe’s release. It’s easy to point to Junger’s previous work in war reporting and label him as a profiteer, militarist, or war-monger. In Tribe, Junger is not advocating for the occurrence of war and mass-murder. He’s not offering up civilization to another hurricane Katrina. Instead, he’s using his prowess from decades of journalism to investigate the experience of those who suffered overwhelming hardship, and the unexpected lift in spirit they received both during and after the event. You may not agree with Junger’s views on war and tribal societies, or the way he criticizes the safety of the modern world, but at least be open to examining the psychological impact of a long history of human violence and suffering.  It’s not a stretch to imagine we evolved to benefit from, or even thrive under such conditions.

The central argument of Tribe is that hardship and lethal conflict bring groups of people together when they would otherwise be disjointed. In the age of Facebook and selfie-sticks, the modern world is one of isolated, self-centered individuals. Human connection is on the decline. Junger argues that the lack of real conflict in our contemporary, first-world societies has favored a culture that can thrive while being intensely isolated—even if the psychological state of the individuals is suffering. We often attribute this to first world problems: “The milk in my triple-shot latte was cold this morning. #FirstWorldProblem.” Rather than praise the safe insulation society has constructed for its denizens, Junger shows how humans throughout history have thrived under the yoke of conflict and extreme hardship.

Going back to seventeenth and eighteenth-century America, Junger draws upon the example of white settlers giving up the relative comfort of their village lives to join the nomadic and burdensome lifestyle of tribal Native Americans. While there are almost no examples of Native Americans joining the ”civilized” lifestyle of white settlers, we have numerous journal entries detailing the opposite occurrence. Judging from these accounts, early American colonials were enamored with the culture and lifestyle of their Native American counterparts. While this may seem normal to us given the romanticized portrayal of tribal life (think Dances with Wolves), the reality was far different. Native Americans lived a bare and harsh life, with tribes engaged in near constant warfare. Captives of these wars were subjected to brutal acts of torture before being killed.

Despite the brutality, colonials were drawn to the fundamental egalitarianism of Native tribes. There was no wealth disparity, which is almost unimaginable in today’s economic climate. Status was the result of merit as opposed to birth or family ancestry. In addition, accounts of Native American tribes depict them as being exceptionally loyal to their members, displaying the epitome of “brotherly love” so famously ingrained as an American founding-father quality. Even among modern nomadic tribes in regions around the world, there is an abhorrence for hoarding wealth and acts of selfishness.

Consider the reasons why. Their society was dependent upon individuals working to contribute to the well-being of the whole. Acts of selfishness would quickly be met with ostricization or outright malice. Individuals in these tribes were almost never alone. The ability, or desire, to accumulate wealth at the expense of others never materialized in part because of this transparency. Any hoarding of wealth would be for nothing if their tribe was conquered by a rival clan, or wiped out from starvation. Hardship necessitated that each individual contributed their share of ability, and pooled their resources for the working benefit of all. That’s not to paint these societies as a utopia, but to point out how their hostile environments in comparison to white settlers increased their egalitarian nature.

A Growing Wealth Disparity

Our current social climate could not be further from that of Native American tribes. Despite the frequent interaction we receive through text-messaging and social networks, the average modern American feels completely alone. Our society lacks the communal interactions so common to previous generations. It should come as no surprise that modern developed countries have the highest relative rate of mental illness in human history. We can say that we have created the safest civilizations, the wealthiest, the most fed, but we cannot say that we are the happiest, the most mentally strong. Multiple studies have proven a lack of correlation between wealth and happiness. Instead, relative wealth in a society has been related to an increase in depression and suicide. Consider the suicide paradox:

“The suicide paradox refers to the fact that suicide is more prevalent among healthier, wealthier, less oppressed or less disenfranchised persons than among other demographics presumed to be less fortunate.” 

A cynical person would attribute this paradox to another function of the pseudo-burden of first world problems. But if the world is to continue growing into a prosperous place, we must explain the paradox of human misery in the face of such abundance. The present state of American wealth disparity is astronomically polarizing, with the top one percent of the population holding nearly forty percent of the country’s wealth. With such great disparity comes a country of mood-swings, particularly among the working and middle class. One day you possess every opportunity through the promise of the American Dream, the next you are coming to a slow realization that the whole system is rigged for those at the top.

wealth disparity

Wealth in nations can provide security and certain comforts, but there are intrinsic values to human happiness that only effortful acts of culture can produce:

  • Humans want to feel competent at what they do. Whether you are a school teacher, a neurosurgeon, or stay at home parent, you want to feel that you are living up to the extent of your capability.
  • Humans crave authenticity. We crave the feeling of real experiences. You can spend a lot of money on things, devices and cars. But as Elizabeth Dunn and her research shows in Happy Money, people are significantly more satisfied putting their dollars to create experiences
  • Humans crave a connection to others. The largest draw of Facebook and other social media outlets is the ability to be connected. What we don’t realize is that these institutions create an artificial barrier to that connection. We are no longer interacting with others in the way that we were designed. These networks become more about displays of status and further perpetuate the gap between individuals.

Imagine a tribal society that allowed one percent of its population, its ultra-wealthy and corporate leaders, to hoard such a large majority of their wealth. In early tribes, there were safeguards in place against gross monopolization, usually in the form of coalitions of males that prevented any one individual form rising to the top. The point Junger is making is not to burn Wall Street to the ground and redistribute their resources to society, it’s simply a rationalization for the real and growing frustrations that many Americans are experiencing.

 The Impact of War

During World War II, British civilians living in London were subjected to the Blitz—57 days of intense bombing by the German Luftwaffe. Public officials feared for the psychological well-being of their population. Most experts predicted a complete collapse in London’s morale. They imagined a population too frightened to leave their homes to attend work. A population scarred by the concussions of the frequent bombings, death of neighbors and destruction of familiar sites that they would lose all capacity to carry on normal life.

Instead, they were wrong. People not only went to work and carried on their day-to-day lives, but they actually thrived. The mental health of the city, almost paradoxically, improved in the face of adversity. In one of the most amazing examples of human resilience, depression rates, suicide and psychiatric disorders decreased during the Blitz. People bonded together. Where before borders existed between neighbors, entire communities came together to support one another, to provide shelter and supplies when another’s home was destroyed, and to give comfort in the close confines bomb shelters.

A similar effect was observed during the Bosnian War in the early 1990’s. Junger interviewed survivors of the siege of Sarajevo and was struck by a common theme that emerged: despite the brutality and horror they witnessed, many of the survivors missed the experience because of the shared sense of community they experienced. In one striking example, Junger interviewed a young Bosnian woman who had been flown out of the country to receive aid for a grievous wound she incurred. Rather than remaining in the safe confines of her asylum country, this woman returned to Sarajevo, to be with her friends and family members as they endured the siege for four years.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

While it has been shown that the civilian class gains a psychological buffer from the unifying effect of hardship, Junger also tackles the question of why so many veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. If conflict truly does provide a psychological, well-being effect, then what can explain the conundrum of PTSD?

PTSD, in addition to panic attacks, involves the onset of intense, emotional responses to seemingly mundane events. The clang of a can of beans falling to the floor in a grocery store is enough to trigger the real experience of terror in a person with PTSD. As a former war reporter, Junger holds an unprecedented position to discuss the modern epidemic of PTSD. He describes war as a terrible but intoxicating experience, one that is impossible to imagine without living it firsthand. The problem comes in bringing these young men and women back to reality, to normal society with little guidance through their transition.

Short-term PTSD is a modern phenomenon resulting from a society that has attempted to distance itself from war and those who wage it. In early Native American tribes, it was unheard of to exhibit the symptoms we ascribe to PTSD victims. Native societies had a separation of power in leadership that shifted between peace and wartime. Imagine if the president was not the commander in chief, but rather our civilian leadership executive. In times of war, the head of the pentagon (or some other military institution) would assume control of the nation throughout the duration of the conflict. The president would lead during times of peace. Military experts would take over during times of war.

It’s easy to imagine the problems that could arise from such a system, particularly in the transition of power, but the point is this: Native American societies at war were completely invested in the conflict. Their civilians, women, children and elderly, were intensely aware of the consequences of failure—total eradication or slavery. Warriors in their society were celebrated for the sacrifice and protective quality they represented. A similar effect can be seen in World War II, where a combination of an extensive draft and a civilian population committed to manufacturing the war effort made America all-in on the effort to defeat the axis powers. Contrast these two societies, early Native Americans and World War II America to the Vietnam War, and our current conflicts in the Middle East. While our society may hold beneficiaries and exhibit small tokens of gratitude for America’s warrior class, the typical American is insulated from the brutality and hardship of the conflict. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk does an excellent job delving into this modern dilemma from the perspective of a soldier.

Junger argues that PTSD is the result of a society unable to come to grips with the purpose and actions of its warrior class. However, it has also become a mask for conditions that may have existed prior to the experience of combat. Soldiers that exhibit an “aggressive” mentality tend to be safe-guarded from the effects of long-term PTSD. While short-term PTSD can and does affect everyone—victims of rape, robbery, severe depressive episodes—long-term PTSD exhibited in soldiers is often the result of psychological issues and experiences prior to the event that triggered the symptoms. Therefore, the current trend of rising PTSD among veterans could be misleading. Consider the volunteerism of the modern military. There could very well be a self-selecting effect going on that explains the rise in PTSD. Men and women who already suffer some sort of psychological trauma could be drawn to the military for various reasons, and thus increase the reported rate of PTSD.

The effect of long-term PTSD is also independent of the severity of the episode. An overwhelming majority of veterans who apply for long-term disability as a result of PTSD were never actually exposed to the dangers of combat. These were soldiers who operated in the relatively safe confines of bases and supply depots that never saw engagement. Drone pilots, who are completely removed from the personal danger of flying a combat missions, exhibit the same rate of PTSD as pilots who fly actual combat missions with a risk of being shot down. Half of all veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan War apply for permanent (i.e. life-long) disability as a result of the effects of PTSD. American soldiers suffer twice the rate of PTSD as their allies, despite only ten percent of these veterans having been engaged in direct combat.

Because of the incongruence in the rate of PTSD victims, Junger makes the argument that they are suffering from something different. The increase in cases could be related to the sterilized, turn-the-other-way attitude of the general American public. Or it is possible that some these veterans are flat out lying. The Veteran Administration’s system for handling cases of PTSD and disability benefits is particularly susceptible to fraud. Veterans are not required to state a specific, combat or otherwise, event that led to the development of their symptoms, they simply have to apply as a result of having been deployed to a wartime zone. The financial benefits for the PTSD victim increases as they apply for greater disability consideration, i.e. a soldier that is 50% disabled will receive less benefits than a soldier who applies for 100% disability. In addition to the financial assistance, victims of PTSD are also given free access to therapy and other psychological treatment. However, the instances of treatment being utilized plummets for veterans that have reached the maximum compensation. Which means once veterans have applied for, and received, a designation of 100% disabled they no longer utilize the therapy offered in treatment. The result is detrimental for all members of society. Tax dollars are being spent on veterans who are potentially “faking” their symptoms, while the true victims of PTSD may be too embarrassed or prideful to apply for benefits, lest their peers think they too are being mistrustful.

Some clarification: Junger is not out to disparage or otherwise accuse veterans and victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. It goes without saying the admiration Junger has for the American soldier, having witnessed their plight for years as a war reporter. He is simply proving a point that the massive increase in PTSD for veterans is more than likely the result of something other than the burden of combat. The current, fraud-ridden system utilized by the VA is an overreaction to an all but negligent veteran’s support system following the Vietnam War. We witnessed the effects of a generation of young men coming home from a war they were pressed into waging without the support of a nation behind them. Our current system is devised to prevent victims of PTSD from going without aid. However, in its current form, the true victims tend to slip through the cracks while fraud is rewarded with little effort.

On Homecoming and Belonging

As seen during the return of veterans from Vietnam, the real trauma so often related to the symptoms of PTSD occurs upon re-entering the warrior into society. It’s a common effect seen in Peace Corp volunteers: upon returning to their normal lives and families after spending years in a foreign country, these volunteers exhibit symptoms remarkably similar to those seen by veterans of foreign wars. Many of these veterans express the same sentiment when shipped back to the states. They miss the experience of war. To quote Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, for these veterans it truly was “the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Like survivors interviewed after the Bosnian War, today’s veterans share common longing for the sensation of camaraderie they experienced during deployment, and in particular, the lack of competition they felt within their company. Not all of these feelings are combat related. Like survivors of the bombing of London, homosexual men who survived the AIDs epidemic in the 1980’s report a nostalgia for the unity they felt with their companions—despite the uncertainty and fear that plagued their day to day lives.

Consider the examples we’ve explored: AIDs epidemic, combat veterans, citizens under siege. In all of these, but in particular military life, each of the victims endured a time of hardship that was punctuated by an otherwise unfelt level of amity and togetherness. In the military and during deployment, a soldier is never alone. From the moment they wake up in the morning they are surrounded by men and women who are sharing their exact experience, whom they can confide in, if necessary, and know that they can fully grasp the gravity of their situation. Where else in our modern society does such a level of understanding exist? Not even within families do you see such tight bonds as those exhibited under extreme duress. Studies have shown that a lack of social support is the most predictive component in the severity of a veteran’s PTSD.

Israel is a prime example of this effect. Despite being in a near constant state of war, with the threat of invasion or otherwise total annihilation a daily expectant, their military population exhibits a PTSD rate of one percent. In Israel, everyone has to serve. National military service is mandatory for all citizens over the age of 18, male or female, requiring a period of service no less than two years. Military service is ingrained into their society. Of course, not every citizen will experience combat or even a threatening situation during their service requirement, but they understand the sacrifice required of those who go to war for their country. The experience of war for Israelis is also much closer to home. Unlike in America, which sees its conflicts waged half a world away, the Israeli population can look no further than their borders to see the site of constant conflict. The product of this combination is a culture steeped in social understanding. Like the American soldiers sharing a tent in Iraq, no one needs to express their sensation of hardship for others to understand. The Israeli respect for their warrior class is a deep-rooted understanding, far from the typical American token of “thank you for your service”, and being honored at halftime during football games.

In fact, as Junger argues, the trivial American customs of token services towards veterans further drives a divide between the civilian and warrior class. The veteran is worthy of a lunchtime discount and wave of a flag, but little else. Between the benefits rolled out by the VA and the token servitude of the general public, the current American climate is incentivizing the victimhood of these veterans exposed to trauma. This victimhood, as Junger would like to make clear, is entirely the fault of AID organizations and not the destitution of the veterans. Veterans want good jobs, they want acceptance and understanding. These organizations are utilizing veteran-victimizing to make the public feel apologetic for a proud warrior-class that volunteered their service.

Victimizing, in its many forms, from rape to poverty to military veterans, has been shown as a detriment to the recovery and reintegration of the traumatized. There is a powerful concept in psychology known as learned helplessness. Typically seen in students, it involves a person believing that they cannot accomplish something, only to have this belief reinforced by failure. Victimizing has the same effect. When we tell veterans that there is something wrong with them, that these once powerful and prideful men and women can no longer sustain their own lives without assistance, we are hobbling a productive portion of society and wasting the valuable talents they earned at such a high cost. Valor and praise are heaped on the veteran to make the civilian feel better. What the veteran needs is a means of status. The tools of military life, combat and leadership can come at quite a premium in today’s economy. We need a culture that enables our veterans to flourish through their own devices, rather than one that seeks to yank them up from the gutter and inadvertently forces them there. As Junger points out, the amount of money being poured into disability benefits and government assistance would be just as well spent on creating the means for veterans to be productive.

The Devil in Our Midst

The average American is so disconnected from the military and the world around them that they commit hypocrisy without even thinking. Consider No Blood for Oil bumper stickers, which are casually applied to the trunks of vehicles that only exists because of the vast amounts of petroleum found in the countries America is currently waging wars in. The average citizen is oblivious to the industries they depend upon most. Another example: littering. It is impossible to drive down a highway or walk through a parking lot without seeing the remnants of someone else’s trash. Littering, creating a mess in the expectation that someone else will clean it, is the epitome of an individualistic society.

The severe culmination of individualism is found in the growing occurrence of mass-murder around the world. Junger ends the book by discussing the troubled individuals in society who commit violence against their own kind. The Navajo had a particularly fitting term for a murderer: skinwalkers. The Europeans called them werewolfs, from the old English word wer, or “man”. Both phrases imply an enemy, a demonic form within an otherwise normal vestige. The true fear in society comes not from the external enemy, which we can identify, rally and defend against, but from the madman within our midst. Nothing is more detrimental to the well-being of a society than the mass-murderer, the serial killer, the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Imagine the same scenario of the Blitz in World War II London. Imagine the effect on civilian morale if they were expected to not only endure bombings from above, but the threat of bombs going off within their own communities, within their own shelters, set by the very people they considered neighbors. Consider the psychological torment experienced by the American soldier, sent to watch over and defend the Afghani civilian populace, only to have children and other innocents commit suicide bombings.

Junger’s discussion of skinwalkers punctuates the need for humans to feel close ties to their tribe. We have seen the detrimental impact of a lack of social support in response to overwhelming trauma. We have also seen that conflict inspires a feeling of camaraderie and a paradoxical nostalgia for hardship. But what we collectively fear the most, throughout human history, has not been ostracizing, but the devil in our midst. We lean upon our tribe for support and comfort. To imagine a betrayal in our sacred institutions, our neighborhoods, our communities, is unfathomable and counter-intuitive to the evolutionary dependence upon the tribe. The serial murderer stands at the pinnacle of society’s most imposing foe. Further isolation and loosening of social ties, in conjunction with a growing narcissistic epidemic, will contribute to an increase in brutalities in the coming decades.


Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

Tribe by Sebastian Junger

About Mike LaVere

Student, author and aspiring surgeon. Former bar bouncer and meat butcher. Mike LaVere graduated from a top university with a degree in English and Creative Writing. After spending several years working in healthcare as a surgical technician and EMT, Mike returned to college to obtain a post-baccalaureate degree in Biochemistry before applying to medical school. In addition to providing help for new writers and pre-medical students, Mike writes about the current state of healthcare and how it can be improved. His mission in life is to improve the quality of patient care around the world by inspiring providers to be more passionate about their work and to take pride in caring for their patients.