Book Review of “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger

When I first received a copy of the book ”Tribe” by Sebastian Junger, I thought it would be a book about soldiers and PTSD. But it’s not, not really. It’s a book about all of us: modern society. The author isn’t a soldier; he’s a journalist. He has been to numerous countries, many different disasters and war zones, and interviewed people in multiple languages. His stories are not just about America—they are about humanity. It has been moving to read, and I am honored to write this Tribe Book Review.

“Tribe” is a book that explores the aftermath of war, and explains why modern warfare has such a devastating effect on so many military vets. The problem isn’t what they experience on the battlefield. It’s how they adjust between deployment life and life in modern America. The sickness and symptoms Junger describes are not just a problem in the military community. “Tribe” is especially relevant this week, in the aftermath of police brutality and then the subsequent murder of police in Dallas. Modern society, affluent as it is, has one huge shortcoming: It divides and alienates people, instead of giving them opportunities to work together. We have forgotten our own roots and our need to belong in a Tribe.

According to the Tribe book, modern society has killed the concept of belonging to a Tribe, but humans still crave it

Junger begins “Tribe” with a look at human nature, and how people react in disaster situations. In ancient tribes, all people were regarded equally, and everyone worked together and shared resources like food. Everyone had a role and a responsibility, and the problems faced by the tribe were faced together. Humans still crave connection with each other, involvement with their community, and shared resources, but modern society has become individualistic and divisive.

As evidence of human nature, Junger cites multiple events and studies from this century: the London bombings in WWII, a Nova Scotia mine collapse in 1958, the Chile earthquake in 1970, Israeli war in the 1970’s, the siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia, and the September 11 attack on New York City. Each of these disaster situations created a temporary “community of sufferers.” We might expect chaos in these situations, assuming people will fend for themselves when temporarily removed from civilized society.  Instead, we see that in emergencies, people band together and help each other. This tribe mentality helps us heal psychologically from traumatic events. After September 11, for example, New York City saw a decrease in violent crime, suicide, and psychiatric disorders.

A crisis environment can create close bonds and an intense feeling of brotherhood. Everyone realizes for a time that we are all part of one human race. This is why there is community outpouring after a tragedy such as the recent shooting at a nightclub in Orlando. Strangers with no connection to the victims still attend memorials and bring tributes such as flowers and balloons, because they realize that regardless of race or gender or religion, the victims were human and were part of our community.

Tribe book explains there is a reason combat veterans miss war–and it’s not because of the violence

One confusing aspect of PTSD is that combat veterans find themselves missing war and longing for their days on the battlefield. But because war is such a horrible experience, they feel ashamed of these emotions and try to suppress them. However, in light of our human need to belong, these feelings of longing make sense.

Combat is a huge self-defining experience. For the first time, young military veterans experience a shared brotherhood (or sisterhood), a sense of belonging, the feeling of being valued and needed to complete a mission. They eat, sleep, and move through the day surrounded by their unit, their tribe. It can be the best of times and the worst of times. Recovering from PTSD takes longer than recovering from other traumatic experiences like rape, because there are many positive parts of the experience that the veteran does not want to forget.

There is a reason combat vets miss war. And it's not because of violence. Click To Tweet

The positive aspects of a war-time brotherhood stand in sharp contrast to modern American society, which is extremely alienating and divided. According to Junger, “one of the shocks of returning from a war zone is realizing that America is basically a society at war with itself.” In combat, veterans pay little attention to race, ethnicity, or religion. Back home, veterans see communities tearing themselves apart over meaningless racial and religious battles. It’s easy to see how frustrating it must be to fight a war for a country that is not worth coming home to.

Suicide and combat veterans: it’s not combat trauma causing the wounds

Junger explores some of the confusing data and misconceptions surrounding veteran suicides. First, he notes that until 2008, veteran suicide rates were the same as the civilian population. After 2008, many suicides were veterans of the Vietnam war, so it is difficult to correlate their decision to commit suicide with a war they fought 40 years earlier. It could be influenced by numerous other factors.

Even more interesting is the fact that combat vets are not more likely to kill themselves than those who were never under fire. In fact, Junger writes that “psychiatric trauma is higher in support units with few casualties than it is in line companies with many casualties.” This is true in American, British, and Israeli armies. If PTSD was only related to the amount of bodies or blood that soldiers witness, then it should be easy to predict and track.

Instead, PTSD rates are higher among those who are not on the front lines. Junger’s explanation is that intense training and danger in line companies create unit cohesion. This sense of belonging to a tribe helps keep veterans psychologically stable, even while witnessing death. Those who are in supporting roles, however, don’t get the same type of training and camaraderie. They work in a dangerous environment, but without the intense bonds of combat, and without the benefit of seeing the mission succeed with their own eyes. Junger concludes that the problem is not trauma on the battlefield: it is re-entry into society. Focusing on symptoms alienates the vets. Focusing on family and community can help heal them.

Rethinking Homecoming: How can we help vets transition?

Junger studies numerous warring tribes around the world, ranging from Iroquois Indians to modern Israeli special forces. He says that in any society, there are 3 things that help combatants transition back to non-combat life. Currently, America ranks low in all 3 areas.

1. An Egalitarian society, where the entire country shares the burdens of war

In America, the military makes up only 1% of the population. And only half of them see combat overseas. So veterans take on all the burden of war, but never have a chance to express themselves or share their burdens with the overall society. Cultures with higher military participation or public ceremonies have much lower rates of PTSD and veteran suicide. Junger suggests that Veterans Day should mean giving the town hall to the veterans to let them speak to the community. “I support the troops” would then mean attending the Town Hall and listening. This would share the burden of war with everyone.

2. Warfighters should not be viewed as victims

No matter what they have been through, veterans should not be encouraged to see themselves as victims with government handouts. Junger explains that victim-hood is counter to a warfighting mentality, and makes it harder for them to heal. They did not see themselves as victims during their deployments, so we do them a dis-service by telling them to become victims dependent on the government. The emphasis should be on sharing their burden and healing their pain, not on labeling them as victims in order to receive a paycheck.

3. Veterans need to feel as necessary in society as they were in the battlefield

Military service members need to have an important role in the community when they return. If they are leaving the service, a meaningful job is the best thing society can offer. When they come home, families should have a role for them too. Show veterans they are needed. Military spouses, you may want to re-think your vision of the ‘perfect Homecoming.’ Are you planning to have the house clean and organized, the kids in matching outfits, and a homemade meal on the table? Are you trying to show him that you can do it all? This is an impressive goal, but does it leave room for the service member? Where is his role in the household?

Let the veteran know that he is needed and appreciated as a husband and father. Don’t lecture him about the kids’ routines and the ‘right way’ to change a diaper. Let him do things his way in the home. His transition will go easier if you let him know he has an essential place in the family.

If you want to understand more about combat and Homecoming from a sociology and anthropology perspective, this is an amazing book. The cross-cultural insights are eye-opening to ways that we can improve our own culture and our treatment of military veterans. The book is now in print, and available on Amazon.

What ways can you do more to understand veterans and share the burdens of war?


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