The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The dangerous drift from our tribal roots

Philip Caputo is the author of 15 books. His new novel, “Deliver Us From Evil,” comes out in 2017.

Sebastian Junger begins his new book, "Tribe," with an observation about a peculiar phenomenon in frontier America: From the late 17th to the late 19th century, hundreds of white settlers were seized by Indians, and almost all chose to remain with their captors when offered a chance to return to their families. Benjamin Franklin, years before the American Revolution, lamented to a friend that he knew of no Indian voluntarily joining what he considered civilized society, while ransomed white captives soon grew disgusted with "our manner of life" and took the first opportunity to escape back "into the woods." They chose to be with the Indians because they found the intensely communal, egalitarian nature of tribal life preferable to colonial civilization.

Junger postulates that the modern equivalents of those white captives are war veterans who come home longing for the intimacy of life with their platoon or company — their military tribe, so to speak. He says the lack of closeness and sense of purpose in civilian life may account for their extremely high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder. And he goes further.

He proposes that many of the ills in modern Western society are due to the loss of tribal sentiments lying deep in our evolutionary past. We remain hunter-gatherers in our souls while our bodies (and minds) dwell in a culture that, for all its material blessings, is inimical to tribal virtues: cooperation rather than competition, affinity rather than alienation, a spirit of sharing rather than one of rugged individualism.

“This book is about ... what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning,” Junger writes in the introduction. “It’s about why — for many people — war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary.”

“Tribe” is as thought-provoking as it is slender. Blending anthropology, psychology and history with social criticism, it’s a model of synthesis and brevity; but I often felt that it would have benefited from some expansion. Junger seems to try to do too much with too little. I found myself underlining many passages, each one striking me as a gem of careful observation and thorough research (Junger’s source notes cover 29 pages for a book of 133 pages of text). At the same time, I’m not sure that these jewels hang together as tightly as they should.

From the early American frontier, “Tribe” abruptly leaps to the London Blitz, the Siege of Sarajevo and a Nova Scotia mine disaster in the 20th century. This section, though it’s titled “War Makes You an Animal,” actually examines how war — and certain natural catastrophes — make us more human by drawing us together in a common cause. Citing sociologist Charles Fritz, Junger argues that wars and disasters turn us all into tribesmen. They thrust us back into ancient modes of cooperative behavior, creating a “ ‘community of sufferers’ that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others.”

This probably accounts for the paradoxical nostalgia many people feel for experiences that, you would think, they'd be better off forgetting. In the Siege of Sarajevo, which Junger covered as a war correspondent, one-fifth of the city's population was killed or wounded. But when he returned to Sarajevo 20 years later, he found survivors longing for those days and "for who they'd been back then." During the siege, self-sacrifice overcame self-interest.

“Whatever I say about war, I still hate it,” a woman tells him before admitting that she does “miss something from the war. But I also believe that the world we are living in . . . is very f---ed up if somebody is missing war. And many people do.”

That comment serves as preamble to the second half of “Tribe.” For the most part, the book examines the psychological problems of today’s war veterans, which result not from what they endured on the battlefield but from the dysfunctions of the society to which they return.

I was delighted to see Junger dispelling many of the myths and misconceptions about post-traumatic stress disorder. He observes that there are two kinds of PTSD: short-term, which is not really a disorder but a normal reaction to abnormal events; and long-term or chronic PTSD, which is crippling and unhealthy.

Counter to popular understanding, ­rear-echelon troops are more likely to suffer from PTSD than combatants, who account for only 10 percent of the armed forces. How, then, to explain the fact that the U.S. military today has the highest PTSD rate in its history? Junger concludes that the “majority of vets claiming to suffer from PTSD seem to have been affected by something other than direct exposure to danger.”

What is that something?

“Studies from around the world show that recovery from war — from any trauma — is heavily influenced by the society one belongs to,” Junger writes, “and there are societies that make that process relatively easy. Modern society does not seem to be among them.”

For “modern society” read “American society,” which he describes as one where “personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good.” Cold, isolating, hyper-competitive, overly technological, it is “deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”

Even if you agree with that grim assessment, you have to wonder if our culture is the main reason so many vets are suffering emotional and mental disorders. Earlier, citing another study, Junger notes that a person's chances of contracting long-term PTSD result largely from his or her experiences before (his italics) going to war: inherited psychological problems, childhood abuse, a poor education, a low IQ. This appears to contradict that society is largely to blame.

In his social critique, it seems, Junger is once again trying to do too much with too little, this time by focusing almost exclusively on the plight of returning war veterans. His book would have been better if he had widened his scope, perhaps addressing the predicament of the country's white working class, which is no less afflicted. A recent Princeton University study reported that white, working-class life expectancy has fallen for the first time in more than a century, mostly because of suicides, drug overdoses and alcoholism — deaths of despair arising from the loss of the American Dream as jobs are shipped overseas or erased by automation, and as educational opportunities dissolve in an acid bath of unemployment and ever-rising college costs. In his introduction, Junger remarks that people don't like feeling unnecessary. And the harsh truth is that vast swaths of our population have become superfluous in the bright, new, meritocratic society fashioned by Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

But I question whether restoring tribal values is the solution. If anything, tribalism seems to be the problem in today's America: political partisanship, social fragmentation and bitter cultural disputes. In the current election campaign, the white, working-class tribe is pitted against the black/Hispanic tribe, and both have their knives out for the 1 percent tribe. On the cultural front, the religious right crosses swords with gays, while the federal government duels in court with North Carolina over transgender bathroom rights.

Social media, which was supposed to bring us closer together, has driven us further apart by providing echo chambers wherein conservatives and progressives, evangelicals and secularists, rich and poor, can reinforce their prejudices and hone their contempt for one another.

We have become, Junger warns, a society that is “basically at war with itself,” unable to offer its members a chance to act selflessly; it “will probably fall apart.” He is to be commended for starting a conversation about how we can avoid that fate.


On Homecoming and Belonging

By Sebastian Junger

Twelve. 168 pp. $22