“Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” by Sebastian Junger, examines the consequences of mankind’s social evolution from small, hunter and gathering tribes to the modern world. This book grew out of an article Junger wrote in the June 2015 issue of Vanity Fair titled “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield.” He is a noted journalist, author and filmmaker of adventure non-fiction genre, most famous for the best-selling book A Perfect Storm, his award-winning chronicle of the war in Afghanistan in the documentary films Restrepo and Kornegal, and his book War.
“Tribe” is a short read but it packs a powerful punch. He combines history, psychology, and anthropology to tackle a compelling subject: returning service members and PTSD. Many will consider his examination of the subject provocative because he believes the problem with PTSD sufferers might be the society they are returning to, not them.
Only one of the book’s four chapters is devoted to PTSD; the others examine the concept of tribe and tribal life and why and how modern societies undermined the concept of belonging and loyalty to a group.
Junger recounts an interesting phenomenon of America’s early frontier history, where settlers that were captured by Indians and adopted into the tribe almost never wanted to return to white civilization; even when forcefully repatriated they would invariably flee back to their tribe at the first chance.
Conversely, Indians forced into white society would return to their tribes at the earliest opportunity, despite all the advantages to living in a “civilized society.” He argues there was something clearly appealing to living in a tribal culture that venerated simplicity and the common good.
Junger contrasts tribal societies with modern societies and chronicles the human toll that increased wealth and convenience has taken on the human spirit in advanced societies — the highest levels of depression, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history.
Junger exposes some research statistics that are clearly troubling and question the accepted PTSD narrative. Multiple studies have demonstrated that service members’ chances of developing chronic PTSD are in part a function of their experiences before going to war.
Risk factors such as an educational deficit, low IQ, drug and alcohol abuse, and sexual abuse were predictive of developing PTSD.
Another finding has been that danger and trauma are not necessarily related; in the first Gulf War, 80 percent of psychiatric breakdowns in the Army’s VII Corps happened to soldiers in support units that experienced no incoming fire.
The U.S. military now has the highest reported PTSD rate in history, yet only about 10 percent of our forces experience actual combat, suggesting that the majority of veterans claiming to suffer from PTSD seem to have been affected by something other than direct exposure to danger.
And since WWII and after decades of war, combat deaths have precipitously declined but disability claims have precipitously risen; disability claims should decline with less combat deaths and combat intensity, but they have not and, in fact, an inverse relationship seems to exist. Junger levels some withering criticism on our nation’s response to the PTSD epidemic. He suggests that our society portrays veterans as victims, excused from having to fully function in society. PTSD is usually not chronic and is treatable, but far too many that claim to be suffering are awarded lifelong disability payments dependent on the government for their livelihood. Service members exist in a tight knit tribe while on active duty, almost never alone on lengthy deployments and always responsible for others. When returned to civilian society, they miss the intimate bonds and camaraderie and the sense of purpose and belonging that unit cohesion produces.
The society they return seems to be regularly tearing itself apart along every ethnic and demographic category, with jobs difficult to find as well. Junger asks, “ How do you make veterans feel that they are returning to a cohesive country that was worth fighting for in the first place?” He is dismissive of the ritualized expressions of “thank you for your service” because so few really understand what that service entails.
He points out that less than 1 percent of Americans now serve in the military, meaning that America, as a whole is disconnected from its military and almost two decades of war. He claims that for those that serve, America does a poor job of integrating them back into society when they return. Junger faults us, as a nation, for not having the tribal values that society requires for human connectedness and happiness. The plight of returning veterans, alienated and depressed with PTSD, is just a small manifestation of that deficiency, but it is a very public plight that Junger manages to fold into a remarkable book about what America needs to do to revive a communal spirit and improve our social resilience.
Bob Funk is a retired U. S. Marine and a retired high school principal.