Tribe book review

Tribe Cover

Tribe – On homecoming and belonging by Sebastian Junger (4th Estate, 2016)

We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by a clear purpose and understanding – to ‘tribes’. This tribal connection has largely been lost by modern society.

Combining history, psychology and anthropology, Sebastian Junger demonstrates that regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.

As someone who has worked and volunteered in a number of closely knit groups, including the military, I found Tribe very insightful. Sebastian Junger is making an enormously important point in attributing some of the problems of reintegration of ex-military personnel to the loss of their tribal identity. Too many authors lump all such re-integration problems together under the umbrella of PTSD rather than recognising that there are many factors that may alienate ex-service personnel from their civilian counterparts, including classical PTSD but also ‘moral injury’ and the loss of the group as described in Tribe. However, in my opinion the book portrays an overly optimistic view of the tribe and the benefits that might accrue from recreating elements of tribalism within contemporary civilian society.

I’ll freely admit that my view is coloured by my own negative experiences, so bear that in mind as you read the review.

The examples used in the book illustrate that the ideal form of tribalism (with resource sharing and punishment of individual exploitation of power or resources) emerges under conditions of considerable adversity. The ‘military unit as tribe’ analogy glosses over the fact that abuses of power and psychological trauma to members of the tribe are depressingly common when the bonding factor of adversity is not present, and not exactly rare even when it is. A substantial fraction of military PTSD is related, not to combat, but to sexual assault or bullying within the unit, and one can appreciate from the general argument made in the book that this would be additionally traumatic because it is fundamentally a betrayal by the tribe.

The book also talks about the potential benefits of being able to recreate some degree of tribalism in settings such as contemporary US society, and the barriers to this at a societal level. The reader is left with the impression that the worst that could happen is a maintenance of the staus quo – that the returning serviceman loses his or her ‘tribe’ and suffers because of that loss.

What is overlooked in the discussion is that things can be made worse. There is a risk that in seeking a replacement ‘tribe’, the former member may be drawn into and exploited by a group in which the illusion of tribalism masks the fact that the group exists for the benefit of an individual or small elite (eg a cult, although there are many less extreme examples which are nevertheless exploitative), and after becoming either disillusioned enough to voluntarily leave or being involuntarily expelled, the ex-member suffers a compounding of their loss.

These omissions do not detract from the overall message of the book, but I have to say that I came away from reading it just a little disappointed.