Sebastian Junger’s bestselling book Tribe is fascinating and perplexing. He’s a journalist who has covered a number of armed conflicts. As a result of these experiences, he’s developed an admiration for war and warriors, because chaos brings out the best in people. It creates an alternate reality in which it is acceptable and desirable to behave like human beings (sort of).
During times of helter-skelter, people shift into a tribal mode. Divisive stuff, like race, religion, and politics, are largely swept under the bed. Emotional disagreements over beliefs that are irrelevant to the immediate situation can get everyone killed — the opposite of the preferred outcome. In chaos, people share, cooperate, care for others, and abandon class roles. The tribal mindset feels pleasantly natural and satisfying, a refreshing change. They cease being the isolated individuals that industrial society excels at mass producing.
In combat, warriors become capable of great courage and great cruelty. They transform into fearless beings of holy rage who laugh in the face of death. “They wore amulets and magical charms and acted as if they were possessed, deliberately running into gunfire and dancing while firing their weapons.” They were intensely and absolutely alive (sort of).
This reminded me of stories about wild European warriors. Berzerkers were sometimes swept away by a state of fury they could not turn off. They killed everyone in sight, even friends. In Ireland, Cu Chulainn was so overheated with battle rage that a group of naked women was sent out to calm him. He was put in vats of cold water, which boiled and evaporated.
Junger noted that when a deployment ends, warriors plunge down a chute, back to consumer oblivion. They return to “a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good.” It’s a sharp slap on the face. Equality comes to an abrupt end, class roles resume, and some brave warriors once again have to move to the back of the bus, work crap jobs, and suffer the arrogant rudeness of petty tyrants. It immediately becomes apparent that the society that they had fought to protect is insane.
Back in consumer wonderland, herds of strangers, blissed out on antidepressants, devote total attention to tiny glowing screens. Roads are jammed with frantic reckless drivers who have no sense of courtesy or common decency. Alpha consumers proudly posture beside their shiny $50,000 pickup trucks and pretentious McMansions. It’s like a loony zoo for primates born in captivity. Warriors feel completely out of place. Many snap. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common.
Junger is fond of American Indian tribes, because they honored and respected warriors, and performed ceremonies to help them successfully reintegrate into civilian society. The mindset of modern warriors has elements in common with the tribal cultures of wild societies. Humans have a powerful desire to be close to others. Hunter-gatherers learned to share food, help one another, promptly resolve conflicts, and cooperate in team hunting and group defense. Self-centered individualists were annoying pariahs, because they were a threat to group stability.
Junger reminds readers of colonial times, when whites captured by Indians actually preferred living in the wild society of their captors. Many refused to return to rigid Christian society, even when begged by relatives. This was so common that laws were passed that prohibited settlers from abandoning their communities and voluntarily choosing to live in tribal freedom.
Page one asserts that the white colonizers were aggressively conquering Stone Age Indians who had barely changed technologically in 15,000 years. I disagree. During the colonization process, Indians acquired horses, guns, and metal tools. Horses dramatically cranked up the velocity and intensity of warfare, enabling the rise of the Comanche empire. Hunting on horseback made it much easier to kill bison, which increased the possibility of overhunting and population growth.
The three sisters system of agriculture (corn, squash, beans) began expanding around 800 A.D., following several centuries of experimentation. It allowed far more nutrients to be extracted from the same land area. This led to surging population, increased conflict, mutual defense alliances, hierarchical chiefdoms, and large villages surrounded by rugged wooden palisades. Junger mentions that the Iroquois empire dominated just about every tribe within 500 miles (804 km).
Tribal towns emerged at Cahokia, Illinois; Spiro, Oklahoma; Moundville, Alabama; and Etowah, Georgia. Each invested many years of manual labor in building monumental earthworks. Mound 72 at Cahokia contained the bodies of 52 young women, sacrificed in some way that did not leave marks on their bones. Their bodies had been stacked in two tidy layers. South of the border, in the motherland of corn, Aztecs apparently sacrificed thousands of people every year.
Junger’s short book often feels like a supertanker of testosterone. It feels like its primary message was a celebration of war, warriors, and tribal culture. But anthropologists tell us that war is not a normal component for all tribes. There have been many exceptions, and these cultures did not domesticate grains, or enslave horses or livestock.
I had a flash of excitement when Junger briefly mentioned the !Kung people of the Kalahari, the northern group of the San hunter-gatherers. Louis Lieberman noted that the San are genetically among of the oldest modern humans. Their hunting culture survived into the 1950s, and may have survived continuously for 200,000 years or more. They possess all the positive characteristics of tribal people, minus the warrior tradition.
Junger’s book devotes abundant attention to the holiness of warriors. Do you think the pathology of modern society could be cured by becoming more war oriented? The book devotes far less attention to the creepy soul-killing civilian culture that warriors hated returning to. Modern societies fail to provide a way of life that is comfortable, normal, and natural for primates. We weren’t meant to live like neurotic caged animals amidst crowds of strangers in sprawling concrete metropolises.
The book’s subtitle is “On Homecoming and Belonging.” Home is far more than a group of humans. Even more important, home is also a place that supports a complex family of life — wild life. From what I gather, Junger grew up in Boston, and has spent most of his adult years in New York City. I sense that he, along with most Americans, has never experienced a healthy lifelong spiritual connection to a healthy wild ecosystem. We are a society of lost and lonely homeless critters.
If this disconnection does not change, we can have no long term future. Modern societies are possessed by a collective trance — an overwhelming blind faith in technological miracles, perpetual growth, and endless progress. We are the greatest, and the best is yet to come! It will take a profound cultural awakening to break out of this toxic trance. Junger scores points for pointing out how dysfunctional our society is. In order to successfully break the spell of powerful illusions, millions more need to join him in delegitimizing the black magic juju.
What’s missing is a heartfelt celebration of wildness, and the powerful medicine of healthy connection. Also missing is a deeper discussion of the conflicts he reported on. In two sentences, Junger mentions that he did not support the Vietnam War, or the Iraq War. So, on the battlefields, young warriors learned some beneficial aspects of tribal relationships. But the warriors were risking their lives to participate in wars that were not justified — wars that should never been started. Might there be better ways of learning how to have healthy relationships with the family of life?
Junger, Sebastian, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Twelve Books, New York, 2016.