Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is a book about the seemingly unlikely combination of community and war. It covered a lot of ground, and as such left me with a bit unsure of what Junger wanted his readers to take from it. But perhaps that’s his point: community and interdependence is a complex issue that works on many levels. You may not agree with all of Junger’s conclusions, or simply have a lot of questions, but since he has a number of references in the back, you have to tools to explore his sources more deeply.
Because of diversity of the topics in the book, Tribe got me thinking about quite a few things in ways that I hadn’t expected. The book opens with a discussion the realization that modern society seems to be at odds with the intrinsic values that “self-determination theory” describes, and how the values of tribal societies support mental (and physical) health in both direct in direct ways. With a mix of history, quotes, stories from his experience, and analysis, Junger makes a compelling argument for why we need to think about why we lost some of these values from early societies and how to get them back.
This book could simply be a discussion of how our society lacks the values and social interactions of traditional tribal societies, and how we reintegrate that sense of community into our modern lives. But the book goes into the interesting direction of describing how we often do create these kinds of “tribes” when faced with adversity. He draws examples from times of disaster and war, and the bulk of the book discusses how how the disconnect between the majority of society behaves and how groups work together in combat situations can get in the way of veterans reintegrating into society.
The book alternates between the macro problem of how to help veterans (and others who do difficult, traumatic work on our behalf) feel part of our society, and the micro problem of how we, as individuals, can maintain connections and responsibility. While a bit disorienting at first, the combination makes sense in the end, as developing a community is something that works at all levels of scale.
A recurring, underlying, question, throughout the book is “why is it that we work together best, when things are at their worst, but abandon good principles and practices when things get better?” Junger explores this in great detail in the context of war and disaster. On a seemingly more trivial level it also happens in the context of projects; I’ve often seen the best collaboration happen when a team is faced with a project in crisis. The irony is that, if they’d had the same kind of collaboration — at a less intense level — earlier in the process there would be no crisis. We’d all benefit from thinking about why we don’t realize the values of community, collaboration, and interdependence until we are at a crisis.
Tribe is a book about many things that will likely get you thinking about society, how you fit into it, and how you’d like to fit into it, and is worth the short investment of reading time, though be forewarned that it may lead to a greater investment in thought.