This is a thought-provoking short read by Sebastian Junger, an author and journalist famous for books like The Perfect Storm and War, as well as the gripping war documentaries Restrepo and Korengal. Please watch Restrepo (available on Netflix) if you want an unfiltered portrayal of the front lines of a modern military conflict.

Tribe focuses on Sebastian Junger's theories into the country's growing problems with depression, political polarization, and lack of community. It reads like a Michael Lewis novel but has a hearty dose of footnotes and background research.

Sebastian Junger appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience (available in podcast form) to describe his ideas:

Community as a Product of Evolution

  • "Hominids that cooperated with one another - and punished those who didn't - must have outfought, outhunted, and outbred everyone else. These are the hominids that modern humans are descended from."
  • "Subsistence-level hunters aren't necessarily more moral than other people; they just can't get a away with selfish behavior because they live in small groups."

Modern society is so sprawling and anonymous that there are no social mechanisms to discipline members of the community. Public and private sector fraud costs each household in the United States around $5000 a year, yet we don't interpret it as a betrayal of the community because it's so routine. Fraud is accepted in a way that would never occur in tribal groups.

Mental Health and Community Struggle

The author synthesizes multiple studies showing surprising behavior during traumatic events. In particular, the research was unable to find instances when catastrophic events led to anything approaching anarchy - instead, social bonds were reinforced during disasters. One of the researchers theorized that "modern society has gravely disrupted the social bonds that have always characterized the human experience, and disasters thrust people back into a more ancient, organic way of relating". Consider these events:

  • During the Blitz during World War II, pyschiatric hospitals around Great Britain saw admissions go down. Long-standing patients saw their symptoms lessen during periods of intense air raids.
  • However, peaceful areas far from the bombing saw depression rates rise: perhaps because men in peaceful areas where unable to help their society by participating in the struggle.
  • Once the tide of war turned in favor of the Allies, the same effects were seen in Germany: the more Allies bombed, the more defiant the German population became.

Lack of Community as a Contributing Factor to PTSD

  • "[Traumatized vets] return from wars that are safer than those their father and grandfathers fought, and yet far greater numbers of them wind up alienated and depressed. This is true even for people who didn't experience combat. In other words, the problem doesn't seem to be trauma on the battlefield so much as reentry into society."

Recovery from traumatic experiences is heavily influenced by the society one returns to, and modern American society does not make it easy. It's striking how divorced the typical citizen is from the wars waged his behalf, with his tax dollars.

Contrast that with a country like Israel, where national service is mandatory and soldiers returning from combat are reintegrated into a society where those experiences are well understood.

  • "Shared public meaning gives soldiers a context for their losses and their sacrifice that is acknowledged by most of the society. That helps keep at bay the sense of futility and rage that can develop among soldiers during a war that doesn't seem to end."

The ubiquitous phrase, "Thank you for your service", seems only to highlight the divide between civilian and military - implying that the vast majority of people don't serve their country and have a shared public meaning of wartime experiences.

  • "[In Israel], reflexively thanking someone for their service makes as little sense as thanking them for paying their taxes - it doesn't cross anyone's mind."

My Highlights

  • I wanted the chance to prove my worth to my community and my peers, but I lived in a time and a place where nothing dangerous ever really happened. How do you become an adult in a society that doesn't ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn't require courage?
  • Humans don't mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.
  • A person living in a modern city or suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day - or an entire life - mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.
  • Chronic neurotics of peacetime now drive ambulances.
  • The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good.
  • What would you risk dying for - and for whom - is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss. It is a loss because having to face that question has, for tens of millennia, been one of the ways that we have defined ourselves as people.
  • Today's veterans often come home to find that, although they're willing to die for their country, they're not sure how to live for it. It's hard to know how to live fort a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary.

Applied to My Life

  • There's no need to shy away from challenges, but I need to seek out opportunities that I can approach with a close-knit group
  • The "American Dream" of a house in a sleepy suburb strays far from our ancestral way of living. Instead, I should seek out arrangements that lead to a deeper feeling of community.
  • I need to get involved in volunteering and other altruistic efforts.
  • "If you want to make a society work, then you don't keep underscoring the places where you're different - you underscore your shared humanity."