Dec 01, 2016

Author: Sebastian Junger
Published by: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, Toronto (136 pages)

Tribe: on Homecoming and Belonging

Unlike Sebastian Junger's previous books, which were focused on single events or subjects, Tribe: on Homecoming and Belonging is a rambling narrative about the contrasts between how individuals live in modern society and life in smaller and closer communities. Junger directs much of his attention on the plight of soldiers returning from combat where each is intrinsically linked to his / her buddy and often depends on the unity of a small group for feelings of safety, security and comradeship.

When the deployment concludes, he/she returns to what has evolved into the modern, urbanized world. “A person living in a modern city or a 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.”

He spends much of the brief book looking at the attributes of early primitive societies and drawing comparisons to the modern-day world. He explains that to be content in the modern world, according to self-determination theory, a person needs three basic touchstones: to feel competent at what they do; to feel authentic in their lives; and, to feel connected to others.

Anthropologist Christopher Boehm published his 2007 analysis of 154 foraging societies that represent of our ancestral past. Besides murder and theft, one of the most commonly punished infractions was “failure to share” assets and resources with others in the community. “Freeloading in the hard work of others and bullying” were also derided. Punishments included public ridicule, shunning and, finally, “assassination of the culprit by the entire group.” Group pressure, Boehm believed, was the basis of moral behaviour in which bad actions punished, and good actions are rewarded.

Contrast that with the acceptance in the U.S. of cheating for unemployment assistance, costing the American taxpayer $2 billion annually; welfare and other entitlement fraud, which add another $1.5 billion in annual losses; and insurance fraud, calculated at $100 to $300 billion annually.

Our ancestors cooperated with one another and punished those who didn’t.

Junger writes “Modern society, on the other hand, is a sprawling and anonymous mess where people can get away with incredible levels of dishonesty without getting caught. What tribal people would consider a profound betrayal of the group, modern society simply dismisses as fraud.”

The 1960 study, Individual and Group Behaviours in a Coal Mine Disaster, emanating from the 23 Oct 1958 Springhill coal mine disaster, locally called the “Bump”, that killed 74 miners and trapped 19 others some 12,000 feet underground, explained the rescue effort: “The miners' code of rescue meant that each trapped miner has the knowledge that he would never be buried alive if it were humanly possible for his friends to reach him. At the same time, the code was not rigid enough to ostracize those who could not face the rescue role.”

This has some relevance for those who recognize the soldier’s imperative that no one is left on the battlefield – all soldiers, living and dead, come home. After they return, soldiers often miss the clarity of wartime service with its single focus of joining with and defeating the adversary and the absolute faith in the mutual commitment of dependability that bonds military comrades.

A modern soldier returning from a deployment transitions from that close-knit group back to a larger and more anonymous community where most people work outside the home, children are educated by teachers apart from the family unit, families are socially isolated within the wider community, and personal gain eclipses collective good.