Inspiration of the Week: Tribe by Sebastian Junger

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.
— From the introduction to Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger


I write about soldiers and warriors, their families, wartime situations, clashing nations. Over the years, research has taken me down many philosophical and psychological roads in my attempt to get inside the minds of my characters. Never has a book affected my view of a subject so drastically so quickly as Sebastian Junger’s short work.

Tribe has a simple premise: soldiers returning from war zones attempting to reintegrate into “normal” society—as riddled with issues as they might be—are not the problem. Modern society is the problem.


...self determination theory...holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others.
— Tribe (page 22)


Cautioning us against the impulse to romanticize past tribal cultures, who “waged war against their neighbors” and practiced “deeply sickening forms of torture,” Junger nonetheless compares our modern hustle to the trials and hardships of tribal life and questions our longstanding beliefs that modern society is uniformly better.


...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...

...Humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.
— Tribe -- The Men and the Dogs


Soldiers returning from battle might have experienced the closest modern society comes to living within a tribal unit. During their deployments, at the most heated of times, their individual contributions are necessary for the survival of the whole. Their conduct has a direct effect on the lives of other men and women who live in close proximity for long periods of time, i.e. their behavior affects people who are not strangers. The burden of hardships and dangers and tragedies are carried by the group and the group members form a common understanding.

Then these soldiers return to a society that can’t relate. The average civilian can’t accurately image the violence, depravity, and basic discomfort of living within a war zone. We also can’t imagine the cohesive bonds or the uncomplicated sense of immediate purpose. Our lack of understanding the positives—as much if not more than the negatives—of serving within conflict, can contribute to the soldier’s strong sense of isolation.

This simple but profound (for me) idea has already had an effect on my writing. It might take years for me to fully explore the ramifications for my relationships with the soldiers in my life.

It’s not my intention to get into the book review game, but Tribe can be finished in an evening and is well worth the time.

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