Review: “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger
A moving little book by one of America’s greatest journalists. Part of my Pandemic Reading series.
I have been and continue to be an unabashed Sebastian Junger fan. His continual production of high-quality journalism is astounding. Moreover, the clarity of thought in his writing I find to be a welcome salve to the din and bluster of the current media environment. He is a high signal, low noise writer whose voice and vision inform as a reader and inspire as a journalist.
As a photojournalist, I first came to Sebastian’s work through his now-legendary partnership with the late British photographer Tim Hetherington. Their best-known collaboration was the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary, “Restrepo.” Junger has written consistently over the years for Vanity Fair among many other publications; it was in his long articles on war, conflict, corruption, and the like that I first began taking in his work whenever I happened to come across it. While perhaps most widely known for his 1997 book “The Perfect Storm” that became the 2000 movie of the same name, it was reading “Tribe” (2016) in a windowless room in Hong Kong when I went all-in for Sebastian Junger.
“Tribe” is a powerful and moving examination of the human draw to small intimate groups and how modern society has atomized us from one another in powerful and deeply hurtful ways. Yet, at the same time, society still offers up all the benefits of being part of a tribe in limited and specific ways. One prominent example: is when sending citizens off to war. In war, soldiers who have faced combat experience firsthand one of the great paradoxes of modern human life: As violence and trauma foster the closeness of tribal intimacy; they are then, upon returning home, torn from that intimacy and closeness and thrown back into a kind of surreal isolation amongst loved ones who cannot conceive of the visceral and profound experiences of violence and fear, but also of closeness and belonging felt by these solider. A member of their tribe. They have gone from a community where they belong and are helpful in a society where their sense of belonging and usefulness become diluted, if not outright undermined.
“I thought about that man for the rest of my trip. I thought about him for the rest of my life. He’d been generous, yes, but lots of people are generous; what made him different was the fact that he’d taken responsibility for me. He’d spotted me from town and walked half a mile out a highway to make sure I was okay. Robert Frost famously wrote that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. The word “tribe” is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with. For reasons I’ll never know, the man in Gillette decided to treat me like a member of his tribe.” — Sebastian Junger
I can only speculate on this, but I suspect that Heatherington and Junger had conversations around this topic over many years. ‘War,’ Hetherington once said, ‘is the only place where young men can openly show affection for one another without it being misinterpreted as something sexual.” I came across that quote from Tim years before I read “Tribe,” and I’ve never forgotten it. My instinct is that the genesis of “Tribe” lives somewhere in how Sebastian and Tim tried to make sense of their myriad experiences of war and conflict. And struggling to understand the perpetual draw war seems to have on human beings and its lasting effects on the combatants and society as a whole.
“This book is about why that sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It’s about why — for many people — war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. 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. It’s time for that to end.” — Sebastian Junger
As the son of a Vietnam veteran, and now in my current life as a photojournalist, I gained a career, such as it is, and status by putting myself into dangerous situations. “Tribe” drove me to some introspection on my conception of myself as a journalist, a man, and a human being. I exist simultaneously as a part of many intimate tribes and yet still find ways to spend large swaths of time alone and disconnected while occasionally brutalizing my heart and mind through the exposure to violence and the helpless witnessing of the suffering of other humans. In particular, Junger’s writing in “Tribe” about the current (to 2016) thinking on PTSD and its peculiar effects on people who have either never experienced trauma or on those who have experienced it repeatedly throughout their lives gave me pause. I began to see trauma as not something experienced individually but as something that started before I was born and has rippled through my family among many families for decades. It’s not exactly revolutionary, but it is worth noting that there is something profoundly sick and isolating about modern life. Americans can trace a lot of societal ills back to people responding to or acting out against the isolating brutality of what we call civilization.
“…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. These values are considered “intrinsic” to human happiness and far outweigh “extrinsic” values such as beauty, money and status.” — Sebastian Junger
I’ve read “Tribe” twice since that first night I spent with it in Hong Kong, many years ago now. This fantastic book has taken on an even greater power when read in the pandemic times we find ourselves. I cannot imagine any human being reading this book and not being affected by it. It’s a powerful and lasting work by a brilliant writer and thinker.