Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Tribe by Sebastian Junger

Junger disparages modern western life, and has a very fond attitude towards traditional hunter-gatherer civilization.

"How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice?" he asks. "Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary," he asserts. Modernity provides affluence and safety, but it's incompatible with freedom and equality. It's easy to spend a day in a modern society while "surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone." "As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down," Junger says. Modernity is fucked, Junger says, without citing Rousseau. It just ain't natural. Without hardship, you don't really need friends.

On the other hand, Tribal society, while not perfect, was, and let's be honest, pretty fucking awesome! So awesome, in fact, that "a surprising number of Americans—mostly men—wound up joining Indian society rather than staying in their own." I found this surprising, and sadly, there was no citation. You don't really need to be a hunter gatherer, though. You can just be from Soviet Russia (this resonated): "Adversity often leads people to depend more on one another, and that closeness can produce a kind of nostalgia for the hard times that even civilians are susceptible to." Junger makes the distinction between family and tribe explicitly: "Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively." I thought of the compania.

But even in shitty modernity, if the circumstances are dire enough, people can still come together and act tribally:

  • Male Youth: "They drive too fast, get into fights, haze each other, play sports, join fraternities, drink too much, and gamble with their lives in a million idiotic ways."

  • War: "Emile Durkheim found that when European countries went to war, suicide rates dropped."

  • Disaster: "social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and that people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves."

In the US, soldiers risk a 20 percent chance of PTSD. "they return from wars that are safer than those their fathers 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." Remarkably, in Israel, "Despite decades of intermittent war, the Israel Defense Forces have by some measures a PTSD rate as low as 1 percent."

Junger thinks that re-entry into American is so difficult because the military is so close-knit, while modern life is so individualistic. "Soldiers experience this tribal way of thinking at war, but when they come home they realize that the tribe they were actually fighting for wasn’t their country, it was their unit." Compounding the problem is the public's "thank you for your service," which rings hollow and reflects a distance from the war itself. Indeed, it's an ocean away. Further, ever since Vietnam, much of the public has had a principled disagreement with America's wars.

Junger wants to bring veterans and civilians closer together, to ease re-integration. "More dignified might be to offer veterans all over the country the use of their town hall every Veterans Day to speak freely about their experience at war." Interesting start.

This struck a chord:

The public is often accused of being disconnected from its military, but frankly it’s disconnected from just about everything. Farming, mineral extraction, gas and oil production, bulk cargo transport, logging, fishing, infrastructure construction—all the industries that keep the nation going are mostly unacknowledged by the people who depend on them most.

Nodding, I wondered: how disconnected am I? Why don't we go build a house or a tractor, or maybe learn the answers to some of these questions?