Sebastian Junger Talks Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging 

As a veteran war reporter, Sebastian Junger has spent extended periods of time with combat platoons in dangerous, remote outposts around the world.  At one such outpost in Afghanistan, Restrepo, Junger observed that soldiers serving there did not look forward to coming home; rather they wanted to stay with their platoon in Restrepo.

What is the draw to being a part of this group and why the dread of returning to civilian life?  Thus began the discussion of Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging with Sebastian Junger on The Positive Mind.  

Having lived most of the past 2 million years in groups of 30-50 people – the size of a platoon – human beings are evolutionarily inclined toward communal living where individual and group survival are one in the same.  Sleeping, eating and going on missions together, soldiers in places like Restrepo, Junger suggests, are reproducing our evolutionary past, which feels good on a primal level.  But drop them back in suburban America, and veterans feel profoundly alienated and unsafe.  

Large percentages of soldiers return home with PTSD even though only 10% are actively engaged in combat and disability claims have skyrocketed as casualty rates have plummeted.  Why?  Junger proposes that this has everything to do with how our society tries – and fails – to reintegrate veterans.  Leaving the close communal bonds of their platoons, traumatized soldiers face recovery alone.  While PTSD is treatable and adaptable, veterans are overwhelmingly consigning themselves to lifelong disability and our society is viewing otherwise strong, resourceful people as somehow diminished.  It’s as if their government and fellow citizens are telling them that they’re no longer needed, a message Junger contends is unhealthy for veterans and the nation as a whole.   

Here Junger takes Tribe well beyond a discussion of veterans and PTSD by proposing that the problem is more acute than how we treat our returning soldiers.  The problem is the very structure of our modern society.  No longer reliant on each other for food, shelter and safety, people are disconnected from their communities, and that brings feelings of depression and existential angst.  If a person feels safer in a combat zone, Junger notes, society is clearly not providing something crucial.  

Humans are wired as a species to survive trauma and hardship.  More difficult for humans to handle is the feeling of not belonging and not being needed.  As an example, Junger cites the days after 9/11.  Though New York City had been traumatized, the suicide and violent crime rate went down.  We treated each other better because we felt like we belonged to something greater than ourselves.  

Short of reverting to an agrarian society, enduring a national catastrophe or going into combat, how can we create a community that feels less alienating?  How do we re-create the concept of tribe?

Junger advises that our nation find new ways to instill a sense of unity and purpose to create a national identity that encompasses and encourages all of us to work toward and sacrifice for the greater good.  People want to make sacrifices, Junger observes.  The moment a person sacrifices for the group they are securing their place in the group.  They are invested, and the group is invested in them.  

“The tragedy of modern society is that we’ve gotten wealthy enough that we don’t need the individual,” Junger explains, “and that leaves the individual to wonder how secure their lives are.”  

Written by Kate Kolendo for The Positive MInd

Listen to the entire discussion of Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging with Sebastian Junger. 

Carina Coderis