Book Notes: Tribe by Sebastian Junger

51r-egdn4sl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger is a short book about how humans relate to each other and how modern society is pulling us away from our “tribal” roots. It touches on many topics related to community, war, how our very old brain is ill-equipped for modern society, the community norms of Native Americans, and more. Somehow it manages to hold together to be a stimulating and coherent read from start to finish. I think does accurately describe some of the dynamics that lead to modern unhappiness. Recommended. Highlighted sentences from the Kindle below, not in order.



Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European,” a French émigré named Hector de Crèvecoeur lamented in 1782. “There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.” 

It’s easy for people in modern society to romanticize Indian life, and it might well have been easy for men like George as well. That impulse should be guarded against. Virtually all of the Indian tribes waged war against their neighbors and practiced deeply sickening forms of torture. Prisoners who weren’t tomahawked on the spot could expect to be disemboweled and tied to a tree with their own intestines or blistered to death over a slow fire or simply hacked to pieces and fed alive to the dogs.

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.

The psychological effect of placing such importance on affluence can be seen in microcosm in the legal profession. In 2015, the George Washington Law Review surveyed more than 6,000 lawyers and found that conventional success in the legal profession—such as high billable hours or making partner at a law firm—had zero correlation with levels of happiness and well-being reported by the lawyers themselves. In fact, public defenders, who have far lower status than corporate lawyers, seem to lead significantly happier lives.

Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result, mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth. The more assimilated a person is into American society, the more likely they are to develop depression during the course of their lifetime, regardless of what ethnicity they are. Mexicans born in the United States are wealthier than Mexicans born in Mexico but far more likely to suffer from depression.

“The economic and marketing forces of modern society have engineered an environment… that maximize[s] consumption at the long-term cost of well-being,” a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders concluded in 2012. “In effect, 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.”

Baby rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers and presented with the choice of two kinds of surrogates: a cuddly mother made out of terry cloth or an uninviting mother made out of wire mesh. The wire mesh mother, however, had a nipple that dispensed warm milk. The babies took their nourishment as quickly as possible and then rushed back to cling to the terry cloth mother, which had enough softness to provide the illusion of affection. Clearly, touch and closeness are vital to the health of baby primates—including humans.

Also unthinkable would be the modern practice of making young children sleep by themselves. In two American studies of middle-class families during the 1980s, 85 percent of young children slept alone in their own room—a figure that rose to 95 percent among families considered “well educated.” Northern European societies, including America, are the only ones in history to make very young children sleep alone in such numbers. The isolation is thought to make many children bond intensely with stuffed animals for reassurance. Only in Northern European societies do children go through the well-known developmental stage of bonding with stuffed animals; elsewhere, children get their sense of safety from the adults sleeping near them.

Boehm points out that among current-day foraging groups, group execution is one of the most common ways of punishing males who try to claim a disproportionate amount of the group’s resources.

One year into the siege, just before I got to the city, a teenage couple walked into no-man’s-land along the Miljacka River, trying to cross into a Serb-held area. They were quickly gunned down, the young man falling first and the woman crawling over to him as she died. He was a Serb and she was a Muslim, and they had been in love all through high school. They lay there for days because the area was too dangerous for anyone to retrieve their bodies.

American analysts based in England monitored the effects of the bombing to see if any cracks began to appear in the German resolve, and to their surprise found exactly the opposite: the more the Allies bombed, the more defiant the German population became. Industrial production actually rose in Germany during the war. And the cities with the highest morale were the ones—like Dresden—that were bombed the hardest.

He was unable to find a single instance where communities that had been hit by catastrophic events lapsed into sustained panic, much less anything approaching anarchy. If anything, he found that social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and that people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves.

According to a study based on a century of records at the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, male bystanders performed more than 90 percent of spontaneous rescues of strangers, and around one in five were killed in the attempt. (“Hero” is generally defined as risking your life to save non-kin from mortal danger. The resulting mortality rate is higher than for most US combat units.) Researchers theorize that greater upper-body strength and a predominantly male personality trait known as “impulsive sensation seeking” lead men to overwhelmingly dominate this form of extreme caretaking.

The greater empathic concern women demonstrate for others may lead them to take positions on moral or social issues that men are less likely to concern themselves with.

In late 2015, a bus in eastern Kenya was stopped by gunmen from an extremist group named Al-Shabaab that made a practice of massacring Christians as part of a terrorism campaign against the Western-aligned Kenyan government. The gunmen demanded that Muslim and Christian passengers separate themselves into two groups so that the Christians could be killed, but the Muslims—most of whom were women—refused to do it. They told the gunmen that they would all die together if necessary, but that the Christians would not be singled out for execution. The Shabaab eventually let everyone go.

What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves.

“The miners’ code of rescue meant that each trapped miner had the knowledge that he would never be buried alive if it were humanly possible for his friends to reach him,” a 1960 study called Individual and Group Behavior in a Coal Mine Disaster explained. “At the same time, the code was not rigid enough to ostracize those who could not face the rescue role.”

If women aren’t present to provide the empathic leadership that every group needs, certain men will do it. If men aren’t present to take immediate action in an emergency, women will step in.

Twenty years after the end of the siege of Sarajevo, I returned to find people talking a little sheepishly about how much they longed for those days. More precisely, they longed for who they’d been back then. Even my taxi driver on the ride from the airport told me that during the war, he’d been in a special unit that slipped through the enemy lines to help other besieged enclaves. “And now look at me,” he said, dismissing the dashboard with a wave of his hand.

We didn’t learn the lesson of the war, which is how important it is to share everything you have with human beings close to you. The best way to explain it is that the war makes you an animal. We were animals. It’s insane—but that’s the basic human instinct, to help another human being who is sitting or standing or lying close to you.” I asked Ahmetašević if people had ultimately been happier during the war. “We were the happiest,” Ahmetašević said. Then she added: “And we laughed more.”

Given the profound alienation of modern society, when combat vets say that they miss the war, they might be having an entirely healthy response to life back home. Iroquois warriors did not have to struggle with that sort of alienation because warfare and society existed in such close proximity that there was effectively no transition from one to the other.

But the very worst experience, by far, was having a friend die. In war after war, army after army, losing a buddy is considered the most devastating thing that can possibly happen. It is far more disturbing than experiencing mortal danger oneself and often serves as a trigger for psychological breakdown on the battlefield or later in life.

Horrific experiences are unfortunately a human universal, but long-term impairment from them is not, and despite billions of dollars spent on treatment, roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability. Since only 10 percent of our armed forces experience actual combat, the majority of vets claiming to suffer from PTSD seem to have been affected by something other than direct exposure to danger.

Administration counselor I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous, described having to physically protect someone in a PTSD support group because other vets wanted to beat him up for seeming to fake his trauma. This counselor said that many combat veterans actively avoid the VA because they worry about losing their temper around patients who they think are milking the system. “It’s the real deals—the guys who have seen the most—that this tends to bother,” he told me.

It’s common knowledge in the Peace Corps that as stressful as life in a developing country can be, returning to a modern country can be far harder. One study found that one in four Peace Corps volunteers reported experiencing significant depression after their return home, and that figure more than doubled for people who had been evacuated from their host country during wartime or some other kind of emergency.

One of the most noticeable things about life in the military, even in support units, is that you are almost never alone. Day after day, month after month, you are close enough to speak to, if not touch, a dozen or more people. When I was with American soldiers at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, we slept ten to a hut in bunks that were only a few feet apart. I could touch three other men with my outstretched hand from where I lay. They snored, they talked, they got up in the middle of the night to use the piss tubes, but we always felt safe because we were in a group. The outpost was attacked dozens of times, yet I slept better surrounded by those noisy, snoring men than I ever did camping alone in the woods of New England.

According to Shalev, the closer the public is to the actual combat, the better the war will be understood and the less difficulty soldiers will have when they come home.

Secondly, ex-combatants shouldn’t be seen—or be encouraged to see themselves—as victims. One can be deeply traumatized, as firemen are by the deaths of both colleagues and civilians, without being viewed through the lens of victimhood.

Rachel Yehuda pointed to littering as the perfect example of an everyday symbol of disunity in society. “It’s a horrible thing to see because it sort of encapsulates this idea that you’re in it alone, that there isn’t a shared ethos of trying to protect something shared,” she told me. “It’s the embodiment of every man for himself. It’s the opposite of the military.”

American Indians, proportionally, provide more soldiers to America’s wars than any other demographic group in the country. They are also the product of an ancient culture of warfare that takes great pains to protect the warrior from society, and vice versa.

Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker.

4 Responses to Book Notes: Tribe by Sebastian Junger

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  2. Krishna says:

    I recall the sentimental John Rambo in the movie “First Blood” confessing to Richard Crenna playing Lt.Col. Sam Troutman, his commander. War isn’t all about combat weariness – it’s also about revisiting our own e!ement that takes a near death situation to scoop it out.

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