Politics & Policy

In Defense of the Tribe

Israel Defense Forces Nahal Infantry Brigade soldiers in 2013. (Photo: IDF/Flickr)
A new book explores why tribal life has attracted so many adherents throughout history.

Your humble servant recently came across a report showing that Israel scores highly in surveys of human happiness. The World Happiness Report 2016 Update ranks Israel 11th in the world out of 158 countries. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Life Satisfaction Index rates Israel fifth out of 36 countries — ahead of many other advanced democracies.

At first blush, these data may seem unexpected, since Israel lives under the constant threat of terrorist violence. By definition, such violence does not discriminate between military and civilian targets, and strikes its victims at random. Yet it is partially because of this danger (not in spite of it) that citizens of the Jewish state exhibit remarkable degrees of personal fulfillment. The stresses of war and terror often breed social unity. Little wonder that 83 percent of Israel’s Jewish citizens consider their nationality “significant” to their identity.

Milan Kundera once defined a small nation as “one whose very existence may be put in question at any moment; a small nation can disappear, and it knows it.” Since its inception, Israel has faced aggressive neighbors bent on its destruction — a near-constant reminder of its precarious status in the order of nations. Israelis have responded to existential danger by banding together as if they belonged to a vast kibbutz settlement. They have, in other words, taken quite literally the ancient Israelite claim to be people of the tribe.

The phenomenon of tribal solidarity isn’t confined to Jews. It is the subject of Sebastian Junger’s enthralling new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Junger offers a richly researched work of history, psychology, and anthropology to explore the deep appeal of the tribal culture throughout history. The result is a tour de force that should be read by anyone interested in the human condition.

Junger previously served as a war correspondent for Vanity Fair, embedding for long stretches at remote American outposts in Afghanistan’s frightful Korengal valley. This experience may help explain his interest in the intimate bonds that define tribal societies as well as the despair that can come from being wrenched out of a situation that makes those bonds necessary.

Tribe aptly opens with Benjamin Franklin’s observation, decades before the American Revolution, that more than a few English settlers were “escaping into the woods” to join Indian society. Doctor Franklin noticed that emigration seemed to go from the civilized to the tribal, but rarely the other way around. White captives of the American Indians, for instance, often did not wish to be repatriated to colonial society. At this distance, it is simply astonishing that so many frontiersmen would have cast off the relative comforts of civilization in favor an “empire wilderness” rife with Stone Age tribes that, as Junger notes, “had barely changed in 15,000 years.”

The small but significant flow of white men — they were mostly men — into the tree-line sat uncomfortably with those who stayed behind. Without indulging the modern temptation to romanticize what was a blood-soaked way of life, Junger hazards an explanation for the appeal of tribal culture. Western society was a diverse and dynamic but deeply alienating place. (Plus ça change…) This stood in stark contrast to native life, which was essentially classless and egalitarian. The “intensely communal nature of an Indian tribe” provided a high degree of autonomy — as long as it didn’t threaten the defense of the tribe, which was punishable by death — as well as a sense of belonging.

“The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing — it seems obvious on the face of it — but why Western society is so unappealing.” Junger is making a provocative point, but he is no provocateur. He swiftly justifies this jarring idea:

On a material level it is clearly more comfortable and protected from the hardships of the natural world. But as societies become more affluent they tend to require more, rather than less, time and commitment by the individual, and it’s possible that many people feel that affluence and safety simply aren’t a good trade for freedom.

If there is any doubt on this point, consider the alarming rates of PTSD among our warrior class, and the desire among many of them to return to war — a subject on which Junger has been at the leading edge of the public discussion. When combat vets return home, the alienation and aimlessness of modern society aggravates their psychological traumas and prompts them to yearn for the brotherhood of combat. It’s not for nothing that a recent book on post-traumatic stress is entitled The Evil Hours.

War is hell, so this scourge of loneliness may seem the inevitable price for those who fight in them. The second half of Tribe insists that this impression is gravely mistaken. “Studies from around the world show that recovery from war is heavily influenced by the society one belongs to,” Junger observes. Iroquois warriors, for instance, did not have to contend with much alienation because the line between warfare and normal Indian society was vanishingly thin. This is not to deny that the Iroquois were traumatized by combat, but it was generally acute PTSD, limited in duration and distress. Their trauma was ameliorated by the fact that the trauma was shared by the entire tribe.

Interestingly, Junger identifies the largely homogeneous — and happy — state of Israel as “arguably the only modern country that retains sufficient sense of community to mitigate the effects of combat on a mass scale.” The Israeli Defense Forces — which are culled from roughly half of the population — have by some measures a PTSD rate as low as 1 percent. Israel, as we have seen, is a polity steeped in national purpose and patriotism, and this certainly helps explain that young Israelis whose fathers have been casualties of war experience less depression and anxiety than those who lose their fathers to accidents.

Even America’s World War II generation did not suffer the rates of trauma that are common today. Of course, a broad swathe of American society served under arms in a conscript army that at its peak, together with the Navy and Marines, fielded a force 12 million strong. It was also crucial that the GI generation came home to a remarkably cohesive society that had shared in and sympathized with the sacrifices that had been made.

Multiple studies demonstrate that ‘a person’s chance of getting chronic PTSD is in great part a function of their experiences before going to war.’

Contemporary America is a considerably less consolidated society than it used to be. Cultural diffusion and economic stratification have increased the isolation felt by those who have borne the heat and burden of battle. I won’t soon forget the photograph shown to me upon my arrival in basic training by a particularly hard-bitten drill sergeant. It captured a graffito scribbled on a wall in Ramadi, Iraq, that read: “America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war. America is at the mall.”

Multiple studies demonstrate that “a person’s chance of getting chronic PTSD is in great part a function of their experiences before going to war.” The relationship between combat and trauma seems to be a murky one. For instance, “combat veterans are, statistically, no more likely to kill themselves than veterans who were never under fire.” (Even a significant number of Peace Corps volunteers report suffering severe depression after their return home, especially if their host country was in a state of emergency when they did.) In Junger’s telling, particular burdens endured by disadvantaged Americans — from a poor educational background to chaotic family life — can make a candidate especially susceptible to PTSD. Indeed, these risk factors “are nearly as predictive of PTSD as the severity of the trauma itself.”

The decline of social order and solidarity has contributed to a loss of what researchers call “social resilience.” This has simultaneously supplied more potential candidates for PTSD and impaired society’s ability to help them recover. The United States must place a premium on boosting its levels of social resilience. Americans should no longer be content to simply thank veterans for their service; sporting events are not places of healing. Nor should they seek to outsource the responsibility to the federal government. The solution lies closer to home, in the mediating institutions of civil society — from families to churches to community and professional associations.

First, ex-combatants shouldn’t be regarded, or encouraged to regard themselves, as victims. America is an affluent country, Junger writes, that can afford to perpetually care for a victim class of veterans dependent on government largesse, “but the vets can’t.” They have generally performed exemplary service for which they should be honored, and they must know that their service is not over.

Next, veterans (like most social animals) depend upon a sense of purpose that begins with a job and a position in society. Here the “hire vets” initiatives and retraining programs are necessary but insufficient. The traditional means of securing social resilience has been egalitarian social provision. Individualist America may blanch at that notion, but it should at least act to build a more open economy and inclusive culture where individuals can reliably advance by merit and develop social capital.

And last, a revival of national cohesion is needed if we are to arrest the full savagery of battlefield trauma. This will require what Edmund Burke called “a revolution in sentiments, manners and moral opinions.” One clue about how to achieve this can be found in the early pages of Tribe, when Junger tells an affecting anecdote about his father. Not long after the end of the Vietnam War, the author had received a Selective Service registration form in the mail, in case the United States government ever needed to conscript him into the military. When he announced that, if drafted, he would refuse to serve on political grounds, his father’s reaction caught him off guard. Although sternly opposed to the war in Indochina, Junger’s father insisted that American soldiers had “saved the world” from fascism during World War II and many never came home.

“‘You don’t owe your country nothing,’ I remember him telling me. ‘You owe it something, and depending on what happens, you might owe it your life.’” This did not oblige anyone to enlist in an unjust war — “in his opinion, protesting an immoral war was just as honorable and necessary as fighting a moral one” — but it did mean that the country had just claims on its citizens, and refusing to sign a registration form constituted a dereliction of duty.

This passage calls to mind John Updike’s book of memoirs, Self-Consciousness, in which he expresses his contempt for the counterculture that allowed opposition to the Vietnam War to become an indictment of American society writ large. In the poignant chapter “On Not Being a Dove,” Updike writes that his “undovishness” was a product of his “battered and vestigial but unsurrendered” faith in God and country. “I was grateful to be exempted from the dirty, dreary business of maintaining the overarching order, and felt that a silent non-protest was the least I in gratitude owed those who were not exempted.”

In this age of social and economic fragmentation, many of our disadvantaged fellow citizens have begun to chafe against an elite class that often behaves as if it were exempted from the national compact. Nobody should be surprised if the ranks of disaffected citizens – not least those who have borne arms in our name and in our defense — ultimately decide that the sensibility of the tribe is superior to our own.


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