Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Sebastian Junger. Hachette Book Group. 2016.
“It was better when it was really bad.” These words were spray-painted on a wall by by survivors of the war in Bosnia. With these word Junger concludes his brief argument, suggesting that “solidarity is at the core of what it means to be human.”
This fundamental premise resonated deeply, reminding me of years gone by...
My face was in the sand. The sand was in my ears and in my nose, and every minute he was packing it thicker around every part of me—not every part, just the part of me I was trying to squeeze through the opening at the end of the tunnel. He was standing on top of a metal grate that pressed down into my back and shoulders. I gritted my teeth and started moving earth with any appendage that would cooperate. When it wasn’t propped on my frame, the grate was held up by two short cement walls that sloped from a height of about eighteen inches at the entrance of the crawl space to what appeared to be about three inches at the exit. In turn, the grate held up all three hundred pounds of him, the muscle-bound cadet who was served as cadre for the dreaded obstacle course. I shoved myself further into a tiny space packed with wet sand and my helmet-wrapped head. Grit filled my mouth as one gloved hand shoveled sand wherever it would go, out of the way.
My own reminiscence was stirred by the skillful technique Junger uses to fill his pages with stories. From the opening chapter, Junger’s work uses vivid imagery to describe rather than define solidarity. Early images allude to the book’s title, painting a picture of daily life with a nomadic group of Indians. His stories achieve more than transmittal of fact. Instead, his narrative evokes the empathetic response one might have to the sense community, the feeling of belonging. But much like tribal life, the story abruptly transitions to a visceral description, one in which we read, and feel, the effect of violence. But Junger continues, begging the reader to ask what comes after the violence. In just a few short pages, accounts of his own feelings and those of other veterans, Junger brings down a heaviness on my heart, one I have felt before...
Many years after conquering the obstacle course, I found myself in Iraq. There the dirt filled the air in a dense, humid cloud. The fog was made up of tiny particles of putrid earth. As I walked through it, the tiny particles precipitated, fell from the fog and onto and into every part of me. Once in the office, brushing it off was a futile task that mostly resulted in rubbing it into wind-chapped skin. The only thing worth cleaning was my sidearm. The tile beneath me crunched with every movement of my feet, which sometimes rested on the floor and sometimes dangled from the rungs of my chair. By the end of my eight- or twelve-hour shift, the grit would work its way out of my ears. My hair at least, escaped unscathed, protected by the patrol cap that matched my airman battle uniform. I often wondered if this was what it meant to be a warrior. I certainly did not feel like one there in that place. Perhaps before, on friendly soil, beneath the crushing weight of the military instructor, under the metal grate and the hot sun—there I felt like a warrior. Here, I sat beneath the crushing weight of other feelings that didn’t make my heart swell, thoughts you couldn’t shovel away. Here I didn’t sprint from place to place like I had on that obstacle course; instead, I shuffled through the sand and gravel. Usually the shuffle was the result of a heavy heart rather than tired legs.
These dark feelings are not unlike those felt by many of today’s soldiers after they’ve returned from war, emotions Junger understands well, for he witnessed combat firsthand as a journalist and has observed more wars than most of us. In the experiences of war, in the misery and camaraderie of shared hardship, there is a paradox, which according to Junger, “...is because the trauma of combat is interwoven with other, positive experiences that become difficult to separate from the harm.” He digs deep into the fertile soil of this subject, comparing our modern epidemic of post-traumatic stress with the emotional response of warriors from a bygone age, those red-skinned natives who first inhabited our land hundreds of years ago. In the opening chapter, we find a brief history of the Stone-Age tribes that pestered the growth of America for over three hundred years, starting before its birth when early settlers were often kidnapped and assimilated into the tribes, and finally ending in in the 1920s.
During our nation’s early years, it is a startling but well-documented phenomenon that many of these early victims acclimated to tribal life. Often, victims who were rescued demonstrated a desire to remain with the tribe. Benjamin Franklin himself contrasted this fact with its complement, that Indians, westernized from their youth, were quick to return, or escape, to tribal life rather than remain in relative luxury practicing the customs to which they had been reared. For most of the first chapter, Junger builds on this and ultimately argues, “...the question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious...but why Western society is so unappealing.” With that question, together with a rich tapestry of well-researched and personal experiences, Junger drew me in, baiting my expectation.
Thence, Junger presents his argument, identifying thematic similarities in wars all over the globe in the years since. He does this in only four chapters. Four long chapters. This is one of the greatest weaknesses of the book. He admits in an author’s note preceding the first chapter that some, if not much, of the book was sourced from previously published articles, and this is evident. Another effect of this construction is that the argument seems to be incomplete. I reached the end of the book with many thought-provoking ideas but without a completed theme. In some ways, Junger presupposes an underlying ideology, assuming the reader both knows and agrees with him rather than examining and expounding on the implications of his ideas. In a book weaving together stories and pathos, this may be an unavoidable and inherent weakness.
Though it is brief, in this enjoyable book readers—whether veteran or not—will walk away with a greater appreciation for the challenges facing those weary from war at their homecoming. Those who study war will also uncover profound wisdom, both in the conduct of war and the care of its combatants. If it is incomplete in the defense of its underlying ideology, it does, however, succeed as a warning, a reminder of the cost of war and a challenge to society cultivate the solidarity that brought us “to this extraordinary moment in our history.” If, as Junger implies, solidarity brought us this crossroads in our history, “it may also be the only thing that allows us to survive it.”
Mark Jones Jr. is a husband, father, statistician, experimental test pilot, USAF Reservist, and writer. As a member of the Military Writers Guild, where he serves in its committee leadership. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:
Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.
Header image: U.S. airmen undergoing basic training at Lackland AFB. USAF | Senior Airman Christopher Griffin