On Homecoming and Belonging

Here’s the core of Sebastian Junger’s explosive analysis of why the United States has become a sick country (that’s my term, I confess, not Junger’s): “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it. It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. The income gap between rich and poor continues to widen, many people live in racially segregated communities, the elderly are mostly sequestered from public life, and rampage shootings happen so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two. To make matters worse, politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country—a charge so destructive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it by a form of treason. It’s complete madness, and the veterans know this. In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.” They miss their tribe.

To get to this conclusion—“we live in a society that is basically at war with itself”—Junger, a prize-winning journalist, dips back into our historical past and all too briefly examines earlier examples of cultural unity or tribalism. Why, he asks, did so many Caucasians who had been captured by Indians not want to return to the “civilization” of their birth? What was the attraction of Indian life? “The frontier was full of men who joined Indian tribes, married Indian women, and lived their lives completely outside civilization?” Even Hector de Crèvecoeur remarked, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.” The attraction was tribal life, especially its “fundamental egalitarianism.”

Moving on to war—especially America’s innumerable recent wars—Junger cites examples of people in different cultures stating that in some way life was better during wartime, because people banded together and thought of others, not simply themselves. His insights about tribejungerPTSD are especially illuminating. The chances of vets suffering from it are “in a great part a function of their experiences before going to war. Statistically, the 20 percent of people who fail to overcome trauma tend to be those who are already burdened by psychological issues, either because they inherited them or because they suffered abuse as children.” And he adds, “The problem doesn’t seem to be trauma on the battlefield so much as reentry into society.” Then he extends his analysis to an area I can easily relate to: Peace Corps Volunteers returning “home,” where the cultural shock may be much more intense than adjusting to life overseas. Junger further extends his analysis of PTSD (the opposite, you might say, of belonging) to natural disasters, which often reinforce social bonds. But war is still his central focus and what it has done to people around the world. He cites a Bosnian who said, “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.” Strong words here, because it’s life in our country today that has become so troubling, so uncaring, so isolating.

There’s a very minor incident in Tribe that sums up the entire book. What Junger sees as the “fundamental lack of connectedness allows people to act in trivial but incredibly selfish ways.” And then the eye of the needle: “When you throw trash on the ground, you apparently don’t see yourself as truly belonging to the world that you’re walking around in.” Although he calls this a somewhat petty example, it’s simply a smaller version of billion-dollar bank bailouts or people who fraudulently claim disability payments. The rich can take advantage of the rest of us with rigged tax advantages that save them millions of dollars. Further down the economic poll, the guy in the middle claims those false disability payments. At the bottom, the poor guy can only respond to what he has observed by throwing his banana peel on the ground. I can hear readers on the right uttering obscenities, but isn’t that the center of the argument? Liberals espouse generosity; conservatives, greed. So it’s also a political issue, identifying with much larger tribes (political parties).

Tribe is a skinny book with plenty of source notes at the end, providing further reading that backs up Junger’s conclusion that, as people, we Americans have lost the sense of belonging. Sadly, I think he’s dead right about that. Moreover, he states, at his conclusion, that “belonging to society requires sacrifice,” helping people beside yourself—complete strangers, when necessary. Specifically, about veterans (also where Junger begins his book), he quotes Rachael Yehuda at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. She’s someone who has experience working with traumatized vets. “If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different—you underscore your shared humanity…. I’m appalled by how much people focus on differences. Why are you focusing on how different you are from one another, and not on the things that unite us?”

The current election supports virtually everything Sebastian Junger analyzes in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

Sebastian Junger: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Twelve, 168 pp., $22

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.