Sebastian Junger embedded with Army troops at Combat Outpost Restrepo In Eastern Afghanistan. (Photo: Vanity Fair)
Sebastian Junger spent nearly twenty years writing about dangerous professions, most notably those surrounding war and other conflicts. Although he retired from war reporting after longtime collaborator Tim Hetherington was killed during the Libyan Civil War, he has a lot of experiences on which to reflect. In his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, he contextualizes a life spent close to death and danger and provides lessons for modern societies that have struggled with the fact that technological improvements and material wealth haven't necessarily made their populations happier.
Tribe is the 54-year-old Junger's own homecoming of sorts. He was a Vanity Fair contributor when he spent time in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, which was also his first collaboration with photographer Tim Hetherington. That collaboration led to three films based on the pair's time in the valley: "Restrepo," "Korengal," and "The Last Patrol," as well as Junger's book, War. After Hetherington was killed in Misrata, Libya in 2011, Junger produced "Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington" for HBO documentary films.
Junger's lifetime of covering conflict led him to write Tribe, the theme of which is how modern society has isolated individuals and marginalized the value of groups – a phenomenon to which returning warfighters can relate. Junger notes there are positive effects of war on mental health and long-term resilience, using examples of war trauma from Sri Lanka to Israel and Liberia to Cote d'Ivoire to illustrate the effects of war. He explains the utility of the "shared public meaning" and why it's crucial for warriors to return to a society that understands them. He argues that "honoring" veterans at sporting events, letting uniformed service people board planes first, and formulaic phrases like "thank you for your service" only serve to deepen the divide between the military and civilians by highlighting the fact that some serve and some don't.
Junger's main discussion about combat veterans is that they require three things: a society that is egalitarian and gives them the chance to succeed, to not be seen as victims, and to feel as necessary and productive as they were on the battlefield. According to his findings, the U.S. ranks very low on all of these because there's no cultural perception of any shared responsibility. The shared responsibility of the whole for the one is what Tribe is all about.
The book isn't about just veterans or victims of conflict. The recurrence and spread of individualism have an effect on all of us. Junger delves into the history of the native tribes of the United States to illustrate his points: tribal societies were more socially progressive and conscious of the suffering of its members, especially those who went to war. Collective societies tended to be happier units because they cultivated collectivized happiness. Everyone in a tribe has a role to play, and everyone feels useful.
Sebastian Junger's newest book isn't about veterans, but Tribe is full of lessons all veterans should heed when seeking their tribes. More broadly, Tribe's lessons should be heeded by the entire nation, especially during this election season that seems to be more divisive with each step in the process of finding those who would lead us in bringing us all together.
For more information on Sebastian Junger and "Tribe" visit www.sebastianjunger.com.