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Book Review

Sebastian Junger on modern alienation and the value of tribalism

Sebastian Junger traces the loss of cooperation in much of modern society.Tim Hetherington

Most people crave community, a sense of belonging among others that provides shape, structure, and support to everyday life. However, in the digital age, notions of kinship and collaboration have been drastically altered and, for many, strained.

In his latest book, Sebastian Junger — a contributing editor to Vanity Fair (where much of this book first appeared) and author of such bestsellers as “The Perfect Storm’’ and “War’’ — laments the loss of the tribalism of our ancestors, who realized that cooperation was paramount to everyone’s survival.

Early on, Junger comments on the stale, isolating experience of living in the suburbs: “nothing ever happened in my town that required anything close to a collective effort.” He attacks the myth that modern life creates greater leisure time, when it has caused “exactly the opposite: a desperate cycle of work, financial obligation, and more work.” As opposed to hunter-gatherer societies, where selfish behavior was not tolerated, “modern society . . . is a sprawling and anonymous mess where people can get away with incredible levels of dishonesty without getting caught.”

Of course, few of us would welcome a return to a fully agrarian society devoid of the creature comforts we often take for granted, but Junger’s point is well-taken, and he demonstrates it through a mix of memoir, psychology, and anthropological assessment. The latter takes shape in his discussion of Native American culture. In the 17th and 18th centuries, in particular, Europeans spent years fighting the Indian way of life, slaughtering and enslaving thousands, but during that time, “Indians almost never ran away to join white society.” (Though he warns against romanticizing Indian life, which was rife with constant war and “deeply sickening forms of torture,” ultimately, the appeal of their society lies in its “fundamental egalitarianism.”)


The other main thread in the book is an examination of war and PTSD, delineated through Junger’s own experiences in Bosnia in the 1990s and through the heartbreaking stories of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. What the author compellingly — and convincingly — demonstrates is that in times of crisis, especially following natural or man-made disasters, when cooperation is required and community is highly prized, “self-interest generally gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside of group survival.”


Soldiers are renowned for their loyalty and willingness to sacrifice for their fellow warriors in the trenches. “To the extent that boys are drawn to war,” writes the author, “it may be less out of an interest in violence than a longing for the kind of maturity and respect that often come with it.” Unfortunately, when soldiers return from war, they often do so with a pronounced lack of purpose. For all its horrors — and Junger does not shy away from pointing them out — war “also inspires ancient human virtues of courage, loyalty, and selflessness that can be utterly intoxicating to the people who experience them.” Reentering a society that often ignores those values, where “personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good,” is often a devastating transition. (Junger rightly emphasizes the need to give veterans jobs, rather than empty praise or votes of confidence.)

Many of the themes from the author’s previous bestsellers — sacrifice (“How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice?”), camaraderie, heroism — echo throughout this lean narrative, which is perhaps too brief. Some of the text reads like an extended TED talk, but it’s never less than engaging. While he may not pull us completely away from our many screens, Junger at least offers a starting point for mending some of the toxic divisiveness rampant in our current political and cultural climate.



On Homecoming and Belonging

By Sebastian Junger

Twelve, 192 pp., $22

Eric Liebetrau, the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews, can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkus.com.