A cursory, journalistic approach to a subject that deserves a much deeper and more philosophically consistent treatment. Junger’s take is really just a primer, citing some disparate chunks of evidence showing that tribalism is good for happiness and mental health, as is adversity because of its tendency to drive groups into tighter bonds, however temporarily. Humans are primates and therefore rely on close social interaction for survival. Junger primarily focuses on American Indian tribes and the effects of war on soldiers for his evidence of the benefits of tribalism. All of this information is very interesting.
What is completely obvious to the sufficiently awakened reader, however, are the pains Junger takes to keep a politically neutral tone. He contends, for example, that law and order are a key component to maintaining an effective tribe because destructive individuals within the tribe, who do not acquiesce to the tribal rules and mores, would otherwise disrupt tribal social cohesion. Therefore, their swift removal from the tribe is essential. However, when Junger laments the divisive polarization of American politics as one such offense against tribal harmony, he seems to suggest that there is no objective set of tribal rules worth defending. By Junger’s own unstated calculation, a tribe that values law and order could not remove a faction that routinely flouted the law and disrupted the order, because that faction’s tribal accusers would themselves be guilty of disrupting order merely by accusing the offender in strong terms. In essence, Junger’s mainstream, and often cowardly, treatment of the subject of tribalism fails to even hint at a possible solution for the grounded ship that is the United States. If we all need to just “get along” as a community, how do we practically reconcile the stark differences that presently disunite us as a nation?
Junger provides no answers here. If Americans cannot even find common ground on shared ideals, what else besides the occasional calamity will serve as tribal glue? Other uniting factors, like culture, race, religion, go completely unaddressed. In fact, Junger uses casual evidence from wartime situations to ‘prove’ that these politically touchy factors play NO role in tribal unity. In a fox hole, Junger claims, soldiers don’t see color. This might be true in some specific instances, but it is ultimately laughable to conclude from such an observation that race is unrelated to tribalism.
Black Lives Matter is a tribal movement, spawned from the adversity faced by poor blacks being allegedly targeted for death by white cops. Interestingly, many of the Black Lives Matters activist leadership is comprised of middle class blacks who dress and behave like whites. In other words, white cops killing poor blacks gave rise to a largely college-based contingent of middle-class blacks rising to the defense of poor blacks through organization of a social movement. Race and class, then, appear to be the primary uniting tribal glue for the Black Lives Matter movement. A visible enemy, white cops, is another uniting factor, as is the general ideal behind the movement. The occasional sympathetic white who completes the Black Lives Matter ranks is akin to the white colonial settler who went out into the frontier to assimilate into an American Indian tribe; these whites are looking for a cause, for unity, and for all the things that attract humans to tribal associations. Yet, the tepid union between college-aged whites and blacks in the Black Lives Matter movement does not prove that race is a trivial factor in the tribe’s formation; rather, the very name of the tribe indicates that it is perhaps the only important factor.
Clocking in at 189 pages and requiring less than 3 hours to read from cover to cover, Junger’s mealy-mouthed post-Enlightenment treatment of tribalism is well worth your time, if only for quick style, the occasional good story, and the sufficient body of evidence supporting the human need for tribalism. As with all things, you should read it with a critical eye.