Guest of Honor

Sebastian Junger Explores the Importance of Tribes in Modern Society

In his new book, the filmmaker and journalist explains the psychological benefits of tribes and why some might prefer wartime to peacetime.

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(Photo Credit: Tim Hetherington)

Sebastian Junger is probably best known for two works: his bestselling book “The Perfect Storm,” later turned into a blockbuster starring George Clooney. And his Oscar-nominated documentary “Restrepo.” In which he tagged along with US soldiers during some of the worst fighting of the Afghanistan War (you can hear our previous chat with him about that project here).

His latest book is called “Tribe.” In it, he argues humans are predisposed to live in communal tribes and uses this theory to explain why civilians — and especially soldiers — have a hard time re-adjusting to modern life after war.

When Rico first met with Sebastian, he started off the conversation by asking him about the book’s first chapter, in which he talks about events that perplexed colonial Americans.

“Colonists — white people along the frontier — very often ran off to join the Indian tribes. Or they were captured and adopted into Indian tribes, and when given the chance to be repatriated, they wouldn’t go. They wanted to stay with the tribes,” Sebastian explains. “And Benjamin Franklin was sort of tearing his hair out about this, he was like, ‘Why is it we have thousands of examples of colonists running off to join the Indians, and not one example of an Indian who wanted to become one of us?’ And of course that was a great affront to civilized society, I mean, these people were called ‘savages.’ What could possibly be the appeal?”

“The writers at the time thought that one of the most appealing things was the fundamental egalitarianism of tribal society,” he adds. “There really wasn’t an imposed hierarchy. There was not a class system. Wealth is very hard to accumulate in a nomadic hunter-gatherer economy. And people’s reputation, their status in society, is more or less based on their own merits. On their own conduct. Of course, European society was very very stratified, colonial society was very stratified, you inherited wealth, you inherited power. All of that feels very unfair to the human animal.”

Interview Highlights:

Rico Gagliano: You actually write early on, and this is a quote, “The question for western society isn’t why tribal life might be so appealing, it seems obvious on the face of it, but why Western society is so unappealing.” If tribal society is so great, why did we invent another way of living?


Sebastian Junger: Well, yeah, I mean that’s the big question. I just read a book called “Sapiens,” by an amazing writer named Harari, and he talks about that as well.

Agriculture started a process that basically was a massive exception to two million years of human evolution, human experience. And it just changed all the rules, and… you could accumulate wealth, and when you could accumulate wealth, you had capital. And then capitalism started, and suddenly there were profound and unfair differences in societies, everything from serfs to kings. And that really was not true in most hominid societies, hominids being our ancestors.

For all of the amazing benefits of the capitalist system, of technology, of medicine, of Western science and Western thought, philosophy, the law. For all of the incredible benefits, one thing you do lose is egalitarianism. And, and one thing I found was very interesting, is that when you collapse Western society, it actually reverts to this sort of close communal system, which is profoundly egalitarian.

There was an earthquake in Avezzano, Italy in the early part of the 20th century, and the earthquake killed something like 90 percent of the inhabitants. Something like that, it was absolutely ghastly.

And one of the survivors wrote — I’m gonna, I’m doing this from memory, I hope I get it right — “The earthquake produced what the law promises, but does not deliver. The equality of all men.”

The survivors, noblemen, peasants, everybody, they had to band together to survive. And no social distinctions were made, for a little while there was a kind of, a utopia of hardship, where everyone was the same and everyone needed each other. We saw that in, I’m from New York, and we saw that in New York after 9/11.

Rico Gagliano: I do wanna be clear though, you acknowledge that tribal living isn’t some kind of utopia. Cause you mention, there is no medicine, we have now. There is a kind of feast or famine that probably happens. All the time.

Sebastian Junger: Oh, of course. I mean, I’m not advocating anything, right? I’m just saying we have to take into account the psychological consequences of living differently than we’ve evolved to live for two million years. We evolved to live in groups of 30, 40, 50 people, who we knew very very well, with a relative egalitarianism. All of a sudden, that completely changed.

And so what you find is that as wealth goes up in a society, the suicide rate goes up. As wealth goes up, the rate of depression goes up. So, yes, we have these wonderful benefits, and they have to be retained, but there is a consequence to living in a modern individualistic society. And the consequences are, are psychological, and they’re, they’re often quite dangerous to people.

Rico Gagliano: This is all kind of background to the more central argument of the book, which is that war, bizarrely, forces the kind of tribalism that modern society has set aside, and it can even make people happier, in some ways.

And in fact at one point, you use a phrase that just blew my mind, which is: “The positive effects of war on mental health.” I think that runs counter to everything I and everyone has been led to believe. Justify that phrase.

Sebastian Junger: Well, yeah, that’s not my phrase, but what Emile Durkheim, in the 1800s, he was sort of the grandfather of sociology. And what he found was that European countries at war saw their suicide rate go down. That murder rate go down. In 9/11, in New York City, the suicide rate immediately dropped, the murder rate, crime rate, they all dropped. During the Blitz in London, the English authorities were prepared for mass casualties of course, but also mass psychiatric casualties.

And what they saw was that when the bombing started, admissions to psychiatric wards went down and then, went back up when the bombing stopped. And so what you have, in these catastrophes, in wars, is this incredible coming together of society where you realize, you’re needed. Your community needs you, and you really… in a sense you don’t have time to commit suicide. You know you’re letting everyone down, like.

And I saw that in Sarajevo, and Sarajevo was my first war. Terrible, terrible thing, you know, and this Serb Army, Bosnian Serb Army, killed or wounded 1/5 of the population of the city. You know, these are just civilians. And I was there last summer, the first time since the war, and I was talking to a woman who had been badly wounded as a teenage girl during the war, she’d been hit by shrapnel. She’d had reconstructive surgery on her leg without anesthesia ’cause there wasn’t any. She’d literally lowered her voice and she said, “You know, the war was terrible but, frankly we all miss it.”

These are civilians. These aren’t macho soldiers who like combat, these are civilians. And she said, “We were generous back then, we helped each other. Now we’re, now we’re wealthy, now we’re cool and we’re not together and it feels awful.”

Rico Gagliano: But of course, you know, civilians are also traumatized by war. And soldiers come back from wars with PTSD. There’s a danger to your argument that it makes it sound like war is a good thing. That everything is.

Sebastian Junger: Oh, of course. No one, no one could ever say that. But, but, humans are wired, evolved to adapt to adversity. And adversity can be traumatizing, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t any psychological adaptations that are good, also.

So the question I think is: When we, when we choose to send people to war, some of them will be deeply traumatized, but most of those people will experience an extreme closeness with the other members of their platoon of their unit. And, what we have to be on guard for is the kind of psychological withdrawal that they’re going to go through, when they come home from their deployment, from their platoon and are sort of released into this sort of fractured, alienated modern American society.

The same thing happens with Peace Corps volunteers. Something like half of them slide into a really profound depression when they get back to modern society. So it’s not just soldiers, it’s really anyone returning to this society has some real psychological resistance to it.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]