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Tribe, by Sebastian Junger (a summary and review)

Tribe (a review)

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Honor Code Team

I was just at a two-day planning session with the team at Everfi in Washington DC helping to inform the construction of an anti-bullying course to be called, Honor Code. The course will be deployed to thousands of schools across the United States and Canada sometime in 2018. It’s an honor to help Everfi in this endeavor! Thank you to the Everfi and the Honor Code team!

In the context of helping build a course that is really about building and strengthening community and teams, and how we take care of each other, I thought it appropriate to update and “officially” post this review of Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe. It gets at the core of what we all seek as humans.


The book starts with a story of an anthropologist who spent significant time with the Cree Indians of northern Canada.  An anthropologist was on a hunting trip, as the story goes, with a Cree named Thomas.  Deep in the bush they encountered two strangers who were out of food and water and extremely hungry.  Despite having to cut their trip short because of it, Thomas decided to give all of his food to the strangers.  Asked why he sacrificed his trip by giving away all of his food, Thomas said “Suppose, now, not to give them flour, lard…just dead inside.”  For this Cree Indian, not helping another member of his community (another human), even if only strangers deep in the bush, meant being just dead inside. Something he refused to be.  

In the introduction, he states that the book grew out of this June 2015 Vanity Fair article titled “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield.”  To me, Tribe was incredibly insightful but doesn’t speak to PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) as much as it speaks to questions of solidarity, community, sacrifice, and how we learn to take responsibility for ourselves and our teams.  Mr. Junger doesn’t specifically use Tribe to discuss mental toughness but he does talk about why “hardship can turn out to be a great blessing.”  He’s right.  Many times hardship is a great blessing if processed appropriately.  

I found that Tribe hovers over the following themes:

  • Evolutionary imperatives, connections, and adaptations
  • Transitions into adulthood for both men and women (archetypal rituals), and transitions back into society for anyone who’s experience something outside the community
  • Self determination and responsibility
  • Authority, leadership, and leader styles
  • Sacred tasks and preservation of the tribe and society
  • How do we define enough?
  • Liberty and equality
  • Suicide
  • Cohesion and the collective
  • Who are we as a society?
  • The author’s and society’s current anxiety and post traumatic stress

I was struck most strongly by Mr. Junger’s societal view of our responsibility with respect to leadership, followership, and teamwork.  He essentially presents a view of a solider’s experience, view of society, and a look at society writ large.  He discusses our natural evolutionary interdependence upon each other, and today’s lack thereof.

After reading Tribe, and giving it more deliberate thought, my view is that Tribe is much broader than a conversation “On Homecoming and Belonging” as it pertains to America’s veterans.  Mr. Junger’s aforementioned Vanity Fair article, his original inspiration for the book, is focused on veterans.  His experience as a war reporter and author of the book War, an up close account of his 15-month tour with the U.S. Army at Combat-Out-Post (COP) Restrepo in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, certainly points to Tribe as being focused primarily on his perspective of a veteran’s reintegration into American society.  (You can also see an account of his experience in the documentary, Restrepo.)  

However, if we look hard enough, we see in Tribe a much broader concept.  That we – humans – are hardwired to live communally.  Both literally and figuratively.  Very few people select to be hermits or ascetics living in complete isolation of others.  We naturally collect ourselves together as teams.

     Research done by psychologists, anthropologists, and scientist show us that in modern 21st century, at least in Western society, we’ve “dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.” (See Lights Out by T.S. Wiley and Brent Formby if you’re interested in the effects of being overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, and sleep deprived.)  Mr. Junger doesn’t get into the physiology or the neurobiology of isolation but it’s worth mentioning here. 

There is a very good reason that we organize ourselves into all types of teams, and why we desire to be part of communities and teams.  Here’s what we know about human isolation, disengagement, and disconnection. 

“Psychological isolation is the most terrifying and debilitating of human conditions.”

– (Research from the Stone Center at Wellesley College)

Isolation causes fear, stress, and anxiety in nearly every human.  And these effects manifest in all of us the very same way.  That’s what we get for all evolving together as hominids.  Whether we’re stuffed in a box in Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) school where the military manufactures isolation for training, or isolated in our business function, or children excluded on the playground, isolation is isolation.  When we’re excluded, or singled-out, or haven’t found a team/community, we feel uncomfortable.  That discomfort isn’t just emotional. The feeling of stress is actually the emotional echo of the effects of physical stress on the brain.

The evolutionary basis for moral behavior in all societies used to be group pressure. Subsistence-level hunters aren’t necessarily more moral than other people; they just can’t get away with selfish behavior because they live in a small groups where almost everything is open to scrutiny.  Today, we live in a sprawling and anonymous mess (too far apart) where people can get away with incredible levels of dishonesty without getting caught.  

Mr. Junger begins Tribe by contrasting the culture of early American settlers against the culture of American Indians from the 1600s to the “last Apache cattle raids across the Rio Grande in 1924.”  We get our first look at a more pure leadership and followership relationship (juxtaposed to the type of leadership Mr. Deresiewicz observed in his paper Solitude and Leadership).  Three hundred years ago, in tribes in the American West, “Individual authority was earned rather than seized and imposed only on people who were willing to accept it.”  My mind jumped immediately to my friend Mark Carter (killed in Iraq in December 2007) who wrote in his personal journal that “No man is a leader until his appointment is ratified in the minds and hearts of his men.”  Leadership cannot be obtained positionally or assigned.  It must be earned and then permitted!  Thus, followership is not only the most critical, but the most required component of Leadership.  Without followers who permit a person to lead, there is only “office-power” or “desk-power” (bureaucracy).

 Ultimately, what we see with Tribe are themes of cohesion, responsibility, and the collective effort.  Mr. Junger points out that American Indian tribal ethos “considered preservation of the tribe an almost sacred task.”  And “cowardice was punished by death.”  Tribes were utterly intolerant of hoarding or selfishness and members were almost never alone.  Finally, tribal society promoted the most basic tenants of human self-determination: the need to feel competent at what we do, the need to feel what we’re contributing to society is real and authentic, and the need to feel connected to others.

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2 Comments

  1. Alison Carroll
    January 1, 2018 at 4:08 pm — Reply

    What a thoughtful synthesis of Junger’s book! I especially appreciated your insight about leadership’s needing to be earned and allowed, as it points to the underlying — and necessary — partnership/connection between leaders and those they lead. And successful partnership, in whatever human endeavor, requires humility, vulnerability, commitment and above all, awareness that we need each other, and that’s okay. Our culture sends such mixed messages about self reliance and independence — when we know we are wired to live in connection. Bravo for an excellent post.

    • January 2, 2018 at 12:00 pm — Reply

      Thanks, Alison. This topic feels more and more like “stewardship” the more I experience and reflect. We’re all just “hosting” the teams of which we’re a part. Our time is temporary and so is our impact. Our role is really to contribute something meaningful then to get out of the way, and let the next person do the same.

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