"Tribe" by Sebastian Junger

Book Summary:

The book “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” by Sebastian Junger combines history, psychology, and anthropology, to explore what people can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning.

“Tribe” explains the irony that-for many veterans as well as civilians–war feels better than peace, adversity can turn out to be a blessing, and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. It also explains why people are stronger when they come together, and how that can be achieved even in today's divided world.

Sebastian Junger is a New York Times bestselling author of Tribe, War, The Perfect Storm, Fire, and A Death in Belmont.

Sebastian Junger is a New York Times bestselling author of Tribe, War, The Perfect Storm, Fire, and A Death in Belmont.

Book Lessons:

1) Richer doesn’t often equal happier

People in countries with large income disparities–like the United States–run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders.
— Page 20

Most people assume that as a country gets richer, it’s citizens get happier.

While there is some truth in that belief, it’s also true that “people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities–like the United States–run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders” (20).

And it gets worse, “urban North American women–the most affluent demographic of the study–were the most likely to experience depression.”

Why is this the case?

Poor people tend to share their time and resources with one another more often while wealthy people often isolate themselves which can lead to a “greatly increaded risk of depression and suicide” (21).

The same effect can be seen in the legal profession.

More than 6,000 lawyers were surveyed in 2015 and the study found that successful lawyers (those with the most billable hours) had zero correlation with levels of happiness and well-being reported by the lawyers themselves. “In fact, public defenders, who have far lower status than corporate lawyers, seem to lead significantly happier lives.”

Another interesting fact is that “Mexicans born in the United States are wealthier than Mexicans born in Mexico but far more likely to suffer from depression” (22).

However, the deeper one dives into the subject, it becomes clear that it’s not the war military members miss, but the feeling of being in an incredibly tight-knit tribe.

Why do wealthier countries and people tend to be less happy?

It’s because modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values (money, status, beauty) over intrinsic ones (family, relationships, well-being).

Instead of chasing wealth, people should aim for the three basic needs described by self-determination theory:

  1. The need to feel competent at what they do

  2. The need to feel authentic in their lives

  3. The need to feel connected to others

2) How war boosts mental health

Communities that have been devastated by natural or man-made disasters almost never lapse into chaos and disorder; if anything, they become more just, more egalitarian, and more deliberately fair to individuals.
— Page 44

During World War II, English authorities predicted that German attacks would produce 35,000 casualties a day in London alone.

During the war, waves of German bombers flew over London for 57 consecutive days and dropped thousands of tons of explosives, killing hundreds of people at a time.

London residents would see the dead lying in ruble or watch as a bomb vanquished dozens of people in seconds.

And yet, there was no mass hysteria or widespread mental illnesses. “Psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down...admissions to psychiatric wards noticeably declined, and even epileptics reported having fewer seizures.” (47-48).

These positive effects of war on mental health weren’t just in England, “when European countries went to war, suicide rates dropped. Psychiatric wards in Paris were strangely empty during both world wars, and that remained true even as the German army rolled into the city in 1940” (48).

One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that “When people are actively engaged in a cause their lives have more purpose...with a resulting improvement in mental health” (49).

Interestingly, just a bombing London didn’t slow down its citizens when the Allies bombed the Germans, they found that “Industrial production actually rose in Germany during the war. And the cities with the highest morale were the ones...that were bombed the hardest” (51).

This doesn’t mean violence is the answer to improving mental health, but it does show that people feel better when they have more involvement with their community and a clear purpose.

3) Why soldiers often miss war

In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.
— Page 125

War is a paradox. It is a complex operation, but it also simple to understand.

There are the “good guys” and “bad guys.” As Junger notes, in combat, it doesn’t matter what skin color or political views a soldier holds, as long as he’s on your side, he’s part of the team.

However back in the United States, people divide themselves among political parties, religion, and other ideologies.

In the war, there is also a strong sense of a tribe. Soldiers are constantly with one another, they eat together, they work together, they sleep near several other soldiers, rarely is one alone.

The tribal bond is so strong that in times of extreme combat, a soldier may risk his life or sacrifice himself to save his brothers. But when these men return from war and enter the civilian world, that tribal bond is no longer there.

Junger brilliantly explains this feeling by saying, “Soldiers experience this tribal way of thinking at war, but when they come home they realize that the tribe they were actually fighting for wasn’t their country, it was their unit” (110).


“Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” by Sebastian Junger finally explains the many paradoxes about war and soldiers.

By combining history, psychology and personal experiences, Junger teaches readers the many lessons of why people seek belonging and crave the chance to be part of a strong and connected tribe.

The book shines light and the positive effects of war, why PTSD develops and how to best combat it, and how people can come together in today’s divided world.

This book is a must read for anyone who has served in the military, knows someone with PTSD or is looking to learn more about war and soldiers.

Rating: 4.5/5

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