In many modern, Western democracies, individualism reigns supreme. The goal of life is to be a man who marches to the beat of his own drummer and is unencumbered by others. Individuals who prefer tribalism or group belonging are either looked at with suspicion or disdain. But what if our quest for hyper-individualism is actually making us miserable?
What if belonging to a tight-knit group that requires loyalty and self-sacrifice is the key to feeling fulfilled and wholly human?
That’s the argument that my guest makes in his latest book. His name is Sebastian Junger. You may have read his account of being embedded with an Army platoon serving in Afghanistan in his must-read book War, or seen his visceral documentary about battle in the Korengal Valley called Restrepo.
In his latest book, Tribe, Junger uses his firsthand experience as a war reporter as a starting point in exploring the vital human need to belong to a group. In today’s show, Sebastian and I discuss how humans are wired for tribalism, how males bond, and whether or not it’s possible to recapture tribe in a large and prosperous society.
- The most surprising thing Sebastian learned about war after being embedded in an army platoon for a year
- Why men miss combat
- Why men need a challenge or enemy to tightly bond
- Why sharing feelings among men actually gets in the way of male bonding
- Why early white settlers in America would run off with Indian tribes
- How humans really react during societal breakdowns
- Is it possible to create tribe during a time of prosperity and peace?
- What the Amish can teach us about creating tribe in modern life
- Why community has declined in the West during the past century
- Why mental illness goes up when prosperity increases
- Why mental disorders went down during the London Blitz
- And much more!
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Men in Groups by Lionel Tiger
- My podcast interview with Joe Klein on Charlie Mike and The Mission Continues
- The London Blitz
- Communities vs. Networks
- The Three Families Every Young Man Needs
- My podcast interview with Marc Dunkelman on The Vanishing Neighbor
- Veterans Town Hall
Connect With Sebastian
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. In many modern western democracies individualism reigns supreme. The goal of life is to be a man who marches to the beat of his own drummer and is unencumbered by others. Individuals who prefer tribalism, or group-belonging are either looked at with suspicion or disdain. But what if our quest for hyper-individualism is actually making us miserable? What if belonging to a tight-knit group that requires loyalty and self-sacrifice is the key to fulfilling fulfilled and wholly hominid? Well that is the argument that my guest makes in his latest book. His name is Sebastian Junger. You may have read his account of being embedded with an Army platoon serving in Afghanistan in his must-read book ‘War’ or seen his visceral documentary about the battles in the Korangal Valley called ‘Restrepo’.
In his latest book Tribe, Junger uses his first-hand experience as a war reporter as a starting point in exploring the vital human need to belonging to a group. In today’s show Sebastian and I discuss how humans are wired for tribalism, how males bond and whether or not it’s possible to recapture tribe in a large and prosperous society. Must listen. A lot of great insights from this guy. After this show check out the show notes at AOM.is/junger for links to resources that may be mentioned on the show so you can delve deeper into this topic.
All right. Sebastian Junger, welcome to the show.
Sebastian: Thank you very much.
Brett McKay: So your latest book is called ‘Tribe’. I think for people to understand the argument you are trying to make in it I think they need to know a bit about the background of your previous work. In 2007/2008 you were on assignment for Vanity Fair in the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan where you spent a year with a U.S. Platoon at a remote outpost called Restrepo. That is where your documentary film ‘Restrepo’ came from and your book ‘War’ came from that assignment. I’m curious, what did you learn about war that surprised you or would surprise most civilians from your work in the Korangal Valley?
Sebastian: Probably the most surprising thing for me about war in that context was how the experience of fear is diminished when you are in a group, how your central concern can shift from yourself to others. I studied anthropology in college and that started to make sense to me. In our evolutionary past there really was no individual survival outside of group survival. So one very good way of promoting your own survival, your own interests, is actually to devote yourself to the welfare of the group, it actually makes great evolutionary sense. I got to experience that sort of in the flesh as it were in real-time out at Restrepo with this platoon. I should say that the end result of that very intense human bond that is created in combat is that often men miss combat. I say ‘men’ because it was all men in the platoon I was with. Often men miss combat what this is sometimes mistaken for is missing the violence and perhaps some of them do, I don’t know, but I think the thing that is really compelling that they really do miss when they finally get home is that very close bond. It is not reproducible in civilian society because there is no need for it and it is something that they can have a great longing for actually. A lot of my work has been focused on that sort of strange irony of combat.
Brett McKay: Right. Going into that point, the platoon you were embedded in was all male and they were taking part in traditionally all-male activity. I am curious, the bond was really intense, but how did the dynamic between the men in this platoon, how did it differ from what you may have observed in civilian men just in your working life or just in your personal life as well?
Sebastian: I think men have a great capacity for functioning in groups. I think they like functioning in groups. I think they like being part of a hierarchy, part of a group dynamic with a shared task, a group task. I think all that plays to a particular kind of male wiring. I just read recently in an academic paper that they took a group of men, had them do a task together and then gave them an enemy, which I think probably was a rival team in the case of this experiment, gave them an “enemy” and then the individuals in the group immediately collaborated much more effectively, became much more tightly bonded as soon as they had an enemy. They took a group of women and did the same thing and having an enemy group did not increase the level of cooperation between the women in the women’s group. So there seems to be real differences between men and women in terms of how they deal with each other in a group.
The thing about civilian society is that there are no enemies and so groups of men are not forced into coalitions by necessity. That is, of course, a wonderful thing, I mean no one needs another enemy. On the other hand, because of our evolutionary past we are wired for that and some part of the male psyche, maybe you could say the human psyche, goes underutilized in the situation of great stability and safety.
Brett McKay: Right. That kind of goes against sort of the popular idea that men are sort of loners and lone alpha wolves. Men actually like to be working together in a group.
Sebastian: In pair-bond women experienced men as sort of loners because the men typically are not actually sharing their feelings and I think women sort of de-code that as kind of insular individualism when in fact many men actually, many men like that have this sort of other side of their life where they are actively responding to groups of men in a way that might surprise the woman, actually. They are not responding to groups of men where everyone is sharing their feelings, the group is close and functional and tightly bonded precisely because the men are not sharing their feelings. Sort of “over-sharing” of one’s feelings once in their life actually can get in the way of healthy relations in some cases and certainly for men.
Brett McKay: Right. So I’m curious. Did the bond that you saw between the men in the platoon that you were working with in the Korangal Valley, is that what planted the seed for your latest book “Tribe”?
Sebastian: Actually I had been thinking about “Tribe” since my early 20s in some ways. I had an uncle-figure, kind of a mentor-figure named Ellis who was half Lakota Sioux, half Apache and he literally born on a wagon in 1929 during the depression. I remember when I was young him saying to me “You know, along the history of the frontier in this country the white people were always running off to join the Indians, but the Indians never ran off to join the white people.” I thought about that my whole life. He told me that was even the case with white captives of the Indians who were adopted into Indian families in tribal societies and when given the chance to come home, by a peace treaty or what have you, often these adopted white members of Indian families did not want to go back to “civilization”. As Ellis pointed out, people go native but people don’t go civilized. We don’t have any phrase for that. So that stayed in my mind my whole life. Then I started to encounter soldiers who didn’t want to go back to America, they wanted to stay in combat and in affiliation with one another in Afghanistan and it reminded me of what Ellis said.
My book “Tribe” is not about soldiers and it’s really not about PTSD. In my third chapter I use those topics as a way to illuminate the strengths and failings of modern society. When you have people who come from modern society, come from America, go overseas, they experience life in a platoon in combat, they are basically experiencing a recreation of our evolutionary past. They evolve to live in groups of 30, 40, 50 people, that is the best guess in terms of our hominid ancestors of what life was like for hundreds of thousands of years. They experience that very close ancient human affiliative group experience and then they come back to our society. What they see when they return is a great way of seeing our society with fresh eyes from a fresh perspective and that is how I used soldiers with PTSD as a way to sort of do an x-ray, as it were, of modern society and what its shortcomings are and, for that matter, what its strengths are.
Brett McKay: There is a popular idea and I think it comes from a very modern worldview. We are so deeply embedded in modern society. We have this idea that if a disaster strikes, war strikes, everyone is going to return to sort of a Hobbes-ian, every man for himself dystopia where people are going to be pillaging and the whole apocalyptic fantasy is going to come to life but you argue that is not actually the case. What is the usual human response when disaster strikes?
Sebastian: If adversity, hardship and danger produce our worst human behaviors we wouldn’t exist as a species. We evolved for two million years as a social species in a very harsh, dangerous environment and if an attack by a lion or a rival tribe or a famine or an earthquake or what have you, if that produced anti-social behavior where every person fended for themselves, keep in mind we are a species where group survival is the only survival and if adversity produced individualization we would not have survived, we would not exist as a species. As an evolutionary principle you can just assume that adversity brings out our higher human virtues rather than our lower human virtues. If you look at the historical record it is absolutely the case. What happened in London during the Blitz? 30,000 people were killed during the German bombing campaign over the course of six months. If anything, London’s society became more egalitarian, more tightly-bonded, more collaborative, more cooperative, it did not descend into riots and mayhem and looting.
Even New Orleans where there was supposedly all this looting, there was a very small amount of that and it was hungry people looking for food. It was not a kind of widespread cashing in on the chaos. That was all really kind of urban myth and actually the violent crime rate fell after hurricane Katrina. Likewise New York City after 9-11 all this anti-social behavior declined. Suicide rate went down. The violent crime rate went down in New York after 9-11. So humans respond extremely well to catastrophe. They don’t turn on each other, they actually turn to each other for support and collaboration and a kind of shared ethos of group survival.
Brett McKay: There is this great power that comes with tribe, feeling you belong to a tight-knit group. The feeling I got as I read your book, it seems like we can only get this power whenever we are facing some sort of very visceral challenge, be it war or natural disaster. I am curious, how do we capture the power of tribe when we live in a time of prosperity and relative peace today?
Sebastian: We basically have evolved into this situation which is one of great fortune. You are a very, very lucky human being to live in an era of mass transportation, anesthesia if you have surgery and whatever. The list goes on and on of our blessings. What you are kind of asking is how do we have it all? How can we have the blessings of this modern society and the societal bonding and societal strength of a society that is facing great adversity and bonding together because of that. I don’t know that we can. It may not be possible. We are not going to dismantle the suburbs and start living in communal groups of 30 or 40 people, that’s not happening. Just as a thought experiment if you banned the car, if you banned the automobile, it would force people like the Amish do actually, it would force people to live within walking distance of their home. The Amish, because they do not drive they ride horses, which is also limited transportation, they have very low rates of suicide and depression because they are forced to live in communal groups. One thing you could do is ban the car but that is probably not going to happen either.
So how do we keep exactly our same level of luxury and re-gain this sort of communal warmth and closeness? I don’t know. I think it has to be a conscious, deliberate effort to look around you in the community that you live in, not the workplace, not your intramural rugby team or whatever, all of those are great opportunities for human connection but when you talk about community you are talking about the people you can see from your front porch. You are talking about the people literally around you and chances are you don’t know half the people around you. I heard about a guy, an author actually, who lived in a neighborhood somewhere, I don’t know where, and someone was murdered in the neighborhood. He was so appalled at the lack of communal reaction to this tragedy that he spent a year sleeping in the homes of everyone in his neighborhood, with their permission, with their consent, obviously, he just made himself part of that family for a night. He went around the entire community sleeping in everyone’s homes trying to bond people together. I think it’s going to take a deliberate, conscious act to produce those kinds of effects within communities that are obviously very dispersed and fragmented and not inward-looking.
At the other end of the spectrum, at the sort of macro level, I think we have to have a changed national consciousness of what it means to be part of a nation. I have done this. If you ask a room full of people “What do you owe your country?” all you get is blank stares. No one has any idea what they owe this incredible entity that we all belong to, other than their taxes. For most of human history if you asked someone what they owed their group, their people, their tribe they would have an immediate answer and they would probably say “Well, if circumstances required I owe them my life.” That is something that has disappeared from the national conversation and I think in order to feel like we belong to something we have to renew that conversation and figure out what does it mean to be part of a country, part of a nation? We all know the benefits, what are the duties?
Brett McKay: So I’m curious. We talked about how it disappeared, what happened? Was it this sort of just a by-product of modernity, just sort of these macro-forces, economics, technology, that just sort of eroded that sense of community and belonging?
Sebastian: I think evolution has produced two opposing reactions in us. One is the impulse towards community because that increases our survival rate, our survival chances. The other impulse, which I think is also a product of our evolution is to maximize our individual benefit. When modern society developed over the last few hundred years it produced enough capital, enough technology took away the physical burdens of actual survival to the point where correctly we do not think we need to participate in the public good in order to ourselves physically survive. You don’t literally need your neighbors, the people you can see from your bedroom window, you don’t literally need them in order to put food on the table tonight, in order to defend yourselves from the neighborhood across the river that might attack you, in order to defend yourselves from a predator that might wander into camp. You don’t literally need those people so there is no reason to contribute to the public good because you don’t need the public good in order to survive. So what that means is that the other evolutionary imperative of maximizing individual benefit, that is the only thing left standing. That actually works, in a capitalist society that works extremely well. That is the ethos that we all end up pursuing but there is this gaping hole in our psyches left by the loss of community.
Brett McKay: Some of those gaping holes, you make the case that a lot of the mental illness, depression, even some of the mass shootings that we have been seeing proliferating the past 25 years might be a result of this lack of tribe in our life.
Sebastian: The cause and effect is hard to determine in a society that is this complex, but we do know that as wealth goes up in society modernity tends to go up and that brings with it an elevated suicide rate. So as wealth goes up in a society the suicide rate goes up, not down. The depression rate goes up, not down. As income disparity increases, anxiety disorders increase in the population. One very interesting statistic from the Blitz in London was that the government was prepared for mass psychiatric casualties during the Blitz and understandably. Here is a civilian population that is getting bombed into the Stone Age by a modern air force. To their surprise of the authorities, the admissions to psych wards went down during the Blitz in London. One official said “We have neurotics driving ambulances.” Basically when your community is being attacked or is under some kind of stress everyone realizes that they are actually needed, that their people need them, their community needs them and that buffers people against their own psychological demons.
Brett McKay: That is really interesting. So, Sebastian there is a lot more we could dig into and the book was fantastic, but where can people learn more about it and the rest of your work?
Sebastian: My website is Sebastianjunger.com and it has obviously all my books and all my films on there. ‘Tribe’ is prominently displayed. I have an idea for helping veterans return to society called ‘Veterans Town Hall’ and basically on Veteran’s Day in every town or city in this country you open the town hall to veterans to speak for ten minutes each, veterans of any war. We have done this. We even had a World War II veteran stand up. Veterans of any war have the chance to stand up and speak for ten minutes to the community about what war felt like. It’s not patriotism, it’s not anti-war activism, it’s just “this is what it felt like to go to war” for everybody, for you all in the room. It’s an incredibly cathartic thing for the veterans but it also gives the community a chance to feel like a community in the ancient tribal sense. I think that if this idea spread enough it might actually produce that on a nationwide level. On my website, Sebastianjunger.com, there is a page for Veterans Town Hall. The principles are simple. The guidelines are simple. You don’t need a license, you don’t need permission, you don’t need anything and you certainly don’t need money to do this, you just have to convince the town manager to unlock the doors on Veterans Day. You can do this yourselves and it’s a very, very powerful experience.
Brett McKay: I love that. Well Sebastian Junger thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Sebastian: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Sebastian Junger. His latest book is called ‘Tribe’. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Go check it out. Also make sure to check out his other work: ‘War’ is available on Amazon as well. You can also watch his documentary ‘Restrepo’ you can get that on Amazon.com too.
Well that wraps up another edition of ‘The Art of Manliness’ podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out ‘The Art of Manliness’ website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy this show and if you got something out of it I would appreciate if you would give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, it helps spread the word about the show. As always, I appreciate your continued support. Until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.