22 Nov 2016

Tribe and the importance of belonging

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:07 pm on 22 November 2016

Shared stress, hard times and living at close quarters satisfy an ancient necessity for human community, says war-reporter Sebastian Junger. 

US soldiers patrol early in Korengal valley in Afghanistan's Kunar province in 2009.

US soldiers patrol early in Korengal valley in Afghanistan's Kunar province in 2009. Photo: AFP

Junger has reported from battlefields across the world and wrote the best seller, The Perfect Storm. 

Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger Photo: wikipedia

In his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, he writes about the lessons we can learn from soldiers and tribal societies about loyalty and the importance of community.

Junger says hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary history have hardwired humans to exist most comfortably in small groups of 30 to 50 people. However, modern society forces us to live in an individualistic way for which we are not programmed.

Evolutionarily, survival depended on inclusion in a group, and membership of that group depended on contributing to it.

“When you live in a modern society and you’re not making any contributions to the group welfare, in an evolutionary sense you’re in a very vulnerable place.

“It means you are in danger. In evolutionary terms, being needed means that you’re safe."

People feel good when they are needed – such as in a catastrophe like a natural disaster – ironically, even though these circumstances of are often abject, he says.

PTSD and the comfort of the tribe

Junger spent more than a year with a US combat platoon stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, where they experienced extreme deprivation and danger.

Back at their base in Italy the soldiers spoke about not wanting to go back to the US. Junger thinks that maybe what is called post traumatic stress disorder is actually a readjustment problem – the soldiers feel a lack of purpose and community compared to the tribe they once belonged to.

The stress and close quarters of the platoon brought out a lot of prosocial behaviours, Junger says.

“And often, because of that, people really miss those times afterwards.

“[The soldiers] just do not want to return to the individualistic society that we have in the West.

“That close communal society [of the platoon], where everything is done together, that basically reproduces our evolutionary past. That’s what feels good and transitioning out of it is very very difficult.”  

 Being part of a community gives people a psychological buffer against their own demons, Junger says.