“Tribe” by Sebastian Junger has been recommended to me time and time again, but it wasn’t until last week that I finally picked it up and read it. It was recommended by veterans who said it articulated thoughts they hadn’t been able to put words to, and even explained feelings and emotions that they hadn’t been able to put a finger on. For example, many veterans’ discomfort with feeling like they want to be recognized, but don’t necessarily want discounts and pity parties and commonly recited phrases of gratitude, or even parades and speeches in their honor. It was also recommended to me by civilians, who not only struggled to understand some of the complex facets of war and, for example, why someone would want to return to it, but also why our modern civilian society experiences such high levels of depression and suicide when we’re living in the most peaceful, stable time in history.

This is a book that is largely rooted in why we are the way we are. It is non-partisan, it doesn’t make “arguments” as to why the feelings of how our veterans should be treated in a political sense, and it doesn’t make ridiculous assertions that we all ought to ditch modern technology and the safety and health it brings in order to seek out some truly natural way of living. No, it simply serves to explain why human beings are so fundamentally a tribal species, and how our departure from that has caused a series fracture in our own society.

It discusses why something like an increase in shootings correlate with the “progression” of our society. It poses questions like why we consider a military traitor so heinous because of the damage they caused to our group, but seem to forgive criminal bankers who arguably cause more damage than a single defector. It explores why perhaps giving veterans lifelong disability when it’s not necessary might in fact encourage veterans to honestly believe that they are first and foremost, a branded victim.

Junger dives into the root of some issues that may even be more relevant now than when he published them in 2016. He discusses how we have turned the battle of society, which is usually outward, to ourselves. Instead of finding common ground as we did just after 9/11, during any major World War, or even during the space race, we seek internal disputes among one another, within our own group. He points out that we are literally talking about conservatives or democrats the way you might talk about an enemy when you’re at literal, physical war. But the beauty of this book, is that he very simply, in plain and understandable English, explains why we act that way. And knowing why is the first step to creating a society that perhaps is able to retain the wonders of modern life while seeking the roots of tribal life all at the same time.

This book explained many things that I appreciated when I went and enjoyed a more tribal lifestyle for a brief month in rural Burma, with the Karen people deep in the eastern jungle. They live under incredible hardships — a violent military government who has oppressed them for decades, living in a harsh, unforgiving jungle, and (because of the government) without access to any semblance of the healthcare we enjoy in the U.S.

And yet it was there that I met the happiest people who I have ever come across. I was simply making a series of short documentaries about a field clinic there, and they treated me like a guest of honor. It was sincere, and they felt no obligation to treat me that way — they wanted to.

In my life, which has been punctuated by long periods of severe danger and extreme comfort, I have always found people are far happier in the places of danger. Never have I seen such daily joy than I saw with the Karen.

They thought it was so weird that I didn’t know my apartment neighbors’ names in the U.S. My neighbors in Burma, who I had only spent one month with, regularly brought me gifts simply out of gratitude for what I was doing there (which wasn’t much), and out of the kindness of their own hearts.
They carried this beer two days to drink with me. Warm beer never tasted so good.

You can read about my journey in Burma, an eight part series, starting here. It’s difficult to express all of my feelings toward them in half of an article.