Out and About (Sort of): Tribal Behavior Beckons Healthier Conditions by Howard Freedlander


A few months ago, a friend recommended I read Tribe, a 136-page book written by Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, among other works. This friend, Richard Marks, suggested that Tribe might explain the need for shared sacrifice as our country and community grapple with the treatment of returning war veterans.

As its underlying premise, the book makes the case that our American society lacks cohesiveness. It opines that the accumulation of wealth and material possessions promote a sense of individualism, a selfishness that prevents us from understanding the meaning of a shared mission and genuine concern for others.

Judgements such as Junger ‘s prompt caution and a wariness of over-generalization. Tribes come in all forms, be they families, religious and fraternal groups, sports teams, paramilitary and military units, emergency medical and response teams and close-knit communities, such as the Amish. Often when a professional football player talks, he or she quickly refers to teammates and the importance of a communal spirit that drives people to seek excellence and achieve victory.

Tribal organizations call for cohesiveness, mission focus, concern and caring for others, achievement by all participants—and an overriding one-for-all attitude.
Military units that have fought and endured hardship and death are tribal in the best sense; they operative effectively only if they pull for, and protect each other while striving for the subjugation of the enemy, sometimes requiring the ruthless dismissal of weak and unproductive members.

Tribal groups exclude others, maybe rightfully so, but also perhaps detrimentally so by failing to allow people unfamiliar with the culture of, say, military combat units to understand and empathize. Criticism of those not in the tribe only perpetuates isolation.

On the other hand, families and communities must treat returning veterans (substitute cancer victims or those struck by mental or physical trauma) with respect, support, and compassion. Jobs are one type of outreach. Listening is another.

Junger’s main point is just that: returning war veterans require more than gratitude (though that’s important too), but sincere recognition of them as people who seek to reenter the civilian world and want to be regarded as human beings with strengths and talents. They are not to be pitied and perceived as victims.

Bemoaning the lack of accountability on the part of Wall Street executives whose actions contributed to the Great Recession in 2008-9 and the condemnation of

Bowe Bergdahl for deserting his military unit in Afghanistan and placing others in mortal danger as they searched for him, Junger wrote: “Bergdahl put a large number of people at risk and may have caused the deaths of up to six soldiers. But in purely objective terms, he caused his country far less harm than the financial collapse of 2008, when bankers gambled trillions of dollars of taxpayer money on blatantly fraudulent mortgages. These crimes were committed while hundreds of thousands of Americans were fighting and dying overseas. Almost 9 million people lost their jobs during the financial crisis, 5 million families lost their money, and the unemployment rate doubled to around 10 percent.”

Junger’s point is a valid one. Tribal instincts in the financial industry may have centered on greed—without any legal consequence. Bergdahl violated the tenets of military cohesion by abandoning his unit, consequently placing soldiers at risk and possibly death. Bergdahl was court-martialed, as he should have been. Walls Street executives were not. Unjust resolution in Junger’s opinion.

I’m not prepared to promote the notion that a culture of selfishness and brazen behavior permeates the financial industry. Nor did Junger go that far, at least not explicitly. An argument for a culture of compassion, morality, and fairness can be made, however.

Junger arrives at a conclusion that makes sense. “Acing in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community—be that your neighborhood, your workplace, or your entire country. Obviously, you don’t need to be a Navy SEAL in order to do that.”

Junger’s Tribe promotes human decency, moral behavior, a sense of solidarity and shared sacrifice. His thesis resonates in a society he portrays as disjointed and individualistic.

We can do more for our returning veterans. We can do more for our neighbors. We can escape our self-imposed enclaves, at least temporarily, to support those in need.

Tribes are expandable.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.


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