The Power of the Tribe: Sebastian Junger’s New Book Highlights the Significant Journey of Soldiers Returning Home

I TEND TO GET a little irate when people blindly classify Millennials as lazy, self-involved, and entitled. Sure, Millennials did popularize the selfie, food porn, and work-life balance. These are not always the most shining examples of the generation’s gifts to the world. Yet to classify an entire group of young people so callously, in the words of Family Guy’s Peter Griffin, “really grinds my gears.”

Let’s not forget that fifteen years ago this month one of the most devastating events in American history hit this country with a strong right hook. America needed heroes, and it found more than enough in young people who went from a high school or college classroom to boot camp, from toting around lead pencils to toting around lead bullets, in what seemed like nothing more than the blink of an eye.

When Lady Liberty sent out her siren call to service, many of those who heeded this call were members of a generation of people some older Americans are not shy of calling lazy, entitled, and stupid or in the words of Bill Maher, “too used to getting s—t for free.

It was not Millennials but a group of politicians who, when they were not spending their time trying to figure out why their teenage grandchildren keep sending them text messages with the letters “lol” in them, decided that invading Afghanistan wasn’t enough…might as while topple Saddam while we’re at it. (The aging Wall Street tycoons who, at the same time, were secretly plundering an economy so they could each buy a fifth mansion or second yacht wholeheartedly agreed with these politicians’ plans). It was Millennials who marched to Baghdad and left parts of themselves between the Tigris and Euphrates.

You’re welcome to call me lazy, entitled, and stupid. It could be effectively argued that I am all of these things. When my country asked me to serve, I (unlike many of my peers) chose the blissful safety of a college campus over a dangerous overseas theatre. But when you say these things about Private First Class Nicholas Alexander Madaras (who died fighting for his country in Iraq), fair warning, it makes me want to hurl things at you. We may not be “The Greatest Generation.” But when a desperate America called for heroes, it was often Millennials who answered. I for one, am proud to call myself a Millennial, even if you call me lazy, entitled, and stupid.

tribeWriter, journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger is certainly someone who could tell you of the sacrifice Millennials, and others, have made on the various battlefields of America’s War on Terror. He’s been embedded with soldiers, written books and directed films all concerning the journey of American warriors who have battled in the engagements our country has waged in the last decade and a half. Yet his most recent book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging reads more scientific than much of his previous work, which has been driven by the rollercoaster of emotion that soldiers endure in battle.

Tribe is a quick read, running under 150 pages of narrative. Yet it still packs an enormous punch. Junger, through a lens of anthropology, sets out to discover why, as a human species, we find so much appeal in the tribe, which he classifies as “small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding.” The quest leads him to some extremely interesting insights into how modern society has negated the tribe (to modern society’s complete detriment) as well as the way we treat our warriors as they return home from the field of battle.

Often these insights are humorous. As an example, Junger points out the absurdity of a sticker reading “No Blood for Oil” placed on the back bumper of a vehicle that guzzles…well…oil.

His insights can be surprising, such as when the book points out the historically high rate of service in our nation’s military by Native Americans.

Sebastian Junger

His findings are, often, thought-provoking, such as when Junger asks why we as a country were so ready to punish solider Bowe Berghdahl for desertion (even after he was held captive for nearly five years by extremists) while barely lifting an eyebrow when those who effectively decimated the American economy (and wiped away the life-savings of thousands of Americans in the process) walked away from their actions with barely a slap on the wrist.

He deliberates on the fact that, in spite of the hell of war and the terrible experiences that come attached, soldiers are able to find belonging and purpose, feelings they long for even after they’ve returned home to their families and ordinary lives.

He most powerfully points his microscope directly at us, and his findings are gut-wrenching. Writes Junger, “Such public meaning is probably not generated by the kinds of formulaic phrases, such as ‘Thank you for your service,’ that many Americans now feel compelled to offer soldiers and vets. Neither is it generated by honoring vets at sporting events, allowing them to board planes first, or giving them minor discounts at stores. If anything, these token acts only deepen the chasm between the military and civilian populations by highlighting the fact that some people serve their country but the vast majority don’t.”

He argues by isolating our vets, by treating them differently and by shining a spotlight on them, we inadvertently rip open wounds that are trying to heal.

Regardless of your leanings, there is no doubt that veterans are regularly used as political pawns. This presidential election is no different. At least one candidate has openly expressed his love for veterans, as long as they were not captured. Do we have any idea how much money was raised for the veterans from that event (or blatant political theatre) that took place as a creative alternative to a Republican debate earlier this year?  “I would go in and take the oil,” is a refrain we’ve heard this presidential election cycle. “Who’s going to go in and actually take the oil?” is probably a question we should all be asking. If we do indeed “go in and take the oil,” it won’t be Sergeant Clinton or Airman Trump toting a giant hose into Iraqi oilfields.

What is the bigger problem in this country today, is it Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem or is it the fact that an estimated 39,471 veterans are homeless? A cursory glance at Facebook and Twitter would suggest the former.

It’s easy for us to go on Twitter and Facebook and spew angry rhetoric at Kaepernick for our feelings that he’s disrespecting the troops. What’s much harder is to look into the mirror. What have we done for those who have sacrificed so much for us? Have we hired a veteran? Have we donated money to organizations that support veterans? Have we reached out to buy lunch for a veteran down on his luck?

I am not a veteran, and I am extremely grateful for the sacrifice those who serve have made and still make for this country. I pray that has come across in this column. I can’t speak firsthand about that level of sacrifice, because I will never know that level of sacrifice. What I can say is that our veterans deserve so much from us, a lot more than a “Thank you for your service” platitude or a few minutes before a football game. They at least deserve for us to spend time considering how best to serve them.

In a small way, books such as Tribe can help spur the conversation about how we best go about serving those who serve us.

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