A short book with a solid argument about the downside of civilization’s progress.
The latest from Vanity Fair contributing editor Junger (War, 2010, etc.) mixes memoir, reportage, and historical research into a case for the advantages of the tribe and how connective, communal benefits are lost as society moves toward competition and individuality. The author begins with the early settlement of America, examining how colonists introduced to tribal life, or captured into it, might convert to it, but the process rarely worked the other way. “Indians almost never ran away to join white society,” writes Junger. “Emigration always seemed to go from the civilized to the tribal, and it left Western thinkers flummoxed about how to explain such an apparent rejection of their society.” The author then makes a leap in his argument that is as provocative as some will find it counterintuitive: how war and catastrophe seem to instill that tribal spirit that individuals have otherwise lost and how the stress of such times serves to improve mental health rather than threaten it. As jarring as conjecture about “the positive effects of war on mental health” might seem, Junger amasses plenty of academic and anecdotal support. From there, he makes another leap, to PTSD, asserting that its prevalence stems less from the traumas of battle than from the difficulties of rejoining a disjointed, divided society after collective tribal bonding. “The problem doesn’t seem to be the trauma on the battlefield so much as reentry into society,” he writes, showing how PTSD can affect returnees who have never experienced combat. The author resists the temptation to glorify war as the solution to a nation’s mental ills and warns against the tendency “to romanticize Indian life,” but he does succeed in showing “the complicated blessings of ‘civilization,’ ” while issuing warnings about divisiveness and selfishness that should resonate in an election year.
The themes implicit in the author’s bestsellers are explicit in this slim yet illuminating volume.