On Homecoming and Belonging


By Sebastian Junger

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The acclaimed New York Times bestseller, now in paperback!

The bestselling author of War and The Perfect Storm takes readers on an investigation of how we overcome trauma and seek something bigger than ourselves.

We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding — “tribes.” This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.

Decades before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin lamented that English settlers were constantly fleeing over to the Indians-but Indians almost never did the same. Tribal society has been exerting an almost gravitational pull on Westerners for hundreds of years, and the reason lies deep in our evolutionary past as a communal species. The most recent example of that attraction is combat veterans who come home to find themselves missing the incredibly intimate bonds of platoon life. The loss of closeness that comes at the end of deployment may explain the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today.

Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, TRIBE explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. It explains the irony that-for many veterans as well as civilians-war feels better than peace, adversity can turn out to be a blessing, and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. TRIBE explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.


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This book grew out of an article that I wrote for the June 2015 issue of Vanity Fair titled "How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield." Certain short sections of that article appear virtually unaltered in this book.

I have included all source material for this book in a section titled "Source Notes." I do not use footnotes because this is not an academic book and footnotes can interfere with the ease of reading. Nevertheless, I felt that certain scientific studies about modern society, about combat, and about post-traumatic stress disorder had the potential to greatly surprise or even upset some readers. With that in mind, I decided to include at least a cursory mention of the source within the text so that in certain cases, readers could quickly verify the information for themselves.

Both the book and the article include phrases that some people find problematic or even offensive. The first is "American Indian." Many people prefer the term "Native American," although when I tried to use that with an Apache interview subject named Gregory Gomez, he pointed out that the term properly refers to people of any ethnicity born in the United States. He insisted that I use "American Indian" instead, and so I have.

The other problematic phrase is "post-traumatic stress disorder." Some people understandably feel that the word "disorder" risks stigmatizing those who continue to struggle with wartime trauma. I ultimately decided to retain the word because any long-term traumatic reactions would seem to qualify as a "disruption of normal physical or mental functions," as the Oxford American Dictionary defines the word "disorder." Most health care workers—and many soldiers—agreed with that position.

Finally, this book includes several first-person accounts of events that happened many years ago, in some cases before I was even a journalist. Those scenes are retrieved from my memory without the benefit of notes, and the dialogue was not recorded in any way except by my memory. Ordinarily, speech enclosed by quotation marks should be documented with a tape recorder or notebook, and any event should be written down as it happened or shortly thereafter. In the case of these few stories, however, I had to rely entirely on my memory. After giving the matter much thought, I decided that doing so was within my journalistic standards as long as I was clear with my readers about my lack of documentation. The people in those stories have been in my mind my entire life and have often served as crucial moral guides to my own behavior. I only wish I knew who all of them were so that I could thank them somehow.


In the fall of 1986, just out of college, I set out to hitchhike across the northwestern part of the United States. I'd hardly ever been west of the Hudson River, and in my mind what waited for me out in Dakota and Wyoming and Montana was not only the real America but the real me as well. I'd grown up in a Boston suburb where people's homes were set behind deep hedges or protected by huge yards and neighbors hardly knew each other. And they didn't need to: nothing ever happened in my town that required anything close to a collective effort. Anything bad that happened was taken care of by the police or the fire department, or at the very least the town maintenance crews. (I worked for them one summer. I remember shoveling a little too hard one day and the foreman telling me to slow down because, as he said, "Some of us have to get through a lifetime of this.")

The sheer predictability of life in an American suburb left me hoping—somewhat irresponsibly—for a hurricane or a tornado or something that would require us to all band together to survive. Something that would make us feel like a tribe. What I wanted wasn't destruction and mayhem but the opposite: solidarity. I wanted the chance to prove my worth to my community and my peers, but I lived in a time and a place where nothing dangerous ever really happened. Surely this was new in the human experience, I thought. How do you become an adult in a society that doesn't ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn't require courage?

Those kinds of tests clearly weren't going to happen in my hometown, but putting myself in a situation where I had very little control—like hitchhiking across the country—seemed like a decent substitute. That's how I wound up outside Gillette, Wyoming, one morning in late October 1986, with my pack leaned against the guardrail and an interstate map in my back pocket. Semis rattled over the bridge spacers and hurtled on toward the Rockies a hundred miles away. Pickup trucks passed with men in them who turned to stare as they went by. A few unrolled their window and threw beer bottles at me that exploded harmlessly against the asphalt.

In my pack I had a tent and sleeping bag, a set of aluminum cookpots, and a Swedish-made camping stove that ran on gasoline and had to be pressurized with a thumb pump. That and a week's worth of food was all I had with me outside Gillette, Wyoming, that morning, when I saw a man walking toward me up the on-ramp from town.

From a distance I could see that he wore a quilted old canvas union suit and carried a black lunch box. I took my hands out of my pockets and turned to face him. He walked up and stood there studying me. His hair was wild and matted and his union suit was shiny with filth and grease at the thighs. He didn't look unkindly but I was young and alone and I watched him like a hawk. He asked me where I was headed.

"California," I said. He nodded.

"How much food do you got?" he asked.

I thought about this. I had plenty of food—along with all the rest of my gear—and he obviously didn't have much. I'd give food to anyone who said he was hungry, but I didn't want to get robbed, and that's what seemed was about to happen.

"Oh, I just got a little cheese," I lied. I stood there, ready, but he just shook his head.

"You can't get to California on just a little cheese," he said. "You need more than that."

The man said that he lived in a broken-down car and that every morning he walked three miles to a coal mine outside of town to see if they needed fill-in work. Some days they did, some days they didn't, and this was one of the days that they didn't. "So I won't be needing this," he said, opening his black lunch box. "I saw you from town and just wanted to make sure you were okay."

The lunch box contained a bologna sandwich, an apple, and a bag of potato chips. The food had probably come from a local church. I had no choice but to take it. I thanked him and put the food in my pack for later and wished him luck. Then he turned and made his way back down the on-ramp toward Gillette.

I thought about that man for the rest of my trip. I thought about him for the rest of my life. He'd been generous, yes, but lots of people are generous; what made him different was the fact that he'd taken responsibility for me. He'd spotted me from town and walked half a mile out a highway to make sure I was okay. Robert Frost famously wrote that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. The word "tribe" is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with. For reasons I'll never know, the man in Gillette decided to treat me like a member of his tribe.

This book is about why that sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It's about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It's about why—for many people—war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don't mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.

It's time for that to end.


PERHAPS THE SINGLE MOST STARTLING FACT ABOUT America is that, alone among the modern nations that have become world powers, it did so while butted up against three thousand miles of howling wilderness populated by Stone-Age tribes. From King Philip's War in the 1600s until the last Apache cattle raids across the Rio Grande in 1924, America waged an ongoing campaign against a native population that had barely changed, technologically, in 15,000 years. Over the course of three centuries, America became a booming industrial society that was cleaved by class divisions and racial injustice but glued together by a body of law that, theoretically at least, saw all people as equal. The Indians, on the other hand, lived communally in mobile or semi-permanent encampments that were more or less run by consensus and broadly egalitarian. Individual authority was earned rather than seized and imposed only on people who were willing to accept it. Anyone who didn't like it was free to move somewhere else.

The proximity of these two cultures over the course of many generations presented both sides with a stark choice about how to live. By the end of the nineteenth century, factories were being built in Chicago and slums were taking root in New York while Indians fought with spears and tomahawks a thousand miles away. It may say something about human nature that a surprising number of Americans—mostly men—wound up joining Indian society rather than staying in their own. They emulated Indians, married them, were adopted by them, and on some occasions even fought alongside them. And the opposite almost never happened: Indians almost never ran away to join white society. 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.

"When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs," Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend in 1753, "[yet] if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return."

On the other hand, Franklin continued, white captives who were liberated from the Indians were almost impossible to keep at home: "Tho' ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life… and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods."

The preference for tribal life among many whites was a problem that played out in particularly wrenching ways during the Pennsylvania frontier wars of the 1760s. In the spring of 1763, an Ottawa Indian leader named Pontiac convened a council of tribes along a small river named the Ecorces, near the former French trading post at Detroit, in what is now the state of Michigan. The steady advance of white settlements was a threat that unified the Indian tribes in ways that no amount of peace and prosperity ever could, and Pontiac thought that with a broad enough alliance, he might push the whites back to where they had been a generation or two earlier. Among the Indians were hundreds of white settlers who had been captured from frontier communities and adopted into the tribes. Some were content with their new families and some were not, but collectively they were of enormous political concern to the colonial authorities.

The meeting of the tribes was coordinated by runners who could cover a hundred miles in a day and who delivered gifts of shell wampum belts and tobacco along with the message of urgent assembly. The belts were beaded in such a way that even distant tribes would understand that the meeting was set for the fifteenth day of Iskigamizige-Giizis, the sap-boiling moon. Groups of Indians drifted into Riviere Ecorces and encamped along the banks of the river until finally, on the morning of what English settlers knew as April 27, old men began passing through the camp calling the warriors to council.

"They issued from their cabins: the tall, naked figures of the wild Ojibwas, with quivers slung at their backs, and light war-clubs resting in the hollow of their arms," historian Francis Parkman wrote a century later. "Ottawas, wrapped close in their gaudy blankets; Wyandots, fluttering in painted shirts, their heads adorned with feathers and their leggings garnished with bells. All were soon seated within a wide circle upon the grass, row within row, a grave and silent assembly."

Pontiac was known for his high oratory, and by the end of the day he'd convinced the assembled warriors that the future of their people was at stake. Three hundred warriors marched on the English fort, with 2,000 more fighters waiting in the woods for the signal to attack. After initially trying to take the fort by stealth, they withdrew and attacked naked and screaming, with bullets in their mouths for easy reloading. The attempt failed, but soon afterward, the entire frontier erupted in war. Virtually every out-fort and stockade from the upper Allegheny to the Blue Ridge was assaulted simultaneously. Le Boeuf, Venango, Presque Isle, La Baye, St. Joseph, Miamis, Ouchtanon, Sandusky, and Michilimackinac were overrun and their defenders massacred. Scalping parties fanned out through the woodlands and descended upon remote farms and settlements up and down the eastern escarpment, killing an estimated 2,000 settlers. Survivors fled eastward until the Pennsylvania frontier basically started at Lancaster and Carlisle.

The English response was slow but unstoppable. The remnants of the 42nd and 77th Highlander Infantry, recently returned from military action in Cuba, were mustered at the military barracks in Carlisle and prepared for the 200-mile march to Fort Pitt. They were joined by 700 local militia and 30 backwoods scouts and hunters. The Highlanders were supposed to protect the column's flanks but were taken off the job almost immediately because they kept getting lost in the woods. The commander was a young Swiss colonel named Henri Bouquet who had seen combat in Europe and joined the English to advance his career. His orders were simple: march across Pennsylvania, with axmen clearing the way for his wagons, and reinforce Fort Pitt and other beleaguered garrisons on the frontier. No prisoners were to be taken. Native women and children were to be captured and sold into slavery. And bounties were to be paid for any scalp, male or female, that white settlers managed to carve from an Indian head.

Bouquet's army lumbered out of Carlisle in July 1763 and within months had defeated the Indians at Bushy Run and reinforced Fort Pitt and several outlying garrisons. The following summer they carried their campaign into the heart of Indian territory. Sometimes covering five miles, sometimes covering ten, Bouquet's army ground its way through the rich, flat country of the Ohio River basin. They passed through great stands of hardwood and open savannahs fed by innumerable creeks and rivers. Some of the rivers had gravel beaches running for miles that afforded clear passage for the column's supply wagons. The timber was mostly free of underbrush and could be passed easily by men on foot or on horseback. It was a kind of paradise that they were traveling through, and Bouquet's journals mention the natural beauty of the land on almost every page.


  • "Junger has raised one of the most provocative ideas of this campaign season--and accidentally written one of its most intriguing political books."—The New York Times
  • "There are three excellent reasons to read Sebastian Junger's new book: the clarity of his thought, the elegance of his prose, and the provocativeness of his chosen subject. Within a compact space, the sheer range of his inquiry is astounding."—S. C. Gwynne, New York Times bestselling author of Rebel Yell and Empire of the Summer Moon
  • "Sebastian Junger has turned the multifaceted problem of returning veterans on its head. It's not so much about what's wrong with the veterans, but what's wrong with us. If we made the changes suggested in TRIBE, not only our returning veterans, but all of us, would be happier and healthier. Please read this book."—Karl Marlantes, New York Times bestselling author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War
  • "Junger uses every word in this slim volume to make a passionate, compelling case for a more egalitarian society."—Booklist
  • "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."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Thought-provoking...a gem."—The Washington Post
  • "TRIBE is an important wake-up call. Let's hope we don't sleep through the alarm."—Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • "Compelling...Junger...offers a starting point for mending some of the toxic divisiveness rampant in our current political and cultural climate."—The Boston Globe
  • "Junger argues with candor and grace for the everlasting remedies of community and connectedness."—O Magazine
  • "TRIBE is a fascinating, eloquent and thought-provoking book..packed with ideas...It could help us to think more deeply about how to help men and women battered by war to find a new purpose in peace."—The Times of London
  • "This is a brilliant little book driven by a powerful idea and series of reflections by the bestselling author of the bestselling books The Perfect Storm and War, and the film documentary Restrepo, about fighting in Afghanistan...The strongest experience of companionship and community often comes with the extremes of war. Junger is particularly good on the stress and exhilaration experienced by reporters, aid workers, and soldiers in combat - and the difficulties they face on return...I would give this gem of an essay to anyone embarking on the understanding of human society and governance."—Evening Standard
  • "An electrifying tapestry of history, anthropology, psychology and memoir that punctures the stereotype of the veteran as a war-damaged victim in need of salvation. Rather than asking how we can save our returning servicemen and women, Junger challenges us to take a hard look in the mirror and ask whether we can save ourselves."—The Guardian
  • "Junger has identified one of the last cohesive tribes in America and, through an examination of its culture of self-subjugation grasps for a remedy that might reunite a fragmented civilian society."—Elliot Ackerman, Times Literary Supplement, author of Green on Blue and Dark at the Crossing
  • "TRIBE is an extended reflection on the need for inclusion and belonging...written by an impassioned war correspondent less concerned with the scars of battle than the psychological dislocation experienced by those returning home, who have experienced tribal inclusion, but now face a future without it."
    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
  • "TRIBE is a fascinating look into why inspires ancient human virtues of honor, courage and commitment on the battlefield, and the difficulty that can arise when a combat tour is over. While the book may easily fit in a soldier's small cargo pocket, it packs immensely valuable insight that is sure to bring understanding to military and civilian readers alike."
    San Antonio Express-News
  • "I first read about this history several months ago in Sebastian Junger's excellent book, TRIBE. It has haunted me since. It raises the possibility that our culture is built on some fundamental error about what makes people happy and fulfilled."—David Brooks, The New York Times

On Sale
May 12, 2020
Page Count
160 pages

Sebastian Junger

About the Author

Sebastian Junger is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Tribe, War, The Perfect Storm, Fire, and A Death in Belmont. Together with Tim Hetherington, he directed the Academy Award-nominated film Restrepo, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. He is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and has been awarded a National Magazine Award and an SAIS Novartis Prize for journalism. He lives in New York City.

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