I approached Junger’s latest book expecting it to be a compelling and deep look into why some of our nation’s military members have such a hard time reintegrating into society when they return home from deployment. This book did not live up to my expectations, but will serve as a valuable learning tool to emphasize to young writers the importance of maintaining a clear main idea in their writing and of utilizing an organized system of citation to give credence to their work.
Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is a brief and thought provoking book. Tribe’s strength lies in Junger’s insights, which provide a starting point to important discussions about modern society, belonging, and the disconnect between soldiers returning from deployment and the society into which they are attempting to reintegrate. I anticipated the release of Tribe for two reasons–I love well researched books and I enjoy reading about society and military life. Reviews of the book in the Washington Post, National Review and New York Times, as well as on social reading sites such as GoodReads, overwhelmingly refer to Tribe as richly researched and deeply insightful. While Junger’s ideas are worth reading, much of this book feels cobbled together and spread too thin. Based on the professional reviews and interviews with the author that preceded this book’s release, I was expecting more depth, substance, and well documented research in Tribe–and I was left disappointed.
Tribe’s lack of cohesion, combined with the author’s haphazard method of citation, make this book a useful example to share with our high school teachers and students who are approaching research writing projects. The subject matter in this work is engaging. Junger’s writing is solid. And, Junger’s observations and claims provide rich material for students to engage critical thinking skills to form their own opinions and then support those opinions with further research. Having students begin their own research by engaging with the alphabetized (by chapter) Source Notes at the end of the book to investigate the “proof” behind the author’s claims in Tribe will be a valuable exercise in the frustration a reader experiences when an author makes the choice to throw a bibliography at the end of a work without organizing the resources included in an accessible and useful format.
Stay the Course
In Tribe, the author’s purpose seems clear, as is his theme. The main idea, however, is muddled by Junger’s inability to explicitly tie together related topics about which he is obviously passionate–namely, tribal society, the societal implications of the 2008 financial collapse, and the reintegration of soldiers into society after deployment. Having students talk about the main point of Tribe will yield a variety of discussions about society in general, dishonesty on Wall Street, and problems faced by soldiers with PTSD. As a counterpoint to these varied topics, students could read and discuss the main point of Junger’s 2015 Vanity Fair article How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield. The article provides an example of the power of focusing on one clear point. The personal and historical examples Junger provides in the article all work together to strengthen his purpose and his main point, leaving his focus clear to his readers.
I have no doubt Junger did plenty of research prior to writing Tribe, but his research doesn’t do much for inquisitive, fact checking readers the way it is presented. Sometimes, Junger cites studies in text. More often than not, though, Junger relies on the reader to trust his statements as fact–or to work through Source Notes that require what feels like major detective work to navigate. Junger addresses his use of Source Notes (instead of footnotes) in his Author’s Note, making the point that “this is not an academic book and footnotes can interfere with the ease of reading.” (ix) While I appreciate that Junger is thinking of his readers, there are long established norms to unobtrusively cite non-fiction work like Tribe. In similar non-fiction books (The Punishment of Virtue by Sarah Chayse and My Share of the Task by Stanley McChrystal are two of many examples that may be on the shelves of readers like myself who are likely to pick up Tribe), End Notes are organized by chapter and page number so that readers who want to dig deeper into the source material are not left wondering which of the 34 sources about the same topic in a given chapter back up a particular claim by the author. Exploring and discussing the challenges in navigating Source Notes like those used in this work provides young writers a valuable lesson in connecting with and respecting their audience, as well as establishing their own credibility.
While I found Tribe’s lack of depth and untidy source notes disappointing on a personal level as a reader, those very faults give this thought provoking book great potential as a learning tool for young writers.
If you are interested in hearing more about the impact of war and combat on our society, from Sebastian Junger and others, the following provides compelling food for thought:
TED Talks: War & Peace which aired May 31, 2016 on PBS
If you are interested in learning more about the writing process, I recommend the following resource from Purdue University’s Purdue OWL Writing lab:
The Purdue OWL: Starting the Writing Process