Richard Francis

Back from the front

Sebastian Junger goes in search of community, not entirely successfully

In his preface Sebastian Junger tells us that this book grew out of an earlier article. It obviously didn’t grow much, since the main text is still only 138 (small) pages long, less than half the length of its predecessors The Perfect Storm and War, though it comes armed with a list of sources amounting to another 30 pages. Junger is attempting to explore the relationship between two ‘impulses’, as he oddly terms them. The first is that certain white captives of American Indian tribes chose to stay with their new communities even after release was possible, while the second is the disappointment felt by many American soldiers when returning home from war.

Junger contends that while a ‘surprising number’ of white Americans joined Indian tribes over the years, or remained in them after being captured, ‘the opposite almost never happened’. This vague assertion is buttressed by quotations from Franklin and Crèvecoeur but even those eminences can’t give it substance. There was, inevitably, a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing between contiguous communities over the centuries, but the weight of numbers was in exactly the opposite direction, as one would expect, given the greater strength of the
colonisers. By 1694, for example, 1,500 ‘praying’ or ‘friend’ Indians were living in Martha’s Vineyard alone. Communities like this were admittedly separate from those of white settlers, but adopted Christianity along with other values and customs of their neighbours. On occasion a surprising degree of cultural assimilation could be possible: an Algonquin Indian student at Harvard in 1712 was described by the college president as being an ‘extraordinary Latin poet and a good Greek one’.

Junger is clearly neither a historian nor an anthropologist; moreover, he doesn’t always argue logically. Discussing the Spring-
hill mine disaster that took place in Nova Scotia in 1958, he explains that during the first phase of entrapment, resourceful and aggressive leaders stepped forward, but when it became clear this was a waiting game they were superseded by others who could counsel calm and patience.

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