Part Two: The Tribesman in All of Us

One of the acts that tribes frequently practice is ritual scarification. Tattoos, circumcision, mutilation of the flesh. The purpose is to draw a line between who’s a member of the tribe and who isn’t. This is Us … this is Not Us.

Non-hereditary tribes–criminal organizations, elite military units, certain religious or social orders–often have initiations. The candidate undergoes an ordeal. Sometimes he’s obligated to break the law or commit some act that severs him permanently from the larger society. The initiation says, “The line has been crossed, there’s no going back.” Again the purpose is to define who is One Of Us and who is Not One Of Us. With ritual scarification, the evidence is visible and permanent. The effect of initiations is permanent but invisible.

Throughout the ceremonial year, tribes reinforce the sense of This Is Us, This Is Not Us by various holidays, festivals and rites. Often they celebrate historical moments central to the group’s identity–the Exodus from Egypt, the Marine Corps Birthday, the birth of the Holy One.

Tribes often dress distinctively. Certain garments or undergarments again say, “This Is Us … This Is Not Us.”  Tribes wear their hair differently from other tribes, adorn themselves differently, speak and act differently.

This stuff is important. It’s identity. It’s belonging. It goes to the core of our being. We need it.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell a religion from a tribe. Often the manifestations of the two are so interwoven, it’s almost impossible to separate them. Is the Mahdi Army religious or tribal? A Mormon mission? The IDF?

Israel is a particularly illuminating illustration. Who is a Jew and who’s not? Defined by whom? The citizenship board at Tel Aviv? The Gestapo? What criteria are religious and what are social/ethnic/political–in other words, tribal? We could ask the same of Sunnis or Shiites or of virtually any religion. The elements are so entangled, who can pull them apart?

My own vote goes with the soul versus the flesh. If it’s about the soul, it’s religion. If it’s the flesh, it’s tribal.

Any time you have a group that can, with minimum mental alteration, set down the prayer book and pick up a rifle … that group has ceased to operate as a religion and is now operating as a tribe.


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  1. Jim Carrozza on July 3, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    The geography of Afghanistan is also a very pervasive factor in the formation of the tribalism that has taken hold there. There is an unwritten way in which the people have come to deal with one another. There are certain expectations of respect and hospitality, that are as old as the mountains in which they came to be. Time-honored ritual, that is recognized and appreciated and most importantly expected whenever contact is made. These rituals predate many of our own notions of how we are expected to interact. Our personnel need to be aware of the nuances in order to be effective in the region.

  2. Anonymous on July 3, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    for me, the following blog is a very related topic, and the most powerful thing I’ve ever
    read regarding our invasion of Iraq:

    I myself firmly believe that we should not have any troops deployed in either Afghanistan, or Iraq, and that our vision of what American national security is, and our vision of our place in the world, has to change. The
    reason I believe our vision has to change is that we cannot control the entire world, and by using force to try to, we create situations that are lose-lose. I believe there other ways for a nation to be prosperous, other ways for a nation to be a leader, to be powerful. Thank you for listening, and thanks for this informed blog.

  3. Blasternaz on July 5, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Your points are well founded and nicely expounded. Tribal covers the “gangs” well, but also delineates the professions – Doctor, lawyer, Cop, engineer. Not all warriors, to be sure, but all willing to defend their “tribe”, it’s actions, it’s “needs” to exist, it’s justifications for it’s aloofness from others. You may have captured more of human nature than you think!

    Thanks for the insight.


  4. Jeremy Passmore on July 7, 2009 at 6:37 am

    “The Taliban is not the enemy”, you said, and it reminded me that in September 2001 there was talk of the Taliban arresting Osama bin Laden and putting him on trial. I thought at the time that that was the route the Americans should take.
    However, we are where we are.
    Many Britons think that our soldiers are dying without achieving anything.
    “It’s a waste of young men’s lives.” (BBC Spotlight, 6 July 2009)
    “Why are we there? … I can’t understand this one.” (Soldier’s mother on BBC Radio 2 Jeremy Vine Show, 7 July 2009)
    Surely Britain is the last country to be militarily involved in Afghanistan (in view of Britain’s “adventures” in the 19th century).
    But your optimistic prognosis is argument that the United States is doing the right thing.
    I read everything I can by you – most recently Killing Rommel. You bring History and the Present/Future together very well.

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