In one part of his bestselling book “Tribe,” author, journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger tells the story of the German bombardment of England during World War II. However, he relates the story from an unusual perspective.
Junger recounts how on the eve of the German air onslaught that was intended to break the will of the English people and bomb them into submission, English leaders feared the worst — from their own people. Junger states: “No one knew how a civilian population would react to that kind of trauma, but the Churchill government assumed the worst. So poor was their opinion of the populace — particularly the working-class people of East London — that emergency planners were reluctant to even build public bomb shelters because they worried people would move into them and simply never move out.”
He goes on to say that the English authorities felt that as a result of the German aerial bombardment campaign, “ … economic production would plummet and the shelters themselves, it was feared, would become a breeding ground for political dissent and even Communism.” They were proven very wrong.
The London Blitz, or aerial bombardment campaign, started on Sept. 7, 1940, and did not ease until May 1941. By the thousands of tons, German bombers unleashed bombs directly over populated neighborhoods — at one point for 57 straight days — taking the lives of hundreds of civilians at a time in the process.
In the midst of this aerial onslaught meant to breed mass hysteria and psychological capitulation, Junger observes, something profound took place day after day. “Many Londoners,” he notes, “trudged to work in the morning, trudged across town to shelters or tube stations in the evening, and then trudged back to work again when it got light.
Conduct was so good in the shelters that volunteers never even had to summon the police to maintain order. If anything, the crowd policed themselves according to unwritten rules that made life bearable for complete strangers jammed shoulder to shoulder on floors that were at times awash in urine. … On and on the horror went. … Not only did these experiences fail to produce mass hysteria, they didn’t even trigger much individual psychosis.”
Catastrophe, in other words, had not led to chaos, but to true community.
It happened on the opposite side as well. The Allied bombardment of the German civilian populace, which eventually led to the death or wounding of around a million people, failed to break the will of the German people. It stiffened it! The cities with the highest morale were the ones hardest hit. Industrial production increased during the war. Junger recounts, “The more the Allies bombed, the more defiant the German population became.”
Calamity strengthened the bonds of community.
Throughout this profound treatise, Junger points out how it is often catastrophe and calamity that bring out the best in humanity and create that most elusive of pursuits: equality. Because we are at our core social beings, calamitous or catastrophic events often bring out the most basic and primal aspects of our nature: communal bonds, togetherness, belonging and a sense of shared purpose.
If modern life, with its varied distracting and fracturing influences and tendencies, serve to fray and sever the ties that should bind us one to another, nothing helps repair or strengthen these — even if momentarily — like shared suffering, suffering that cuts across racial and socioeconomic lines, reducing all to one commonality: human beings.
As I walked around downtown Mobile two weekends ago and had the chance to meet and talk with evacuees from Hurricane Irma, such thoughts ran through my mind. I talked with people of different races, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds who expressed a sense of sincere gratitude for the hospitality they were shown wherever they went in Mobile.
Many genuinely worried about what would become of their homes, but were able to quickly utter a strong sense of hope and belief that, whatever happened, they would be OK. They were able to parlay the encouragement, comfort and relief they received from total strangers here into a belief that, whatever the future held for them, they would not face it alone. Support and help, if needed, would come.
In “Tribe,” Junger declares, “The earliest and most basic definition of community — of tribe — would be the group of people that you would both help feed and help defend.” Walking around the streets of Mobile, those evacuees sensed, as I’m sure those in other cities did as well, that they were part of a larger community, a larger tribe that, despite race, creed or economic status, would move heaven and earth to help care for them in their time of need.
This heartfelt and incredible truth, however, leads us to a distressing question: Why does it take catastrophe and calamity to bring out true community? Why are we so often plagued with disunity rather than community?
I would submit the source of the problem is often found in those we choose to lead us. A nation, a state or a municipality will no doubt always have different views on how to address and solve societal ills, but differences shouldn’t be equated with disloyalty to the group as a whole or met with disdain.
Yet we often elect and follow leaders that fan the flames of destructive difference and lead us to believe those that disagree with our side need to be vanquished and silenced, rather than understood and negotiated with. Instead of urging constructive difference that leads to dialogue and strengthens the bond of community, many leaders prefer the destructive difference that disintegrates community and erodes the humanity and dignity we all share. Contempt replaces community and feelings of sectional superiority and collective discord stifle growth and progress.
In the past few weeks nature has reaffirmed its destructive capability, but in doing so it has helped remind us of our productive and positive capabilities as a nation, as a community. For our sakes, may we heed its lessons.