Sebastian Junger: When freedom collides with collective good

Guillermo Cervera/Simon & Schuster
Author Sebastian Junger (center) has written about his 400-mile trek from Washington, D.C., to western Pennsylvania in "Freedom." He was joined at various points by friends who included two recent veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan and a war photographer.
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American journalist and documentary filmmaker Sebastian Junger burst on the literary scene in 1997 with “The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea,” which vividly recounts the massive storm in which the crew of the Andrea Gail was lost. He went on to report from the war in Afghanistan and to cover exceptionally perilous occupations. In an interview, Mr. Junger discusses his latest book, “Freedom,” in which he ties together his past and present experiences, looking for the through-lines in what he has witnessed. 

“I think modern society gives you the illusion that you’re fully autonomous without owing anything back to the group,” he says. “But the thing you have a right to is freedom from oppression by a more powerful ruling class. You do not have freedom from obligation.”

Why We Wrote This

In his latest book, “Freedom,” bestselling author Sebastian Junger looks at that resonant, complicated concept through the lens of history and finds that freedom from oppression is not freedom from obligation.

Those familiar with Sebastian Junger’s reporting on U.S. troops at war and what they experience after coming home might recall his 2014 documentary “The Last Patrol.” The film chronicled his 400-mile trek along railroad lines from Washington, D.C., to western Pennsylvania with two recent combat veterans and a war photographer. Burdened by heavy packs and battlefield memories, the four men trudged through small towns, suburbs, and quiet countryside, struggling against the elements and fatigue while ruminating out loud about war, purpose, and freedom.

Seven years later, Mr. Junger has returned to that epic journey and that last topic for his sixth book, “Freedom,” intercutting scenes from the walk with a far-ranging exploration of the resonant and complicated concept that supplies his title. He examines how countries and cultures define freedom – and who does the defining – through the lenses of anthropology, primatology, and history, roaming from ancient Persia to the Old West, from the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland to a 1912 mill strike in Massachusetts.

Mr. Junger, the bestselling author of “The Perfect Storm” and “Tribe,” spoke with the Monitor from his home in New York. He discussed the relationship between autonomy and interdependence, the Jan. 6 Capitol uprising, the U.S. military’s looming exit from Afghanistan, and the resilience of oppressed minorities crusading for freedom around the world. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Why We Wrote This

In his latest book, “Freedom,” bestselling author Sebastian Junger looks at that resonant, complicated concept through the lens of history and finds that freedom from oppression is not freedom from obligation.

Q: In describing a train thundering down the tracks, you write, “Our insignificance alongside so much energy even started to feel like its own form of freedom until we realized that everything we needed – food, clothes, gear – came from the very thing we thought we were outwitting.” Are we more dependent on others for our freedom than we realize or want to admit?

The less reliant you are on other people for your survival needs, the more free you are. When you live in a fully mechanized, technology-driven society – where you eat food and live in homes and drive cars, none of which were grown or built by yourself – you’re in this web of interdependency. That is a loss of freedom in some sense and a vast, incredible elevation of freedom in another sense – you’re elevated from the tasks of survival. But you are fully dependent on the society that you’re in. So it’s sort of pick your poison: I don’t think there’s a way to be safe and comfortable, and also completely autonomous. I just don’t think it’s possible.

Simon & Schuster
"Freedom" by Sebastian Junger, Simon & Schuster, 160 pp.

Q: You assert that “the idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing in return is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing.” Where is the line between individual independence and our responsibility to the greater good?

I think modern society gives you the illusion that you’re fully autonomous without owing anything back to the group. But the thing you have a right to is freedom from oppression by a more powerful ruling class. You do not have freedom from obligation. And that can take place on the most mundane levels: You have an obligation to drive on the right side of the road. You’re part of a collective that is trying to keep everyone safe. Is that an impingement on your freedom? No, it’s an impingement on your perceived rights.

Q: Differing definitions of “freedom” have added to a sense of polarization in America, particularly in the aftermath of the presidential election and the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6. What distinguishes a legitimate claim of freedom from a misguided one?

Often when people decide to try to abrogate other people’s rights, they call it their own “freedom.” But they’re misusing the word – it’s not freedom at all. They are undermining a democratic process, and there’s recourse in that process – the courts, the next election. But they’re not interested in that. They’re trying to seize power.

As far as freedom goes, one of the earmarks of it is that people don’t have the right to tell you to do something that they themselves don’t have to do. When people exempt themselves from the norms of society – like paying taxes or being accountable to the law or the electoral process – they’re reducing the freedom of this democracy. Those guys who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, they were the foot soldiers of that idea.

Q: The pursuit of freedom is a principle invoked by groups advocating for racial justice as well as by those who took part in the Capitol siege and ascribe to the “big lie” election theory. Is one side more right than the other?

There’s a difference between freedom and justice. What Black Lives Matter is asking for is justice. The people storming the Capitol – what they were asking for, as far as I can tell, was power. Power that they had lost in the democratic system and had lost democratically.

But what worries me is the idea of both sides giving up on the rules of the game, giving up on the ideals of democracy. Basically, what they have in common is that they believe they personally own the truth, and that without debate or concession or compromise or negotiation, they can decide what this country should be. By doing that, and by completely rejecting the legitimacy of the opposing side, they’ve poisoned the well of discourse in this country – and that discourse is the only thing that will save this country.  

Q: Your book briefly touches on Afghanistan, a country where you’ve spent considerable time as a reporter and documentary filmmaker. With the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops by Sept. 11, the Taliban are poised to regain power. How do you view their claim to freedom?

I loathe the Taliban like I loathe [Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco and [Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet and anyone who tramples human rights for their own benefit or their own ideology. But this is what’s so tricky about the word “freedom.” Who will enjoy freedom under the Taliban? The Taliban. They represent quite a swath of Afghan society – they represent probably the majority of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan – and for them, their definition of freedom is, “We don’t want somebody else telling us what to do and how to live and who to worship.” And I can’t dispute that with them; I just loathe their human values. 

I’m not going to tell Americans what policies they should ascribe to, but as a journalist, I can talk about the benefits and costs of different policies. The benefits of not being in Afghanistan is that there are 2,000 special ops forces that can’t possibly be killed because they won’t be there. That’s the upside, and we also won’t provide an easy excuse for the Taliban to justify their violence. The downside, of course, is that we pull out and Afghan society implodes and there’s tens of thousands of civilian deaths, and in all likelihood, the Taliban reclaim the country and impose their sharia law and rewind the beginnings of human rights and women’s rights. It makes me nauseous to think about it.

Q: You write about different groups seeking freedom from their oppressors throughout history – the Scythians from the Persians, Native Americans from European colonialists, the Irish from British rule. What unifying motives did you find in that struggle across time? 

When agriculture and industry and technology came along, it enabled a power pyramid with very few people on top, and it became very, very hard for a coalition of people below that to overthrow them. But [the coalition] keeps doing it – or trying to – because freedom and human dignity and the ability to think that our children are going to be OK and live autonomous, safe lives – those desires are so intertwined that it gives people the courage to face literally anything. They’ve done that in the Arab Spring, in the American Revolution, in Myanmar in recent months. At the end of the day, they are basically fighting for the lives of their children. The courage of people – if you think about it for a moment too long, you start crying.

Q: The book ends with you revealing that the trek was an escape from the divorce you were getting at the time. You’ve since remarried, and you’re now the father of two young daughters. How has the concept of freedom changed for you on a personal level? 

A very understandable definition of freedom – particularly for a young person – is the freedom to pursue your own goals and ambitions and agenda unfettered by anything else. Another totally reasonable definition is to be freed from those sort of crass, earthly ambitions and to really dwell in the moment and in your hopes for your children’s futures. You’re liberated from the ego-driven desires of youth and you’re just like, “Wow, it’s a beautiful day. My children are healthy. I’m free. There’s nothing more I want.” Right now, if I was compelled by the freedoms of youth – I’m 59 – I’d be sort of pathetic. Likewise, if I was 22 and all I wanted to do was appreciate the beautiful day and the company of my children, you could ask me, legitimately, “What are you going to do with your life, buddy?” So what it really comes down to is, there’s many different ways of understanding freedom. And they’re all legitimate, and a lot of them are actually quite contradictory.

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