It is human nature to desire freedom and community — the two, in many cases, seemingly at odds with each other. Freedom is difficult to achieve without safety, and while a group can offer such security, its methods can, in turn, infringe on freedoms.
After years of documenting these complexities in the war in Afghanistan, renowned author Sebastian Junger decided to embark on a 400-mile domestic pilgrimage along the wilds of rural American railroads, exploring the human spirit in its pursuit of freedom while attempting to avoid political rhetoric so often associated with the word.
In his newest book, “Freedom,” Junger contemplates the intersection of autonomy and coterie at a time when the word itself, while holding so much meaning, is so often misunderstood.
Junger spoke with Observation Post about his new book, and what he hopes readers will take away.
Your work oftentimes resonates with the military, in part because you’ve witnessed firsthand so many similarities. In what ways do you think “Freedom” expounds on the themes of your earlier work?
I studied anthropology in college, and I tend to see my subjects through that lens. A platoon is an example of a primordial human group, about 30 to 40 people. That’s exactly the kind of group humans evolved in. The search for autonomy, for freedom, for freedom from a dominating, controlling greater power is ancient. It’s adaptive to want freedom.
Wanting to belong to a group is ancient, and in fact, they go together. There basically is no freedom without making an allegiance to a group that can protect you. And once you do that, you owe your service to that group, which is also a deprivation of one’s freedom. I think anyone in the military would understand that. You have to abide by the norms of the platoon. But the platoon will keep you safe from from being killed by the Taliban. And that’s the ancient human trade off.
Would a service member see that connection? I hope so. I wrote the book with that in mind, but the word “freedom” is extremely political. Who knows if they would see around current day politics to the real meaning of that word? But I wanted to at least write a book that gave everybody a good shot at understanding the word outside of this sometimes silly conversation about freedom that we are witnessing right now.
How can we ultimately have both community and freedom, especially now, when we have domestic coalitions building up opposing ideas of what it really means?
That’s just an ancient human truth. Societies have a hard time reconciling that. I think there are people in this country and other countries who are very focused on personal autonomy and don’t want to acknowledge that their personal autonomy flows directly out of the security offered by a group.
In return, they owe something to the group. That’s been true for hundreds of thousands of years. Some people will balk at that, and some won’t, but I don’t think I have to reconcile it for them. I think that’s just our biological reality as a social primate.
In “Tribe,” you wrote, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact, they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.” Much of what pushes young adults to join the military at 18 is the desire to be a necessary part of a community and defend freedom. What do you think that that means in contemporary America?
The military has and will always be necessary, because we live in a militarized world, and humans always have done so.
If you can’t defend your country, or your campfire, if you can’t defend your home, by force of arms against an aggressive enemy, you’re not going to be free very long. Any society has to be able to defend itself, or it has to depend on other people to defend it, or it will not be free.
Did your series of journeys for this book ever take on a spiritual element? Meaning, in the way of the human condition, or maybe in this case, the American condition?
I’m very wary of the word spiritual, because it’s so vague. I try to avoid it. But it certainly was a human trip. The four of us ... very much encountered each other’s humanity. We needed each other, and it was a rough trip. Physically, it was extremely hard. We were walking right through society — rich suburbs, ghettos, farmlands, factories, junkyards, the works.
It really was a view of America from the inside out, and the people who inhabit that kind of “no man’s land” of the railroads are a pretty marginal part of American society. In their marginality is revealed their humanity, and to me, it was a bit of a pilgrimage and quest of the human spirit. This human spirit resides in us, in the four of us that were making the trip, but also the people we encountered, and ultimately, in this crazy, amazing, wild, weird, awesome country of ours.
Most of us rarely see the country in that way, and I imagine that’s a special experience. Speaking to those you encountered with various backgrounds, did the definition of freedom change from person to person?
South of Philly, I asked an African American man, who was drinking a beer on his front porch late in the afternoon, what he liked best about America. He said, “Freedom, it’s a free country, we’re all free.”
Now, you know, this is an African American, who, judging by [living conditions], has a sort of labor-type job in a town that was, for years, the murder capital of America. What he saw in this country, for him, for all of us, was freedom. I wasn’t going to debate him. [It] was precious to me. I was amazed.
In probably the wealthiest community we walked through, [we went to] a basement gathering in a church. (I’m an atheist, but I’m fascinated by church and I go on occasion.) After a sermon, we were having refreshments — and they were just the sweetest people.
I asked the same question to who was clearly a very nice, affluent, white guy. “What’s the best thing about this country?” He thought for a moment and said, “It’s the land of opportunity. That’s the best thing about this country.” Certainly, for him, it was. He looked to be doing very well.
So, those are two data points. They mean absolutely nothing, but to me, they were emblematic, maybe of a broader truth. Regardless, it’s a pretty good anecdote.
What are the major takeaways you want people to find in “Freedom”?
My goal was to explain how freedom works at a very social and biological level and to avoid the often partisan rhetoric, and misuse, around the word.
I kind of roll my eyes every time I hear someone say that they’re doing something for freedom. They are almost invariably talking about justice or their rights or that they just want to be completely unaccountable to anybody, which is a pretty juvenile desire.
Freedom comes with responsibility. I wanted to write a book that allowed people to appreciate the incredible struggle and suffering, throughout the history of our species, to remain free and to retain our human dignity. Freedom means freedom from oppression, not freedom from obligation.
Freedom goes on sale May 18, 2021.
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.