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The Roundtable

Sebastian Junger Probes Nature Of Human "Freedom"

Author, journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger has long been attracted to extremes. In his new book “Freedom,” Junger uses a months-long hike he and some friends took along the railroad tracks in the mid-Atlantic a few years ago as a frame to discuss autonomy, community, violence and what freedom really means.

Some of these themes are familiar from his earlier work in books like “War” and “The Perfect Storm,” and documentaries such as “Restrepo.”

What were you looking for out there?

Just for starters, people have such pleasant associations with the word hike. And I want to disabuse everyone of that notion. We were basically vagrants and along railroad lines, which is completely illegal, obviously. And the lines are a sort of weird swath of no man's land that cut through America. And, you know, they go through farms, in fact, you know, factory towns and junk yards and ghettos and whatever. And so that was our world for 400 miles. And we did it because we just wanted to experience the country in a kind of raw, new way. Railroad lines show you the country from the from the inside out. I mean, you go through the middle of everything, and nothing filtered, nothing's presented. And, you know, we were sleeping under bridges and abandoned buildings and out in cornfields, and what have you, we had to avoid the cops. They had a they had a police helicopter, looking for us at one point. In Pennsylvania guy started shooting at us. The word hike doesn't quite capture what we're doing out there.

And I should say, no offense meant by this at all, but you weren't 21 years old doing this either.

No, I mean, I was in my early to mid-50s. And the other guys were, you know, 30s 40s, you know, whatever. So, yeah, but we're all fit guys, you know, you don't really, if you're athletic, if you use your body the way humans are meant to, you don't really use lose much strength, really, until your 70s. I mean, you lose, you lose some speed as a runner or whatever. But basically, you can function at a pretty high level, you know, until you're 70. There was a guy I read about, 70 something years old. He just ran a marathon and under three hours.

And you write about some extreme long distance runners in this book, too, who really redefined what's possible almost.

Yeah. So my idea was, how have humans maintained their freedom from a larger, dominant society or force or government? How have they maintained their freedom over the last, you know, thousands of years, and there's basically there's three ways. You could outrun your oppressor, right. So the Apaches and the Southwest American Southwest, they're, they're very, very poor, materially poor, but they're very mobile. And so unlike the Pueblo societies, which were very wealthy, but sort of rooted in place in their towns, the Apache remained free almost until 1900, the Pueblos got rolled up immediately by the Spaniards in the 1500s, 1600s.

So the Apaches got an extra 300 years out of the deal, because they're so mobile and so poor. If you can't outrun your oppressor, you can fight them. And the interesting thing about humans, and pretty much the only mammalian species for which this is true, that a smaller individual or a smaller group can defeat in combat can defeat a larger individual or a larger group. That's not true for chimpanzees, or lions, or elephants, or elk or mice or anything else. And that means that there is a possibility for freedom. But you know, otherwise, the large empires of the world always if they wanted, every war, they would dominate history and dominate the world.

And they really haven't. The Montenegrins were sort of wild mountain people, defeated the Ottoman Empire around 1600. And they were outnumbered 12-1 when the Ottomans came in, into Montenegro. And they got their hat handed to them. And, you know, for that matter of the Taliban, I mean, they have no air force, no artillery, no tanks, no boots, some of them. And they fought the greatest military power ever in history, basically, to a standstill that we're pulling out of there and leaving Afghanistan to them. So, you know, I abhor the Taliban. They’re an awful, awful regime. But if a smaller power like that could not defeat a great power, freedom would not be possible America wouldn't exist that Britain would have won.

Just to finish the thought you said there are three ways….

Thank you. Yes. The third way is if you cannot fight your enemy, you have to out think them. And that's where some of the, say labor movements and uprisings in Western society. That's where sort of strategy and thinking come to bear. So the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916. You know, the Brits were militarily able to defeat the insurrectionist Irish. But they actually, a little bit like the Americans in Afghanistan, you know, they won the first battle, overwhelmingly, but they actually could not maneuver. They could not figure out how to politically to win the war of ideas and politics with the Irish public.

Eventually it was just too costly for them. They eventually pulled out just like the Americans have an Afghanistan. The labor movement around 100 years ago in America. I mean, these are people that were working under ghastly conditions, they started going on strike. The National Guard were called out in Lawrence, Massachusetts, for example, the mill strikes of Lawrence. And you know, as long as you've got National Guard with their bayonets fixed against a mob of men, the National Guard are going to win, right? It's not a question. What the strikers started to do, they got smart about it. And they started using women for passing information, because women have sort of lateral social networks that are very hard to penetrate, for the authorities to penetrate. And they would put them on the front line in these protests. And the soldiers didn't know what to do. They're not going to be in that a woman. Right. And so one, one police captain in frustration said, the quote is one policeman can handle 10 men, but it takes 10 policemen to handle one woman. And once they started putting women into the equation, you know, a smart thing to do, they were thinking, it completely changed the dynamic and the strikers what they brought, you know, fairness, and arguably, they brought justice to the mills that they were working in, and they changed the nation's laws.

So back to this central idea of freedom, I think you see it as a series of compromises, it's fair to say, during this particular trip you went on, and then all the thinking you've done afterwards about these different dynamics you focus on in the book. How free would you say we are today?

Well, no one's ever free. I mean, it just is what form of freedom do you prefer? I mean, when we were out there on the railroad lines for 400 miles, most nights, we were the only people in the world who knew where we were, it's a form of freedom. But it was hard. What I mean, you know, if you want to be physically unconnected and free from society's scrutiny, you're going to be carrying a lot of weight, you're going to be sweating a lot, you're going to be cold at night, you're going to be hot during the day, you're gonna be tired, be hungry, I mean, you're living like an animal, right? But you're free, right?

At the other extreme, wealth is a kind of freedom, right? It allows you to make choices, it allows you to insulate yourself from hunger, from cold from thirst from all those other things. But it becomes its own dependency. Wealthy people need to be wealthy, they actually need the system that they got wealthy in order to survive or to even, you know, get through the day. And that's its own dependency. And it's not freedom.

So what I found, I looked at the Pennsylvania frontier, of course, we were walking through that land, we were walking up the Juniata River, which was a sort of corridor in colonial America record or towards the sort of Indian Territory of central and western Pennsylvania in the 1700s. You know, beyond that, so the end of the world there, and it was wide open, except the Indians were there. And if you but if you were a poor family, or desperate family, or a sort of, quote, freedom loving person, if you went there, you completely escaped the scrutiny and the control of the government and for that matter of the church. But you went up in a place that was unbelievably dangerous, and bloody and conflicted. And so are you free? Yeah, you're free from one thing, but you're subject to enormous danger and the risk of death.

The way that settlers dealt with that is they had a kind of coalition, a sort of defense mutual defense pact, where, when  there were Indian raids along the frontier, all the outlying settlers and families living in remote cabins and all that stuff would rush towards a communal fort, that was always you know, not more than five or 10 miles away. They rushed towards this communal fort that they built, and they would defend it. And the deal basically was, you could have your freedom, but the freer you are, the more danger you're in. And you really can't have both if you can't be completely free, and completely free of obligation and the obligation on the frontier consistent of this that if you were an adult male, you had to fight. I mean, forget about the draft in Vietnam and all that stuff. If you were in that society, you had to fight. And if you were at a woman you had to help provide whatever that meant, treating the wounded, you know, putting out fires that would get lit in the in the in the forts and the houses of the forests during these battles. And it was so extreme the obligations to your peers, to your community was so extreme, that as a man, if you were expected to carry a rifle and a scalping knife and a tomahawk at all times. Because you never knew when you were going to have to fight. Forget about refusing to fight, forget about that incident, banishment or worse, but even if you didn't carry weapons at all times, you would be shamed, and threatened with banishment from the community. That's not freedom either. So if you want to be free from the government or for free from your immediate community, it's your choice, but you're not going to have it all.

With all the different societies and trends that you looked at, including the role of agriculture versus hunting and gathering, the rise of income inequality, that sort of thing. Has any society  gotten it right, in your view?

So here's the thing, there's sort of two main forms of freedom. I mean, the first and most elemental is that if you can't defend your group, from an enemy, you're not going to remain free very long. So for example, the there was a group of nomadic horsemen, very, very wild were like people called the Yamnaya, from the Russian steppe, from the eastern steppe. And they swept through Europe, Neolithic Europe, like about 5000 years ago. In that era, people were just settling down and planting, living in small towns and living on agriculture, and fishing and things like that. And so the Yamnaya,  these horse-drawn chariots, wielding battle axes just swept through Europe, and they traveled in all male groups, they didn't even bring their women with them. And they went into Iberia, the Iberian Peninsula, and over the course of something like 100 years, they seem to have completely wiped out the male population of Iberia. So the genetics in Iberia, right now have no Neolithic era, male DNA, it's all females from that era, who were clearly raped or married or taken over or forcibly, you know, whatever. I mean, you can imagine what that looked like. So there was no male DNA, its female DNA from that era and the Yamnaya, and then a succession of later groups.

The local men were not able to defend their area from an invader, and they lost their freedom. So what I point out in the book is that if you are well organized enough, and have a sufficient capacity for violence to defend yourself from an enemy, you're also well organized and well-armed enough to oppress your own people. And so that's where the second part of freedom becomes important. In a society that's not egalitarian really isn't free. I mean, some people are more free than others, which is, which is to say, it's not a free society. And so the democracies are relatively free societies. I mean, they're imperfect, and we've got work to do, and, you know, etc. But, you know, basically what they've democracies are very good at defending themselves militarily, because democracy and capitalism are associated with healthy economies, large economies that can fund military, you know, a military apparatus that can defend itself. And these are the sort of equality of all people is roughly encoded in our jurisprudence.

But obviously, it's still, I mean, it's apparent to anyone looking around that there, there are so gross inequalities in America and some people basically have more freedom than others, because they have more funds, you know, they have more access to financial assets, to financial power, political power. So you know, ultimately, the answer is that the poor and more mobile a group is the more it sort of lives off the land. Nomads around the world, hunter gatherers in the tens of thousands of years of our pre-history, were relatively free of outside oppression, because, you know, the great powers just couldn't catch them. I mean, you know, with how are you going to, you know, pastoralists are roaming around, you know, the Russian steppe, how are you going to confine them long enough to impose your, your authority on them, it's very, very hard to do.

And people that are like the Apache that mobile and that materially poor, tend to be fairly egalitarian. And between the different families there is very little social stratification. The leader themselves, of course there's leaders in every group, but the leaders are not exempt from other duties, and they're not given special rights. And they can't use their leadership position in opportunistic ways. Which is not true of course, in western countries. I mean, even in America, some American presidents have been grossly opportunistic about, you know, serving an office and serving themselves foremost  and then the nation second. In a hunter gatherer community of 40, 50 people, a leader who tried to do that would be, you know, basically thrown off a cliff. I mean, there was capital punishment in these societies. And this has been studied by primarily by amazing anthropologist called Richard Boehm.

That part of your book kind of sticks out given the climate into which you're releasing it. The trip was obviously many years ago that that you took, but contemporary politics have really, in this country, centered on questions of freedom and what we mean by freedom? How much totalitarianism we’ll stand for and that kind of thing. Did you give thought to any of those dynamics?

Yeah, I mean, the turmoil this country's in is not a new, not a new thing. First of all, the word freedom is grossly abused. Particularly when people put a plural on it, it's not freedoms. You know, it's like, freedom is like the word health or wealth, like it's a state of being, it's not a thing that can take a plural. What people mean, like with masking and stuff like that, you know, when they say that their freedom’s being taken away, what they're really talking about the rights. And they're claiming that they have the right to not wear a mask if they if they don't want to. You can't give yourself a right. I mean, just by the definition of the word rights are granted by the group, to individuals. And you can, you know, you can cut the line at the post office, or in the security line at the airport, right, you can cut the I mean, you can cut the line, because you're going to miss your plane. You don't have that right to do that.

I mean, you could try to cut the line, you won't be able to. You can go to everyone in the line and say, I'm going to my daughter's wedding, I'm about to miss my plane, do you mind if I go next, and the people in the line might very well say Yeah, go for it. They have given you the right to go next, you haven't given it to yourself. And that's a very important thing to understand about rights, it comes from the community comes from others, not from yourself. You don't get to decide what your rights are. And if you don't like the rights that are that are given to you in a society and you know, many, many disenfranchised groups in this country have had ample reason to complain about the rights that were given or not given to them. You can either change the system, right, or you can go somewhere else. So if you do not as a modern American, what you do not want to pay taxes, if you don't want to have the government telling you what to do, if you want to be able to buy and carry any kind of weapon that you want. You can go to Somalia, I mean, Somalia has basically no government and  they're not breathing down your neck, go for it, you know, but as long as you're in this country, you have to stop at red lights, you know, you can't say I don't like red lights, I'm just gonna drive through them, That's not a right that you can give yourself. If you belong to a collective like this, you have to abide by its norms.

Where does boxing come into all this? I know it's an interest of yours. It does factor into this specific book. What's your thinking on that?

I looked at other mammalian species and humans, including our closest relatives, chimpanzees, humans are really the only species where a smaller combatant can defeat a larger combatant. There's a sort of parallel with insurgencies versus big armies and the reasons are basically twofold. Basically, if you're smaller, it just it takes less time and less energy to move a smaller mass, right. So if you weigh 150 pounds, you can move your body with way more weight faster and with way less expenditure of energy and use of oxygen than if you weighed 300 pounds. And as size goes up, you go from 150 pounds to 300 pounds. That doesn't mean you can benchpress twice as much. You're not twice as strong for being twice the weight. So what that means is that smaller people in a fight, be it a street corner fistfight, or mixed martial art or boxing. Statistically smaller people have about a 50% chance of winning the fight, even though the adversary is larger than them.

In other words, size is not a predictor of, of the outcome of a fight. And that's also true with insurgencies versus, you know, large conventional militaries. And, among other things, large men, large people burn through a huge amount of oxygen compared to smaller people. So basically, if the big strong guy doesn't win the fight in a few minutes, he's probably not going to. And that means the smaller guy, smaller person, they don't even have to win, they just have to not lose long enough for the larger adversary to sort of run out of steam it, which is exactly what the Taliban did, of course, they didn't defeat us, it's just they fought long enough so that we ran out of economic and political will, to continue the war.

So what I did is I looked at boxing, and it's really interesting. The fist moves faster than the brain. So if someone's standing in front of you, and they throw a jab at you, your brain cannot process the oncoming fist coming at your face, cannot process it, and move your head out of the way fast enough to avoid the punch, right? The fist will beat the mind every time except that the body is very revealing. And the mind is very perceptive. And what that means is that if you, if you try to react to a punch that's coming at you, you will always get hit. But the person who's about to throw a punch, they make changes in their body, their body language changes in very subtle ways that you could actually pick up on. And so if you're good at it, you could know that a punch is coming, in which hand it's going to be which fist is going to be before the other person has even started moving their fist. And as a result, you can slip a punch, and it takes a lot less energy to slip a punch than to throw a punch. So if the big guy is coming after the small guy and throws 10 punches, the small guy can slip all 10 of them with very little expenditure of energy, the end of it, the big guys smoked. And the small guy is just standing there feeling pretty fine, right. And so that means that, that fights, physical fights like that are not just sort of raw demonstrations of punching power, it means that aerobic capacity comes into play. And that because I can see your punch coming before you throw it, I have a chance of getting out of the way. And that advantages the smaller person because they can just move quicker.

Let's return to the example for the metaphor of Afghanistan and the U.S. war there, which is winding down now as we speak. People who followed your career will of course remember you made one of the definitive documents of the war, which has been going on for 20 years. I just wonder, what do you think about the U.S. plan here to be out by September? You've obviously made your feelings about the Taliban clear earlier, but there is a lot of concern that they will be ascendant when we leave, you know, despite the long fight with them.

Yeah, and I mean, this is a very narrow semantic point, but war is not winding down, it will probably ramp up. We are pulling out and what's gonna be left behind is exactly what was left behind when the Russians left Afghanistan in 1989 in America that had supplied and aided and advised and helped the Mujahadeen you know, for 10 years in a sort of proxy Cold War, America pulled out just as fast as the Russians did, and left Afghanistan to sort of implode into civil war.

You know, I was there in 1996, just as the Taliban were taking over. And I got shot at by Taliban gunners on the outskirts of Kabul in the summer of 1996. Right before they took the city. So that I think what’s probably going to happen is the Taliban are going to take over and we're going to cycle right back to where we were in roughly 1994. It will become a pariah state run by an incredibly sadistic, abusive Islamic government and, you know, like Somalia, like parts of Nigeria, Mali, on and on, Pakistan, it will become a kind of failed state, it will become a potentially a haven for terrorists just like it was in the 90s.

Journalists don't tell the nation what, what our national policy should or shouldn't be. Journalists don't tell them what to think, they tell them what to think about. So here's what to think about. There's 40,000 cops in New York City. Right? We're pulling out 2000 soldiers from Afghanistan, most mostly Special Ops. And I believe special ops and the folks that run the run the air war, and the drones and, and the airstrikes, the Air Force. So are we getting our bang for our buck? Right? I mean, those 2000 soldiers, there has thank God not been… I mean, there have been very, very light casualties American casualties in Afghanistan, since we've gotten our forces down to that level.

Thank God, and but are we getting our money's worth out of this? I mean, if we had a sort of relative basically a token force there, we definitely, because particularly because of our airpower, we can keep the Taliban from taking over the major cities, in all likelihood, and we're making it very costly for them to do that. And what is their exposure?

What is our risk? There's some risk, obviously, there's more risks than not being there at all. But, you know, like, with the cops in New York City, or whatever, it's like, there's an upside and downside, and the upside for it, certainly for the Afghans and possibly, even for Western countries, and for America, might be substantial enough that it's worth having those 2000 people there. But you know, that's not for me to decide, I've just sort of laying out what our choices look like.

And that arrangement would be no different from what it is in many, many other places around the world where, you know, we're not “in an active war.” But we've got troops there, you know, sort of making sure that things go the way the U.S. might want them to.

And keep in mind, often in these countries, the local populace, are enormously grateful that the U.S. is there and keeping it stabilized. I mean, I, you know, my first war was the civil war in Bosnia, the early 90s. And, you know, my God, were the Bosnians grateful that America got themselves in there, and kept a lid on things, you know, on and on. I mean, when I was in Kabul, and right after Kabul fell after 9/11. I mean, people were dancing in the streets and running up to me and hugging me, because I was American and saying, Thank you for what you did for our country. I mean, they were thrilled. I mean, even Pashtuns and the Taliban are completely a Pashtun organization. Even a lot of Pashtuns were thrilled, they were sick, they were tired of that stuff, you know. So around the world, sort of any sort of Vietnam era American citizen, you know, looks at the U.S. military with a certain suspicion, but, you know, frankly, in around a lot of the world news, these destabilized countries, having a small American presence there kind of keeps…it's a kind of ballast, you know, it sort of keeps the ship upright. And, you know, when you pull out completely, yes, OK, you are pulling 350 people out of Mali or whatever it is. But the disproportionate effect of their presence there can be so enormous that I think, I think Americans don't quite realize, you know, what 350 American soldiers can do as special ops soldiers and can do in a country like Mali. And they can get a lot done with something like that, you know, it's not 350 soldiers in a country, it's not really a war, you know, I mean, that's just semantics, but it's not a war in the sense that I think people commonly use the word.

if I could just end on a light note, it emerged while we were setting this up today that you have never had a smartphone, only a flip phone cell phone. How come?

Oh, I mean, I just need it to make phone calls and send texts and all the rest of the stuff that that those phones do…when I'm walking around in the world, I want to be in the world. I don't want to be staring at my phone. And with a flip phone there's just nothing to stare at. You know, I mean, it's an addiction, right? I mean, it checks every box for addictive behavior. I mean, you see people with smartphones, you know, I would be just as addicted to it as the next guy and I just don't want to look. I just don't want to walk around like that. The world's just too interesting. I'm 59. I’ve only got 30 years left. I don't really want to spend it looking at a tiny screen.

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