Almost a decade ago, Sebastian Junger spent a year walking the rail lines of the U.S. East Coast with two army veterans, a photographer and his dog. The trip is recounted in the American war reporter’s latest outing, Freedom. Of those nights on the road, he writes, “my dog lay on my ankles, and the three other men shifted and muttered next to me in their sleep and there may be better things than that, but not many.” The slim, elegantly written tome meditates on the tension between individuality and community, weaving together memoir, anthropology, labour history, boxing theory and military strategy. Here, The New York Times bestselling author and Oscar-nominated filmmaker speaks to The Globe and Mail about his harrowing journey to write this book – and what it taught him about humanity.
You almost lost your life while working on this book last summer. What happened?
I had an undiagnosed aneurysm in my pancreatic artery. One fine day, it just burst with no warning. I bled out into my abdomen and lost 90 per cent of my blood. My odds of survival were tiny, but I survived. I was shocked the next morning when I woke up in the ICU and the nurse said, “You almost died yesterday, and actually none of us can figure out why you didn’t die.” It shook me. If I weren’t a parent, it would have mattered less. The idea that my daughters had almost lost their father was tormenting to think about. And it happened in my driveway; it was such a mundane situation. I almost died there, after all the years of war reporting? It was kind of terrifying. The nurse said to me, “Instead of thinking of that as a scary thing, why don’t you think of that as a sacred thing?” I’m not religious; I’m an atheist. But she meant sacred in a sense that I could wrap my mind around. So that’s what I set out to do.
Freedom recounts a trip you took, walking East Coast rail lines. What inspired you to do that?
Tim Hetherington and I made the film Restrepo [a documentary about the Afghanistan war]. Staring out the window on a train trip down to D.C. to try to sell Restrepo, I said to Tim, “You know, we could walk this whole damn thing.” The rail line is this sort of amazing no man’s land. … Tim got killed [covering the 2011 Libyan civil war], so I wasn’t able to do it with him. I did it with a couple of guys that he and I knew out of Restrepo and a Spanish photographer who was with Tim when he died. We all set off on this thing. Because it’s completely illegal and because the railroad goes right through the middle of everything, you really see America from the inside out. You are at the margins of society. You have to stay out of sight. Over the course of about 400 miles, we slept under bridges, in abandoned buildings, in the woods. Most nights we were the only people who knew where we were. There’s many definitions of freedom, but surely that’s one of them.
In the book you touch on the etymology of freedom. What do we know about that history?
The word is easiest to apply in the context of a community trying to remain self-reliant and autonomous in the face of a greater power. Which of course is the eternal struggle in human existence. Vridom is the middle German word that freedom comes from, and it means beloved. In that era, and until fairly recently, there was no idea of international human rights, or really any sort of protections for other people from violence and enslavement. In the early days in Europe, when middle German sprang up, the people within your community, your clan, your tribe, were the beloved. They were the only people that were ineligible for enslavement, being killed or tortured. Maintaining your vridom from an outside group … maintaining your autonomy and remaining alive, meant that you had to be able to defend yourself.
You write about male dominance, but also the role women play in overcoming oppressors.
The book is divided into three sections: run, fight and think. The first strategy for avoiding a dominant power is to just outrun it. Like the Apache did in the American southwest. If you can’t outrun the dominant power, you have to outfight it. The Taliban fought the U.S. military to a standstill for 20 years. Finally, if you are going to demand your rights within a society, you have to out-think your opponent. One important part of doing that is incorporating women into the movement, for a couple of reasons. Women tend to have more lateral social networks than men; it’s hard for the authorities to penetrate those. … But also, governments are more reluctant to kill women in cold blood. … In Chile, in South America, during the awful dictatorship, when the grandmothers and mothers started showing up with photographs of their disappeared sons, the troops did not dare open fire. They might have if it was a mob of young men. But they just don’t dare with women. And that is a huge tactical advantage.
What do you think is the biggest threat to our freedom in North America right now?
The biggest threat to our personal rights, I think, would come from a collapse of the democratic process. Rights are given by the group to the individual. My father grew up in Spain in the 1930s. When fascism came to Spain, essentially what it was doing was stripping people of their personal rights. It was a democratically elected government and the fascists, along with a lot of the army, decided that the election had been stolen. There was no evidence of that whatsoever. … America flirted with some dangerous sentiments on Jan. 6. Because this is a democracy, because we have an incredibly professional military, the military didn’t come close to siding with those who invaded the capitol. Ultimately our democracy is a core pillar of our basic human rights and freedom in Western society. We toy with it at our peril.
You finished the trip in Freedom at the age of 51, in the process of getting a divorce. You are now 59, remarried, with two young daughters. The book is dedicated to your family. What have you learned about freedom from them?
There are different ways of defining freedom. I talked to one guy who had done decades in prison. I asked him, “Is it possible to be more free in prison than out?” He was like, “Yeah, of course it is.” You can’t be addicted to drugs in prison. You’re not distracted by things. If you spend enough time in prison, eventually you’re going to have an honest conversation with yourself about who you really are. And when you do that, you’re a free person. So that’s one form of freedom. For me in my twenties, I don’t think having a beautiful family would have felt like freedom. I think it would have felt like I was being tied down and wanted to go explore the world and become a journalist. In my fifties, for me, freedom is an inner state. And the emotional freedom that comes with having a really good marriage, a really loving family, wonderful children, is profound.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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