Freedom. Sebastian Junger. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2021.
For the past two decades, Sebastian Junger has been one of the more insightful writers and filmmakers of historical and contemporary events. His new book, Freedom, is part travelogue, part political and philosophical musing. Junger dissects and contemplates the meanings of freedom, and how such meanings shape individuals and the societies which they are both running from and/or dependent on.
In many ways, Freedom represents an accumulation of Junger’s career as a writer, film-maker, and pseudo-anthropologist who explores the consequences of war in the U.S. and abroad. His films Restrepo and Korengal, the former garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in 2010, present viewers with the visceral and compelling experience of the American war in Afghanistan. For researchers of places like Afghanistan, his films present a rare perspective of the conflict as experienced by the soldiers who fought in those arenas. Recently, Junger’s focus on the soldier’s experience has turned stateside, delving into the struggles facing soldiers as they reintegrate into daily life, as in the film The Last Patrol, or how the political and cultural cleavages of American society rip at the seams of returning soldiers of who, in combat, fought in solidarity with each other, regardless of race, or religious or political affiliation, as in Tribe. Freedom expands upon these works, forcing us to ask why people do what they do in pursuit of freedom.
Freedom is divided into three sections that explore how individuals, and collective actions of groups, are explained by their pursuit of freedom. Part one, entitled “Run,” focuses on how people “maintained their freedoms by simply staying out of reach of those who would deprive them of it.” Part two, “Fight,” explores how those who can’t run must fight. Junger weaves analyses of insurgencies—such as that of the Apache in late 1800s North America and, more recently, the Taliban—with boxing strategy to explain how and why groups take up arms. Here, Junger recognizes that the success of some insurgencies is predicated in large part on them representing a challenge not simply to the authority of the state, but also to those freedoms that are threatened by state encapsulation. The last section, “Think,” explores other dimensions of freedom when individuals and groups negotiate and compromise to live in relative peace. It is this last section that is most familiar to us all, as Junger discusses the complexities of how people define and strive for freedom while living in political systems that, ultimately, encourage obedience. Junger asks, “How do ordinary people protect their freedom in the face of such high centralized state control?”
Underlying much of the discussion of freedom, is the theme of mobility, and how freedom is largely contextualized by the human desire to remain mobile. For example, his focus on nomadic groups reinforces the notion that many of them were nomadic by choice, existing on the fringes of societies and resisting incorporation into sedentary societies. Junger notes that for nomadic groups “one may be able to gauge the value of freedom by the level of contempt with which mobile societies hold sedentary ones.” While this idea is not unique to Junger—it is a well-trodden path for academics and researchers who have studied borderlands or nomadic societies—Junger’s musing on freedom is insightful nonetheless. He notes that nomads may cherish their mobility, but they may not be free; he muses, “The inside joke about freedom…is that you’re always trading obedience to one thing for obedience to another.” As Junger shifts this theme to a more contemporary context, he focuses on those who vehemently resist federal power in the U.S., and in this way, the joke becomes all too apparent. While “people love to believe they’re free…everyone—including people who vehemently oppose any form of federal government—depend on a sprawling supply chain that can only function with federal oversight.” It is here that the very notion of freedom resonates deeply to all of us who aren’t nomadic: how do we as individuals protect and nurture our freedom, while peaceably co-existing in a broad array of political and social communities?
While Junger’s book poses important questions about how individuals and groups act when their freedom is threatened, there are some elements that academics, especially, will find problematic. Junger at times makes sweeping generalizations about human history, gender dynamics, and race or poverty. Given the scope of such a topic, there were certainly going to be ideas for which Junger could not account. At other times, Junger’s exploration of the various definitions of freedom seem too unstructured, and what could be an opportunity to present more concrete positions on freedom can come across as empty statements. Nevertheless, to judge these misgivings would overlook what seems to be the intent of Junger’s book. This is not a case study, nor is it an academic text, but rather a reflective piece that weaves Junger’s journey through parts of the U.S. with often penetrating perspectives on freedom and how humans’ desire for it shapes our individual and collective actions.
Given recent political events in the U.S., such as the events of January 6th, Junger’s book is both timely and relevant. For example, the concept of freedom is thrown around so much in political discourse that the very notion of freedom itself seems as much a politically vapid concept as it does an intrinsic part of an individual’s life. In this way, Junger offers something that forces the reader to think about how we as individuals understand and act upon notions of freedom. Conversely, our freedom as individuals is still tied to our broader connections to our political and social communities. If we think about this politically in the U.S., our freedom is tied to the democratic experiment that is no doubt under tremendous strain. Ultimately, as Junger poses, our freedom is tied to our willingness to share power with those in which we disagree. To quote Junger again, “If democratic power-sharing is a potent form of freedom, accepting an election loss may be the ultimate demonstration of how free we want to be.”Freedom, as Junger presents it to us, is as much a part of our individual story as it is a collective one. Many Americans would benefit from reading and reflecting upon Junger’s work.
James Bradford is an Associate Professor of History at the Berklee College of Music. His book, Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy, is the only substantive history of the Afghan drug trade. He has also published in the Journal of Iranian Studies, Illegal Cannabis Cultivation in the World, The War on Drugs: A History, and the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Global Drug History. He teaches on the history of the global illicit drug trade and addiction, with an emphasis on Afghanistan and U.S. drug policy.
This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.
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