Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Sebastian Junger (@sebastianjunger), the #1 New York Times best-selling author of The Perfect Storm, Fire, A Death in Belmont, War, and Tribe. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, ladies and gents. This is Tim Ferriss, and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss show where it is my job to deconstruct world class performers whether they are chess prodigies, hedge fund managers, actors, military strategists, athletes, really anything and everything because you find a lot of commonalities across these areas of expertise.
This is an unusual episode. And I’m going to start with a question. Why did Ben Franklin complain that settlers along the frontier were constantly absconding to live with the American Indian tribes but that the opposite never happened? This episode, we’re going to talk about human nature quite a lot. We’re going to look at evolutionary biology. If you want a better understanding of warriors, tribal societies, human nature, including the pieces that we might dislike or deny and what we can learn from it all, then this episode is for you.
My guest is Sebastian Junger, an incredible writer, No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, Fire, A Death in Belmont, War, and his latest book Tribe, which I read in about a day and a half. I just ingested it rapid fire. As an award winning journalist, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and a special correspondent at ABC News, he’s covered major international news stories around the world, has received both a National Magazine Award and the Peabody Award, and he’s also a documentary film maker whose debut film Restrepo, a feature length doc co-directed with Tim Hetherington, which was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
Restrepo, for those who haven’t seen it, chronicles the deployment of a platoon of US soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korogon Valley. And it is wildly considered to have broken new ground in war reporting. It is very rugged and raw. Junger has since produced and directed three additional docs about war and its aftermath. In our conversation, which took place at my house, we cover rites of passage and their importance, his entire career, warfare, the art of great nonfiction writing and storytelling, investigative or rather participatory journalism, PTSD, and much, much more. Please be forewarned that some of these topics will no doubt offend many of you.
And this is a good thing. And I’m going to paraphrase here. But I believe it was Mae West who said those who are offended easily should be offended more often. And I urge you to bite your lip, if need be, step outside your comfort zone, and listen to the entire episode. There are many gems within, including all sorts of hilarious stories, surprising statistics, and also some tear jerking epiphanies and tales that Sebastian has to share.
He’s lived an incredible life, a very tough and rugged life, certainly, in his deployments or rather assignments that were in war torn countries. And there’s a lot to be learned here. So please be patient. Please listen to this conversation with Sebastian Junger.
Sebastian, welcome to the show.
Sebastian Junger: Thank you very much. Nice to be here.
Tim Ferriss: It’s so exciting to finally get a chance to hang because we have a mutual friend in Josh Waitzkin who has been on the podcast twice. For those who don’t know, the basis for Searching for Bobby Fischer, both the book and the movie, but a lot more than that, I mean, a real masterful and kind soul who has really taught me a lot. But the first encounter we had was at Josh’s wedding. And I guess we were piecing it together. And that was probably like 10 years ago, something along those lines.
And this is the first chance that we’ve had to really kind of dig in and get to know each other. Let’s start with some mundane stuff. But you have a book here on your backpack. Can you tell us what you’re reading at the moment?
Sebastian Junger: I’m reading the biography of Thomas Payne, one of the intellectual fathers of American independence from Britain in the 1770’s.
Tim Ferriss: And somehow, when this is maybe TMI for people listening, Sebastian arrived before I got back to my place, and I was doing some acro-yoga, a long story. And then, you had picked up The Letters from a Stoic, and did the stoics come up in the book about Payne?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. The stoics, the Greek stoics were greatly admired by Payne. I didn’t know much about them. I knew the word. And I’d heard of Seneca. But I’m sort of half illiterate, right, or untutored.
And what the book said about the stoics was amazing. And I’m not religious. I didn’t grow up going to church. I don’t believe in God. And so if you’re like me, you’re always looking for a way to sort of order the universe that’s inspiring or reassuring and sort of makes sense of things. And so what they said about the stoics I really identified with. I’m like I’ve got to learn more about the stoics. And then, here I was, before I took a nap on your couch, I sort of pawed through your book collection over there. And there was The Letters of Seneca. And I grabbed it and sat down, and I almost started whooping with pleasure.
The things that he was writing 2,000 years ago were so modern, so amazing, so essential. And I just thought I have to get this book immediately. So you seem to be a stoic without calling yourself such in a lot of respects.
But I want to bring up something that I know nothing about but a fan had asked me to inquire about, which is chainsaw. Ask him about the chainsaw. So let’s talk about your career with chainsaws. Could you give us some context?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. Absolutely. So I studied anthropology in college because it interested me.
Tim Ferriss: That was on the east coast?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, Wesleyan University in Connecticut. And I had no interest in being an anthropologist, but it actually helped me throughout my career as a writer. After I got out of college, I sort of wallowed around. I waited tables. I did various things to earn money while I was trying to become a writer. And I was very slowly getting into journalism, but it didn’t pay very well. And I got a job, eventually, as a climber for tree companies. And I would work 80 or 90 feet in the air with a chainsaw on a rope taking trees down in pieces rigging branches and lowering them as I cut them and taking off the tops of trees and taking them down all the way to the ground.
It was extremely dangerous work. Or I should say it’s dangerous if you make a mistake. There isn’t any random danger at the top of a tree. And I realized, at one point, if I get killed doing this, and plenty of people do, if I get killed doing this, it will be because I killed myself by accident. It’s not a situation where something random will kill me. That was very reassuring. And it also trained me to really focus on being in the present moment. Well, at one point, I wasn’t in the present moment. And the chainsaw hit the back of my leg and tore open the back of my leg. And I had been a marathon runner and stuff. And I was super worried about my Achilles’ tendon.
Tim Ferriss: So it hit your lower leg, the entire back of your leg.
Sebastian Junger: I managed to drag it across the back of my ankle right where the Achilles is. And I turned the chainsaw, and I was way up in a tree on a rope. And I turned the chainsaw off.
And I clipped it to my belt and looked down. And I pulled the wound open because I wanted – you know, you go into shock, and you get very clinical immediately. And I pulled the wound open, and I wanted to see if the Achilles was intact. Indeed, it was. By the way, an Achilles is about the thickness of a No. 2 pencil, and it’s white just in case you ever wanted to know what your Achilles looks like. And I was so relieved to see it intact. But I still had a pretty messed up leg. And I rappelled down to the ground, and my crew took me to the hospital. As I was recovering, I had this thought that people die all the time doing dangerous jobs in this country.
They’re mostly working class men. And they work in industries that are very dangerous drilling for oil, logging, commercial fishing that the nation needs done. And they die in numbers comparable to soldiers in war actually.
But they don’t get acknowledged. They don’t get honored. And I thought maybe I’ll write about dangerous jobs. And that set me on course to write my first book called The Perfect Storm about a huge storm that, among things, sank a commercial fishing boat at sea.
Tim Ferriss: I was lamenting the fact, it’s not really the right way to put it, I was saying that we could probably talk for seven hours. There are so many things I want to ask you about, and so many things that Josh wanted me to ask you also. But let’s go back to the repelling down trees for a second. How did you get that job? What qualified you or did not qualify you? How did that come to pass?
Sebastian Junger: Like many good stories, it started at a bar. I was broke. And I was at a bar one evening, and I was sitting next to this guy, and we just started talking. And he said he owned a tree company. And he said he was looking for a climber. And I was a pretty athletic kid. And he said, “Listen, I’ll train you to climb if you work for me. But I can’t give you full time work, only occasional work. That’s all I got.”
And I was like, yeah, absolutely. So he sort of trained me how to climb. And the great thing about climbing was that I could make, for an unemployed freelance writer in the late ‘80s, I could make a couple hundred dollars a day cash. I could make $500.00 a day, even $1,000.00 a day depending on the job. So I would work one day a week and sort of live off of it. It was the perfect job for someone who was trying to do something else and needed some time.
Tim Ferriss: The athleticism, we were talking about this when we were having lunch together, what did your running times look like when you were at your peak?
Sebastian Junger: My running times were almost fast enough. That’s what they looked like from my perspective.
Tim Ferriss: What was your mile?
Sebastian Junger: I ran 4:12 for the mile
Tim Ferriss: That’s a fucking fast mile. I mean, from my perspective that seems extremely fast. And then, you got into marathons after that?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. I ran 9:04 for the 2 mile, 24:05 for 5 miles, and a 2:21 marathon. Those are my sort of set of distance records that I had.
Tim Ferriss: So The Perfect Storm, I read you being described as based on that work, and I’m paraphrasing here, but the next Hemmingway, along those lines. And Josh had also observed, I think the way he put it was, to quote, “One of the leanest writers I know. So little bullshit between the muscle.” How did you develop your writing style? And if that’s a bad question, feel free to rephrase it. How did you develop that leanness at that point in your life?
Sebastian Junger: Well, I never studied English, and I never studied writing in college or after. But I read a lot. I grew up in a household with a lot of books. My father was educated in Europe. He grew up in Europe.
And reading was this sort of imperative. I mean, you don’t read. And I read John McPhee, Joan Didion, Peter Matheson, Ernest Hemmingway, of course, a little bit of Faulkner. I mean, I could on. But I gravitated towards language that was efficient and lean and innovative. And when I would read a book that I liked like John McPhee, I would think about why is it I like it? What is it about the writing that appeals to me? And even more importantly, when I read books I didn’t like, I tried to figure out what was it about that sentence, about that paragraph that repels me? And that was how I learned to write.
And it’s a sort of process of natural selection. I just kept reading things that reinforced the style that I was drawn to anyway.
And I kept writing more and more in that style. And I think, if you know those writers, and you read me, you can see my literary ancestry pretty clearly.
Tim Ferriss: What drew you to writing? So you weren’t taking classes explicitly focused on turning you into a journalist, it doesn’t sound like, or a writer.
Sebastian Junger: No.
Tim Ferriss: So what drew you to writing?
Sebastian Junger: Well, it happened quite suddenly. I was a good distance runner in college. And I had to write a thesis. And I heard that the Navaho had this very strong tradition, ancient tradition, of running. And they were sort of still at it in a traditional way. And they were amazing track and cross country athletes. And they had blended the two disciplines. And so I did my field work on the Navaho Reservation. I spent a summer there. I trained with their best runners. I was up at 6,000 or 7,000 feet. I live in Fort Defiance, Arizona.
And I wrote a thesis about Navaho long distance running. That was the name of the thesis. And, apparently, thesis titles are supposed to have a colon in them, and I didn’t know that. I just called it Navaho Long Distance Running. And I just came alive academically doing that. I was a pretty indifferent student. I was much more of an athlete than a student. And I just came alive. And the idea that you could go out into the world and gather information, gather research, interview people, and bring it back, and then turn it into words that people will read and be moved by, informed by, moved by, and maybe changed by that, to me, was just such an extraordinary idea.
So I thought maybe I’ll be a journalist. This sounds like journalism. Maybe I’ll try to be a journalist. And I literally graduated with my post graduation plan was maybe I’ll try to be a journalist. That was literally the plan I had in my head.
Tim Ferriss: It seems to have worked out.
Sebastian Junger: Well, eventually. In between, I was a pretty bad waiter in Washington DC and in Cambridge. It took a while. My first book came out when I was 35. And I had virtually no income from writing before that.
Tim Ferriss: No. So the first book was The Perfect Storm, or no?
Sebastian Junger: Yes, that’s right.
Tim Ferriss: Was that your first, aside from the thesis, long form piece of writing?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. That was the next long thing that I wrote, yeah. I wrote some articles with Boston Phoenix, and then, I got into a couple of magazines. But I couldn’t even come close to stitching together an income I could live on.
Tim Ferriss: Did you sell the book before you wrote it or write it before you sold it?
Sebastian Junger: I worked on the story for about a year and just sort of on my own dime. And then, I wrote a magazine piece that Outside Magazine took. And then, I got a book contract from WW Norton, a very, very modest book contract.
But it got me going.
Tim Ferriss: Based on the magazine piece?
Sebastian Junger: And I ginned up some outline that sort of showed how I was going to expand the story.
Tim Ferriss: And you already had quite a bit in your back pocket then at that point.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. I already had a bill crate full of notes and whatever. I had already done a year’s worth of work on this. But I was used to – everything I had ever written, I’d written on my own time and then tried to sell it. I was constantly sort of peddling finished pieces of writing.
Tim Ferriss: Spec work.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. I never got an assignment. The first assignment I did, I mean, the first story that I placed in the Boston Phoenix, which, when I was 23, was a big deal, was about tugboats in Boston Harbor. And they didn’t commission that. Why would they? But I moved to Boston, and I just thought what’s the coolest thing in Boston? Maybe it’s tugboats. So I just started hanging out on tugboats. And I sent them a pretty nice piece of writing.
And it was my first published piece up there. And it was called Towing the Line. And that was my sort of entry into journalism.
Tim Ferriss: What was your writing process like after the magazine piece comes out, you get the book contract? Did you continue taking other jobs? Or did you buckle down to focus full time on the writing?
Sebastian Junger: Oh, I did tree work throughout. My advance was pretty small. And as was appropriate, I mean, I was an unknown writer, and it was a totally bizarre topic at the time. So I’m not complaining. But the advance was quite small. So I did tree work throughout. A couple of days a week, I’d be up in the trees. But I also, after I finished my book proposal – by some miracle, I had an agent by the way who I hadn’t made a dime for in 10 years. But he liked my writing, God bless him.
Tim Ferriss: How did he get in touch – how did you guys connect?
Sebastian Junger: I met him, his name is Stewart Krichevsky, and he’s still my agent. We’re really good friends.
And the way he met me was sort of the ultimate sort of agent’s nightmare. A client of his who wrote academic papers, in other words not a big paying gig, but he sort of handled the academic career of this guy who was a Shakespeare scholar. It took him three hours a year, whatever. That guy’s college roommate was my father. And he got the message that his arguably smallest client’s college roommate’s son wanted to be a writer and would he read some stuff? And Stewart was like that’s about as bad as it gets. That is about as unpromising as it gets in the agent world. But Steward is a great guy.
And he has an open mind. And he read some stuff that I had written and really liked it. And it took another 10 years for him to make any money off of me. But he saw something –
Tim Ferriss: Long term investment.
Sebastian Junger: It was. He saw something there. And I’m eternally grateful to him.
So I gave him my book proposal based on the article. And then, I went off to Bosnia. I wanted to be a war reporter in case the author thing didn’t work out when there was no reason to think it was going to work out. And I didn’t want to do tree work my whole life. So I went off, there was a Civil War in Bosnia, and I went off to learn how to be a war reporter. And I finally came home in ’94 because Stewart sent me a fax saying I managed to sell your book. You got to come home. And I came home.
Tim Ferriss: And during the period that you were up in the trees a few days a week, what did your – or once you had sold the book, I’m mixing up my chronologies a little bit, but what did your writing process, your daily or weekly schedule, look like at that point? How do you write? I know it’s a very boring maybe often asked question. But I’m fascinated by this. And Josh wanted me to dig into it, too.
Sebastian Junger: Well, really, there are two kinds of writing.
There’s fiction, and there’s nonfiction. And the first step, if you’re a journalist, which I consider all nonfiction should be considered journalism, there are other rules for literary nonfiction or anything, it’s all journalism as far as I’m concerned. If you’re a journalist, the first thing you have to do is do your research because you’re writing about the real world. And you need facts and quotes and interviews and all of that. So my writing process really starts out in the world as I’m researching a story or in a library or on the internet or whatever as I’m researching a story. Fiction writers, they depend on this weird sort of pipeline to God.
They’re trying to re-imagine the world in a way that’s never been done before and reproduce it on the page and to have people enter this fictional world and be riveted by it. And that’s where inspiration comes in. And that’s where you have to really be at your desk every morning because you never know when God is going to talk to you, and I mean God figuratively.
I don’t believe in God. But the creative Gods. But for a journalist, it’s much more like carpentry. You get the lumber. You get the bricks. You build the basement. You start putting it together. It’s a process. And there’s a lot of inspiration in the language that you use. But it’s much more procedural than I think fiction writing probably is.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned McPhee. So the most impactful writing class that I ever took was with McPhee. It was a small seminar of about 12 to 15 students at Princeton.
Sebastian Junger: Wow.
Tim Ferriss: So you’ll appreciate this just as a side note. I still have, to this day, downstairs, an entire three ring binder full of all of my notes from that class. And I would say three-quarters of them are all about structure and how he thinks about structure, which is extremely visual, in a lot of cases. And he would map out, just like an architect with a blue print, the structure of his piece based on what he had gathered in all of these elaborate forms.
And some would be a see saw. Others would be a circle. Others would be in some kind of weird, cylindrical, abstract piece of art. But there was a visual representation of how he saw the story in its visual structure or visual representation. And this is going to segue somewhere. But I remember, we had to apply to get into the class. And I don’t think, and I still don’t think, I’m a particularly good writer. There were much better writers there. But we had to do short assignments every week. And it would be on the most boring topics possible deliberately to try to force us to make them interesting.
And when we got our first assignments back, the routine was we would have one group seminar a week. And then, we each got to spend I think an hour one on one with him going over our writing assignments throughout the week. And he handed our assignments back. And he goes as I’m handing these out, I want you guys to remember you’re all good writers.
So don’t get demoralized. And there was more red ink than black ink on the page. He just eviscerated everyone, and not in a malicious way. But he took out all of the bloat, all of the redundancy, all of the ambiguity. And for those people interested, there are a number of interviews he did for I think the Parish Review on the art of nonfiction, which are just fantastic. But what I wanted to ask you, and then, we’re certainly going to spend a lot of time talking about your experiences in war and with warriors and veterans of different types, who were some of the most influential mentors or influences you had say before the age of 30?
Sebastian Junger: Well, let me just say, McPhee, you were very lucky to have taken the class with him.
Tim Ferriss: So lucky, so lucky.
Sebastian Junger: He was a mentor that I didn’t personally know for me through his works he was.
And it’s very interesting to hear what you said about him mapping out structure because I think good structure is an extremely visual thing. I think when people who are good at structure, I’d like to think I am, he definitely is, I think they arrive at the structure with the visual part of their brain. I think if you probably mapped his brain while it was at work, you would see that part light up. And that’s just what I’m guessing. When I write out structure, it looks more like a diagram to a circuit board or something. It’s not quite geometric shapes. But it’s very visual. It represented it completely visually.
And I feel it. When I have the right shape to something, I feel it. It’s a very interesting process that, for me, it’s something that feels like the divine spark that is finally sort of like blessed me with its presence.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s say you have your box full of notes. So you’ve dug into a given topic. You’ve gone out in the field. And we could use The Perfect Storm for this example because perhaps it’s evolved or changed over time. What then? Do you sit down and go through and highlight certain pieces and then number them and order them in some fashion? What’s the process of turning that heap of information into something that might become a book?
Sebastian Junger: I read through all of my interviews with a red magic marker, and I redline the good quotes. And I read through all of the research material, and I underline the stuff that’s interesting to me. And then, I go through everything I’ve underlined. And I just write lists of what I consider the assets that I have to work with. And once I have those lists, and they cover many pieces of paper, then I’ll start to clump them into sort of general topics.
The history of fishing in New England, and the physics of wave motion, I’m referencing topics of The Perfect Storm, night life in Gloucester, whatever. And then, once I have those big chunks, I start to, and this is where the visuality comes in, I start to try to picture how can I arrange those in a way where the energy and the interest in the reader gathers and builds and then achieves some sort of catharsis towards the end. And it’s a very intuitive process. But I’ve got to say, I could never do it without writing it down. I mean, I’m literally moving ideas around on a piece of paper until they look right. And that’s the part of writing that, to me, is almost closer to art than a sort of intellectual pursuit.
Tim Ferriss: So I used to do this physically, and then, I ended up using a piece of software called Scrivener, which was originally for playwrights that allow you to move pieces around like this. So I’ve done my last three books using this software called Scrivener, which allows me to move these pieces around without separate files for each document. So I can actually see the table of contents. As I rearrange it, I can resection things. It’s proven really helpful for me.
Now, McPhee, just to talk about daily routine, so he’s one of those guys in the nonfiction world, I can’t do this because I want to slam my head in a car door if I try this for one day or jump out a window, he literally sits down, and once he has his information, 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. come hell or high water, he’s staring at the blank page with a break for lunch and swimming, as I remember it. And it just drives me to madness to do that. It was so depressing. So I tend to do my best writing, and I wish this were different, honestly, but my best synthesis, I can do interviews; research all of that throughout the day.
But in terms of piecing it together into some type of narrative, it’s like 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. to like 5:00 a.m. That’s just my window for whatever reason. Do you write throughout the day? Do you tend to do your best writing in the mornings, at night, what does that look like?
Sebastian Junger: I do my best writing when something is due.
Tim Ferriss: Spoken as a real journalist who has actually worked for papers and whatnot.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. And that feeling of urgency might come six months out if it’s a book deadline, or it might be the next morning if you’re trying to finish up a magazine piece. But that intensity, it’s like athletes, athletes in the big game or the big race or whatever. That intensity can bring out something that you didn’t even know you had access to much less embodied. And so the time of day – I have a cup of coffee, and I sit down, and I write for a couple of hours until I get bored. And if I feel that I’m blocked in my writing, usually what that blocked meaning, I just can’t write the next section.
And I keep rewriting it, and it doesn’t work, and it’s stuck. It’s not that I’m blocked. It’s that I don’t have enough research to write with power and knowledge about that topic. It always means – it’s not that I can’t find the right words. It’s that I don’t have the ammunition.
Tim Ferriss: Right. The words aren’t there in the first place.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, because I don’t have the ammo. I don’t have the goods. I have not gone into the world and brought back the goods that I’m writing about. And you never want to solve a research problem with language. You never want to be such a fine writer that you can sort of thread the needle and get through a thin patch in your research just because you’re such a prose artist.
Tim Ferriss: Use some linguistics, smoke, and mirrors to gloss over the fact that you don’t have the research.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. It’s just bullshit. And literary writers, I like to think of myself as a literary writer, I think sometimes think that language is so magical and so powerful that you should be able to sort of do almost anything with it. And it’s not true, and it shouldn’t be true.
Tim Ferriss: What do you think is the – if you were giving a, and this would be an odd place to give a commencement speech, but a commencement speech to graduating seniors in high school –
Sebastian Junger: I’ve done that.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, you have? Perfect. Well, then, let me not ask the question I was going to ask. What did you talk about?
Sebastian Junger: I was speaking at a very kind of elite, private school in New York City. And these kids were going off either to college or to high school. I can’t remember. Anyway, these are very, very privileged, very smart, very educated children with exceedingly accomplished parents. And I said to them something like the hardest thing you’re ever going to do – I was like you’re programmed to succeed.
You guys are programmed to succeed. The hardest thing you’re ever going to do in your life is fail at something. And if you don’t start failing at things, you will not live a full life. You’ll be living a cautious life on a path that you know is pretty much guaranteed to more or less work. That’s not getting the most out of this amazing world we live in. And you have to do the hardest thing that you have not been prepared for in this school or any school. You have to be prepared to fail. And that’s how you’re going to expand yourself and grow.
And then, you will really, as you work through that process of failure and learning, then, you will really deepen into the human being you’re capable of being. And that was four years ago. Who knows how it’s going for them.
Tim Ferriss: We were chatting about this before we started recording a little bit, which is I was commenting on how accidental my career, and I kind of put that in air quotes, is.
I mean, I couldn’t have possibly planned this path. And you echoed something to a similar effect. And on the failure point, we were talking, since you’re now training in boxing, it made me think of I think it’s Cus D’Amato who was the most formative trainer of Mike Tyson who said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” So along those lines, the question I was going to ask was specific to journalism. So if people came to you, at least kids, graduating seniors, and they said I want to be a journalist, it’s 20 of these kids, and they’re about to go off to college.
What should I study? What should I do? What should I avoid? What would your advice be to them?
Sebastian Junger: I mean, the path that I took is the one I know best, obviously. And I would say what worked for me – I mean, as a journalist, I’m very hesitant to actually give advice to people.
Like in my book, Tribe, I really try not to tell the country what I think we all should do.
Tim Ferriss: I might try to pry bar that out of you.
Sebastian Junger: There’s other language you can use where you’re not issuing a directive, but you’re giving some wisdom. So what I would say to someone like that is what worked for me was to read an enormous amount, to think about what I read, and why I liked it and didn’t like it. Anthropology is an amazing discipline that gives you tools to understand almost every cultural social situation in the world. But mostly, you must have an enormous appetite for humanity and for life and for the world. I mean, you really have to feel like you cannot fill yourself up enough with this amazing place that we live in. If you have that feeling, and sincerely have it, you’ll do okay, if not at writing, at something.
Tim Ferriss: And that hunger for humanity, that interest in humanity, is that what drove you to want to go into a war torn country or territory and observe and write and capture? Or was it something else? Why did that come about specifically?
Sebastian Junger: There were a few things. I grew up in a pretty affluent suburb of Boston. I grew up in a very physically protected way. I got to 18. I felt like I’d never really been challenged. I’d never been faced with a situation that I didn’t know I could survive. And having studied a lot of anthropology through college, as I moved through my 20’s, I thought this is ridiculous. I’m not an adult yet. I’m not a man yet. You cross that threshold into adulthood, into manhood, by facing something that could destroy you.
And initiation rites in tribal societies around the world, their main purpose is to confront young men, and young women have a different challenge that they have to face, and equally daunting. But young men face this challenge in these initiation rites of sort of demonstrating that they will face the most painful, scariest things possible for their community, for their people. And that’s adulthood. And that’s manhood. And I’d hit 30, and other than a chainsaw injury here or there, I hadn’t really been tested in a real way. And my father grew up in Europe during World War II. And war is this sort of archetypal ordeal. It’s a sort of, in some ways, ancient thing.
And it’s a very, very – in a lot of societies, it is, for better or worse, I know there’s a political conversation here that we can have, but for better or worse, many societies sort of see it as the gateway to adulthood, to manhood specifically for men.
And I went off to Bosnia, partly, because I wanted to become a war reporter. And I was sort of at a loss as to how to make a living and live an adult life, and, partly, because I felt like I was still a child and that war would transform me in some ways that nothing else could.
Tim Ferriss: This is jumping around, of course. But there are a couple of stories that I’d love to talk about that are in the book I’m holding in my hand, which is Tribe, subtitle On Homecoming and Belonging. So I get sent a lot of books. And I very rarely read them. This one, of course, because of the background that is shared, friendship that we have with Josh, and my familiarity with your work, I may be more inclined to read it, I read this in a day and a half. And for those who have seen examples of my note taking, I just have an index of notes that spans all of the front matter of the book basically.
There are some fantastic stories in this book. And I had follow up questions, even if we weren’t recording this, over a bottle of wine that I wanted to ask you. Can you please explain what skin walkers are, you mentioned the Navaho earlier, and why they’re I this book because I wanted to hear more about this?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. So skin walkers were this thing that I never heard of that I first encountered when I was on the Navaho Reservation in 1983 as a 19 year old, 20 year old, whatever I was. And, basically, the Navaho believed in something that other cultures would call werewolves. The belief was that there were certain Navaho, mostly men, who had, basically, turned, right? They lost their humanity, and they’d become animals.
But animals are a source of power in a lot of native societies. They became animals in the sense that they had no human affiliation. And they did this by putting on the hide of a wolf. And that gave them the powers of a wolf, the powers of being able to run very, very fast for a long distance, the powers of being invisible, of being very, very ferocious when need be, being incredible hunters. And they were called skin walkers. And these skin walkers were, basically, adopting the skills and powers of a warrior, except they were using it against their own people, and they would kill their fellow Navaho and eat them in the middle of the night.
And the Navaho, in 1983, on the reservation where I lived, were absolutely terrified of this phenomenon, as terrified as I’m sure they were 100 years prior.
And I’ve got to say the desert out there is a big, lonely place. And I started to feel their terror. I didn’t literally believe that these things exist. But the belief system that was around me still made me deeply, deeply scared of them. It was an extraordinary experience for a rationalist like myself. My father is a physicist. And I don’t believe in God. He didn’t believe in anything but what he could measure and observe. And all of a sudden, there I was in my trailer very, very scared at certain moments of these things, of these skin walkers.
And so as I wrote about it in my thesis, I said the skin walkers are, basically, the universal human fear that you can defend yourself as a society, as a community, you can defend yourself against all outside enemies. But you’re completely vulnerable to one mad man in your midst.
One psychopath, one sociopath, basically, that has no feeling of protectiveness, of humanity towards his neighbors can kill more people than the enemy can. And that made me think of the awful state of mass shootings in this country that have suddenly become so commonplace in the last 10 or 15 years. And it gave me the idea that the mass shooters in Aurora, Colorado and at Sandy Hook, and we all know the names that they are our society’s version of the skin walkers.
Tim Ferriss: Part of what I enjoy about your writing and, specifically in this book, is your frank writing about concepts that we tend to very cleanly separate in a binary way.
And it’s really a discussion that I hunger for that I feel hard to have in many different modern – I’m struggling for language here because it’s a feeling that I get very frustrated by. And that is like a discussion of manhood and rites of passage and the clear historical importance of some of these bonds forged in extreme circumstances between men that, in the safety of these sort of cocoons we have in various cities or elsewhere, do not exist. But problems manifest nonetheless, perhaps to an even greater extent. And in the current climate of a lot of political correctness, that’s sort of verboten.
A lot of these topics just don’t get broached. But I’d love for you to talk a little bit about your experience with; I think this was in Spain with the Viking helmet, because I think it illustrates a very important point. If you remember the story, I’d love for you to describe what happened exactly with this Viking helmet.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. And I think our society, which I feel really does strive, just to address your earlier point about political correctness, I think we really are, in a very righteous way, striving for fairness and equality throughout our society. I think we really are. But we’re also the product of our biology and our evolution. And the two are not easy partners. I mean, throughout the mammalian world, males and females are built differently and do different things and are good at different things. That’s just a fact of nature. If we want the sexes to equal in our society, those inherent differences become potentially problematic.
And, as a result, instead of trying to figure out how to reconcile those very real differences in an equitable system, people, and well meaning people, and some of them are good friends of mine, would just rather you not acknowledge the differences. And there’s a short term logic to that. But there’s a long term loss. And eventually, we won’t have real equality in the society until those nonnegotiable differences are actually incorporated into our equality. And at any rate, what you brought up about sort of PC thinking, it can be very infuriating, but it’s a funny thing. It’s infuriating, even though it’s trying to do the right thing. But it’s still infuriating.
Tim Ferriss: And I’m going to hit pause on the Viking helmet, which you’re going to get to. But I have so many notes in this book. It’s just unbelievable. Because you brought up what most people would consider gender based differences, could you talk for a second, and this is something I’d never really considered, but gender role switching, if this makes any sense.
And this was even in same sex groups; I found this very thought provoking. But if you could, perhaps, describe what I’m very clumsily trying to allude to.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. Well, one of the things that’s interesting is if you take passersby in a moment of crisis, everyone will jump into a burning building to save their child, maybe to save their spouse, possibly their parents-in-law. But whatever. You have sort of familial relations, and people will risk their lives to help the people that they love. It makes sense. But if you look at situations in public in this anonymous society that we have, and someone is in danger, who goes to their aid?
It happens all of the time in New York. Someone falls onto the subway tracks, and the train is coming. Who jumps down onto the tracks to help them? Almost invariably, it’s a man. Now, I feel like I’m very sexist in saying that. But statistics aren’t sexist. And they’ve done studies of this. And men are, for a number of physical and psychological reasons, very, very prone towards that kind of impulsive risk taking that’s sort of on the spot, in the moment decision to jump onto some railroad tracks while a train is coming. It’s not that they’re braver. It’s that they have psychological and physical predispositions and capacities that allow them, in fact promote them, to do that.
So if you look at these stories, it’s something like 95 percent of bystander rescues are performed by men. So when you have a society that’s encountering a difficulty, and that can either be the Blitz in London, which I write about, or that could be a group of coalminers who were trapped in a coalmine disaster in the 1950’s in Canada, you need people who are in the “male role” of rescuing and risk taking.
But then, this other thing is important. And it’s a kind of moral courage. And it does not require spontaneous muscular action with complete disregard for your own life. That’s not what’s required. As important as that is, there is something else, moral courage, where you, basically, are like providing some moral fiber for the group. And you act as a kind of conscience for the group. And women are very, very good at that. And they did a study during World War II of who helped hide Jewish families who were fleeing the Nazis, Gentiles who helped Jewish families who were fleeing the Nazis.
That’s not something that takes muscular action in the moment. But if you’re busted, if you’re a Dutch farmer, and you have Jewish family in your basement, you’re dead.
Tim Ferriss: You’re executed.
Sebastian Junger: Women were more, considerably more, likely to that decision than men were. And so what happens is that if you have say a group of coalminers who are stuck in a coalmine for a week, the first kind of spontaneous leaders you get are the classically male sort of action oriented, grab a pick axe and start digging. When those efforts fail, another kind of leader takes over. They’re way more empathic. They’re way more affiliative. They reach negotiated solutions. They try to make people feel good. They’re in the classically female role. And what’s so interesting about that is that the male and female roles will be filled regardless of the sex.
So a group of women with no men around, a woman will jump onto the railroad tracks to save the kid if there are no men around. If there are no women around, a man will step forward and act in that wonderfully moral, empathic way that women are known for. And so society sort of needs both of these gender roles. And it doesn’t really care if an actual man or an actual woman fills them.
Tim Ferriss: We don’t have to cover this one at length, but I also found it fascinating to read about the Iroquois peace time leaders versus war time leaders and how they switched between the two and how they were so clearly delineated. When circumstances changed, it’s like, okay, it’s almost like a football game. Offense, you’re off the field. Defense, you’re in. And how does this – and I’m not much of a policy or politics wonk.
But I struggle with trying to assess political candidates. How do you think of assessing political candidates, presidential or otherwise, when you have to vote for one person?
Sebastian Junger: Well, I mean, it’s a very interesting question. The Iroquois sort of figured it out, as you said. In peace time, they had sachems who were partly elected by women. So the female voice was found in this selection of sachems. They ran peaceful society. When war started, the sachems stepped down, and war leaders took over. And if the people they were fighting sued for peace, it was not the war leaders who considered the deal. It was the sachems. And if peace was accepted, the war leaders stepped down immediately. And it’s really interesting because the US Constitution, parts of it are based on the Iroquois law of peace.
And Thomas Payne did a lot of work sort of incorporating the natural rights of man as were exemplified by Iroquois society into the intellectual basis for American governance. But as soon as the British surrendered – George Washington was, basically, the supreme leader. He was the military leader in the colonies when they were fighting the British. And as soon as the British surrendered, he formally gave up power, gave up control to the civilian government. It was a very, very important thing to do because, otherwise, he could have continued on as “king” and that would not be a democracy.
And my guess is that he took that idea from the Iroquois. Military thinking and peace thinking require very different sensibilities, very different calculations of cost and benefit. And so the conundrum for us right now is we elect a president who in time of war is also the military leader.
And I think, in a democracy, the idea that you have a non military person at the top of the chain of command is very, very sensible. You do not want a society run by the military. That’s a military dictatorship. We do not want that. But it does call for very maybe even conflicting traits in a single person. The wisdom and the gentleness of a peace time leader, the empathy of a peace time leader, and the capacity for violence and effectiveness and decisiveness in a war time leader. You’re asking someone to be almost schizophrenic if they can do both of those well.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, equally well. So you mentioned a couple of historical figures. Why did Ben Franklin complain that settlers along the frontier were constantly absconding to live with the Indians but that the opposite almost never happened? Why is that?
Sebastian Junger: Well, it was this sort of strange phenomenon. Christian society settled the eastern seaboard of the New World in the 1600’s, 1700’s. And sort of beyond the tree line were the savages. They weren’t Christian. They weren’t civilized. They ran about almost naked, and they hunted wild animals and fornicated and everything else. It’s sort of Satan’s den, right? Sounds pretty fun, right?
Tim Ferriss: Sounds pretty great.
Sebastian Junger: Maybe that’s just me. So for the civilized Christian society of that era, they clearly felt that they were the superior, godly society. But what happened was that superiority, that very quality of civilization and Christianity was also quite stifling. We didn’t evolve as the human animals that we are, social animals that we are, to live within the strictures of Puritan society.
And so young men, particularly, but young women as well, the frontier was constantly sort of bleeding young people who went off, drifted off, to live with the Indians. The movement, the sort of societal movement, was a trickle, but it was significant constantly towards the tribes. And the Indians were never running off to join white society. And then, they were even weirder cases –
Tim Ferriss: You’re talking about the people who were kidnapped?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: That was the part that surprised me the most. I was like, okay, I can kind of see the appeal of being off in the woods free of certain restraints and fornicating. That’s a probably pretty appealing daydream to a Puritan farmer youngest son. But the number of people who were kidnapped, taken as supposedly slaves who then refused, or very unwillingly – refused to come back to white society or very unwillingly came, it’s just –
Sebastian Junger: Well, and my book, Tribe, starts with this story of Pontiac’s rebellion in Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio. And Chief Pontiac fought the colonial powers for years very effectively. But, eventually, they sued for peace. And one of the deals was, the main part of the deal was, that he give up 200 and some white captives that had been taken from the frontiers. And a significant number of the captives did not want to be returned to their homes, to their society. And they actually weren’t slaves. And the people thought that’s what happened to them.
In fact, what happened to them is that the captives who weren’t killed, and some were killed out of revenge for losses that the Indians had taken on the battle field, but the ones who weren’t killed were adopted. And as soon as you were adopted, you were considered absolutely one of the tribe.
There was no distinction whatsoever. You were given to a family that had lost someone on the battle field, and you were the replacement for that person’s son or daughter. And these people, there were two young women who were repatriated because of this peace accord after Pontiac’s rebellion. And two young women actually managed to escape and make their way back to their adopted families. And this happened over and over and over again as the frontier marched across America. There were constantly these stories of people who were taken by the Indians and didn’t want to come home.
And the reason that was given was that it was an egalitarian society. It was not stratified by class, by income, by inherited wealth, by inherited power. Everyone was equal. There were leaders. But they were leaders who were followed voluntarily.
And if you didn’t like the leadership style of Chief Pontiac, you could just take your family and move out to Muskegon Creek and move in with your wife’s cousin’s family with this other group. So authority was never imposed. Authority was accepted. And that led to a really basic equality in native societies. And I should say, as an anthropologist, the sort of hominid groups that we were for hundreds of thousands of years, all of the evidence that anthropologists, archeologists have been able to assemble is that they were extremely egalitarian groups. And partly, you can’t carry much wealth.
If you’re a mobile nomadic society, how much wealth can you really carry? And in a society that lives in groups of 40 or 50 that is mobile, it’s extremely hard to accumulate differences of wealth and, therefore, status.
Tim Ferriss: How does that relate to your experiences in war and interviewing people who have been subjected to war, not necessarily as soldiers. I mean, you mentioned the Blitz and so on. But how does this relate to those experiences?
Sebastian Junger: Well, one of the many ironies of war is that it’s savage, and it’s violent, and it’s completely anti human. But it produces an intensity of human connection that you really can’t – you’re hard pressed to find in peace time. So during the Blitz, and I looked a lot at the Blitz in London. And 30,000 people were killed by German bombs in around 6 months in and around London. The society didn’t collapse, but it contracted sort of into itself. People were sleeping shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers in the tube stations. Fire brigades were rushing around trying to put out fires after the bombing raids.
It was a brutal time. And the government was prepared for mass psychiatric casualties. Forget about the physical casualties. Mass psychiatric casualties. But what happened was admissions to psychiatric wards actually went down from pre-war levels during the bombings and then went back up after the bombings stopped. One official said it’s amazing. We have neurotics driving ambulances. What it seems to be is the communal life that is often forced upon people by hardship, by danger, by calamity, that communal life is so psychologically beneficial to people that there’s a net gain in psychological well being.
So what you find is that, in countries at war – Emile Durkheim, the famous sociologist, found that, in European countries that were at war in the 1800’s, the suicide rate immediately went down.
The murder rate went down. All of that kind of antisocial behavior was mitigated by the sort of monumental task that the country was engaged in. In New York, I live in New York City, in New York after 9/11, a massively traumatized population. And you would think a lot of psychological problems would come out because of this psychological trauma that the entire city experienced after 9/11. That’s not what happened. The suicide rate went down after 9/11. The violent crime rate went down. Even Vietnam vets who were struggling with PTSD in New York City said that their symptoms improved after 9/11 because they were needed.
They had this sense that, oh, my God, there’s a crisis. I’m needed. Time to stop thinking about myself. Time to think about the group, about us.
And that feeling of us is what not only does it make people feel good, but it buffers many people from their psychological demons. And it’s kind of a relief.
Tim Ferriss: One of the recurring themes that you write about and also that we spoke about where, after your TED talk from a few years ago, some of the feedback from vets from different wars was that they missed the war. And from civilians as well, in this book, it’s like there are certain aspects of the war time, maybe a perceived greater level of humanity even, oddly enough, that was lost once peace was regained or achieved.
How do you – how can one potentially go about, and this is sort of a multiple choice question, manufacturing catastrophe, if that makes any sense, simulating the characteristics that drive that increased cohesion community or sense of mental wellbeing or just increase cohesion in a way that you think we’ve evolved to find very healthy or healthful?
Because we were discussing, for instance, boxing, and I had the same experience in Jiu Jitsu, even though I know it’s terrible for me. I get injured every time I try to do this for any period of time. It’s not good for your physical health if you count all of the collateral damage. But one of the appeals was, and we were both talking about the shared experience, of it being completely egalitarian. Like that’s the guy who is really good at [inaudible]. Or that’s the guy who is really good at stiff jab. Or that’s the guy whose footwork is really good. Half the time, you don’t even know what they do, don’t even know necessarily their real name. I remember when I was training at this place called AKA in San Jose, it was like everybody was given some insulting nickname.
And looking back on it, it’s like wow, that actually sounds a lot like, and I’ve never been in the military, but it kind of makes me think of Full Metal Jacket and Snowball and so on. But how can someone simulate that? Or focusing for now on the personal wellbeing, do you have any thoughts on how we might try to improve things? That was a long fucking question. I think you get the idea.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. I mean, the nickname thing is really interesting. Groups of men give each other nicknames. Women, as far as I know, don’t. It’s a really interesting thing. And I think it’s a signal of tribal affiliation, of group affiliation. The male group in our evolutionary past was extremely important in hunting and in defense. And the more cohesive and internally committed all the males were to the group, to everyone else, the more effective they would be at fighting and at hunting. And the survival of the community depended on them doing that job as well as on the women doing other things.
But it depended on that. A cohesion is increased, among other things, by hardship, by nicknames, by humor, all of these things that you see men in groups do. Any construction crew in New York City, you walk past them, and half the time, they’re doubled over laughing. One of the things men do in groups is make each other laugh, and they give each other nicknames. So it’s a really, really ancient – what you experienced is a very common thing and, I think, quite ancient and serves a real purpose. We evolved as a species in an experience of sort of ongoing moderate crisis. I mean, we’re hunter gatherers.
We evolved in a pretty harsh environment. And we’ve survived in the harshest of environments in the Arctic and the Kalahari Desert, for example. So, normal life, for most of human history, was a moderate, ongoing crisis.
What’s very fortunate and beautiful and wonderful and also, in a weird way, tragic about modern society is that crisis has been removed. When you reintroduce a crisis like in the Blitz in London or an earthquake that I wrote about in Avezzano, Italy early in the 20th century, in Avezzano, something like 95 percent of the population was killed, something like that. Just horrific. I’m going from memory. But unbelievable casualty, just like a nuclear strike. And one of the survivors said that what happened afterwards because people had to rely on each other, upper class people, lower class people, peasants and nobility, everyone sort of crouched around the same camp fires.
And what this guy said was the earth – I’ll try to do it my memory, I’ve almost got it. The earthquake gave us what the law promises but does not, in fact, deliver, which is the equality of all men.
I think one of the things that people like about crisis is that, suddenly, everybody is equal. And you’re evaluated, like in a boxing gym; you’re evaluated for your actual conduct in the moment. Not for who your father was. Not for the clothing that you’re wearing. The boxing gym that I work out at, you could be a suit from Midtown with a fancy job in a big bank, or you could be a really tough, poor kid from the bowels of Brooklyn. And you’re not judged. There’s no bias in either direction. There’s no bias against the dude in the suit. And there’s no bias against the ghetto kid. You’re judged for how you act within that almost sacred space of the gym.
And what happens in a crisis, in a war or in an earthquake or whatever, is that people, suddenly, are judged for how they act. And that is, I think, one of the things that the what were called white Indians, the white captives of the American Indians, I think that is one of the things that appealed to them.
They were no longer in this incredibly stratified and, frankly, unfair colonial society. They were in a place where they were totally self determining in terms of how they were seen.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about the C train and your return to New York City. And I’m missing, I’m trying to recall from memory, the timing on this. But it leads into a conversation of PTSD.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Can you take us through that story?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. One of the topics of this book is PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. I had this idea because of my work on the Navaho Reservation that the huge rates of PTSD that we’re experiencing in America right now are maybe anomalous. And if you live in a tribal society, the rates might be quite low. So that was the sort of genesis of my book. So I talked about my own experience with PTSD.
I have been a war reporter since the early ‘90s. I stopped after one of my best friends was killed in combat a few years ago. But the first really traumatic assignment that I had was in Northern Afghanistan a year before 9/11. In the fall of 2000, I was with Ahmad Shah Massoud who was the leader of the Northern Alliance. And he was fighting the Taliban. He was completely outnumbered, out gunned. And back then, the Taliban had fighter planes. The Taliban had tanks. They had artillery. They had all the toys. And Massoud, his forces were the sort of guerillas. Well, it’s great to be with the guerillas until you start getting shelled or bombed or whatever.
So I was up there for two months. And we saw and went through some very tough things. And I got back to New York, a young man your age, late 30’s, and I just felt completely that nothing would ever affect me. I just assumed complete invulnerability to everything.
And I got back to New York. And I’m a little shaken up but all right. And then, one day, I went down to the subway, and it’s something I did every day. And it was rush hour. There were a lot of people. And I was seized with this incredible panic attack. I had never had one in my life. Everything I was looking at seemed like a mortal threat. Intellectually, I knew it wasn’t. But it felt like it was. And I was way more scared than I’d ever been in Afghanistan. And I had been plenty scared in Afghanistan. The trains were going too fast, and they were going to jump the tracks and leap up onto the platform and kill me.
The crowds were suddenly going to turn on me and beat me to death. The lights were too bright. The lights were somehow going to kill me. It was too loud. Everything was a mortal threat. And I backed up against the iron support column and just sort of waited for it. Then, I finally sprinted out of there and took a taxi.
And that kept happening. Any time I was in an enclosed place with too many people, too much going on, I would just panic. I just thought I was going crazy. I had no idea that it was in any way connected to the combat that I’d been in until a couple of years later. I was talking to a woman who was a psychologist who was a friend of a friend. I was at a picnic, actually. And she asked about my war reporting and if I had had suffered any consequences from it. I was like no. Of course not, I’m fine. And for some reason, I thought to sort of mention but once in a while; I have a weird panic attack.
And she nodded in the way that shrinks do, interesting. And she said, “Well,” and it was the spring of 2003, and she nodded, and she said, “That’s interesting. That’s called PTSD.” And we just invaded Iraq, right? And she said, “You’re going to be hearing quite a bit about that in the coming years,” as indeed we have.
Tim Ferriss: And why are the rates – are the rates of PTSD in the US anomalous? Are they unusually high compared to other cultures or other countries? And if so, why is that?
Sebastian Junger: Well, the truth about PTSD is that almost 100 percent of people who have been traumatized either seen something gruesome or feared for their own life. And I should add that the witnessing of harm to others is more traumatic than danger is. It’s interesting. But almost 100 percent of people who have been traumatized get short term PTSD. That’s what I got. It lasts some weeks, last some months, goes away. Therapy helps, whatever, but we’re humans. We’re adapted to survive danger and stress and hardship and all that other stuff, or we wouldn’t be here. So if trauma was psychologically crippling to humans, humans wouldn’t exist.
Around 20 percent of people get long term PTSD. So they pass the point where they should have recovered, and they’re stuck in this trauma loop, and they can’t get out of it. That’s around 20 percent of people. Now, you look at the US military. Every war, the casualty rate, thank God, has gone down because the intensity of the combat has gone down. As bad as World War I was, it wasn’t as bad as the Civil War. World War II was not as intense; the combat was not as intense. There were not the mass casualties of World War I. Korea, Vietnam, the War on Terror have the lowest casualty rates of any war the US has fought, major war.
But as the casualty rates have gone down, and the level of trauma has gone down, disability claims have gone up. They’re going in the wrong directions. Right now, about 10 percent of the US military actually experiences any combat at all, 1 out of 10 soldiers.
The rest of them are crucial, they’re necessary. They’re not getting directly traumatized. But something like 50 percent of the US military has filed for some form of PTSD disability. So there’s 40 percent in there that are a bit of a mystery. They come home, and they’re deeply, dangerously alienated, depressed. They don’t fit in. Something is gravely wrong. And my theory is that what they’re experiencing isn’t a reaction to trauma. They couldn’t be because most of them weren’t traumatized. But what they’re experiencing is the radical readjustment from platoon life, a platoon is 40 or 50 people.
You’re sleeping, depending on what kind of base you’re on, shoulder to shoulder in the dirt or cot to cot in some kid of bungalow or whatever.
But it’s all group living. You’re eating meals together, doing missions and patrols together. You’re doing everything together for over a year. That is exactly how humans evolved to live. That is exactly our prehistory. So you experience that incredible, tight cohesion with your platoon. There might be people you have conflicts with. That doesn’t mean it’s one big love fest. But it is close. And it’s close with people that you know your life depends on. And then, suddenly, you’re sprung from that. And you’re back in modern society. And I think what’s afflicting a lot of these vets isn’t a response to trauma. It couldn’t be. It’s a response to the sudden aloneness and loneliness that modern society is known for, unfortunately.
Tim Ferriss: And you also have talked about how, for instance, returning Peace Corp volunteers also suffer from depression. I mean, similar, maybe not identical. But it’s related reintegration issues.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. You can see, to the extent that this is proof, but it’s an interesting example. So you spend two years in Cameroon, an incredibly poor country in Central Africa in a really poor village. That’s a tough way to live for a couple of years for an American who grew up in modern society. And then, after two years, you come home. And the depression rate for people coming back from Peace Corp service is astronomical. It’s something like 50 percent, 25 percent, 50 percent, it’s enormous. It’s akin to soldiers. So there you have this common theme.
The Peace Corps volunteers are not traumatized, but they experience, like soldiers, this radical transition from closeness, literally village life, back to the American suburb or whatever.
This is the first modern, western society in human history where people live alone in an apartment. Unheard of. Children have their own bedrooms. They’re locked in a room by themselves at night. It’s terrifying to young children. We’re primates. Baby primates, if they’re alone in the jungle, are incredibly vulnerable. And human infants know this, of course. So they don’t want to be put in a room by themselves. They know it, in an evolutionary sense, they know it’s dangerous. And they cry and they scream.
Tim Ferriss: But wasn’t it 90 percent contact? I might be pulling that out of my ass. But you talked about the sort of contact percentages or –
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. The skin on skin contact for infants and young children in tribal societies is as high as 90 percent of the time, skin on skin contact. And the study looked at skin on skin contact in American society. I think it was in the ‘70s the study was done.
And it was as low as 17 percent, something like that. Now, you could say people have to work. They have jobs. All true. But that doesn’t mean that that radical shift in child rearing doesn’t have consequences.
Tim Ferriss: So PTSD is very interesting to me for a number of reasons. One is that I have quite a few friends now who are either active military or were active for a period of time. But most of my exposure has been to guys in Seals or Marine Force recon and so on. I have quite a few questions related to this. But so that’s Part 1 of the interest. Part 2 of the interest is that I’ve been involved with research and funding research related to the use of psychedelics to address untreatable or treatment resistant depression at places like Johns Hopkins.
And when you dig into that scientific community, you find a lot of people using, for instance, MDMA with vets to try to address PTSD. So this has been a sort of recurrent topic that has popped up for me. A couple of questions for you. The first is, and the fact of the matter is I don’t have perfect transparency into these folks’ lives, nor should I, but the guys who I’ve spent a lot of time with in some of these special operations units do not seem to exhibit any symptoms of PTSD. And I’m sure that’s not true across the board. But do you see a lot of differences in terms of those types of units versus, I don’t know the proper terminology here, but just like basic infantry men?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, or support units. I mean, what it seems to be is that unit cohesion is a buffer for psychological struggles, including PTSD.
So the more highly trained the soldier, the more highly trained the unit, the more psychologically resilient they are, even though they might be taking higher casualties. And what’s so interesting about trauma is that it’s not necessarily related to the level of danger. It’s related to the level of control that you feel that you have. So if you’re a sort of standard issue support unit, rear base soldier on one of the huge bases that the American military has or the Israeli military has, for example, in previous wars in Israel, maybe the random mortar round comes in.
And, strangely, that causes a greater proportion of psychiatric casualties than frontline units doing very intense fighting, but they’re taking higher casualties, but they’re incredibly well trained. So they have a sense of mastery over their environment.
Tim Ferriss: They also have a very high degree of perceived agency, I would imagine, just because they’re on offense. If you’re in a commando unit, you get dropped behind enemy lines in a black helicopter, and you have the go command –
Sebastian Junger: Absolutely. It’s game on, the football game or whatever. Humans are wired for action and war, when need be. And your neuro circuitry just lights up. And there’s all kinds of hormonal stuff going on. You have an enormous agency. But it even is true, this was in my previous book called War, I saw this study where some Army psychiatrists, the two unluckiest Army psychiatrists in the whole military probably at that time, were at some remote outpost with special forces soldiers along the DMZ.
And they were dropped in there, and they were just doing some standard study, psychological assessment of these guys. And these guys are real bad asses. They’re like SF, the real deal. And so these psychologists, they found out that the base, it was a 20 man position, something like that, the base was about to be attacked by a battalion of NVA, like 500 men. And there were 20 guys there, something like that. So the psychologist thought this is a perfect moment to measure stress in soldiers.
Tim Ferriss: It’s definitely looking at the silver lining.
Sebastian Junger: Exactly. So they started taking cortisol levels hourly from the soldiers. And the officers, the lieutenant, the poor lieutenant, he was probably 22, his cortisol levels, he’s young, he’s not very well trained, and he has a huge amount of responsibility as the commanding officer, his cortisol levels are through the roof right up until the point where the attack was supposed to begin because they had intel that these guys were coming.
And then, after that time passed, his cortisol levels steadily declined. And it turned out there was no attack. And then, he returned to normal. The special forces guys were the opposite. As soon as they heard they were about to experience an overwhelming attack, their cortisol levels dropped. They got super calm. And the reason their cortisol levels dropped was because it was stressful for them to wait for the unknown. But as soon as they knew they were going to be attacked, they had a plan of action. They started filling sand bags. They started cleaning their rifles. They started stockpiling their ammo, getting the plasma bags ready, whatever they do before an attack.
All of that busy-ness gave them a sense of mastery and control that actually made them feel less anxious than them just waiting around on an average day in a dangerous place.
Tim Ferriss: So coming back to, and I really didn’t think about this until now, but when we’re talking about PTSD and potential causes, so you have going from a very unified sort of tribal existence that we’ve evolved to be part of to this very unusual, isolated, modern existence, you also have, what strikes me at least, we’re looking at the agency versus lack of agency, the sense of a clear purpose and a task.
It’s like if the towers get hit at 9/11, and there’s a call for blood drives, and everybody is standing on line, every different race, color, or creed, it’s like you have a very clear, concrete purpose in front of you as opposed to what I think a lot of us experience, and I’m not immune to this, certainly, there are weeks and months where I’m like what the fuck am I doing?
I really just like don’t know what I should be doing in life. But a crisis, or a perceived crisis, is a forcing function. It’s like you have a very clear directive of some type or another. What do you think are the most – and just to – and then, a third, which is related, certainly, but might be independently addressable is when you come into an isolated existence, you’re in an apartment by yourself, which, quite frankly, I am a lot of the time, and I don’t think it’s healthy for me is a focus on me. Like a focus on I. It is just a breeding ground for neuroses and mental illness, I think. And when you take, for instance, certain types of psychedelics, it disrupts the default load network.
It has very particular neurological effects that increase the sense of oneness and unity with others. So it, in some ways, mitigates that focus on the first person. What can we do to better support troops, particularly, and this is a question from another friend who is a big fan of your work, but he views himself quite proudly as sort of a bleeding heart liberal.
And he feels very conflicted because he wants to support troops. At the same time, he wants to ask did you find the WMD’s? And so he’s conflicted as to how to support the troops without feeling like he’s supporting senseless wars. How would you answer that or talk to that?
Sebastian Junger: Well, countries go to war through a political process that’s run by the government. And the troops have nothing to do with the war in that sense. I mean, guys who are drilling for oil in North Dakota really don’t have anything to do with global warming. They’re providing something that our society has decided it wants, including a lot of environmentalists, frankly, are driving around in cars that run on gasoline.
Tim Ferriss: With bumper stickers that say no blood for oil.
Sebastian Junger: Exactly right. So there’s a massive hypocrisy, even though it’s well meaning. So but you can’t mistake the soldiers for the war. If you’re upset about the wars that the US gets into, you have to address that to the government. The soldiers themselves have simply volunteered to do anything, think about how profound this is, they have volunteered to do anything that the nation asked them to do for very, very low amounts of money, anything. And if we told them to plant trees in Canada, they’d go do that. And if we told them to go invade Canada, they’d do that. Whatever you want, we’re going to do it.
So there’s no conflict between disagreeing with a war and honoring people who have said, for $40,000.00 a year, I will do whatever you think this nation needs done. That’s an incredibly honorable thing.
And if you want to create a sense of unity of purpose in this country, which I think would be enormously psychologically beneficial to soldiers, I mean, soldiers experience unity of purpose in their platoon. Then, they come back to this country, which is basically at war with itself. We live in racially divided communities. The gap between rich and poor is bad and growing worse. The political parties speak with incredible contempt for one another. If you were a soldier, and you fought for this country, and you come back to this mess, of course, they’re messed up. Of course they are.
Like come on, guys. We fought for you, and you can’t even get along in peace time? I mean, you guys are experiencing peace, and you can’t even get along? So you want unity of purpose in this country. One way to get there is to make – 50 years ago, racist speech was acceptable socially.
Now, it’s unacceptable. It’s protected under free speech. But it’s politically and socially unacceptable. Contemptuous speech for your fellow citizens, for your political adversary, likewise, is protected under the First Amendment. But it should be considered so damaging to the social fabric and to the interests of this nation that it’s effectively banned from society by common consensus. That would help. That would help soldiers. It would help all of us. National service would be amazing. I think it’s morally wrong to force people to fight a war they don’t want to fight.
But national service with a military option where every 18 year old or every young person had to do a year or two of national service that would truly create the melting pot that this country is and should be. The classes, the races get mixed in this very egalitarian way.
We create a common – like in Israel, which has a PTSD rate, by the way, of 1 percent. It would create this sort of common experience and this unity of purpose, which is so profoundly healthful psychologically.
Tim Ferriss: What might some of the non military options look like for that year or two of service?
Sebastian Junger: I mean, what does the nation need done? I mean, we need help in the inner cities. We need infrastructure repair.
Tim Ferriss: So it could resemble like a Teach for America or a Peace Corp type of capacity.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, anything, whatever. For us collectively to use our imagination, and we have two things. We have this incredible resource of our young people. And we have a nation that’s deeply, deeply in crisis. And the one thing that unifies us is being attacked. We’re attacked by terrorists, and suddenly, we’re a unified country. And we don’t want to have to wait for tragedy to unify us.
We want to beat it to the punch and actually unify our country for positive reasons instead of as a reaction to a horrible attack.
Tim Ferriss: So I promised I would come back to the Viking helmet, so I want to address the Viking helmet. So this is from memory. Let me try to give a sketch. So you’re in Spain, correct? You go out to a bar with some of your buddies. And I’ll let you tell it because I think you’ll do it more justice. But it underscores a point that I want to ask you about. So could you –
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, of course. And they weren’t even my buddies. They became my buddies. So I was 22 years old. My father grew up in Spain and in France. And I grew up going to those countries. And after college, I had read a lot of Hemmingway. This is all pretty predictable.
I read a lot of Hemmingway. I wanted to go to Pamplona to see the running of the bulls, to see or participate in the running of the bulls. So the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona is this big, city wide freak show, basically, for a week. And I was sleeping on someone’s couch. One night I slept on a park bench. I mean, it’s just a free for all. It’s an amazing time. And I went out to this bar in preparation for the running of the bulls the next morning. No one who is within the barricades where they run the bulls, no one – they fire the cannon of at 7:00 in the morning to release the bulls from the arena, and they charge through town through these barricades.
And no one who is within those barricades at 7:00 a.m. woke up at 6:00 a.m. to do it. I mean, anyone who was in that thing has been up all night. I was going to be one of them. So I go to some stupid, little bar, saw dust on the floor. I spoke pretty good Spanish at the time.
And I immediately start talking to these two young Spaniards who are just completely shit faced. And one of them has a leather drinking bag, I don’t know how else to describe it, a leather drinking bag kind of bota around his neck, which is full of red wine. And he keeps trying to squirt the red wine into his mouth, but he keeps missing. It’s all over his white t-shirt. And these guys are having the best time in the world. And we just became friends instantly. And we were talking. And one of them, the drunkest of the two, has a cheap, plastic, Viking helmet on his head. And I didn’t really think about it much.
We were talking. And suddenly, these three, very tough looking, North African kids walk in. And I had lived in France for a while with my family when I was 12 or 13, so I spoke French also. These three really tough looking Algerian or Moroccan kids walk in. And they’re tough looking guys. And they walk into the bar. And the biggest of them walks right up to my new friend, I’ve known him for maybe half an hour, and grabs the Viking helmet off his head and says, “That’s mine. You stole it.”
So I’m the only one who speaks both languages. So now, I’m translating. And my new, Spanish friend tries to grab it back and says, “No, that’s mine. I don’t know who you are.” And the Moroccan guys and the two Spanish guys, everyone suddenly has a hand on the Viking helmet, and they start pulling at it. And it’s rapidly devolving into a pretty good bar fight. And the helmet starts to rip. It’s just cheap plastic. And one of them shouts, sort of King Solomon’s judgment almost, one of them shouts, “Stop, stop. We’re ripping it.” And they stop. Everyone stops because no one wants to destroy the thing they’re all fighting over.
And one of the two Spanish guys, I think the less drunk of the two, turns to me and says, “I have an idea. Will you take my place at this helmet, and will you defend it?” This wonderful, elegant way that Spaniards have of speaking, particularly when they’re drunk. Will you defend it upon the honor of your ancestors and your good name and blah, blah, blah. And I’m thinking how long do you have to know a guy before you have to back him up in a bar fight? Is it under an hour really? Is that it? And so I say yes, I’ll defend the helmet, etc. And I take my place at the helmet. And he goes to the bartender – now, the whole bar is watching this. This is high theater at this point. And so me and the Spanish kid are glaring at the Moroccans.
And they’re glaring back. And we’re faced off around this helmet. I’m really hoping it doesn’t go to where it looks like it’s headed. So the Spanish guy goes to the bar and has a quick conference with the bartender who produces a big jug of cheap, Spanish, red wine and cracks the top open and hands it to him. And the guy comes back and fills the Viking helmet to the brim with red wine.
Now, no one wants to be the asshole who spills the red wine. It’s this Festival of San Fermin. The whole thing is running on red wine. No one wants to spill it. It just looks bad. So he fills the helmet to the brim with red wine, and he puts his hand under it. And he says, okay, now, everyone let go. And no one wants to be the idiot who spills the wine. So everyone lets go. And he presents it to the biggest, toughest looking Moroccan kid and says, “You’re a guest in our country, so you drink first.” And the guy drank. And he passed it to his left. And then, it went around the circle. And then, when it was empty of red wine, it got filled up.
And then, eventually, they just got another jug and started passing the jug around. An hour later, I’m talking to like some girl. An hour later, I eventually extricate myself from this. And I look over, and the five of them who were ready to tear each other to pieces, the five of them are hanging off each other singing in unison in two different languages. And the Viking helmet has been completely forgotten and is under a table in the corner.
Tim Ferriss: So I underlined this and put a bunch of stars next to it. There are a lot of underlines in this book for me. What I liked about the encounter was that it showed how very close the energy of male conflict and male closeness can be. So I want to get your thoughts and advice on something very closely related, which is I felt, for a long time, and this is completely unsubstantiated, I mean, it’s just a pet theory that a lot of these societal issues that we see are a direct result of male misbehavior from those who do not have an outlet for just innate capacity for violence and force. And I think it’s such a great story because it shows how that can be, in some cases, directed.
So you’re like oh, shit, these guys are about to turn into meatheads pounding each other’s brains out. But with a little finesse and enough red wine, that’s all diffused, and now, they’re best buddies. And you and I, I heard a story very much like this, where I’m not going to name him, but this very kind of cantankerous, outspoken, abrasive billionaire walked up to this huge Argentine guy at a party that I was in a different room at the time for, and pushed the guy because they were both drunk. And he pushed this huge Argentine guy because he assumed I’m the billionaire here. I’m the tough guy who is the alpha male.
What’s this guy going to do? And what the guy did was turn around, picked him up like a professional wrestler over his head, and slammed him on top of a folding table, and shattered the table. So everyone is assuming, holy shit, this guy is going to get his life destroyed. This guy is going to sue the shit out of him.
But he couldn’t because of the reputational stakes. It would be a response of forever shame him if that was the response because he clearly instigated it. And then, a half hour later, they’re best of friends doing shots together. But it doesn’t always end that neatly. And do you have any thoughts on how, in the society in which we live, let’s just say, in this case, in the US, we can end up with more male closeness and less sort of male violence? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Sebastian Junger: Well, it’s tricky. I mean, how do we have less heart disease in a society where people drive, and most people have plenty of food and a lot of fats and sugars? The very safety of this society, the very thing that makes us lucky also creates a danger.
Tim Ferriss: The diseases of affluence.
Sebastian Junger: That’s right. So the wonderful thing about this society is that we don’t have to organize groups of young men and put weapons in their hands and send them out to the edge of town to fight off an incursion from the young men of an enemy town, a hostile town.
That’s not happening anymore. I mean, wars are big, formal things that, for the United States, almost always happen elsewhere. But in terms of our communities and our society at home, we no longer have to organize young men and prepare them for group violence so that we can survive. That’s been the human norm for 2 million years either from predators or from other humans. Young men function in groups and function selflessly in groups extremely well. You can organize 20, 30, 40, 50 young men and give them a task, a dangerous task, and not only do they perform it very, very well, the harder the task is, the closer they get.
Women are used for incredibly important – I’m talking in sort of human evolution across the span of human history. Women are used for equally important tasks but usually not group tasks like that. It’s really the boys who are told to either hunt or fight in groups. And so they get very good at it. And in modern society, what young men want to do is achieve honor by defending the community. I mean, it’s just wired into the male brain to do that. If you don’t give young men a good and useful group to belong to, they will create a bad group to belong to.
But one way or another, they’re going to create a group, and they’re going to find something, an adversary, where they can demonstrate their prowess and their unity. That thing that they find is often the law. It’s the police. It’s society itself. In some ways, they turn into skin walkers. They have no outside enemy. So they create an enemy out of society. They don’t want to be doing this.
Tim Ferriss: It’s one of the risks of war time leaders being all the time leaders.
Sebastian Junger: Yes, that’s right. And young men, like young women, for the most part, are well intentioned and want to do right by their community and their society. But if you have a society which is so safe and protected and removed from the rest of the world as we are, in some ways, there’s sort of nothing useful for the young men to do. And then, in their own ad hoc way, they create their own trials. So they take a lot of risks. They do stupid stuff. They jump off of stuff that’s too high to jump off of. They drive too fast. They get into fights.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve never done any of that stuff.
Sebastian Junger: Young men die at six times the rate of young women from accidents and from violence. And there’s a reason for that. They’re wired to demonstrate their prowess. And it often gets them killed.
Tim Ferriss: This is not really something that needs a ton of commentary because I’m not sure we can resolve millennia and millions of years of evolution.
But I highlighted this part, and we talked about it before we started recording because it was surprising yet completely unsurprising at the same time. And I’ll just read a short section here. “I once asked a combat vet if he’d rather have an enemy in his life or another close friend. He looked at me like I was crazy. Oh, an enemy 100 percent, he said. Not even close. I already got a lot of friends. He thought about it a little longer. Anyway, all of my best friends I’ve gotten into fights with, knockdown, drag out fights. Granted we were always drunk when it happened, but think about that. He shook his head as if he couldn’t believe it.” Strange creatures we are.
Sebastian Junger: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: I want to segue to a couple of listener questions because there were some good ones. This one is from Kip McNunie. And I’m going to abbreviate it a little bit. But how does he feel about veterans being victims in society after they return home and get out?
General James Mattis, who you should definitely interview, this has actually been recommended a few times, gave a speech in 2014 about post traumatic growth, as he called it, and how those experiences should be considered a precious commodity, one that cannot be simulated or taught in a classroom. How would you comment on that?
Sebastian Junger: I mean, the status of victimhood is not a psychologically healthy place to be in. And I think our society takes people who are unfortunate who have experienced something difficult and, in a kind of misguided attempt to make the world right again for them, they classify them as victims. Now, they may call them survivors. They may call them whatever they want. But, actually, the role that the person is being asked to play is one of the victim. Victims are taken care of.
So after World War II, which saw casualties that completely eclipse even these terrible wars of our current day, soldiers came back. They didn’t do multiple deployments. They signed up, and they were in the Army until the war was done. Some of them were in for three, four years straight. And they came home. And, basically, society said to these men, and it was almost all men in the combat units; society said to these men you’re done fighting. Now, we need you at home. It’s time to get to work. We have a country to rebuild. And they definitely were not thought of as victims of the war or of anything.
They were thought of much like, I’m sure the Cheyenne and the Comanche and the Apache and the Sioux and the Kiowa warriors who came back from the war path, they were thought of as essential and functioning members of society. Maybe they were missing a limb. Or maybe they had some trauma to process.
But they were needed back home in the towns and cities of this great country just as badly as they were needed in the pacific in the fields of Europe. And the problem with victimhood is that it perpetuates the psychological state of passivity and trauma that you want the person to escape from.
Tim Ferriss: Right. It’s the perceived lack of agency that helped produce the PTSD in the first place actually.
Sebastian Junger: Exactly. And you think about what the London officials said about the Blitz. Now, we have neurotics driving ambulances.
Tim Ferriss: And also, one thing you wrote about, which was the presence of fraud, of course, within disability claims and how some vets who really suffer from severe PTSD don’t want to go to these meetings because they’re afraid they’re going to beat the living shit out of some guy who is clearly just doing it to receive a check or some type of payment.
Yeah. It’s a very politically delicate thing to bring up. And all I’m doing is repeating the accounts of soldiers and veterans. I mean, the best thing a journalist can do is convey information. And that’s what I’m doing. Veterans I’ve talked to said they won’t go to these group therapy sessions because 1 out of 20 is some guy who really didn’t see any combat and is trying to milk the system pretending to have PTSD, and he really doesn’t.
One of the tricky things, the VA, in trying to speed up the massive bureaucracy that they created over the last decades, you try to speed that up, speed up disability claims, they said to soldiers if you self diagnose, think about this, if you self diagnose with PTSD, you do not have to give us proof that anything traumatic happened.
You do not have to describe the incident that you were traumatized in. You just have to tell us that you believe that you were traumatized and that you have PTSD, and that’s enough for a disability check. So humans being what they are, some number of people are going to take advantage of that. And we’re a wealthy country. We can easily absorb those costs. So I have zero opinion about whether we should inquire further. But I should say that the data show that having that kind of dishonesty in a process is actually psychologically detrimental not only to those specific people who are being dishonest but to everybody. It’s actually quite corrosive.
Tim Ferriss: How many photographs have you taken on your war time deployment is probably not the right word but assignments?
Sebastian Junger: I carry a video camera, and I shoot a lot of footage. But I’ve never taken still photos.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So with the video footage that you’ve shot, and by the way, I haven’t told you this, when Restrepo was first shown, very, very first shown in the Northern California area, I tracked it down and drove out to see one of the very first showings.
Sebastian Junger: Oh, really?
Tim Ferriss: I did.
Sebastian Junger: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: And I have some questions about that. But what footage that you capture, if any come to mind, this is related to a question from Jasmine Hyatt, if you had to choose, I’m going to substitute here because it was one photo, but I’m going to say one clip of footage that impacted him the most, which one is it and why? What did he experience while taking, in this case, the video?
Sebastian Junger: I mean, the things that have impacted me I didn’t necessarily shoot video of. Sometimes, it’s at night.
Tim Ferriss: And we can talk about that. I would say feel free to answer that, yeah.
Sebastian Junger: When I was in Northern Afghanistan in 2000, there was a big nighttime battle going on. And there was a masked infantry assault against entrenched Taliban positions through a mine field. Most of the Northern Alliance – sort of World War I style. And it was at night. And we were right behind the front lines. And a wave of soldiers sort of took the wrong route and went through this mine field. And a lot of them got messed up. And they were pulled out of there. And we saw them immediately afterwards. And they’d sort of been piled onto the back of a flat bed pickup truck. They were alive. They had lost legs and traumatic amputations. They were extremely messed up, but they were alive.
Most of them probably survived. They were anti personnel mines. And so we were there when they were brought into this sort of forward field hospital tent that was lit with kerosene lanterns. This is rough. This is World War I era –
Tim Ferriss: Frontier medicine.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. And in the very bright light of these kerosene lanterns, they brought these poor guys in. And there were 12 guys where their bodies ended at their knees, their bodies ended at their hips. You don’t realize. It’s psychologically incredibly deranging to see the human body rearranged. And I found later in my research that one of the most traumatizing things, in terms of PTSD, is to see dismemberment. To see the coherence of the human form rearranged in an odd way that you’ve never seen before.
And it really tweaks people. And I had a moment of crisis. I went a little crazy. It felt like I went a little crazy. My brain just sort of stopped functioning. And I don’t even have very clear memories of it, but I left the tent. I couldn’t take it. I could not bear to see what I was seeing. And I left the tent. And I went outside into the cold, African night and lit a cigarette. And I thought war is exciting, and it’s dramatic, and it’s important, and it’s meaningful, and it’s all this other stuff. But if you’re not also prepared to look unblinkingly, unflinchingly at the worst aspects of war, dismembered people, you really have no business covering the “good” parts. And by good, I mean the parts that aren’t traumatic.
If you can’t face what’s in that tent, you have to get out of the business completely. And you can’t be selective about your experience at war. And but you have a job to do. And it’s to communicate to your readers back in the United States everything about what war looks like, including that. So grab your damn notebook, and grab your pen, and walk in there and just write down what it is like to behold such a thing. And it’s interesting. As soon as I had a purpose, I was okay. My self-given purpose was document this thing that you can barely bear to look at.
But as soon as I had a job to do, and I’m sure that’s how the medics dealt with it, too, as soon as I had a job to do, I was okay. And I wrote it all down. And it was one of the most powerful parts of this piece that I wrote. And I sort of passed through the gateway, through the threshold. And I had been in plenty of wars until then. But in that moment, I became a war reporter.
Tim Ferriss: So you mentioned, not by name, but Tim earlier. Can you tell us who he was, what happened, and how it impacted you?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. Tim Hetherington was a wonderful, brilliant, English photographer who I was lucky enough to work with on my project in the Korongo Valley. I wanted to document the experience of one platoon, 30, 40, 50 men, throughout 1 deployment. And I wound up at a little outpost called Restrepo. And that’s when I started shooting video and thinking about movies. And on my second trip in there, I started working with Tim. He was assigned to me by Vanity Fair Magazine. And he quickly realized that this film project that I had was a pretty good idea. And we became partners. And we went through a very intense, amazing, difficult year together out there in the Korongo Valley.
And we both got hurt. We both came very close to getting killed out there. It was an extraordinary experience. And we became brothers really. And we made a film called Restrepo, and it won a lot of awards, and then, it was nominated for an Oscar. And we went off to Los Angeles in this amazing world of Los Angeles during the Oscars. And I was married at the time. And he had a girl friend. And we were all out there together. It was an incredible experience. We didn’t win. It didn’t really matter. And we had an assignment. The Arab Spring was exploding all around us during the Oscars.
And so we had an assignment to go back overseas and document the civil war in Libya for Vanity Fair. After the Oscars, we all went home, and we were going to head to Libya, and at the last moment, I couldn’t go for personal reasons. And Tim went on his own.
And he was killed on April 20 in the city of Misurata in Libya by a mortar round, 81 mm mortar that was fired by Gaddafi’s forces outside of Misurata. And he bled out in the back of a rebel pickup truck racing for the Misurata Hospital. And I got the awful phone call in New York City. And very, very quickly, I decided I would never cover war again. It wasn’t that I was scared of getting killed. That’s a fear that you have to confront early on, and I sort of resolved my feelings about it. It’s that, in watching the news of his death, and he was beloved by people, including my wife, Daniella, I just loved him.
Everyone loved him. And I watched the news of his death ripple outwards from my apartment because I got the news first, from my apartment outwards through all the people that he knew, that he loved on out into people that he didn’t even know who loved him on out through his country and my country.
And I just thought I don’t want to risk doing that to the people I love. I mean, I’m dead. My problems are over. But I’m giving them a lifetime of pain and sorrow. And that’s not an honorable thing to do. And so I got out of the business.
Tim Ferriss: What was the date on that again?
Sebastian Junger: April 20.
Tim Ferriss: I’m sorry.
Sebastian Junger: Coincidentally, the anniversary of Columbine, Hitler’s birthday, there are all kinds of awful things that happened on April 20 for some reason.
Tim Ferriss: What do you think your writing future will look like?
Sebastian Junger: Tribe is a really different book from my other books.
It’s an inquiry into something. It’s not a story. It doesn’t take place on a fishing boat or at an outpost. It’s a meditation and an inquiry about my society, my country that I love very much. And something feels very, very wrong in our country right now. And I think if you look at the political discourse right now in this country, it is completely toxic and, actually, more dangerous to our nation than ISIS is. Really, in real terms of how do we keep this country together for the next 250 years, ISIS is not going to be able to prevent us from doing that. I’m sorry. But we ourselves can. And it’s happening right now. And my book is partly an attempt to make people think about what it means to belong to a group. And this country is a group.
Tim Ferriss: So viewing ourselves that way, this relates to a question from Bobby Richards, working so closely with service members and vets, what would be the one thing he would recommend that an American civilian could do for our vets not necessarily as a country but as individuals?
Sebastian Junger: The main thing that I can think of is drawn from some of my research into American Indian ceremonies for returning warriors in the 18th or 19th centuries or vets from the current wars. One of the common themes in these ceremonies is that the warrior gets to recount, in front of his community, what he did for them on the battle field. And often, it’s a heroic sort of boasting of how brave he was and how he killed the enemy and whatever. But it’s this cathartic description of a warrior discharging his duties for his community.
And there’s something about doing that for the people you did it for that seems to be very, very psychologically healthy, to put it in modern terms because it’s almost universally ceremonious. So I had the idea, I mean, we’re not going to go back to a tribal society. We can’t. You’d have to get rid of the car, whatever. It’s not happening. But we might be able to take certain structures of tribal life and incorporate them into modern society so we get the best of both worlds. And the way to do that, in terms of returning veterans, is to turn the town hall and the city hall in every community in this country on Veteran’s Day into an open forum for veterans.
So I have this idea of veteran town halls. On my website, sebastianjunger.com, there’s a page devoted to this. You open up the town hall, and veterans from any war have the right to stand up and speak for 10 minutes to their community. And I know veterans. Some of them are going to be incredibly proud of their service. And they’re going to say they miss the war. And it’s going to make liberals uncomfortable. And some of them are –
Tim Ferriss: Just to be clear, you would consider yourself a liberal.
Sebastian Junger: Oh, total liberal, yeah. But as a journalist, I’m neutral. It’s really important. As a private person, I’m liberal. But as a journalist, I really try to be completely neutral in my analysis, in my evaluation of things. Conservatives will be made uncomfortable by veterans standing up and being incredibly angry about the war that they had to fight. And everyone is going to be uncomfortable when someone stands up and just starts crying and can’t even talk because they’re crying too hard. But all of that is war. We sent these people to do a job for us that we collectively deemed necessary.
And the emotional fallout for it is okay as long as we process it all collectively. It’s not okay if we just make them deal with it. It’s not their war. It’s our war. So all of us need to deal with it much like the American Indian tribes did in these ceremonies, an amazing thing. So we did this once in Marble Head, Massachusetts. And Seth Moulton is a democratic representative from Massachusetts who was a Marine lieutenant in Ramadi, I believe it was. Saw some very, very tough fighting. He helped me organize it. We did it together.
And last Veteran’s Day, in the town of Marble Head, Massachusetts, if you were a civilian, and you liked to say I support the troops, what that literally meant on that day last year in Marble Head, Massachusetts was that you really then should go down to the town hall and listen to what the veterans had to say about what it was like for them.
There’s no Q&A. There’s no debate. This is not an evaluation of the war. It’s not a patriotic thing. It’s not an anti-war thing. It’s just this is what the experience was like. And I really, really think that if we could do this in every town across the country, it would be enormously therapeutic for veterans. But even more important in some ways, it would start to bind the country together again. I think the veterans are suffering because the country is suffering. And if we can heal ourselves as a nation, the veterans are going to be fine.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s shift gears just to my perhaps somewhat typical series of rapid fire questions. And then, we’ll wrap up and have some more coffee.
Sebastian Junger: Oh, and I didn’t look at those in advance. So now, I’m in trouble. All right. I’m ready. Let me get ready.
Tim Ferriss: All right. We’ll let you limber up.
Do a little shadow boxing. So the first is when you hear the word successful, who is the first person who comes to mind and why?
Sebastian Junger: Martin Luther King.
Tim Ferriss: Why?
Sebastian Junger: Because he transformed society in a clearly courageous way.
Tim Ferriss: How do you define courage or bravery?
Sebastian Junger: Courage is risking or sacrificing your life for others.
Tim Ferriss: What is the book or books that you have given to others most often as a gift?
Sebastian Junger: At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Peter Matheson. I also recently read Sapiens by a guy named Harari. And I’m going to give that thing over and over again to everyone I know.
Tim Ferriss: There’s a friend of mine who has also been on the podcast named Naval Ravikant who you have to meet at some point. You guys would get along famously. Also, one of his favorites of the last couple of years. At Play in the Fields of the Lord?
Sebastian Junger: It’s a novel by Peter Matheson. It takes place in the jungles of South America. And it’s about a Sioux Indian named Louis Moon who grew up on a reservation in the 1970’s. And he goes down to Brazil to meet what he considers is forbearers, and it doesn’t go very well.
Tim Ferriss: And now, am I getting this right? Matheson also wrote In Search of the Snow Leopard?
Sebastian Junger: That’s right, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Fantastic writer. What would your close friends say you’re exceptionally good at if I had two drinks in each of them?
Sebastian Junger: I think they would say that I’m really good at not reacting to things and seeming like I’m unaffected when, actually, I’m deeply affected.
Tim Ferriss: But, on the surface, you’re not emotionally reactive?
Sebastian Junger: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: It sounds like you’re definitely a closet stoic. This is actually not one of my typical questions. But I’m going to throw this one. This is from I think it’s Robby Frye. It looks like a very Dutch name. But if you could combine three different writers into one Super Saiyan, that’s a Dragon Ball Z reference, don’t worry about that, if you could combine three different writers into one writer to create the ultimate writer for you, who would they be?
Sebastian Junger: I think I would have to pick Cormack McCarthy, Peter Matheson, and Joan Didion.
Tim Ferriss: Good choices all. Let’s see here. So your first commercial book success, The Perfect Storm, how old were you when that came out?
Sebastian Junger: I was 35 years old.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So when the book hit, before it was made into a movie, you now, what advice would you give to yourself at that point in time?
Sebastian Junger: The movie part of it didn’t affect me very much. But the sudden attention, public attention, that I got when the book became a bestseller affected me enormously. And I was very anxious about all of that. And I think I would say to myself the public is not a threat. The public is actually waiting to hear someone, anything, say something that’s helpful and makes sense because we’re all trying to get through this life together. And everyone wants some guidance. And if there’s anything I can say through my work or just on a stage that gives some comfort or guidance to people, they’re enormously perceptive.
And when you realize that we all need each other, and we can all learn from each other, your stage fright goes away. And I had a terrific case of stage fright when my book came out.
Tim Ferriss: How do you feel now when you’re getting ready for a talk like your TED talk?
Sebastian Junger: Oh, I don’t think twice about it. I mean, it just doesn’t affect me at all. I think my heart rate goes up a little bit.
Tim Ferriss: What purchase of $100.00 or less, and we don’t have to stick to that exactly, but recent purchase that has most positively impacted your life?
Sebastian Junger: I think Sapiens.
Tim Ferriss: It’s a fun book to read.
Sebastian Junger: It’s amazing. I just started looking at everything differently. I love that book. But a book is a kind of thing of magic. It contains a universe of information. And it’s cheap at the price. And maybe it’s unfair to use a book. So $100.00 or less? I think one of the best values you can get for $100.00 is a good axe.
Tim Ferriss: A good axe.
Sebastian Junger: You can do almost anything with a good axe.
Tim Ferriss: Any particular type of axe? What are the characteristics of a good axe?
Sebastian Junger: It can’t be cheap wood in the haft. It’s got to be good steel. I don’t even know how to evaluate this. Basically, the more you pay for an axe, the better quality it is, and the longer it will last, and the better it will cut. And you keep it really, really sharp. And you can cut not as fast as a chainsaw. I’ve used chainsaws a lot in my life. But you can, basically, do anything with it given a little bit of time. And I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods. And if I had to pick one thing to take into the woods with me, it would be an axe.
Tim Ferriss: I was just thinking how would you open a tuna can with an axe?
Sebastian Junger: That’s so easy, man. I remember when I was a young man in my 20’s, and I was living just stupidly in some stupid apartment in Summerville, Massachusetts. And I had a date with this girl, this beautiful girl. And I invited her over.
And I was going to make spaghetti. And I’m like 23. And I’m going to make spaghetti. And like an idiot, I got cans of tomato sauce and pasta. And she came over, and I realized that I didn’t have a can opener. But I knew the answer. And I went into my room, and I got a hatchet that I had, and I opened the cans of tomato sauce with a hatchet, and I hit it pretty hard and completely splattered her with tomato sauce. And here’s the amazing part. She still went out with me.
Tim Ferriss: Very memorable at the very least.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So then he pulled out a hatchet. She was probably so relieved that you weren’t a serial killer and was going to take her head off.
Sebastian Junger: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s see. What is something you believe, even though you can’t prove it?
Sebastian Junger: Wow, that’s a great question. I believe I’m a good person.
Tim Ferriss: What are some of the habits or common practices of journalists that you dislike?
Sebastian Junger: God, I really dislike laziness. And if you read a phrase or a sentence that’s familiar, there are these clichés, these sort of linguist tropes like the mortar slammed into the hillside. I just don’t want to read that again. Just say it in an original way, or don’t say it. But you’re wasting everybody’s time, including your own if you write and rely on these sorts of linguistic tropes. I really dislike that. And also, the point of journalism is the truth. I was talking about this on the phone earlier. And maybe you overheard me. But the point of journalism is the truth. The point of journalism is not to improve society. And there are things, there are facts, there are truths that actually feel regressive.
But it doesn’t matter because the point of journalism isn’t to make everything better. It’s to give people accurate information about how things are. And I think journalists really confuse those two things. Advocates are what we need for improvement but not journalists. Journalists provide information like doctors provide information when they look at the x-ray of your lungs after you smoke for 10 years.
Tim Ferriss: You need accurate forensics.
Sebastian Junger: That’s right. Yeah. That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: What do you think your 70 year old self would give to your current self as advice?
Sebastian Junger: I think I would say to myself that the world is this continually unfolding set of possibilities and opportunities. And the tricky thing about life is, on the one hand, having the courage to enter into things that are unfamiliar.
But to also have the wisdom to stop exploring when you found something that’s worth sticking around for. And that’s true of a place, of a person, of a vocation. In balancing those two things, the courage of exploring and the commitment to staying, it’s very, very hard to get those two, the ratio, the balance of those two things right. And I think my 70 year old self would say really be careful that you don’t err on side or the other because you have an ill conceived idea of who you are.
Tim Ferriss: It’s this fine line. It’s a touch balance.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. It is a tough balance.
Tim Ferriss: I find it tough, personally.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, absolutely. There are a lot of unhappy people because they’re struggling to find that balance.
Tim Ferriss: What are the symptoms of knowing that you should pursue a given project?
So you’ve got Navajo long distance running. You have The Perfect Storm. You have quite a bit of terrain that you cover. How do you know? And I’ll just throw it out there as an example. For me, I find writing so difficult, personally, and I’m so plodding. And I have to go into isolation. And it makes me very mentally unhealthy. I only write a book, certainly, if it’s less painful to write it than to not write it. It generally manifests itself as a lot of insomnia, in my case. And I’m just like, okay, this idea that’s been pestering me, I just need to get it out of my head and onto paper, or I won’t be able to get to sleep.
Or the insomnia could also be excitement. I’m excited about the possibilities of something. And I just can’t sleep. That’s usually one of the symptoms that I might have. Like, I might have a live one. This might be something I can run with.
What is it like for you?
Sebastian Junger: I’ve only written five books. One was a collection of –
Tim Ferriss: I’m not sure who you’re comparing yourself to.
Sebastian Junger: Some writers are writing 20, and I’ll always be insecure, right?
Tim Ferriss: You don’t have to be James Patterson.
Sebastian Junger: I’ve really written only four books. One is a collection of short form journalism. So they’re all books that had I not written them, I would have wished that someone else had so I could read it. One of the things I loved about Harari and Sapiens is I finished it, and I just thought thank God someone wrote that book. The world really needed it. And the books that I write, maybe I’m flattering myself, but it feels to me like the world needs this book. And I know that sounds horribly grandiose. But I have to say, it’s the feeling I’m looking for when I’m choosing a topic. I really don’t want to write a book that I’m not sure the world needs.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I mean, we’re sitting in Silicon Valley. If you look at all of the biggest successes I know personally, they were scratching their own itch. It was something they felt needed to exist.
Sebastian Junger: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: If you had one billboard anywhere and could put anything you want on it, what would you put on it?
Sebastian Junger: I think I would put the word read. I was talking about this recently with some people. We don’t live in small groups anymore. We evolved to live in groups of 30, 40, 50 people. And you could gather 50 people around and have a communal discussion about how to live, what to do, who you are, what you want to be.
You could do that. We live in a country of 400 million. There’s no more gathering around the campfire to figure out who we are, how we want to live, what are our values. We can’t do that anymore. But we still need to. And, in some ways, in a country as advanced as ours with nuclear weapons and everything else, it’s even more important than when we lived in groups of 50. I mean, it’s vital that we have that conversation. And I think the only real way to collectively have that conversation is through books. It’s the only thing that’s cheap enough, accessible enough to everybody that contains enough information that can be shared and commonly understood.
It’s the only thing that we can have a group conversation even in a group of 400 million people. But if people don’t read that will never happen. And so I really feel that books, it makes books a kind of sacred object and sacred in the sense that our society I don’t think will survive without them. And that to me, as an atheist, one definition of sacredness is something that humanity needs in order to survive.
Tim Ferriss: Sebastian, this has been so much fun. I could go on and on. Those of you who don’t have a visual, which is all of you, can’t see the many, many, many pages I’ve printed out and highlighted and sketched out by hand. But I’m going to tell people where they can find you. And I’m also going to put this in the show notes, of course, for everyone. But is there anything that, just as a parting comment, you would like my listeners to meditate on, consider, do?
Sebastian Junger: One of the questions I ask in my book is who would you die for? What ideas would you die for? The answer to those questions, for most of human history, would have come very readily to any person’s mouth.
Any Comanche would tell you instantly who they would die for and what they would die for. And, in modern society, it gets more and more complicated. And when you lose the ready answer to those ancient human questions, you lose a part of yourself. You lose a part of your identity. And I think what I would ask people is who would you die for? What would you die for? And what do you owe your community? And in our case, our community is our country. What do you owe your country other than your taxes? Is there anything else you owe all of us? There’s no right answer or wrong answer. But it’s something that I think everyone should try to ask themselves.
Tim Ferriss: This is a great book, folks. I read a lot, so I have a high bar. I really enjoyed this book. It has a ton of notes. And next time that we hang out, probably in New York City, and have some wine, I will bring this with me because I have 20 or 30 other questions I’d like to ask you. But for those people who might reflect back on some of your recent writing and wonder if this is a book about war, it doesn’t strike me that it is a book about war.
It’s a book about human nature and what we’ve evolved to be and what we are and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And war just happens to be a very helpful circumstance in which we can find some illumination into those subjects. But I really enjoyed this book. So I encourage everybody to check it out. And Sebastian, thanks so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it.
Sebastian Junger: It’s been a real pleasure talking with you. Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: And everybody listening, as always, you can find links to everything that we discussed in the show notes. And that includes Sebastian’s website, all of his social and whatnot, and all of the various resources that came up. And you can find that at fourhourworkweek.com/podcast all spelled out. And as always, and until next time, thank you for listening.
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