Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Sebastian Junger (@sebastianjunger), the New York Times bestselling author of Tribe, War, A Death in Belmont, Fire, and The Perfect Storm, and codirector of the documentary film Restrepo, which was nominated for an Academy Award. He is also the winner of a Peabody Award and the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He’s based in New York City and Cape Cod. His newest book is titled Freedom.
For more Sebastian, you can find our first conversation from 2016 at tim.blog/sebastian.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. I’m very excited about this episode. I’m going to keep my preamble short. My guest today is a repeat guest, one of my favorite guests, Sebastian Junger on Twitter @SebastianJunger. That’s J-U-N-G-E-R. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Tribe, War, A Death in Belmont, Fire, and The Perfect Storm, as well as co-director of the documentary film Restrepo, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
He is also the winner of a Peabody award and the National Magazine Award for reporting. He’s based in New York City and Cape Cod. His newest book is titled Freedom. I would give a few fingers to be as concise, as dense, as powerful as he is as a writer. It clocks in at minus the source matter at the back, 133 pages. So it is a fast read and a powerful read. For more Sebastian, you can find our first conversation from 2016. It feels like a thousand years ago at tim.blog/Sebastian. You can find him online, sebastianjunger.com, @SebastianJunger on Twitter, Facebook also Sebastian Junger and then Instagram @Sebastian. You are official. Sebastian, welcome back to the show.
Sebastian Junger: Thank you, Tim. It’s a pleasure to be back.
Tim Ferriss: A lot has happened since you were last on the show and I cheated as I did last time by having a number of exchanges with our mutual friend, Josh Waitzkin, who is responsible for us first meeting. And I thought I would start with a question that I really have very little context on, but it is about a near death experience that you had not too long ago. And we kept this for this conversation, meaning I didn’t ask you to get into any of the details before we clicked record, but could you please share your experience?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, of course it was a profound event and I’m changed by it and still navigating the new reality that includes quite an awareness of being mortal. I never really understood it before I realized. I spent a lot of my life as a war reporter and I’ve been in situations that could have killed me, but I never expected that to happen at home. I always went somewhere else for my danger, if you will. And I was the in middle of writing my book Freedom. I’m an athlete. I’m very healthy. It never crossed my mind I would ever be in danger on a June afternoon in my own home. And I suddenly felt this bizarre pain in my abdomen. My abdomen was suddenly flooded with pain. Not unbearable pain, but way more than indigestion and I said, “Oh my God, that’s odd. What is that?”
And I stood up and I almost fell over. I didn’t know it, but my blood pressure was plummeting. I had an undiagnosed aneurysm in my pancreatic artery, pretty rare. It was a congenital defect in one ligament that was pressing down on my celiac artery and it created a blockage. It was an aneurysm. This developed over decades apparently, and just one beautiful June afternoon on Cape Cod the artery ruptured and I started bleeding out into my own abdomen. It took them an hour and a half to get me to the hospital. I started to go blind. A lot of other unpleasant things happened to my body. I didn’t know I was dying, but by the time they got me to the hospital, I’d lost 90 percent of my blood. I was still conscious. I was very confused. The doctor asked if he could cut my neck open to put a line into one of the big arteries in your neck. I don’t know exactly which one, but if they need to give you a lot of blood fast, they can’t do it through your arm.
And I remember being puzzled and I said, “You mean, in case there’s an emergency?” And he said, “This is the emergency right now.” So yeah, I said, “Yeah, do it.” And then that was when I really started dying, like right after I gave the okay, my body started to fail.
I could feel it. And I survived. But when I woke up in the ICU the next morning, I mean, all the nurses were like, “No one can believe you’re alive. That was a miracle.” And particularly because I’m a dad now, a new father, that experience completely changed my experience of almost everything.
Tim Ferriss: What was it like in the days following that for you? And that could be physically, emotionally, psychologically, anything? Did it take a while for it to set in or was the sort of reset or shock of that experience immediate?
Sebastian Junger: In the moment, I didn’t know I was dying, but I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in anything. Right? I mean, anything that you can’t measure or observe. And as was my father, he was a physicist, but as I felt myself getting pulled into this sort of dark pit underneath me, it’s what it felt like, there was no tunnel of light, whatever. I mean, the things you hear. It’s dark and it looks scary and I was getting pulled into it. And right at that moment, they’re working on my neck and they eventually put 10 units of blood into me and that saved me. But right at that moment, my dead father popped up and started talking to me and consoling me, comforting me. It was a long night. I mean, they didn’t really have me safe until about 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.
They finally found a leak and plugged it with an embolism, but that took a long time and it was touch and go for a long time. But anyway, the next morning I woke up in the ICU. I threw up a lot of blood and the nurse came in and said, “You almost died last night. Like, you’re an incredibly lucky man.” And that was a shock. I had no idea, but suddenly I remembered my dad and some other things. And all of a sudden it started to sort of make sense. And I was profoundly traumatized by it. It was the safety of the circumstances. I was in my own driveway and the fact that you could be struck down in your own driveway when you least expect it — like bullets are nothing compared to that fear. And so afterwards I got out of the ICU after a few days and my sense of the order of the universe was completely rearranged.
I realized nothing, really, nothing is for sure. I mean, I know you can get cancer and you can have a car accident and all that stuff. We all know that, but I didn’t know nothing was for sure moment by moment. That was news to me and it gave me this crazy sort of either an existential crisis or an existential blessing, which is if you can be annihilated at any moment, then it’s each moment that’s precious. And if you don’t experience each moment, you don’t understand how precious each moment is, you are missing out because that’s all you can ever be sure of getting is what’s happening right now. And it put me in this sort of weird Zen way, and I don’t practice Zen either. I mean, I practice nothing except I guess, athletics and suddenly put me in this place of sort of Zen grace, I think, of just being amazed at the fact that any of us exist and that we have children who we can hug and love. At the end of the day, those two things amazed me so profoundly that it was almost hard to function for a while.
Tim Ferriss: Hmm. That’s terrifying. And for those who don’t have a bit more color on your athletic background, it’s not like you are elderly and obese. I mean, there are at least no comorbidities that I’m aware of that would have put that on the radar ahead of time, right? I mean, perhaps if you had your whole genome sequenced, you might have spotted something or a possibility. But if my notes are correct in our first conversation, we covered some of your running times and your best time for the mile, was it four minutes, 12 seconds? Something along those lines? And marathon, two hours, 21 minutes. I think about your life, I think about your experiences as a journalist in war-torn countries in some respects, embracing risk. And I’m looking at a quote from your literary agent of 10 plus years ago. I’m not sure if he’s still your agent, but —
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, he is.
Tim Ferriss: This is Stuart Krichevsky, and the quote is, “What really motivates him,” meaning you, “are things that terrify him.” And certainly, I mean, one doesn’t have to look long at your bio to identify many things that would scare most people. Has the experience, the experience you just described, affected how you think of voluntary risk or has that aspect of your life not changed much?
Sebastian Junger: Oh, risk-taking has changed enormously. I think it would have just as a function of getting older and certainly as a function of being a father. I mean, you have kids and you are the custodian of your own life for them. Like, it’s not your life. I mean, it’s not your life. And I’m not saying that you’re a martyr in your parenthood. I’m saying that the highest priority for you as a parent must be to stay alive and to provide a loving environment for them. That’s it. And when you’re a young man, when you’re a young person, because every reason in the world to pursue very, very much your own sort of ego-driven desires and ambitions. I mean, that’s what you should be doing, right? And sometimes those include risk-taking. I’ve taken a lot of risks in my life.
I’m not at all a thrill-seeker. So I drive responsibly and I wear a seatbelt and all that, but the risks I’ve taken — I was a high climber for a tree company, so I’d be working 70, 80 feet in the air with a chainsaw taking trees down from the top down. That could be dangerous. I mean, it can be deadly if you make a mistake. And then I did a lot of war reporting and those risks all felt voluntary, but manageable. If you’re smart about it, you are in less danger than if you’re stupid about it. And I felt like I had a sort of handle on the risk, that I had a vote in the outcome. And then I was an athlete my whole life and after I stopped competitive running, in my 50s I started boxing, which is, without exception, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I mean, as the arrogance of the distance runner, I looked at a boxing ring. “How hard can it be?” Oh, my God, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, getting hit the least of it, right. At any rate, I started boxing at my 55-year-old amateurish level, but it was really good for me. And the doctor said, “Look, if you weren’t in incredible shape, you would have died. Your heart would have stopped. Your kidneys would have failed. Like any other medical issue with you, you would have — it’s a miracle you survived as it is. If you had anything else going on, you wouldn’t be here.”
And it made me realize that I was 58, that was the race I’d been training for my whole life. That was the boxing match I’ve been training for my whole life. It wasn’t something in college. It wasn’t whatever it was — when you lose 90 percent of your blood, and you’re in good hands at the hospital, you have a chance of surviving and being a father to your daughters. And I did it. Like I did it. I got nothing else to prove. And I’m certainly not going to take any risks that would jeopardize my daughters’ chance to have a father.
Tim Ferriss: So I’m certainly going to come back to your daughters because these daughters were not in the picture last time we had a conversation on the podcasts. Talk about a phase shift. A lot has changed. Before we get to that though, I want to ask you a bit about boxing. So if you could just repeat, when did you start boxing? Roughly what age?
Sebastian Junger: Oh, I think I was 51. I’m married now, but I was married before. And that marriage, we agreed to not really talk about it publicly, but basically it ended. We’re still friends. It ended in a friendly, collaborative fashion, but the ending of any marriage is enormously painful, particularly if you care for the person. And we did. And it was enormously painful and I wanted something — I’d always wanted to box. I just wanted something to put my mind in a different place. And so I did two things. I’d always wanted to learn accordion. And so I started playing an accordion, which is a really hard instrument, by the way. And you have to coordinate the two hands to do totally different things. And it just, oh, my God, it took me years to get that down.
But the thing that scared me and here was — I’ve done things that scared me my whole life. And clearly I need something of that. What terrified me was boxing, was getting into a ring, even for friendly sparring. I couldn’t believe how frightening it was, and there’s no rational reason, right. But the demands on your body —
Tim Ferriss: I think one could make an argument there’s some pretty rational reasoning when it involves getting punched in the head.
Sebastian Junger: The sparring I was doing were with guys, my trainer or a friend or whatever. No one wanted to really hurt me or vice versa. It was very, “Time out, like this is too much,” and it stops, right. But the anxiety I would have was just unbelievable. And the physical demands on you are, I mean, I couldn’t really fathom it. And that was why I did it. And so, and I’m still doing it. It’s just clearly, it’s a sort of lifeline to something that I need.
Tim Ferriss: Hmm. What do you think that might be? What is it that you need? What does that scratch for you?
Sebastian Junger: Honestly, I think I need things in my life that scare me, that I think I can’t do. And then I face my fears and I wind up being able to do them. And it makes me feel like a little bit more secure in the universe. And keep in mind, if the universe can take you out on a June afternoon with no warning, for no reason, any sense of security that you can get, take it because you’ll need it.
Tim Ferriss: That makes sense to me. One thing I need some help — not help, but I would like to, I wasn’t planning, this was not in my list of questions for you, but I did not foresee the accordion coming up. Of all the instruments in the world, how did you choose the accordion? And that’s not to slight the accordion. I’m a big fan. There’s a variation of the accordion called the bandoneon in Argentina, which I was exposed to a lot. So I think these are beautiful instruments, but it’s just not one — this is probably the first time in 500 episodes that the accordion has come up on this podcast. How did you arrive at the accordion?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. It’s just in a lot of the musical traditions that I really love. It’s in Eastern European music. My first wife was from Eastern Europe and it’s in gypsy music and Mexican music and Irish music. I mean, all of these traditions that I absolutely adore and everyone plays the damn guitar. You know what I mean? So the accordion was it. I don’t know. With the left hand, you’re playing the bass line, which is you’re basically playing the rhythm section. Your right hand, you’re playing melody. So they’re not doing the same thing. And splitting your mind into these two different tasks simultaneously was unbelievably hard. But I heard, I mean, this is the aging male talking now, right? Like I’m 59. I heard that it’s actually really good for your brain as you get older to challenge it with tasks like that.
Tim Ferriss: It’s good to offset all the brain damage from the boxing, probably.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, exactly. They cancel each other out! Yeah, exactly. I got to say, it gives me a sense of just practicing, just playing a song, that the universe has even allowed me to play a beautiful song is so stunning to me because it always seemed so far beyond my capability. It almost felt like I wasn’t allowed to. And I realized that I can play Danny Boy, that I’m allowed to do that and it will come out and it sounds beautiful, is so stunning to me. It gives me a sense of peace and completeness that I think only like holding one of my daughters is the only thing that rivals that sense of like, “Oh, here I am. Things are good. Things are calm. I love this.” It was a pretty extraordinary effect on my life.
Tim Ferriss: I have Alzheimer’s on both sides of my family. And I recall the first time that I was sent a video program, a link on YouTube to a video program, and I’m blanking on the name. We’ll put it in the show notes of Alzheimer’s patients being played music from their adolescence or childhoods. And what was so incredible is not only what happened when they listened to the music, they went from completely catatonic in some cases to animated and singing along. But the persistence of this sort of cognitive upgrade for a period of say, 30 to 60 minutes afterwards, where they could hold a really coherent conversation, recognize people, in contrast to being completely unable to do so beforehand. So I do think there is something so elemental and mysterious about what music does to the brain and the personality. I don’t claim to have any answers, but I find it endlessly interesting.
Let’s talk about your daughters. As Josh put it to me via text, he said, “He’s raising two young daughters in an extremely elemental” — that’s where I got the word — “mindful, tribal manner. Definitely explore.” You’re going to recognize this is Josh. “Definitely explore what fatherhood is teaching him about life. What have his daughters taught him about tribes?” And then the last one he said, “Ask him about how he has structured sleep with kids and pets. That should be fun.” Smiley face. So I realize this is a bit of a hodgepodge of many questions, but what do you think Josh means, and is he accurate by saying “elemental, mindful, tribal manner?”
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. Well, let me just start by saying, I think both music and children — I think one of the things that invaluable things they do is they give you the courage to face life and life is hard and life is scary and sometimes painful. And both of them in my experience, give you this resource to draw on that helped me face it. And so it is actually a really good segue for me to go from music to children. I think there are some real similarities. There’s something about not living for yourself any longer that’s enormously liberating. I spent a lot of time in combat and in combat with American soldiers actually, and I think one of the things that drew these guys to war, often after a bad deployment, a lot of them sort of missed it.
And I think what drew them was the loss of — the experience of losing the primacy of yourself as the most important thing in your life, you lose that when you’re in a platoon. I mean, you really have to think in terms of the group and at first, you might imagine that that’s a loss. It’s actually you gain by doing that. The focus on the self is, can be enormously tormenting and make people incredibly anxious. It’s not a good place to go. Children allow you to do that for better or worse. Sometimes it’s not always fun. It can be pretty hectic and insane actually. But at the end of the day, either, because you’re overwhelmed with tasks or overwhelmed with love, you are thinking about something else, not yourself, and they are the most important thing. And so it totally reorders your place in the world and I’ve loved it. I think at age 25, I might not have loved that. I mean, I think I had to be in my 50s to do this gracefully and well, but here I am. And so —
Tim Ferriss: Not to interrupt, but I will. Why do you say that about your age and that being a possibility now, or at least in the last handful of years, as opposed to earlier?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. I grew up in a very safe, pretty affluent society in a suburb of Boston. And I had this enormous craving to experience the world and particularly the risks and thrills that it offered, of all kinds. I could have had children when I was doing that, but I wouldn’t have been a very good father. And so now I’ve experienced the world sufficiently. I don’t need any more of that information. And it has allowed me to completely devote myself to being a good dad and a good partner. Part of that means, I have to work, I need to earn a living. It’s not like all I do is — I have this focus on a lot of other things, but at the end of the day, there’s really only one thing that is powerfully interesting to me and it’s my family now. It’s not my work. It’s nothing, it’s them. And I don’t think I could have, or maybe even should have done that at 25.
Tim Ferriss: How do you think about raising them or parenting or fathering to Josh’s list of attractive adjectives, “elemental, mindful, tribal manner?” Do you think that’s accurate?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, it is. I mean, I started anthropology in college. I’ve been in the developing world an awful lot. You don’t have to do too much research to realize basically the British legacy of parenting that we have is very rare. In most of the world, parents sleep with their young children in the same room, even in the same bed. Humans are primates. Young primates are very vulnerable in nature, and they know that if they’re alone in a dark room or anywhere that they’re in a lot of danger and they cry. And one of the odd things about intra-style parenting again, which is basically what we have in America, is that when children get put in a room to go to sleep and they cry, nothing happens, no one goes in to comfort them. I mean, that’s called sleep training. And it can be done, right. I mean, eventually the kid stops crying. But if you think about it this way, if you were backpacking with your family in the Bob Marshall wilderness in Montana, and you had a six-month-old or a two-year-old or a five-year-old, you probably wouldn’t put them in a different tent.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Sebastian Junger: They’d sleep with you. It’s a scary environment. Well, the six-month-old doesn’t know that their bedroom is not a scary environment. It’s dark, there’s dangers out there, and all that fear is wired into us. So, I mean, the contemporary term for something that has been around for hundreds of thousands of years, but now we have a term for it, co-sleeping, that used to just be what sleeping was, but called co-sleeping with your kids. We’ve never owned a stroller. I walk around with my kids on my shoulders or on my chest. There’s a lot of physical contact. What I sort of realized is that if there is physical contact between the parent and the child, it’s very hard to monetize that. So if you’re a company and want to make things for parents, things for children, you can’t monetize a mother holding their child and nursing. There’s no way to get in there to charge money for it, right? As soon as you have people that are sleeping separately from their kids, you need cribs, you need playpens, you need video monitors, you need all this stuff.
As soon as you have parents who are not willing to carry their children, you need strollers. Some of those things cost a thousand dollars. So if you sort of look at it in sort of capitalist terms and, whatever, I’m not a socialist, I’m just trying to analyze something which is unique in the world, like our society starting maybe around 100 years ago, started parenting in a radically different way. And it happened to be in a way that can be monetized to the tune of hundreds of a millions of billion dollars a year industry. You have to separate the parent from the child, particularly from the mother, in order to monetize it. And I think that’s basically what’s happened. And so we just don’t do that. And my wife and I share the burdens and the challenges and thrills of parenting equally, like I’m a fully involved father, but we don’t have any of that stuff. And I got to say, I mean, I know it’s a data point of one, but we have two very, very happy, secure, non-anxious little girls. I mean, it’s just amazing to see them really have almost no anxiety about the world and about whether we’re with them or not. We can leave them with a friend and walk away and they don’t even blink.
Tim Ferriss: So much that we could unpack that we might come back to unpack in this conversation. I’d like to jump to something you said earlier, and that was I’m saying A, B and C, I can’t recall exactly what it was, but as an aging male. One of Josh’s, not to turn this into the “might as well have Josh doing this” interview, but he knows you well, and I like to cheat.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: One of his questions was: “How does he” — meaning Sebastian — “relate to the aging process of a warrior?” and then I’m going to need a pronunciation check here. I did actually look up who this person is, but “Ask him about Plenty Coups on that theme.” Is that the correct pronunciation?
Sebastian Junger: Plenty Coups, it’s a French —
Tim Ferriss: Plenty Coups.
Sebastian Junger: Coups. Yeah, it’s a French word.
Tim Ferriss: Betraying my lack of French. I would love to hear your thoughts on this because you certainly strike me as someone who sort of embodies — I mean, I suppose we all do, or at least most males do — some warrior DNA or ethos, and you’ve spent a lot of time among people on front lines, on deployment.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: How would you answer that question? And I suppose we should explain who Plenty Coups is at some point.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, he was a Crow Indian Chief, and war leader, and visionary. Every society needs a lot of different kinds of people. They need mothers, they need fathers, they need warriors, they need grandmothers, and grandparents, and grandfathers, they need wise people, they need people who are really good at just working. I mean, there’s a lot of different things that need to happen in a society all the way from hunter-gatherer to modern mass industrial society that we have today. A lot of different things are needed and warriors are one of them. It’s a dangerous world, there’s predators, there’s enemies. And even in a society where, I mean, here in New York City where I am, we’re not going to be invaded at the moment. And there are no animal predators, but fires kill people. I mean, there are structural fires that can kill whole families, so we have firemen who live in firehouses who will risk their lives collectively to save people they don’t know at all.
They’re warriors in that sense. Society needs all of this, they don’t have to be male, often they are for some pretty obvious biological reasons, but they don’t have to be male. We all remember Joan of Arc, of course. But that requires a couple of things to do well. First of all, being a warrior in that broad sense requires being in very good physical condition. And as you get older, a lot of processes happen in your body, and you’re not as fast, you’re not as strong, you’re not as coordinated, your reflexes aren’t as good. I mean, everything goes downhill, so you don’t want 70-year-olds trying to be warriors.
They just won’t be as good at it as they were when they were 20. But also there’s this other thing, as you get older your ties to life get stronger and stronger, you have a place in the community, you have children, you might have a business, you have whatever. The things that keep you more moored to your existence emotionally, psychologically, those things are more numerous and they’re stronger. And when you’re a 20-year-old, I think particularly for a guy, but I think it’s either sex. But I think particularly for young men, you’re a 20-year-old guy, you’re not moored to much. All those things for most 20-year-old men, 20-year-old people, those things haven’t started happening yet, so if you want to put them in a warrior mode where they might lose their life, I mean, for me, I’m okay losing my life from myself, right.
I mean, there are things worth gambling one’s life for as far as I, myself, am concerned. I sure am not going to gamble my daughter’s ability to have a father for much, right? I think I might only risk my life to defend them, to protect them. Like that might be the only thing I would risk my life for at this point. When I was 25, I might well risk my life for a buddy or whatever. No one else is paying the cost of me dying, so I can make that choice on my own. And so what you have to do as a warrior, I mean even just as a human being is you have to transition from a sort of like, I’m making all my own decisions, I don’t owe anything to anyone, any explanation to anyone. You have to transition from that to, okay, there’s younger guys, there’s younger guys out there. They can outpunch me, they can outrun me.
They definitely get noticed by young women a whole lot more than I, like the sun is setting on your world, right? What does that mean? Does it just mean you are used up and useless? No, it doesn’t. And the amazing thing about Plenty Coups, the story, the value I saw in that story, and I’ll tell it in a moment, because there was a perfect metaphor for getting older, and maintaining your utility, and not to mention your dignity. There’s an amazing book called Radical Hope.
It’s not a self-help book, although it sounds like it is. It’s a work of philosophy and anthropology, and it’s about the life of Plenty Coups. And I can’t remember the author’s name because I’m 59, and names just slip out of my mind, but it’s a short book and it’s an incredible book. And it’s about Plenty Coups and how he went from being this warrior fighting — I mean, the big threat when he was a young man fighting was white society, right? They were coming, the railroads were coming, the telegraph lines, the cowboys, it was all coming across the plains towards Crow society. And the Sioux for example, were very warlike like the Crow. And they fought to the bitter end, right? And what Plenty Coups realized was that the ultimate job of the warrior is to protect their society.
And for all of Crow history that meant fighting to the death, if need be, to protect your community, right? But this was a different moment in history. Everything had changed and fighting white society to the death would mean that your society was going to get killed too, that your community was going to get wiped out. There was a lot of killing of women and children in these battles that happened in the Great Plains in the 1760s, 1770s, 1780s. I mean, non-combatants really weren’t spared, so if you fought to the death against the Seventh Cavalry, you were really risking everybody. And so what Plenty Coups realized was that in keeping with the ultimate warrior role of at all costs preserving your community, in this case, in this new history, this new moment of history, this new era, it actually meant not fighting.
Fighting was the thing that would get your people killed. Not fighting was the thing that might save them. And when he figured it out he said learning to read and learning to farm were the new callings of the warrior. Those things would best preserve the people and the community that the warriors loved. And they would have to get over their own ego and their own sense of, “Well, I’m nothing if I’m not a warrior.” They have to get over that in order to truly do their job as a warrior and protect the people they love. And for me, I read that book in my mid-40s, just when the knees were starting to hurt a bit, the hair was starting to leave the top of my head. Those changes just start happening in your 40s and I read that book then and I was like, “Oh, my God, this is it. Like there’s a stage in one’s life when being a warrior means actually not being in that aggressive, physical, confrontational, super physical role, is actually something softer and wiser, and ultimately more enduring, that you can choose.”
Tim Ferriss: And the book you mention, Radical Hope, subtitle, Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Jonathan Lear appears to be the author of that book. I was reading the Wikipedia entry on Plenty Coups. I’m so self-conscious now.
Sebastian Junger: That’s fine.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, French is not my strong suit, but his adult Crow name or the name that was bestowed upon him, was Many Achievements. And the entire entry is really, really fascinating. There’s a strong component, we don’t necessarily have to get into this, but a strong component, at least in his story, and these could be apocryphal or just mythologies, but there’s a consistent component of visions and fasting leading to visions dictating his decisions, which I found very interesting in this entry at least. Not that I can parse that, but —
Sebastian Junger: Well, I can jump in and tell you. His transformation, his moment of enlightenment, came following a vision that he had. And it was a sort of a dream vision. And I can’t remember what it was, but Jonathan Lear just does this brilliant job at deconstructing it and explaining how all this works. And Lear is a philosopher. He’s clearly a very smart guy. We all have read a lot of amazing books, but that book really, it caught me at the right moment in my life. And it was one of the most important books I’ve ever read.
Tim Ferriss: And it’s on the list. Let’s look at and talk about Freedom and I’m sure we’ll bounce around a lot. My understanding, and please correct me if I’m getting this wrong, but I don’t think we discussed this in our first podcast conversation that when you were younger, you hitchhiked across the country, this was some time ago. Freedom describes, this new book, something very different. What was the catalyst or the impetus behind what became Freedom? Like did it start as a plan for experience and experience’s sake? Did it begin with a fascination or a question related to this word, this concept of freedom? What’s the genesis story? And then the reason I brought up the hitchhiking is I’d just be curious to know how that experience contrasts with some of the experiences described.
Sebastian Junger: I came to the idea to write a book about freedom, partly just by noticing that people use and misuse that word all the time. It’s an extremely potent word. It’s like the word tribe. I mean, you say the word tribe, the word freedom. These are elemental human values. And they go to the core of the human experience and can be misconstrued and used to justify awful things so easily. But they could also be used very beautifully to preserve human dignity and to safeguard the things that we all live for. And so I just sort of became interested in the word. It’s extremely hard to define. If you look it up on the dictionary, the definition of freedom is almost non-intelligible. I mean, it’s like defining the word “And.” I mean, it’s extremely abstract, but it’s something that we all in our hearts, in our guts, we sort of know what it means, and we know why we want to be free. We know why it’s intolerable not to be.
And so I just started thinking about it and I didn’t want to write a — I’m not Jonathan Lear, I didn’t want to write a philosophical inquiry. And I certainly didn’t want to write a political tract. I mean, the word is misused in politics all the time in a sort of hideous, grotesque way. And I didn’t want to wade into the political battles around that word. I was interested in literally, through the course of the human experience, how do people maintain their freedom? And what that basically means is how do you maintain your autonomy in the face of a larger power? If you’re the most powerful thing in the room, your freedom is not in question, is not in danger. Freedom becomes an important word when there is a more powerful entity that might try to deprive you of your choices, of the quality of your circumstances. And throughout history, how have people avoided that? Because there are powerful societies and there are weak societies.
There are large, strong men, and there are smaller men or women. The universe isn’t fair and things are not divided equally. And there are rich societies and poor societies. How did the underdogs manage to maintain their freedom from the groups that could oppress them or try to? There’s three basic ways. My book is divided into three sections for this reason: Run, Fight, and Think. The first thing you can do is just stay out of the reach of your oppressor. For example, in the American Southwest in the 1540s I think it was, the Spanish first showed up, Coronado the Explorer showed up. And he encountered two different kinds of native societies. There were the Pueblo tribes that lived in the sort of thick-walled houses on top of mesas, they were agriculturalists, they were quite wealthy, they stayed where they were. They were like little villages in Spain.
I mean, they were at an almost feudal European level of social evolution, economic evolution. And then there were the Apache and the Navajo. They didn’t stay anywhere for very long; they were materially poor, right? I mean, they only owned what they could carry, they hunted, and they were extremely mobile. They lived in little brush huts that they threw up in a few minutes. In Western terms they were very poor people. But what happens? When the Spanish showed up and then later the Americans, the Pueblo tribes got rolled immediately. I mean, sometimes within a few hours of confronting the Spaniards. I mean, they couldn’t outfight them and they were stuck in their villages, and they would give up or they would be defeated and massacred.
The Apache remained free for another 300 plus years. I mean, the last of the free Apache were not sort of cornered and controlled by the US government until the end of the 1880s. I mean, my grandmother was almost alive by then, she was born in 1900. We were really almost in the modern era at this point, the machine gun has been invented, the light bulb, the internal combustion engine. I think the telephone. I mean, I can’t remember, basically all of the modern appliances that we think of, like they’ve already been invented at this point and the Apache are still running around free, and it’s because they’re so mobile, so I write about that and just the human’s ability to run. I mean, from sprint to long distance, if you take the full range of human running ability, we outstrip just about every animal, particularly in the heat.
The record for running a thousand miles is around 10 days. I mean, someone ran a hundred miles a day for 10 days, he ran a thousand miles. Like it’s something like that, I can’t remember exactly. Fight was literally about fighting and the interesting thing about humans and we’re just about unique in the animal kingdom that a small individual could actually outfight a larger one. That’s not true with elk and grizzly bear and everything else. But with humans, size is a terrible predictor of outcome in individual combat. I looked at statistics from the UFC, mixed martial arts fighting. And larger men when paired against smaller men win about 50 percent of the time. In other words, size is not a predictor of outcome. And likewise, small insurgencies like the Taliban can outlast and outfight larger established militaries like the US military.
I mean the Taliban, no tanks, no artillery, obviously no air force. And some of them didn’t even have boots, and they fought the most powerful military in the world to a standstill. And we are now negotiating for peace with them basically. And they’d already done the same thing to the Russians. If smaller entities could not outfight larger ones, freedom would not be possible. I mean, the world would be run by — groups would be run by the largest or violent male, like is true for chimpanzees, alpha male. And history would just be dominated by large, oppressive, powerful societies. And they definitely have a disproportionate influence on world events, but those kinds of large societies cannot be sure that they can dominate the smaller ones. And if that were not true, freedom would not be possible.
America would not exist, for example, England would have crushed us during the Revolution. And then again, in 1812. And finally in a situation where you can’t outrun or outfight them, like the labor movement in America, in the early part of the 20th century, you have to outthink them. You have to outthink the powerful entity and that can be done as well, it’s extremely effective. And so in the last part of my book, I go into the traits that smaller, successful entities, the traits they have in common that allow them to overcome a more powerful adversary. They include women in their group is a very, very common trait that is needed. The leadership has to be selfless, the leadership cannot just send the warriors out to die while they’re back on the hilltop.
The leadership has to metaphorically and literally face the bullets first. And you need to have a sense of history. Like we’re fighting impossible odds, but history demands that we do. There has to feel like there’s a higher calling. Religion can provide that, I’m not religious myself, but it’s a very effective way of giving people a sense of a higher calling. And national suffering. I mean, you saw a tradition of national suffering, the way you had in Ireland, the Potato Famine, and the oppression by the English can inspire people to give up their lives, to fight something that they probably can’t even win. But if they don’t fight, they certainly won’t win. And as often as not that actually works.
Tim Ferriss: Two things I’d love to mention. And one could be, actually both will, I’m sure, be hopping off points. But the first is you mentioned the inclusion of women in resistance or insurgencies. And that is not just a polite inclusion, it is a pragmatic inclusion. There’s a quote, I don’t remember who it was from, something along the lines of “one police officer can handle 10 men, but it takes 10 police officers to handle one woman,” in part because there is in many cultures at least, a hesitancy to inflict violence upon women, and therefore they can be extremely tactically powerful. Is that fair to say, or do you have anything to add to that?
Sebastian Junger: I mean, the participation of women in these movements is absolutely crucial. And even for the Taliban, I don’t think there were any female Taliban fighters, but women hold society together and insurgencies are rooted in society. And if the society isn’t functioning, there is no insurgency. And so even at that level, women are absolutely necessary. They’re as necessary as ammunition or whatever. Like they’re absolutely crucial to any endeavor like that. But at the more tactical level, the quote you were referring to about the policemen was during the mill strikes in Massachusetts.
Tim Ferriss: Ah, Massachusetts.
Sebastian Junger: Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. And they’d have the guys out there. And the strikes happened because the living conditions were unspeakably bad. The wages were, I mean, not even survival wages, one in five infants died among the worker populations, one in five infants died before the age of two. I mean, for a democratic country within the 20th century, that that was happening was just revolting. And they rose up, and as long as they had a bunch of guys in the street, the cops could get as rough as they wanted. They fixed their bayonets, they aimed their rifles, people got shot, people got beaten, no problem, so the strikers started putting women on the front lines. And of course the cops, I mean, a lot of these cops are 20-year-old boys. They have mothers that age, or sisters, or whatever. Getting young men to kill women is very hard to do and particularly up close like that. And so essentially once they put women on the front line, the police didn’t know what to do. And that’s where that quote came from: “It takes 10 cops to handle one woman.”
Women also give a situation like that a kind of moral authority. I mean, you have a bunch of guys on the street, it can be just mistaken for a violent mob, right? Once you have women in there, it’s not a violent mob. I mean, rightly or wrongly, many societies, our society certainly, believes that women abhor violence and want what is good for the world and for children. And so when you put women in the mix and suddenly it’s harder to sort of refute the legitimacy of the cause. They also have this other thing, which is sort of amazing is that for a variety of cultural reasons, women are, they’re harder to sort of scrutinize. I mean, even frisking a woman in public is complicated for a male cop. And sometimes, I mean, I’ve heard that there are female bouncers in some clubs because men just don’t want to get into a fistfight with a woman. It just looks too bad for them. There is this sort of tactical level of using women, but women have these lateral connections within society that can be exploited for communication, for spying.
And it’s very hard for the authorities to penetrate these lateral female social networks, particularly in ghettos and in the sort of the slums that these workers were living in. It was very, very hard for the cops to penetrate that and sort of eavesdrop on the movement. Whereas men, what they have, they’re terrible at those lateral connections. What they’re very good at is hierarchy. So if you have a sort of leader, who’s got a male following, a male coalition that he’s heading up, and that guy says, “I can have 500 men on the street at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning gunfire, or no gunfire.” Those guys will follow orders, in that sort of top down hierarchy that will run into gunfire, if need be. Men are very good at that. And so you combine those two qualities, the male hierarchy and female sort of lateral affiliation, you’re presenting the authorities with an incredibly complicated tactical problem that has very few good solutions.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about not necessarily hitchhiking, but I want to talk about the sort of parallel connective tissue that is used to weave the story that is told or the stories that are told in Freedom. And I’ll read a paragraph that I quite like. And then you can elaborate, if you wouldn’t mind, since we’re having this conversation. “We called our trip The Last Patrol, and it seemed like a long, hard, weird thing to do until we were actually out there. Where suddenly it was so obvious, we rarely even caught ourselves wondering why we were doing it. The things that had to happen out there were so clear and simple: eat, walk, hide, sleep. That just getting through the day felt like scripture, an honest accounting of everything that underlies the frantic performance of life.” So of course I’m leaving out exactly what we’re talking about. What am I talking about? What is this referring to, and how did it come to be part of the story?
Sebastian Junger: So Freedom is a mix of this research that I did into how people maintain their freedom. And this trip that we took, The Last Patrol, and the sections cut back and forth. I talk about The Last Patrol because it was probably the freest I’ve ever been in a physical sense. You know, as I say, somewhere in the book, we walked 400 miles along the railroad lines and we were sleeping under bridges and in the woods and in abandoned buildings and sort of no man’s lands along the railroad lines. We walked 400 miles and most nights we were the only people who knew where we were. There are many definitions of freedom, but surely that’s one of them. And it was one that I had the really real good luck to be able to experience for a little while.
So I have to go back to 2009 to explain this. I spent a year off and on with a platoon in combat in Afghanistan. My colleague out there was — his name was Tim Hetherington. He was a British photographer and we shot a ton of video out there and we collaborated and made a documentary called Restrepo that was nominated for an Oscar, did quite well, and it was just about what it was like to be in combat, end of sentence. Like there was no politics, no strategy, just what’s it like to be in American platoon, in a firefight just about every day.
And so Tim and I were taking the train down to Washington, DC to talk to National Geographic because we were trying to sell this thing. We didn’t have a buyer yet. We just shot a lot of video and want to make this film. And on the way down, I was looking out the window and the entire way I realized that we were looking for our next project after Restrepo. We were already looking ahead. I saw along the train tracks that you could walk almost the entire way.
There was a dirt bike trail or a cinder maintenance road or a cornfield, or whatever, like you could kind of do it. And I said to Tim, “Listen, man, let’s walk from DC to New York along the railroad lines and let’s just see what happens.” Tragically, after we made Restrepo — it was very successful; we were at the Oscars on the red carpet and this is almost exactly 10 years ago — The Arab Spring was boiling away and Tim and I are journalists. We serve, we’re all in this sort of beautiful, luxurious world of Hollywood with our film. But meanwhile, you know, surf’s up elsewhere in the world. I was like, “Dude, we got to get back out there.”
And we decided to go on assignment to cover the civil war in Libya. At the last minute I couldn’t go and he went on his own. He was killed in the city of Misrata on April 20, 10 years ago. So this is always a very sad time of the year for me. I should have been on the trip with him. Had I been, I probably would have been killed alongside him. Had I gone, maybe I could have saved him. I felt a huge amount of guilt about it. It took me a long time to get over his death and he bled out. He bled out, like I almost did, except people that out onto the ground. I bled out into my abdomen and there was a doctor there to save me, for him there wasn’t. The only difference. And after that, I was reeling from a lot of things but from Tim’s death particularly.
And I thought, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to do that project. I’m going to walk the railroad lines. I’m going to take two guys from Restrepo that Tim and I knew really well. And I’m going to take the journalist who was with Tim when he died, Guillermo Cervera, a Spanish photographer. Amazing, amazing photographer. He was holding Tim’s hand when Tim died at the back of a pickup truck, and so I got to know Guillermo very well. So I convinced these guys to walk by 400 miles along the railroad lines. We did it in chunks over the course of the year. We weren’t hitching freights, we were walking. I pick railroad lines because it’s counterintuitively — it’s safer. Like you walk along roads, you can get hit by a car really easily, but also they’re not monitored.
I mean, you’re not going to get picked up for vagrancy because there’s no cops on railroad lines. There’s no security cameras. There’s no lights. There’s nothing, it’s no man’s land. And you meet some weird cats out there, but everyone’s sort of on their own. And it’s just this weird no man’s land where you can kind of sleep wherever you want. There’s abandoned buildings. There’s patches of weeds, whatever, like you just make it work. And we got to see America from the inside out. We walk right through the ghettos, right through the farms, right through the industrial wastelands. We hit Philadelphia. And instead of going to New York, we decided to head West and we walked to Pittsburgh. And so The Last Patrol was my experience with freedom of a certain sort. And my book intercuts sections about that amazing trip with the real inquiries that I did into how one maintains one’s freedom in the face of a more powerful adversary.
Tim Ferriss: How did the structure of this book change from initial conception to finished product, if it did? I know, based on our previous conversations, that you think a lot about structure. How did this book change over time? Did you expect it to be one thing and then it ended up being quite a different thing, or, from the get-go, did you have a pretty crystallized vision of what the finished book would look like?
Sebastian Junger: I had the idea that no one would want to read a whole book about The Last Patrol. And I had the idea that no one would want to read a whole book about these sort of technical or historical topics of run, fight, think. I mean, I don’t quite have Malcolm Gladwell’s adept hand at presenting these sort of arcane topics. I mean I could do it for a few pages. I can’t do it for a full-length book. So I just thought, what I’ll do is I’ll combine them. I’ll combine them in such a way where my experience out on the railroad lines is interwoven in these more abstract ideas. I think I have a good sense, after a thousand words or so, the reader wants something a little different, like a palate cleanser.
So the structure for the book didn’t change much actually. I just thought I’m going to start with our walking, and then when I’ve written a chunk of that that feels dramatically complete, a thousand words or so, I’ll jump to the first topic. One of the things I wanted to write about was America because we’re walking right through it. And we walked through what had been the Pennsylvania frontier in the 1600s, 1700s. Life on the frontier was supposed to be very free. That’s the sort of American myth. It was very free from government. It was not free from danger. And as a result, these communities on the frontier of Pennsylvania, banded together in ways that were oppressive in the expectations. If you were a part of a frontier community, the expectations placed on you by the community in terms of group mutual defense were enormous.
So I just started playing with this idea of explaining American history in terms of people choosing one kind of freedom over another. They left the oppression of the government, the colonial governments, and they wound up in the oppression of small communities, where if you were a man you had to carry your rifle and a scalping knife. White people scalped back then as well, of course, and a tomahawk. At all times, you had to have a rifle, a tomahawk, and a scalping knife because you had to be ready to fight at any moment. And if you were caught without those things, you were ostracized.
They had a kind of freedom on the frontier, but you’re never completely free because if you’re alone, you’re in danger, and that doesn’t work. So I had this idea of mixing these, my trip and what I came to understand about being alone and vulnerable in this very small group, and very vulnerable in a hostile environment, mixing that with the just eternal human endeavor of making a society and surviving and raising your children and not getting killed.
Tim Ferriss: I’d love to ask you — not to turn this into a personal therapy session, but why not? You mentioned the death of your friend, Tim, we’ve talked about warfare, you write very eloquently and powerfully about many things. One of which is brutality like human on human brutality. And one thing that is very clear in your writing is that no one group has a monopoly on human on human brutality. I mean, if you look at the history of different native American tribes, certainly there was intense conflict, many rivalries. You had the settled tribes, and then you had the raiding cultures, many of which could not necessarily coexist certainly with settlers and then various forms of torture that you’ve written about. And I’m currently reading a book that deals largely with environmental concerns and deforestation and all sorts of tragedies related to violations against nature.
And I find myself, maybe this is just a weakness of character, but like growing kind of despondent where it seems like the die has been cast. And whether it’s through evolution or willful blindness, things are just like — the golf ball has been hit and it can’t be unhit in certain ways. Have you ever experienced that? I’m wondering if you’ve ever experienced it or kind of what keeps the lights on for you. And again, maybe this is unique to me, but there are times where I really feel kind of overwhelmed by these things and that there’s so little to stem the tide of these various tragedies. How do you relate to that — or not?
Sebastian Junger: Well, you know, we’re primates. We’re very violent primates. We’re also very affiliative primates. There is no kind of violence that humans haven’t committed and that some humans enjoy committing. But by equal measure, there is no kind of generosity and heroism and nobility and dignity that humans are capable of committing even at the loss of their own life. So it’s violence begets violence. You tortured someone, they get their hands on someone from your group, they’re going to torture — that’s how it works. I’ve seen it work that way in combat over and over and over again. The rage at the enemy that would kill your buddy or your wife or your child. There’s just homicidal rage that someone would do that to you, turns you into someone who would do that to them. And then you’re off and running.
And that’s ubiquitous in the world. I have to assume that that kind of enraged, violent response is adaptive. It helps communities survive in the face of a dire threat that a more passive, “Okay. You can take me prisoner. You can turn us into slaves. You can kill us, but we’re not going to raise a hand against you.” That was weeded out. And whatever genes would get someone to do that were weeded out pretty quickly in the human race. By the same token, if we were just a society of sort of like violent brutes, we wouldn’t have survived either. These beautiful human values of caretaking and particularly caretaking the helpless. Young shouldering the elderly, just people who are unfortunate. Even enemies that are unfortunate that fall into our care, they’re often cared for very, very well, right?
So there’s these twin human impulses. In Freedom, I talk a little bit about the native Americans because they practice the most indescribably horrific torture, partly as a way of keeping white people from infiltrating their land and taking it, right? So they were trying to be scary and it worked. To a degree it worked, but of course, Western society is equally full of hideous tortures, the Spanish inquisition, et cetera. And I have here a printout of a horrible newspaper article from February 8th, 1904. The Vicksburg Evening Post. It’s just an incident that’s long been forgotten, I guess, but it was a black couple who were caught and charged with something that they probably didn’t do and they burn them alive in Vicksburg.
Before they did that, they one by one cut off all their fingers and then tortured them with corkscrews. These are Americans, American citizens, within my grandmother’s lifetime. The point is that no society has a monopoly on violence or on moral behavior. We’re all equally amazing and equally horrible. And I think the task of any society is to be well-defended enough, so that you don’t get overrun by the barbarians, but gentle and kind and loving enough so that you can provide a moral existence within your community and for your children and hopefully within the world. It’s very hard to do, obviously, because we keep screwing it up. But I think that is the goal. And I think that’s most people’s goal, frankly.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I think I’m going through a stretch where I’m having trouble or I don’t want to say blinded by it, but the density of the fog of brutality that I’ve been exposed to voluntarily through a lot of my own reading and watching, it’s just so heavy. I think I probably need to watch more Pixar movies for a while, something like that, but —
Sebastian Junger: You know, in all of those episodes in our society and our history, enormously brutal. Because people are what they are, that brutality engenders enormously heroic, loving acts as well. I mean, in equal measure. There were Europeans during World War II who were hiding Jews in their basement at risk of being executed by the Nazis. People who otherwise would have been fine because they weren’t Jewish, and they were hiding families in their basements, strangers, people they didn’t even know. What lesson are you going to take from World War II? The soldiers that landed on D-Day, to stop fascism from taking over the world, the first boats, the first landing craft that hit the beaches, 90 percent of those guys died. 90, right? Yeah. A horrific situation. But think about the courage and their determination to preserve a moral world order. I would just say that you can look through this at the same things through the other end of the telescope, and you can see very different things and ones that will inspire you and comfort you.
Tim Ferriss: There’s a — I don’t want to call it a quote. A line at the very, very beginning in the front letter of Freedom. From Ecclesiastes 3:18, “As for humans, God tests them so they may know they are animals.” Why did you include that?
Sebastian Junger: Well, I’m an atheist. My father was an atheist. Sometimes when atheists read the Bible, they see passages that seem to undermine one of the central tenets of Christianity, which is that humans aren’t animals. And that there’s somehow a different set of standards, a different set of metrics, a different reality for human beings and for the rest of the animal kingdom, that we’re somehow special. That we’re special because we were made by God. And I just thought it was really helpful to find the Bible itself reminding us that we might aspire to godly qualities. I hope we all do. For the most part, there are good qualities. But at the end of the day, the Bible wants us to know that we are animals. And from dust we came, into dust we shall return. It’s very, very good to remember that. Because when you think that you’re special, there’s a risk. There’s a danger that you can permit yourself special things, special rights, and those special rights usually don’t end very well.
And what we were doing on The Last Patrol was so physical. We were reduced to such an animal existence, and the fight for freedom that people throughout history and prehistory have waged, the physical and psychological fight for freedom has been so brutal that only an animal could survive and only an animal could do it. And the reason we have been able to do it, we as humans, is because we are animals. I don’t mean it as a criticism. I actually mean it as a compliment to us all.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve also written very eloquently about how — and I’m taking some liberty here with connecting a few dots from different portions here, but how dehumanization or viewing a certain subpopulation as subhuman or animal-like, gives you special permission to do things you wouldn’t otherwise view as permittable, whether that’d be slavery or torture or — fill in the blank, right?
Sebastian Junger: Right. If you feel like you’re serving God’s will by liberating a piece of territory, taking over a building, wiping out a group of people that your society has decided are evil, if you think you’re doing God’s will, you don’t have to stop and examine the actual morality of what you’re doing. I mean, murder is wrong in almost all circumstances and mass murder is wrong in all circumstances. But if you’re doing God’s will, then of course you don’t have to dwell on that. And one way to reinforce that idea, killing costs people psychologically, it’s hard to do. And people, even murderers bear the scars for their lifetimes. So if you can convince yourself that the people you’re killing aren’t really human, then you don’t have to struggle with the moral implications of murder, right? Which is clearly a sin that God is against.
So very, very naturally in war, I mean, it happens spontaneously and then gets sort of codified in the mythology around a war, and even in the laws around the war. But very naturally in war, you start to see the enemy as not quite human. And that’s very convenient because natural law in the Christian tradition holds that all humans were made by God, we’re God’s creatures. So here you are killing God’s creatures — that’s probably not a good thing. So how do you solve that problem? You say, “Oh, great. Yeah, we’ll follow natural law.” But those people over there, they’re not really God’s creatures because they’re animals, they’re parasites, they’re cockroaches, they’re insects. I mean, the words that people have used during genocide — during many genocides in human history — to describe the people that were killing invariably reverts to the rest of the animal kingdom, like animals and insects. And you don’t have to be unduly troubled by the moral issues that come from killing a hundred thousand people, because you’re not really killing people. And that little mental trick has allowed ordinarily, otherwise decent people to do things that are completely heinous and unconscionable without going mad.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s come back to this word, freedom. As you mentioned, it’s misused, it’s abused. It’s deliberately used in politics in a contorted way for various ends. It’s also in some ways defined in so many different ways so subjectively that it becomes difficult to pin down objectively. But there’s a concept, or I should say more accurately coefficient. See if I can mispronounce this too, that I’d never come across before the book Freedom. And that is the Gini coefficient or Gini coefficients. Could you please explain what that is?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. So let me just tee this up a little bit. I think by talking about the etymology of the word freedom. It’s almost a little demoralizing if you come to understand what the reword is rooted in. It comes from vridom, V-R-I-D-O-M is Middle German for freedom, and it’s related to the word beloved. So in an earlier human epoch, freedom was thought of as something that you only owed the people that you love. The people in your community, the people in your tribe, the people in your family, and your clan. Those people deserve freedom. Everyone else was eligible for enslavement or worse. So you’re talking about a circumstance where once freedom, a) it’s not human universal, it’s not a universal right, but b) you only enjoy freedom because your little group is able to protect itself from other groups that think exactly the same way about you, that you’re eligible for enslavement or death.
So freedom is in that ancient sense is inseparable from the ability to defend yourself physically with force, with violence from an attacker. And if you can’t, because there were no human universal laws, universal laws of human rights, human dignity. If you couldn’t defend yourself, you would probably wind up being enslaved or killed by a more powerful adversary. It’s important to keep in mind with the word freedom that it’s rooted in arguably, ghastly distinction between us and them, and that you’re not going to be free unless you can defend yourself. There was around 5,000 years ago in Spain, there was a Neolithic population. They were agriculturalists. They’re quite peaceful people in the Iberian peninsula. And around 5,000 years ago, they were invaded by a group called the Yamnaya from the Russian steppe. The Yamnaya had horses that pulled chariots and the Iberians had never even seen horses before, much less ridden them.
And the Yamnaya came in. Over the course of a hundred years or so, seemed to have wiped out the entire male population of Iberia and clearly made it with the young women. Because in today’s Iberia, the Neolithic genetic, there is no genetic material from Neolithic Iberia that’s native to Iberia on the male line. It is all Yamnaya and other groups that came in after that. So basically, the men of Iberia were not able to defend themselves against the Yamnaya and they were scrubbed from the human gene pool and their women were subject to ours obviously, but their DNA is still here. That’s the problem with not being able to defend yourself.
So if you sort of go forward a little bit from there as agricultural societies took over, they supplanted around 10,000 years ago, 8,000 years ago, the first crop started to be planted and people started to go from a hunter-gatherer society like the Apache, where there was very little discrepancy between rich and poor because no one really could own more than they could carry. And in these hunter-gatherer societies, what they found, I read a study of North American native societies, the native tribes that were able to stockpile food or control access to food production, like literally controlling the points along the Pacific coast, where you can fish for salmon effectively, as soon as that food production could be controlled and food stockpiled, you started to have a ruling class and income disparity and power disparities within one’s own society. So with the Gini efficient — Gini was the name of an Italian economist from the early 1900s. I can’t remember his first name, but the Gini, G-I-N-I, the Gini coefficient is a number that shows the difference, the income gap between rich and poor. The higher the number, the greater the income gap. It ranges from zero to one. So, 0.0 to 1.0. So the higher the number, if you have a Gini coefficient of say 0.7, that’s a fairly unequal society. That 0.7 describes feudal European society in the Middle Ages. 0.42 was the Roman Empire. Most hunter-gatherer societies, they have a Gini coefficient of around .25. So much closer to complete equality than to complete monopoly.
So obviously, a society with a high Gini coefficient has some very powerful, wealthy people, and a whole lot of people who aren’t doing as well. And clearly there’s a moral problem there. That’s not a moral society. That’s not a good society in our terms. The problem though, is that the empires that have dominated world history, the Han Empire in China, the Romans, the Turks, the Europeans, the empires that have dominated world history invariably have high Gini coefficients.
Having a low Gini coefficient is a predictor of an egalitarian society that actually does not have a lot of power in the world. And this one researcher that I talk about in the book, he said the original one percent were these huge, huge empires that controlled an enormous percentage of the world population, in basically a master and servant class. And that those are the empires that, in evolutionary terms, they were doing very, very well. By almost every metric, they were successful societies. They just weren’t very just, they weren’t very equal. And people in them were not very free unless you were in the top one percent, what he calls the original one percent.
Tim Ferriss: You cover so much ground in Freedom. Do you have a particular hope for what people will take away from the book, or ponder more closely as a result of reading the book? Is there any hope tucked away, or explicit for you, that you hope will be achieved by putting this out into the world?
Sebastian Junger: I think with all my work on my books, I’m probably not alone in this among authors, I want my readers to understand the human experience in ways that makes them more forgiving, more compassionate, more insightful, and more intolerant of abuse and violence. One reason to write about the incredible injustice committed in America before the Civil Rights era against African-Americans is so people will be horrified, and not tolerate that kind of thing. For me, that’s one of the reasons that I write, is to bring enough understanding to people that they can act in fair ways.
That’s true for Freedom, as well. I want people to know how valuable, how precious freedom is by seeing the lengths that people have gone to maintain it. The Easter Rising in Ireland against British rule. Those people made a lot of mistakes. They weren’t angels. But the heroism, the courage, the selflessness. There’s a passage in my book, it’s a letter written by an Irish revolutionary named Michael Mallin. And he was executed by the British for his role in the Easter Rising.
And right before he’s executed, he writes a letter to his wife and children. It’s almost stream of consciousness because he’s so — I mean, they were about to shoot him. And when I read my book, I did the audio recording for my book. And in the studio, his letter’s in my book and I read it. And the director, who was on the phone with me, COVID-safe, advising me, directing me in my reading, we had to stop for a moment because the letter made her cry. It’s 100 years later. The letter made her start crying.
And he died for his country. And he had to leave his family, his children. So I want people to understand the incredible dignity and courage of an awful lot of otherwise very ordinary people. And that they are that way because they believe in human dignity, and they believe that all people deserve respect, and a decent wage, and to live in humane conditions. And I don’t think you can read my book and not understand those things.
A society that’s well-enough organized to defend itself is well-enough organized to oppress itself. We need leaders because you can’t have an army of a hundred thousand sergeants, or privates. You need generals, you need privates, you need whatever. Society needs to organize itself, and that means that people are in positions of leadership.
And there’s an unfortunate tendency for powerful people in positions of leadership to exploit that position, and seize rights that other people don’t have, and to enrich themselves in ways that other people don’t have access to, and to be exploitative and abusive. And that is true in dictatorships, it’s true in democracies, it’s true in virtually every kind of society. And so, I have a section about leadership.
And one of the interesting things about these small insurgencies like the Easter Rising in Ireland, is that these marginal groups, they’re so outgunned, they’re so overpowered by the established political order, military order, that the successful ones can’t afford to have anything counterproductive in their organization. They can’t have bad leadership. If they do, they will get killed. It will not work.
And so, you can look at successful — even successful startup businesses. What are the common elements of these groups that have overcome enormous odds, and forced their vision on the world? Hopefully a vision of equality and dignity. And one of the things that is absolutely essential is leaders who are willing to die. Leaders who are willing to expose themselves to the same risks as the people that they’re leading.
And when you have leadership that’s not willing to do that, that will not take responsibility for their mistakes, that will blame problems on others, when you have leaders who are cowards, you have an insurgency that is not going to last very long and will not succeed. Wealthy Western countries can afford that kind of leadership because we are not on the edge of disaster all the time. But you can see what works and what doesn’t by the successful insurgencies, and labor movements, and what have you.
And one of the things is moral leadership. I do not write about current-day America, and I’m not interested in writing about politics. And I think Republicans and Democrats have produced some incredibly inspiring noble leaders, and some real villains. Both sides have both. But the last thing I would want people to understand from my book is that we have a right, and in fact, I would say we have an obligation, to demand moral leadership — and that means leadership that’s selfless, and would sacrifice itself in a moment if it meant that that would help the country, and the people who are counting on them.
Tim Ferriss: I’d love to read just a few paragraphs, and to ask follow-up questions, if I may indulge myself here. These are things that jumped out to me. So here’s one, this is on page 33.
“For most of human history, freedom had to be at least suffered for, if not died for, and that raised its value to something almost sacred. In modern democracies, however, an ethos of public sacrifice is rarely needed, because freedom and survival are more or less guaranteed. That is a great blessing, but allows people to believe that any sacrifice at all, rationing water during a drought, for example, are forms of tyranny. They are no more forms of tyranny than rationing water on a lifeboat. The idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing in return is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing.”
How do you think people should think of what they owe? Or how can someone, for themselves at least, act as a countervailing force against this entitlement and perception of tyranny in things like rationing water during a drought, that I think are perverse in a sense, but also very natural, because there is no imminent threat that people perceive? How do you think about that, or encourage people to think about that?
Sebastian Junger: It’s a tricky balance. If you’re alone in the wilderness, you die. Humans do not survive alone. We survive because we’re part of a society. And we get an enormous amount of benefit from being part of a society. And whether that’s at the hunter-gatherer level, or in modern America with the incredible technological and medical advances. Among other things, I’d be dead if I lived in any other society from what happened to me last June.
So we’re enormously blessed. And I think what’s essential is for every person to search in their mind for how can we return the gift? The gift of the society that we live in, what can we do to reinforce this thing that we depend on for our survival? And the important thing to remember about freedom is that it’s freedom from oppression that you have a right to. It’s not freedom from obligation. And we live in such a wealthy, safe society that real obligation almost never arises. We don’t even have the draft. You’ve got to pay your taxes and that’s it.
We have outsourced, we have subcontracted basically, all of the tasks needed for survival to specialists, to professionals. And that means that what we owe society is not clear. And there’s a real loss there, because it feels good to contribute to the welfare of the group. Whether you’re on a camping trip with the Boy Scouts, or as an American national. Or an immigrant to this country, for that matter. My father was an immigrant. He was a refugee from two wars, and he came to this country and contributed enormously. And it was one of the most, I think, meaningful things he did in his life was contribute to this country in the ways that he could. So, what can you do, as a modern American, where you’re not needed?
You can give blood. I’m alive because 10 people gave their blood. They put 10 units in me. I had 10 people’s blood inside me, and that’s why I survived, and that my daughters will have a father. I’ve never given blood in my life. I’m going to start. I just never thought about it. But not only are you doing something that’s good, it reminds you that you’re part of this thing, and that you need them and they need you. And that awareness, that exchange between you and them, that’s the human experience. That’s what life is. That’s the good stuff.
And we live in a wealthy society where the good stuff isn’t imposed on us. And we think we’re getting away with something. We’re actually not. We’re actually losing something by not being part of that, not participating in the common good. Jury duty. Some people do bad things. Some people are accused of doing bad things, they didn’t do anything. None of that will get sorted out unless you’re sitting in the jury box, unless you take your turn in that box. I’ve done it. It’s also an incredible experience. It’s fascinating. And it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t have to be a murder case. It could be almost anything. But it’s society trying to be fair. And it’s a high calling, jury duty.
And finally, of course, vote. If you don’t vote, you’re basically saying, “I don’t care what happens to me, and I don’t care what happens to anybody else. I just don’t care about anything.” So, vote. And I haven’t voted in every election in my life either. I’m learning as I go, and these are the things I aspire to. And if we all did them, we would have a spectacular country. We already do, but it would be so much better. It would be so much better protected against threats.
So that’s how you can — when you say, “Enjoy your freedom,” you can enjoy your freedom by doing those three things, and you actually will enjoy all of them. It will make you feel like, “Wow, I’m a free person, I live in a free society. That’s incredible. I am so lucky.”
Tim Ferriss: Sebastian, I really admire how expansive the range is in your writing, in so much as you can go from the 30,000 foot historical, multi-millennial view, down to your day-to-day experience on The Last Patrol, and tie it together. Also the incisiveness, or incision. I wish I were a writer or something, maybe I’d know which word it is. But how surgical you can be with your wording and observation. “This freedom from oppression does not equal freedom from obligation.” Just that wordsmithing, I wrote it down for myself, is going to stick.
It’s just remarkable how much you are able to put without making it impenetrable. Much the opposite, into, in this case, roughly 130, 135 pages. I want to read one more, and this is just really for enjoyment, since we’re talking about a lot of macro-level things, we’re talking about a lot on the conceptual level. But one paragraph.
It’s just really a portion of a paragraph that I quite enjoyed was, “The fire embers still pulsed, and the night air was soft and benevolent. And it felt like summer waited for us a few days up river. My dog lay on my ankles, and the three other men shifted and muttered next to me in their sleep. There may be better things than that, but not many.”
And hot damn, did that make me want to just get out there on the fucking road and start walking, I got to say. I think that will probably be a result of a lot of people reading this book. I have one more question for you, but I think we’re coming to a close on this conversation. Is there anything that you would like to add? Any requests of my audience, any closing comments of any type that you would like to add before we start to bring this round two to a close?
Sebastian Junger: Just to comment on the passage you read. When we were out there, we needed each other for small tasks. Pumping water, cooking dinner, finding shelter, keeping an eye out for the cops because we would’ve been arrested. Any number of things. We got shot at, somebody shot at us in Pennsylvania. One time, we moved 40 miles in 40 hours. We were dead on our feet. We went through a lot, and we were able to do it because we could count on each other.
And so that feeling at the end of the day that you just read, I was there with my brothers and my dog. And that feeling of contentedness came from the fact that I knew I could count on those guys, and they knew they could count on me. And we all needed all of us to be okay. It’s easier to do that, it’s more obvious, it’s clearer doing that in a small group. But at the end of the day, 330 million people are trying to do that in a country. And we all have to think that way.
America doesn’t have to survive. It could die. It could split up. It could fragment. It could implode. There’s no rule, there’s nothing written down saying this has to work. It’s going to work if we make it work. And that means thinking about people in this country the way me and the other guys thought of each other on that trip. It’s a hard thing to do for 330 million people. It’s never been tried in history before, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
There’s a difficult political moment right now. Let’s just say it, it’s obvious. Each side has to stop accusing the other side for a moment and look at its own flaws. The idea that’s popular in the right wing that you don’t have to wear a mask to protect your fellow Americans from disease, it’s just silly. It’s just ridiculous and juvenile.
On the other side, on the left, I grew up in a democratic family, a liberal area, got lots of left-wing friends. If I suggest that mandatory national service might be a good idea for this country — not necessarily the military, but there’s a lot of ways to serve your country other than with a gun — that national service might be a good idea, the people that flame me, they’re not right-wing people, they’re left-wing people. They think they don’t owe anything.
We all owe something. And it’s all of our duty as Americans and as human beings to figure out what we owe, and what the most is that we can give. And I’ll tell you what, not only might that save the country, it’ll save you.
Tim Ferriss: Hear, hear. Well, Sebastian, I did say I had one more question, and this is going to veer back into a self-indulgent therapy session again. But I’m thinking — well, not I. My partner and I, my wonderful girlfriend and I, are thinking about kids in the very near future. And I can’t help but have this nagging voice in the back of my head saying, “You’re not ready. You don’t know what you’re doing. How could you possibly know what you’re doing?” So there is some fear there for me. Since we last spoke, you have two new members of your family. Any advice? Any thoughts to a would-be, but fearful new parent, possible parent?
Sebastian Junger: Well, first of all, brother, do it. Just do it. Seriously, just do it. And I’m thrilled for you, and it’s just the best thing there is. Maybe it’s not the best thing at 20, but eventually it’s the best thing there is. And you’re not supposed to know how to do it, you haven’t done it yet. But humans are adaptive and they’re smart. You’ll figure it out. We’re animals. Animals know how to take care of their young. Instinctively, they do.
And there’s a website called Evolutionary Parenting, which looks at parenting from an evolutionary perspective and tries to put it into the context of modern society. Super helpful. But also, I was talking about this with my wife, kids are, sometimes they’re just a freak show. They don’t cover their emotions very well, so stuff comes out that’s just, the tantrums, and this and that. We’re problem solvers, so I’m like, “How can I fix this? My daughter’s crying. She’s throwing stuff. I got to fix this.”
You don’t have to fix it. Nothing lasts very long. You just have to give them a safe, wise, compassionate environment until whatever feeling that is passes. And I guarantee you, certainly within an hour, but probably within a few minutes, it’s over. So you just, you ride it out, man. And you ride it out with love, basically. And some instructive discipline when needed. But you’ll know what’s right.
Tim Ferriss: Hmm. Well, Sebastian, it’s so enjoyable for me to spend time with you. It’s so nice to reconnect. It really doesn’t feel that long ago that I was watching you type, if I remember correctly hunting and pecking two fingers, and I asked you, “Do you write all the time like that?” And you’re like, “Yep.” Has that changed? Or is that still the same?
Sebastian Junger: No, no, no. I mean, if you hit age 59 and you’re still typing with two fingers, you’re probably going to die that way.
Tim Ferriss: And I’m so happy for you. You really sound good. And I am thrilled that you’ve put this small and powerful tome out into the world, Freedom. I highly suggest people pick it up. I just am consistently, and I’ve already said this, but I’ll say it again, just consistently so impressed. And I say this as someone who could probably use 10 more editors on every one of my books, because they’re phone books, for God’s sake.
How much you are able to pack into very slim books without, at least in my mind, without sacrificing the essence or the details. I really just don’t know how you do it. It’s tremendously impressive to me. So, I do impress upon people both the quality of the writing, but more so than that, it’s not just wordsmithing. It’s really the power of the storytelling, and the concepts, and the history that you weave together.
So people should check out Freedom. They can find you online, sebastianjunger.com, @sebastianjunger on Twitter, Facebook, and then Instagram at @sebastianjungerofficial. And thank you once again for taking the time. I hope to break some bread in person at some point soon, once we get to the light at the end of the tunnel here with vaccination and so forth.
Sebastian Junger: Thank you very much, it was a real pleasure. And good luck with your next adventure. I hope it works, and I look forward to hearing it.
Tim Ferriss: The next adventure, if not for any other reason than I’m thoroughly exhausted by thinking about myself and would like a shift in focus. It’d be nice to shift that lens. And to everybody listening, for show notes on everything we’ve discussed, links to everything we discussed, including Freedom, we will put those show notes at tim.blog/podcast, and they will all be easy to find.
And until next time, just remember, among many things, freedom from oppression does not equal freedom from obligation. Donate blood. See what you can contribute back. Society does give each and every one of us a whole lot. And until next time, thanks for listening.
Sebastian Junger: Thank you.
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