West Palm Beach, Florida. There are endless works of political philosophy about freedom and society. Many of the classics in this genre revolve around ideas about the state of nature, a mythical time in which humans existed without society. Sebastian Junger’s new book, Freedom, ponders its subject instead in actual nature, in rural woods, drinking from streams, and sleeping outdoors. The new book is a product of Junger’s thoughts and experiences from “The Last Patrol,” a roughly 400-mile hike he took along railway tracks in the heartland with other men processing their war experiences, which was also the basis of an HBO documentary. In Freedom, Junger takes us through empty main streets, highway underpasses, and small-town diners. It is a good way to approach a topic which has more than theoretical significance to us.
America has a love affair with freedom. We sing about letting “freedom ring;” we long for the “freedom of the open road,” and some of us even think that other people “hate us for our freedom.” Our feelings about freedom are so intense that when we get a bit hysterical at community meetings, we often end by yelling about freedom.
One reason that freedom looms so large in our national consciousness may be the idea of the “frontier experience.” From Frederick Jackson Turner to more recent economic research, the image of the yeoman on the frontier fending for himself and making his own rules is part of our culture. That experience has certainly been romanticized: it included a great deal of violence and was responsible for many of the wrongs done to Native Americans. Yet we know that life less settled is full of freedom, as well as danger (for ourselves and others), and there is something about origin stories that we cannot escape.
Freedom also begins with origins, and throughout the book Junger makes use of insights from anthropology and history. Junger believes that the existence of human freedom is directly connected to the unpredictability of human conflict. For most species, “Larger males and groups of males invariably win physical confrontations with each other, but that is not the case with humans.” Might is not guaranteed to make right. And so, “freedom is due, in part, to the fact that powerful nations do not always win wars and powerful men do not always win fights. In fact, as often as not, they lose.” The underdog always has a chance.
Freedom is almost always experienced in relation to community. Here Junger goes back to the oldest of human divisions, settled and unsettled societies. Nomadic societies are more level, have simpler law codes, and have leaders more subject to rules. They are the most unpredictable and the most free. They are also subject to more danger. Settled societies are more unequal and unfree, and much safer. Not only is the choice between more freedom or more security a difficult one for an individual, these types of societies are often in competition for use of the same land.
The tensions between these two ways of life are in many ways the American story. After all, European arrivals came and pushed out the more nomadic Native Americans who were here first. But, in turn, the westward march of society and the advent of the railroads, fueled by eminent domain, brought an end to the frontier. Junger ponders this backstory in Freedom as he walks through backwoods and along rail lines, through places like Juniata County, Pennsylvania, once a crossroads for Native American tribes and now criss-crossed by railroads.
As much as the frontier image and ideal persists, our country today is a very settled, complex, and powerful society. We now try to outmuscle opponents overseas. Junger warns that “groups that are well organized enough to defend themselves against others are well organized enough to oppress their own.” Junger is also clearly disappointed by many of today’s political figures, whom he considers not leaders but “opportunists,” who “lie reflexively, blame others for failures, and are unapologetic cowards.” In nomadic groups, power also changes hands often, because leaders are acknowledged in response to ability and context. Junger writes that “if democratic power-sharing is a potent form of freedom, accepting an election loss may be the ultimate demonstration of how free you want to be.” How can we safeguard freedom?
Our culture is not likely to hand over its security, but we can still learn from some of the strengths of less settled societies. Our leaders should be “expected to make the same sacrifices and accept the same punishments as everyone else.” And we should be open to the changes in leadership and acceptance of power-sharing that are required in unsettled societies. Nomadic societies are also more level because they travel lighter. If we want to preserve our freedom, we would be advised to hoard less money and power.
Freedom reads as the continuation of a conversation that Junger began in Tribe, his 2016 book about homecoming and belonging. Tribe also borrowed from history and anthropology, but directly addressed the hardships of homecoming for military veterans and what that reveals about our society. In Tribe, Junger describes the ways that war zones and war service, while horrible, also offer a sense of belonging and shared sacrifice that is remarkably, and depressingly, absent in everyday life. The closeness that comes with hardship is missing in our affluent and isolating society. To have a strong community, we need to be called upon to contribute. In order to feel part of a tribe, you need to “make a substantive sacrifice for your community–be that your neighborhood, your workplace, or your entire country.”
The lyrics to “Bobby McGee” say that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Junger persuasively argues that there is no freedom without risk and no community without sacrifice. We need something bigger than us that we are willing to lose ourselves for. But our society steers us more toward affluence and comfort than sacrifice and community. Chase Bank tells us that freedom is a type of credit card and many of us are signed up for the kind of life that comes with monthly account balances.
In some ways, our distorted expressions of freedom in our political divides reflect our tenuous bonds to community. How many of our big debates–about masks, or guns, or speech–actually revolve around the competing goods of freedom and security and the balance between the freedom of the individual and the responsibility of community? How many political figures promise or pursue a fantasy world without power-sharing with opponents, rather than the unpredictable reality where freedom really thrives? It is clear that as much as we love the idea of freedom, we have not figured it out.
In Freedom, Junger writes dismissively about people who believe they have no obligations to society. “The idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing in return is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing.” Yet he acknowledges that “it’s hard to feel loyalty to a society that is so huge it hardly even knows we’re here and yet makes sure we are completely dependent on it.” This is indeed the ravine where many people fall.
Junger’s vantage point makes him especially qualified for writing on these topics. He has spent his professional life in unpredictable places, where the “rules” of society are most imperiled, but the most traditional virtues of community are practiced, like courage and self-sacrifice. He has walked among firefighters in the West, written from war-torn Sarajevo, and he was embedded among soldiers in the dangerous Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. He has produced powerful films and documentaries about these experiences, including the book War and the documentary Restrepo. But he has also had to make the journey home, and he has faced the challenges of reintegration. This has allowed him to have both an insider and an outsider perspective on American culture, one deeply informed by experience.
Political philosophy and political debates are often respectively abstract and oppositional, but Junger uses everyday language and a broad view of human experience. Freedom is an approach to the topic based in reality and, as a result, one which speaks to real life. We need more books like it, because real life is where the struggles we have over freedom take place. And while it is not useless to read Rousseau, books like this offer more immediately relevant guidance as we pursue genuine freedom in our day-to-day lives.