‘I almost died last summer’: Sebastian Junger on life, death and his new book Freedom

“I almost died last summer," Sebastian Junger dice, sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park on the kind of May day in New York that makes you glad to be simply alive.

“I had an undiagnosed aneurysm in my pancreatic artery, asymptomatic, not related to anything, it’s just a structural, congenital thing and I had no way of knowing about it. Out of the blue, just like we’re talking right now, it ruptured and I lost 90% of my blood.”

Junger found fame in 1997 con The Perfect Storm, an account of a nautical disaster off his native New England. To some, it made him the new Hemingway. Like Hemingway, he has produced masterpieces of reportage. Su 2010 libro, War, dealt with how men fight. It came out of time he and the British photographer Tim Hetherington spent with American soldiers en afganistán. They filmed as bullets flew. Junger was in a Humvee hit by a roadside bomb.

He and Hetherington made a documentary, Restrepo, which was nominated for an Oscar. Then Hetherington was killed, in Libya in 2011. Junger made another film, Korengal, and wrote Tribe, a short book about what happens when soldiers come home. He also made The Last Patrol, a documentary in which two veterans and a photographer joined the walks along the railroads which now appear in his new book, Freedom.

Junger has also made documentaries about Hetherington, the rise of Isis and immigration. He quit writing about war but death came for him anyway, in newfound peace at home.

“It took an hour and a half to get to the hospital and I was basically dead. My vital signs were so low that essentially they were incompatible with life, but for some reason my heart was still beating, I was still half-conscious. I could converse.

“I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in anything and my dad was a physicist, and I just had the strangest experience when I was dying. My dad passed away years ago [but he] appeared before me and started comforting me. I started sliding down into this black hole. And I didn’t know I was dying, so I was really puzzled by all this.”

Freedom contains scenes from Junger’s railroad hikes and diversions into history and anthropology. Most are about small groups fighting against great odds. Settlers in the Pennsylvania woods; Native Americans out west; the Irish against the British after 1916; the Taliban against the US army. He continues to describe his own fight for survival.

“They managed to save me, apenas, and they were shocked that they did. Everyone in the ER thought, ‘This guy is done. We’ll do what we can. No one survives this. It’s really rare to survive this.’”

He also had a brush with Covid. It all informs the book he’s working on now, “called Pulse, about why we’re alive and what happens when we die? I want to understand the experiences I had, because they don’t make sense to me. And apparently, dead ancestors visiting is a really common thing with dying people, all over the world.”

A 59, after a divorce, Junger is father to two young children. He says he will walk the tracks again but “the dedication in Freedom is to my family. There’s something about the emotional security and the responsibility in the no longer living for yourself. You’re no longer the most important thing to you. There’s enormous liberation. The dedication, I meant that really literally, that they really gave me a form of freedom that I didn’t even understand until I experienced it.”

Freedom is brief, because “people are busy and there’s a lot going on and a 500-page book about freedom … I don’t know if I’d read that.”

Jonathan Franzen tried it with a novel and did not meet with the best reviews. Nor in some quarters has Junger. In the New York Times, William Finnegan’s kindest words compared Junger’s descriptions of the walk along the Juniata river in Pennsylvania to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. In person Junger is as affable as reputation suggests but his brows knit, a little.

“I think he meant it as an insult," él dice, of the “weird” comparison. “My writing seems to be the antithesis of that. It’s seems like a very strange comparison, unless it was meant poorly.”

He also says he was “surprised by his veiled accusation that I was somehow hiding something.”

In an endnote, Junger says his book is based on the hikes that formed The Last Patrol, and explains how and why. For Finnegan, the book’s origins were not made clear enough. Junger calls that complaint “weird … I was like, ‘I put it in the book on purpose so you would know.’ That review gave me a very bad taste in my mouth. The New York Times is an institution. That’s not really an honest review. What’s it doing in your newspaper?"

The review closed by quoting the close of Freedom, in which Junger writes “it was time to face my life”.

“Sounds good,” Finnegan wrote.

That payoff, Junger says, felt “so personal and bizarre. I’m like, who let that through? As an editor, what the fuck?"

Other interactions with the Times have been happier, though in one entrevista Junger named The Road by Cormac McCarthy as a book that made him cry. In dappled sunshine, to laughter from the playground and barks from the dog run, I suggest that as some scenes in The Last Patrol echo that post-apocalyptic novel, so passages in Freedom about settlers fighting Native Americans recall Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s savage western epic.

“He’s amazing," él dice. “He’s the best writer working today. Just in terms of his use of language. That’s a really rare thing. I hope I don’t sound like I’m imitating him but I certainly admire him and have learned a lot from him about how to really go deep in your description of the world.”

In short order it’s revealed that I haven’t read Suttree, McCarthy’s 1979 novel about riverside life in Tennessee, among petty criminals and vagrants.

“Are you fucking kidding? Ustedes tengo to read Suttree. In my opinion, it’s his most brilliant novel, because it’s just his most mundane. It’s not Texas in the 1840s [Blood Meridian], which is stunning, and The Road is apocalyptic and whatever. It’s all big dramatic stuff. Suttree takes place in Knoxville in the 1950s in fucking nothingness, and it’s the most brilliant writing. It’s insane. He’s so good.”

I promise to go to the Strand bookstore and pick up a copy. By the time I make Washington Heights on the A train I’m engrossed and taking notes.

On the Tennessee river, Cornelius Suttree rows past “barren and dusty lots where rails ran on cinder beds and boxcars oxidized on sidings, past warehouses of galvanized and corrugated tin set in flats gouged from the brickcolored earth”.

To Junger, railroads offer just such a no man’s land, between civilisation and nature, skirting backyards, factories and woods. He set out to walk such zones, él dice, “without any thought it would turn into a book.

“I kept my notebooks, because that’s my default mode in an interesting situation. Either in the moment when we would stop to take breaks every hour or so, or at night. The guys would go to sleep and I’d write for a while.

“And then the idea came up to write about this super-loaded word, freedom. The idea, the concept, the state. I did a little reading, I did a little thinking and I was like, that can veer off into an awfully abstract philosophical treatise. There’s smarter people than me that could tackle that. I didn’t think people would really want to read it, ya sea.

“What would be the equivalent book to Tribe about the topic of freedom? Because community and freedom are these two core human values. If you don’t have them, life can feel grim and pointless and those are the two things that basically people would die for, risk dying for: their community and their freedom, for their ability to be self-defining.

“I just thought the book needed some narrative thread. I tried to think, what was the time I was most free in my life? And I realised, as I say in my book, most nights, por 400 millas, we were the only people who knew where we were. It’s one form of freedom and for me a very profound one and a hard one. We were willing to get cold and hot and soaked in the rain and etc, and carry 70lb and blah, paja, paja. That gave us that particular form of freedom.”

Junger also wanted “to make the America we walked through sort of a character in this book. I didn’t want us to be characters. I don’t want to write about myself. I don’t want to write about war any more. That’s why I don’t name us. I wanted the country we passed through, some of the people we’ve met, to be the focus of the trip, and just the mechanics of what we had to do.”

Walking the railroads is illegal. Freedom features contact with law enforcement – and time spent hiding.

“We did that walk because we wanted to do that walk,” Junger says. “It was pretty simple. It wasn’t a calculation.”

In a recent piece for Hora, under the headline “My Father Fled Fascism in Spain – and Taught Me How Lies Can Destroy a Democracy”, Junger considered the lessons of the Spanish civil war for our own time, the hard right ascendant. Al final, he made his point explicit.

“The first time that fascistically minded people tried to attack the US Capitol, en 11 septiembre, a few brave souls forced their own plane down into a Pennsylvania field. The second time, en 6 enero, more brave souls stood firm in the building’s marble hallways and saved our government yet again.”

Afghanistan taught Junger about the vitality of small groups. The Last Patrol opens with Hetherington and Junger on the Amtrak to Washington, thousands of miles from the platoon in the Korengal, gazing out the window, wondering about walking the tracks. Hetherington says they should go back and find the footage when the world has changed.

Tiene. Hetherington is dead. America has seen the rise of Donald Trump, a pandemic, surging inequality. The wars Junger covered are a central part of the story. His readers are as divided as his country.

“I like having access to both liberals and conservatives," él dice. “I’m a Democrat and I say that openly because I don’t want a false flag for anybody, but the conservatives really like my work, often, because I write about the military and because my work isn’t partisan.

“My favourite quote from someone else is, ‘Journalists don’t tell people what to think. They tell them what to think about.’ In Tribe, I wrote about how destructive contempt is, either in a marriage or in a colony. I didn’t have to mention Donald Trump. Had I mentioned Trump as a superb example of using contempt in a toxic way, I would have lost half my readers. Precisely the people I think need to be open to that message.

“Likewise, you could read Freedom and sort of read in between the lines and see some commentary about some of the more amoral, disreputable politics going on in this country. And you’d be right. But I didn’t want to call it out by name, because then it immediately loses its value.

“But if I can write it as kind of an enduring truth that if you’re a big boy, you’re a big girl, if you want to apply what I said to the current moment? Go for it.”

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