In its fast-moving 150 pages, Sebastian Junger’s book Freedom explores many different notions of the word “freedom.” It is a physical journey to escape society’s restraints; a constant battle against oppressive authority; our imperfect democracy, debating how to achieve fair play and equal opportunity. Run. Fight. Think. Freedom’s three chapters examines these ingredients of a concept that Americans have often taken as our own.
“The word is rooted in our history, having to sever ties with an empire, all the mythologizing that came from that brave and necessary move,” Junger told The Daily Beast. “But then it got mythologized a lot. We’re out of touch with that moment, but not the myth.”
Our national myths started on the frontier, and Junger presents civilization’s edge: “If you were alive after the harvest, you could send for your family and make a go of it. The risks were appalling and the hardships unspeakable, but no government official would ever again tell you what to do.”
Is that go-it-alone vision what freedom means to you? What myth do you wish was your reality? What’s the freest you ever felt? Those are good questions to consider before starting this brisk book.
Freedom branched off a film that Junger produced and directed for HBO, The Last Patrol, which featured Junger and several war veterans and photographers hiking alongside railroad tracks heading west from Maryland through Pennsylvania. The book resembles that hike, some parts slow or fast, meandering and then direct. The trip was tribute to Junger’s friend Tim Hetherington, a combat photographer who worked alongside Junger in Afghanistan and on their film Restrepo, and died in Libya in 2011. The men acted as modern hobos during a 400-mile, multi-stage trek, avoiding cops, depending on the occasional kindness of strangers, waking to hard rains on raw mornings.
“The railroad lines we followed were there because that’s where the settler roads had been, and the settler roads were there because that’s where the Indian trails had been, and the Indian trails were there because—250 million years ago—the Juniata River had sawed her way through the shale and limestone of that country,” Junger writes. “Most nights we were the only people in the world who knew where we were. There are many definitions of freedom, but surely that is one of them.”
True—though an ability to dabble in that rugged experience might look “free” in a way that a homeless person, a person with fewer choices, might question. What’s free about a day with no options?
“If readers think I’ve forgotten those people, if the book makes readers come that way, I want them to have that conversation,” Junger told The Daily Beast. “I’m going to take you into my idea of freedom. I can’t imagine the hubris of writing about how other people make decisions about their lives.”
Junger writes that the “rest of our gear,” including a tarp, a pot, a stove, a pump filter for water, “was so easily replaced that it wasn’t worth having a fight over or even a bad conversation.”
To someone with nothing else, a tarp to block the rain becomes a mansion, worth fighting for, maybe dying for. Easily replaced?
“The gear was easy to replace—for us,” Junger told the Beast. “I can’t write about everyone. If you keep playing that game, you end up with a 600-page book.”
The Underground Railroad once used Pennsylvania’s western wilderness as an escape route from Virginia. Junger brings in the Underground Railroad once toward Freedom’s beginning, with a few paragraphs about fugitive slave Charles Bell, “how he escaped on foot to gain his freedom.”
Some of Bell’s 1849 route shadowed where Junger’s group traveled in the modern day. That connection is not explicit in Freedom.
“I wanted to introduce enough to show that walking has been a reliable way for people to maintain their freedom for thousands of years,” Junger said. “That was the idea that I wanted to wake up.”
More reflection about the trip’s proximity to the Underground Railroad would have fit the narrative. But readers can work that out themselves. Freedom, short despite that all-encompassing title, raises questions with a purpose.
Freedom makes a reader think: What about the Underground Railroad, and freedom more earned and heroic than found on any Civil War battlefield? What about women, which society’s stereotypes tether to childbirth and home, the opposite of male wanderlust? What about life with children versus a “free” life without? What about social media’s imprisoning addictions to validation, rage, and pathos?
“The deal you have with any writer is that it’s his or her version of the concept. You’re getting a book filtered through what’s compelling to me,” Junger said. “I’ll write about freedom in the context of the Apache, but not social media, for example, which doesn’t interest me.”
A reader should finish Freedom and think about “freedom” in those other ways, as their own next steps. Like Junger’s The Last Patrol, one can watch the movie, but earning blisters will need effort.
That physical effort gave “freedom” its Euro-centric definition, from when European settlers arrived in the continent’s ungoverned wilderness. Of course, it wasn’t ungoverned—just that nations like the Iroquois or Apache had societies alien to arrivals from Europe’s kingdoms.
“For centuries in Europe, there weren’t places outside the control of the great powers,” Junger said. “In America, you could disappear into half the country, for almost half the country’s history.”
It was not just the new settlers hiding in the vast lands. As Junger writes, “On the frontier, there was thought to be nothing more dangerous than a wounded Apache trying to give the rest of his band time to escape. But it was the Apache’s ability to cross terrain quickly and invisibly that allowed fourteen generations to remain outside the control of white society.”
Junger writes that “The American frontier was… a place of mythic freedom. Freedom and safety seemed to exist on a continuum, where the more you had of one, the less you had of the other.” As Junger relates the words of a settler, in those violent lands of opportunity, “There was neither law nor gospel.”
Maybe the American frontier felt too free, too opposed to humanity’s instinctive need for a collective society. Maybe those old days of impossible risk imprinted, in some of us, a genetic fear for true freedom and all its terror. Maybe that’s why some crave authoritarianism, an anti-freedom streak that picks trinkets to rebel for and against—guns, video games, vaccines, take your pick—as long as a Strong Man tells us what to do.
“Our closest primate relative is the chimpanzee, and their groups are dominated by an alpha male that runs the show,” Junger said. “The counterbalance to human society, that doesn’t exist with chimps, is our striving for egalitarianism in the group. Our leaders don’t have rights that we don’t have.”
Society protects many of us, so it feels free, safe, and cooperative—but if Black Lives Matter shows a disparity, then who is free? Different freedoms for everyone means it can stop being free for anyone.
“If leadership is protected from all consequences, that’s not a free society,” Junger said.
Junger writes a disturbing line: “An important part of freedom is not having to make sacrifices for people who don’t have to make sacrifices for you.” It’s true—we’re often free to not sacrifice anything for people we’re not connected too. Don’t wear a mask, don’t get vaccinated. That is freedom. A better word than “important” might be “bleak.”
A free society has many equal expectations—we pay taxes that fund schools even if we have no kids. We don’t steal or run red lights. Laws and punishments make those easy “freedoms” to surrender.
In America today, Junger writes, “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. The idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing in return is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing.”
What we’ll do for neighbors, when it costs a bit of personal comfort, is where freedom’s price is paid.
The far extreme is when those choices boil over into life and death. Junger shows the Easter Uprising against English rule over Ireland, and the labor protests of America’s 20th century. In each case, an idea of freedom became something worth fighting and dying for.
Oppression became too much. In the case of 1920s steelworker strikes, “local governments banned all labor meetings… made it a crime to gather in groups of more than two… The mayor of Duquesne, Pennsylvania boasted that ‘Jesus Christ himself couldn’t speak’ in his town.
“The police seemed to want a level of obedience from people that bordered on servility, and that was precisely the kind of feudal state many of the steelworkers had fled in the first place.”
In 2020’s protests against police violence, or new anti-protest laws in response, it doesn’t take much to find contemporary comparisons.
Freedom’s end—the ultimate oppression—is when government takes a life, putting all its power into irrevocably taking away someone else’s. Junger shifts into the perspective of Michael Mallin, one of the Irish leaders of the Easter Uprising, as he awaits his pre-dawn 1916 execution. He waits in a cell, for the British firing squad to arrive.
“Now the sound of the lockbolt, the groan of the hinges. Now Mallin descending the staircase to the Stonebreaker’s Yard. It’s barely light and he will never see the sun again, nor his home, nor his family… Mallin is offered a blindfold, but it is not known if he accepts.”
A brief passage—but the shift in tense and perspective links Mallin to the “eternal present,” Junger said.
“Don’t allow yourself the comfort of thinking this in the past. It’s right now, for someone, somewhere,” Junger said. Myanmar or Minneapolis. “It might happen to you. Probably not, if you live in a democracy. But it might.”
In that passage, Junger wanted to maximize the impact—to put the reader in that dark cell, where Mallin “was praying, thinking about family, drifting in those moments as you might, suddenly you hear that sound of the bolt. The only way to give the reader an approximation is to change tense,” he said.
“I knew I was writing a different way. It felt delivered by something else,” he said. “There is a moment in the creative process that can feel sort of divine, where there’s a higher power. I’m an implacable atheist, so divine is a metaphorical concept, but I’m sometimes blessed by it.”
Atheism is freedom, putting our fates into luck, abilities, and choices. Faith is freedom, a path laid out for us to travel with free will.
But, like Junger said, Freedom is not a 600-page book about philosophy.
Cormac McCarthy inspired Junger’s description of his railroad hikes, with its Blood Meridian rhythms: “We drank our fill at the creek and then sat against our packs and ate and smoked and washed and after an hour we moved on because high clouds have piled in from the southeast and the sunlight suddenly had the flat pewter cast of oncoming rain,” Junger writes. “We pushed past the old ferry station of Newport and Reiders Run and Wildcat Run and passed through the breach at Wildcat Ridge. The weather finally caught us at Millerstown where Route 17 crosses the Juniata River.”
“…after a while we crossed the tracks and climbed down the embankment until we sat behind the old quarrystone footing, which hid us from a few houses that clustered along the road.”
Anyone who ever played hide-and-seek knows that free feeling, watching the world when the world can’t watch them.
“The experience was so intense, the landscape so evocative for me,” Junger said. “What’s the freest I’ve ever been in physical terms? Under a bridge.”
Come back to that question—what’s the freest you’ve felt?
Watching a child leave for college knowing you did your job to raise them as best you could? A hike up a mountain to see a sunrise, the only viewer in the world? Telling the boss man to go to hell? Can you pinpoint freedom, on the map of your life?
I know my moment—coming home from Iraq in 2007, where I had reported as a freelance photojournalist. I unpacked my gear, sand-stained and smelling of diesel fuel and boot leather. I had done it, like another man once wrote, and it was really something. I had told no one my plans—at least nobody who might think to stop me. I had been in the Army, served in Iraq, but this was different. It was my solo journey and there was no one to thank, no one with any right to expect anything from me, no one holding me accountable.
I was as free as I have ever been, and I have never felt close to that free since.
Of course, the mortar that almost blew me up, someone would have had to pick up my pieces. I had left a last will, some thin instructions on disbursing my property. My freedom would have become someone else’s questions, wreckage, problem. I sleep at night.