Friday, August 19, 2022
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#195 – Freedom, PTSD, war, and life through an evolutionary lens | Sebastian Junger


Sebastian Junger is an award-winning journalist, documentary filmmaker, and New York Times best-selling author. In this wide-ranging discussion, Sebastian shares stories from his time as a war reporter and how it shaped his understanding of the psychological effects of combat, including the sacred bond of soldiers, the forces that unify a tribe, and the psychological mechanisms that protect humans from painful experiences. He draws upon his personal struggle with PTSD as he discusses trauma as an all-too-common consequence of war and the importance of community in the healing process. He explains his interest in viewing human behavior through an evolutionary lens, including how it influences his parenting style, and he voices concerns over society’s continuous shift away from our evolutionary roots. Sebastian also tells the story of his near-death experience and his new perspective on the possibility of an afterlife.  Additionally, Sebastian shares his thoughts on the mental health implications of current events, such as the pandemic and the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and contemplates what it really means to be “free” in modern society.

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We discuss:

  • Sebastian’s upbringing and early lessons about the evil of fascism [3:20];
  • Sebastian’s search for a career, interest in writing, and what he loved about tree removal [11:30];
  • How Sebastian became a great writer [19:30];
  • Sebastian’s experience with Achilles injuries [25:30];
  • Work as a war reporter and his experience in combat in Afghanistan [28:00];
  • Psychological effects of war and Sebastian’s own experience with PTSD [36:30];
  • The sacred bond of soldiers and what Sebastian learned from his time with troops in Afghanistan [48:30]
  • An evolutionary perspective on the forces that unify and bind tribes [1:00:00];
  • Hunter-gatherer societies, dealing with loss, and the ancestral connection to the spiritual realm [1:08:30];
  • Psychological mechanisms that protect humans from painful experiences and the power in giving thanks [1:13:15];
  • How parenting has changed Sebastian, and the incredible pain of losing a child [1:21:15];
  • PTSD and the influence of community on healing [1:32:15];
  • Isolation of modern society and the debate over young kids sleeping in bed with their parents [1:37:45];
  • Why Sebastian doesn’t own a smartphone [1:43:30];
  • Parenting through an evolutionary lens [1:50:00];
  • Sebastian’s near-death experience and new perspective on the possibility of an afterlife [1:54:00];
  • Sebastian’s experience with depression and anxiety [2:12:00];
  • The pandemic’s impact on mental health [2:16:45];
  • Sebastian’s thoughts on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan [2:22:00];
  • Sebastian’s latest book—Freedom, and knowing when to quit [2:27:00];
  • Defining freedom in modern society [2:44:30];
  • More.

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*Notes from intro

  • Sebastian is a New York Times bestselling author of Tribe, The Perfect Storm, Fire, A Death in the Belmont, and War
  • His newest book, Freedom, came out in May of this year, and we spend some time talking about it
  • Sebastian is also an award-winning war reporter and journalist who has covered major international stories around the world
  • He is also a documentary filmmaker whose debut film, Restrepo, was nominated for an Academy Award
  • His other documentaries include Korengal, The Last Patrol, Which is the Way to the Front of the Line From Here?, and Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS
  • Peter notes, “I’ve wanted to interview Sebastian for a while, in fact, ever since reading his book Tribe, which I think I read in 2016 or 2017. And while this is a bit of a different interview compared to a lot of the interviews I do on the podcast, I really wanted to speak with him for a couple of reasons.
    • He wants to talk about his very unique life experience and his philosophy of life, which is actually something he only learned about in the prep for this podcast 
    • Tribe is a book that he’s thought a lot about in terms of understanding the importance of community in people’s mental health and how it plays into their longevity, of course.
  • We talk about his upbringing and how it led him to his career as a war reporter
  • We talk about the psychology of war and the PTSD that he saw many around him experience, and that he experienced, although at the time he didn’t really understand that that’s what it was
  • From there, we talk about his philosophy on life, what having kids has meant to him, and how he has parented his kids in a way that I think is a little bit non-traditional
  • We spoke about his near-death experience
    • This is something he’s spoken about on other podcasts, but here we went into a little more detail
    • We talk about out how this changed him for the better and the worse, and how it led to the new book that he’s writing on what’s going to happen when you die
  • We spoke about his trauma and his past depression
    • Why he only uses a flip phone
    • Social media as an addiction
    • The importance of the tribe and the dangers of isolation
  • We end our conversation speaking about his newest book, Freedom, and the documentary that it’s based on, The Last Patrol
    • We talk about what it means to be free and how we know when to quit

 

Sebastian’s upbringing and early lessons about the evil of fascism [3:20]

Sebastian’s Dad

  • Sebastian grew up outside of Boston in a little town called Belmont, Massachusetts
  • His dad was a refugee from 2 wars
    • He grew up in Europe
    • He was a journalist in Europe
    • He lived in Spain, and then they fled to France when the fascists came in in 1936 under Franco
    • His dad’s family was Jewish
    • Then when the Nazis came in a few years later, they fled to the United States
    • His dad made his life here, met my mom, and tried to join the U.S. military, and couldn’t because he had asthma, so he served the country in other ways
    • He was a physicist, and he contributed to a lot of important projects which involved the U.S. military and the U.S. government 
    • He was enormously grateful to this country for our sacrifice in World War II
    • It’s interesting that his implacable pacifism was also mixed with an understanding that sometimes force is necessary to protect humanity from fascism and other evils
    • So he had a very complex sort of understanding of our duties as citizens and our place in the world as America

Peter asks, “how old were you when some of those lessons started to mean something more than just the words that were spoken? And did he communicate through direct words or more indirect means?

  • When Sebastian grew up, the word fascist was a dirty word
    • He grew up knowing that that was the ultimate evil, and America stood diametrically opposed to fascism, that we were the opposite of fascism
    • America was the ultimate anti-fascist state
  • He  grew up during Vietnam and in a very liberal environment
    • So every adult he knew, everyone I knew was anti-Vietnam, anti-war, and by extension, though not fairly, were anti-U.S. military
  • He was born in 1962; so in 1980, he turned 18 and got a card in the mail from the U.S. government saying, “You’re an 18-year-old male. We need to know where you live, physically what your address is, in case we need to call you into combat.” 
  • So he was very surprised and learned a lot when he said to his dad back then, “What the hell is this? The draft is over. What do you mean, my government needs to know where I am? It doesn’t need to know where my sister is, but where I am in case they need me to fight one of their wars?… I’m not signing this.”
    • His dad was a pacifist
    • He expected my father to wholly approve that he wasn’t going to sign this
    • Instead his dad said, “No, you’re definitely signing it.” He’s like, “You don’t know what the next war is going to be. It may be a war that needs to be fought, like World War II was. You don’t owe your country nothing; you owe it something. And you may owe it your life, depending on the circumstances. If a war comes along that you feel is immoral and unnecessary, then it’s your duty to protest, and go to prison, if you need to, to protest it. But you don’t know that yet. You’re going to sign that card because you are part of this country, and it’s a magnificent thing to be part of.
    • That completely turned around Sebastian’s thinking about what it means to be an American citizen and a human being and to be part of a community
      • 35 years later, he’s still “chewing over that one”

His Dad’s thoughts on the Vietnam War

  • Peter asks if his dad viewed Vietnam as a different war from World War II; obviously it was, but what did he say
  • His dad said it was unnecessary and the specter of communism taking over the world
    • He said that the Gulf of Tonkin was a straight-up lie
    • Unlike 9/11, Vietnam started with a straight-up lie
    • They got us into a war that everyone knew was unwinnable and a lot of people thought was not needed, which was very different from 9/11 and from World War II, as far as my dad was concerned
    • So he hated the Vietnam War and was very adamant about it, as was every other adult I knew
      • It speaks to the community he was in
      • He could have grown up somewhere else, and it would’ve been the opposite 
  • Peter notes, this speaks to his dad’s ability to balance seemingly simultaneous contradictory facts
    • Vietnam ends in ‘74 or ‘75 and 5 years later Sebastian gets a card that is effectively a draft card and his dad can immediately pivot and say “this is very important; I can put Vietnam out of my mind”
    • There’s a recency bias that could have easily sounded like, “I don’t want my son being one of the boys that got slaughtered there for no reason.
    • His Dad also made it clear that if the war is immoral, it was his job to go to prison to protest it

The holocaust

  • His dad was half Jewish and he’s a quarter Jewish but he doesn’t identify with the Jewish culture
    • But the Holocaust seared itself into the minds of humanity in the 1940s and the sacrifice of American soldiers
    • Now, America acted out of its own interest and thought process; it didn’t join World War II because of the Holocaust
    • But the fact is that there are tens of thousands of American troops buried in France, his dad’s home country of France, stopping fascism, making sure that fascism did not take over Western Europe and the world
    • His dad has seen the graves of American soldiers, young men his age
  • The Germans  took Paris without a fight; it was a negotiated surrender
    • They sent advance units and tank columns deep into France to grab the Spanish border; across the border with Franco, it was a friendly fascist regime
    • His father and family fled by car
    • They were in Bion; he was 18 and walking down the street when he saw a German officer on foot in front of a column of tanks, creeping down a boulevard
    • The officer asks his family the way to the center of town; but they didn’t know or have maps 
    • His father spoke German; he spoke just about every language in Europe because they lived all over the place
    • The German officer was speaking bad French
      • His father spoke back to him in perfect German and lied to him and said, “Yeah, the center of town is that way”, and pointed the entire tank column in the opposite direction, and off they went
      • So that was his little act of rebellion
      • At the time his dad said, “Don’t ever be that stupid again, because they will kill you. If he found that out, he would’ve killed you right there.
    • That kind of experience didn’t leave him, and Sebastian’s dad thought the foremost threat to freedom and human dignity and the human race was fascism 
    • So Vietnam was a blip in the screen with that; fascism was it and it still is it
    • This country has gone through a little taste of it, and we came out, hopefully, stronger; but that bogeyman has not gone away in human society

{end of show notes preview}

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Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger is the #1 New York Times Bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, Fire, A Death in Belmont, War, Tribe, and Freedom.  As an award-winning journalist, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a special correspondent at ABC News, he has covered major international news stories around the world, and has received both a National Magazine Award and a Peabody Award. Junger is also a documentary filmmaker whose debut film Restrepo, a feature-length documentary (co-directed with Tim Hetherington), was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.   

Restrepo, which chronicled the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, is widely considered to have broken new ground in war reporting.  Junger has since produced and directed three additional documentaries about war and its aftermath. Which Way Is The Front Line From Here?, which premiered on HBO, chronicles the life and career of his friend and colleague, photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who was killed while covering the civil war in Libya in 2011.  Korengal returns to the subject of combat and tries to answer the eternal question of why young men miss war.   The Last Patrol, which also premiered on HBO, examines the complexities of returning from war by following Junger and three friends–all of whom had experienced combat, either as soldiers or reporters–as they travel up the East Coast railroad lines on foot as “high-speed vagrants.”

Sebastian Junger is the founder and director of Vets Town Hall.

Junger has also written for magazines including Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Outside and Men’s Journal. His reporting on Afghanistan in 2000, profiling Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated just days before 9/11, became the subject of the National Geographic documentary Into the Forbidden Zone, and introduced America to the Afghan resistance fighting the Taliban. 

He lives in New York City and Cape Cod. [sebastianjunger.com]



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