By Sebastian Junger
Sebastian Junger embedded with a U.S. Army platoon in eastern Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008, and to judge from his work, he has been trying to find his way home ever since. He made two documentaries about the deployment, the terrific “Restrepo” and its sequel, “Korengal,” and wrote a book, “War” (2010). Then he turned his focus to the weirdness of returning to the United States, both for soldiers and for war reporters, in a third documentary, “The Last Patrol,” and laid out his passionate, counterintuitive ideas about post-traumatic stress disorder in a small but wide-ranging book, “Tribe” (2016). The problem, he argued, wasn’t old-fashioned shell shock in many cases; it wasn’t medical at all, but existential — a loss of purpose. The brotherhood of combat forged a deep emotional connectedness that an atomized, uncomprehending America could not sustain.
“Freedom,” Junger’s latest book, begins in the middle of a mysterious pilgrimage: “The country opened up west of Harrisburg and suddenly we could drink from streams and build fires without getting caught and sleep pretty much anywhere we wanted. We’d walked the railroad tracks from Washington to Baltimore to Philly and then turned west at the Main Line and made Amish country by winter.” These lines have a lovely roll, the tone is heroic — they made Amish country by winter. But basic information is withheld, or only obliquely shared much, much later. Who are the members of this westbound party? What is their purpose? We are never told.
But for those who have seen “The Last Patrol,” which was released in 2014, things are clearer. It’s about the same trek. Junger’s companions, at least initially, are two of the soldiers from his time in Afghanistan, a Spanish photojournalist and war reporter, and a hulking black dog named Daisy. People speak, joke, have names; you see them walking, camping, playing with the dog. They talk to people they meet. Junger makes an effort to frame their project — “a 300-mile conversation about war” and why it’s so hard to come home — which is more or less what happens in the film. That’s not what happens in the book. Here, we pass through countryside, nearly all of it in south-central Pennsylvania, and don’t hear a word from anyone till the second half. “Freedom” has a different purpose, a frame far less explicit.
Afghanistan is scarcely mentioned, although the hikers, who are walking along the tracks illegally, do seem easily spooked. They’re irrationally afraid of passing trains. They camp in defensive formation. “I kept a knife in my boots, which were loosely laced so I could just drop my feet into them and run,” Junger writes. That never becomes necessary. In fact, virtually nothing happens outside the author’s head.