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Sebastian Junger: Bravery, War, and Purpose

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Sebastian Junger: Bravery, War, and Purpose

Sebastian Junger is an award-winning author, journalist, and filmmaker. His newest book, Freedom, discusses the innate conflict between the need for community and the desire for independence. Sebastian is also the founder of Vets Town Hall, an organization that gives veterans a platform to share their stories.

You can follow him on twitter @SebastianJunger

Ken Harbaugh:

Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.

Sebastian Junger:

I was on the threshold of death and on that threshold I had a very strange experience. I'm an atheist. I don't believe in anything that I can't measure or count and there was my dead father over me, welcoming me to the other side. Because I was still conversing, I said to the doctor, "You got to hurry. You're losing me right now. I'm going."

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Sebastian Junger, an award-winning author, journalist, and filmmaker. His newest book, Freedom, discusses the innate conflict between the need for community and the desire for independence. Sebastian is also the founder of Vets Town Hall, an organization that gives veterans a platform to share their stories. Sebastian, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Sebastian Junger:

Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

Ken Harbaugh:

We're going to talk about Freedom, your latest book, but I have to revisit your previous bestseller Tribe, which I first read as a veteran while at Team Rubicon and spoke to everyone I knew in a way that no other book about the veteran experience did. But I reread it recently as, I guess, a citizen of a democracy that is under threat from within. And I want to read you a quote from it and get your reaction. You wrote, "It may be worth considering whether middle-class American life, for all its material good fortune, has lost some essential sense of unity that might otherwise discourage alienated men from turning apocalyptically violent." Did you ever imagine, when writing that, that something like January 6th could happen in America?

Sebastian Junger:

I didn't imagine January 6th specifically, but when I wrote this in the summer of 2015, the Republican primary was in full swing and there was an awful lot of violent rhetoric around our political conversation and there was also this sort of bizarre fetishizing of guns, which is such a puzzle. I mean, guns are a tool and they're a good tool and I sort of get it, and I own a couple myself, but the worshiping for firearms seemed like a particular moment in this country's history and, in fact, sign of how very, very safe and protected we are that we can indulge such fantasies and not understand their true danger. So no, I didn't picture January 6th itself, it's too outrageous to picture just like 9/11 was too outrageous to picture, but as soon as it happened, tragically, it sort of made all the sense in the world.

Ken Harbaugh:

You talked about the fetishization of guns, I feel like that has been ratcheted up, the way ratchets work, they only go in one direction and as rhetoric escalates and passions escalate, you have to up the stakes. And now, that same community, that same movement, seems to be fetishizing insurrection or civil war. Have you seen the same thing, this glamorization of internal strife?

Sebastian Junger:

Yeah, I mean, it feels like if you're a Republican lawmaker and you don't get busted at an airport carrying a loaded gun you're not really Republican enough. I fear that that's where the old and venerable and necessary Republican Party is headed at the moment. It's very puzzling. But I would say about January 6th, I mean, I've spent a lot of time in combat and I've spent a lot of time with American forces in combat and the sort of bozos that dress themselves up in camouflage and attacked our nation's capital, they sort of masquerading as combat veterans and all that, it seems to be, and I'm happy to be proven wrong, but it seems to be that virtually none of those guys had actually seen any combat whatsoever overseas that they were sort of playing out a fantasy of themselves in a war zone. They either dodged or missed the real fighting overseas and so they're sort of cooking up a dramatic situation for themselves where they can act out the part of hero and it's, among other things, juvenile and pathetic. It's also very dangerous to our nation. And I think only people that haven't seen what a 120 millimeter mortar can do to the human body, who haven't seen what a 7.6 two round can do to a person's body. Only people that haven't seen such things could imagine that war is in any way romantic or appealing in the context of this nation, right? I mean, that we would have an armed civil conflict in this nation is such a preposterous fantasy and it seems to be one that a sort of puzzling number of men and women, unfortunately, on the right side of the political spectrum indulge in. I don't know if they really mean it literally, but even if they don't mean it literally it's terribly dangerous. Very, very dangerous thoughts and completely undemocratic, unpatriotic, un-American, virtually a form of treason.

Ken Harbaugh:

We've spent some time on this show talking about the strange appeal that this moment has to a subset of veterans and we had a previous guest, I believe it was former Navy SEAL Dan Barkhuff, but it might've been someone else, who said, "The most dangerous insurrectionist is the vet who missed the war by 10 minutes."

Sebastian Junger:

[Laughs] Yeah. Well, then he and I are on the same page. I think that's very true and I think if you go through the people that were in the rotunda or in the Capitol Building and pick out the guys who claim they were combat vets, I bet virtually none, if not none of them were actually in combat.

One of the things I, and again, I understand firearms, the need for them, their appeal, all of that, but one of my problems with firearms is that they allow cowards to imagine that they're brave men. They imagine cowards to imagine that they're heroes. It's too easy, it's too easy a shortcut to something that feels like a kind of masculine strength. And again, as a shortcut, it's pathetic.

Ken Harbaugh:

Your last book talks a lot about masculinity and about this innate need among primarily men to test themselves, and that's something that you lived. You talk about having been to war many times and, thankfully, been back every time. But what inside you drove you to wind up on the airfield in Sarajevo that first time.

Sebastian Junger:

Yeah, I mean, I should say the two sexes, if we can limit ourselves to two at the moment, I understand there's a broader conversation there, but just for the time being, men and women, they both have burdens imposed by society and, in some ways, necessary burdens, right? The burden imposed on young men is that you're really not considered mature, you're not considered a man until you've demonstrated, in some ways, your strength and selflessness, your willingness to make sacrifices for society, for others. The problem with safe, mechanized, technologized, modern society is that there's really no need for that kind of sacrifice and strength on the part of young men and there's sort of no way to prove that you're willing to make those sacrifices if called upon. Every society transitions adolescent males to manhood through some sort of test. I mean, every sort of organic small scale tribal society, most of them understand the young men's need to know that they're worthy, that they're courageous. If you grow up in an American suburb, as I did, you can get to age 18, 19, 20 and really wonder, am I a man? And the language is filled with question marks about that. I mean, people, men and women both, are very happy to say, "Come on, be a man about it. Man up." Right? That means be a mature person, stop thinking just about yourself. People don't say, "Woman up. Be a woman about it," because on some level, I think, society assumes that adult females are mature, and are women. They've graduated to adult status in the way that a 25-year-old male might actually not have. And so, what does the idea of being a man mean to someone who grew up in a safe suburb? Well, for me, it meant testing myself in ways where I had to be courageous and competent and self sacrificing in order to sort of prove my abilities, my worthiness and I did a number of things that tested me in those ways, but one of them was, at least in my imagination, one of them was to go to Sarajevo during the war.

My father was a refugee from two wars, the Spanish Civil War and World War II. War has been part of his family, my family, since I can remember. And I went to Sarajevo to sort of see what war was, to become a journalist, to become a war reporter, and inevitably, to sort of test myself and demonstrate to myself that at age 31 that I was worthy, that I was courageous, that I was noble in some way.

Ken Harbaugh:

I want to give you a chance to talk about the outsized role that women play in martial endeavors. You've written really compellingly recently, and I think some of this might be highlighted by what's happening in Ukraine, about the moral courage of women and just how much tougher it is to defeat and enemy where women play a central role. Speak to that.

Sebastian Junger:

Yeah. So the data say that in a sudden dangerous situation, a house fire, things like that, almost invariably it's men, particularly young men, that sort of spring into action and climb the balustrade to get in the fourth floor window to save the kid, and someone else's kid, whatever. That kind of immediate, muscular, courageous action. Jumps onto the subway tracks before the train hits the person who fell. It's almost always men that do that and they have a very, very high mortality rate when they do it, I think one in five, right? Women virtually never do that. But what women have, in spades, is an equally dangerous moral courage and women are often the component of the population that will protest what the Nazis were doing. For example, it was women who were often hiding Jewish families in their basements during the Holocaust in northern Europe, in Holland, in Belgium, a decision that men might not make.

And so, there you have equal forms of courage expressed slightly differently through gender. So in my book Freedom what I looked at is humans' ability to have a smaller individual or smaller group defeat a larger one. Throughout the animal kingdom size wins, right? Size and strength win. In human affairs, it doesn't necessarily and history is littered with examples of underdog groups insurgents or a political movement or what have you, revolutions, where the underdog groups that won and one of the things they have in common is the involvement of women in the cause. And once you have some journalists call this the grandmother effect. Once you have grandmothers protesting injustice in the streets, you know you have virtually the entire society behind that movement and it's only a matter of time until the leader falls, the leader fails. And if it's just a bunch of young men in the street throwing Molotov cocktails, you can sort of bet that once they open up with the machine guns, that that's over with. But you get women in there and it really changes the dynamic. I looked at the labor movement about 100 years in this county and in Lawrence, Massachusetts there was a strike at a textile mill that got very violent and the national guard was there with fixed bayonets confronting these young men, immigrant men who were protesting horrendous working conditions and then the protestors started putting women on the front line and the soldiers didn't know what to do. They weren't going to bayonet women and it tipped the balance. And one cop, one frustrated police chief said, "One cop can handle 10 men, but it takes 10 cops to handle one woman." And partly as a result of that, the strikers won.

Ken Harbaugh:

I've got that quote right in front of me and in the context I have it, you write it as a lesson for Putin and you close it by saying, "When women get involved in a rebellion, it's often just a matter of time before they win."

Sebastian Junger:

Yeah. I mean, I wrote an article for Vanity Fair that, in the context of Ukraine, boiled down the thoughts from my book, Freedom, last year. Basically, you look at the insurgence, the people of Ukraine that are fighting off the Russian military, they've got all three things that successful underdog groups typically have, they're fighting for a cause that feels ancient and noble, which is basically freedom, I mean, the ability to be autonomous and self-defining. Everyone understands the human virtue of that and why it's so necessary to human dignity, and something that I don't think the Russians really think that they're fighting for. God knows what those young boys in Russian uniforms think they're fighting for. So you need to have a transcendent cause, such as freedom and safety, you need to have leaders who are willing to die for the cause, literally die, right?

When you have the Afghan president, Ghani, who fled with $200 million rather than face the Taliban, you have a leader who's not willing to die for the cause. Well, clearly the Ukrainian president, Zelenskyy is willing to die. He stayed in place knowing his life was not worth a plug nickel if the Russians took over, and there he is, defiant and courageous. And then, finally, you need the involvement of women and that is often a hallmark of a movement that will ultimately be successful, like the Irish uprising around 100 years ago in Ireland against British rule.

Ken Harbaugh:

Are you at all tempted to go to Ukraine to report?

Sebastian Junger:

I mean I'm tempted to do all kinds of things that I wouldn't really consider doing for a moment. Yeah, I mean, my war reporting, it was a previous era in my life, I look back on it with a lot of fondness. But now, I've stopped war reporting. I have two little girls, a five-year-old and a two-year-old who are my central joy and meaning in life along with my wife. And no, I'm not getting on a plane to go over there, although I wish them well and I read the news every day and I think, "Wow, sometimes the good guys win."

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, that's what I wanted to get to, because you are a relatively recent father and I'm wondering how that has changed your worldview, on one hand, and your internal view, on the other, your risk tolerance, your sense of adventure, how has it changed you?

Sebastian Junger:

Well, I mean, quite a few years ago I stopped war reporting after my friend and colleague and brother Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya. I stopped war reporting, because I saw the effect of one's death on everyone who loves you. And then, all of a sudden, going to war didn't seem noble and courageous, it seemed selfish and potentially hurtful to everyone you love. When I say the effect on Tim's friends and family, they effect of his death, I was like, "No, I don't want to be that guy." Maybe 20 years ago, but not now at age 50. I'm not going to do that to my people, right? So now it's 10 years on, I have a family, my risk tolerance is zero, like literally zero. If something happens to me, my daughters won't have a father. I mean, forget about my loss, I can't do that to them, I love them too much and my role is too important with them, not to mention for my wife. So zero risk tolerance, I don't cross the street against the light. It's kind of laughable sometimes.

Ken Harbaugh:

Tell us just a little about Tim, because I know people miss him terribly and that was a trip to Libya, right? Reporting on that conflict.

Sebastian Junger:

Yeah. Tim and I were colleagues in Afghanistan when we were with American forces in the Korengal Valley and he joined. I wanted to make a documentary about this platoon and write a book and he started working with me a few months into the deployment and quickly saw that it was a good project and joined forces with me and we made a film called Restrepo that had a lot of success and went all the way to the Oscars. And we didn't take an Oscar, but we came awfully close. It was a very exciting time. And a few weeks later, in journalistic terms, surf's up. The Arab Spring is roiling in the Middle East and we were anxious to get back into the thick of it and report on the happenings of the world and we had an assignment for Vanity Fair to cover the Arab Spring in any way that we saw fit and we decided to go to Libya and at the last moment I couldn't go. For personal reasons, he went on his own and he was killed in the city of Misrata, he was hit by fragments from a mortar round fired by Gaddafi's forces, hit in the groin and he bled out in the back of a rebel pickup truck racing for the Misrata Hospital. And I got the news of that through a phone call probably an hour or two after it happened and I was hit with this avalanche of shock and grief and guilt. I should've been there to protect him. I should've been there to help him. It should've been me, not him. I didn't have children at the time, obviously, and I just was devastated with guilt and it took a very, very long time to work through that. First time I really understood what soldiers were saying, this sort of survivor's guilt, I never quite understood it like, "Come on, man. The guy took a bullet in the forehead 300 meters away from you. How is that your fault?" Right? I would have this conversation with soldiers and they could never quite explain it and I could never quite understand it until Tim was killed and 6,000 miles away or whatever it was, it was my fault somehow and it took me years to dig myself out of that.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm wondering how your experience as a professional storyteller has blended with your experience of war and trauma and whether you think that's given you a special insight into how storytelling can be its own catharsis.

Sebastian Junger:

I mean, let's see. When I'm speaking publicly there's a big toggle switch in me that switches off my emotions, and I make sure the last thing I do before I go to the podium to give my talk is to switch that thing off, so I don't get choked up talking about things that otherwise are extremely emotional for me. And so, those moments for me are not cathartic in the same way that talking to friends and loved ones might be. What I'm trying to do when I talk publicly and that would include podcasts like this, is I'm trying to help people. I, myself, don't need help in that context. I'm okay. I get my help from other sources, but I am in a position, I think, to make some enduring sense out of confusing stories, to sort of talk about how pain and trauma and hardship can actually lead to positive growth, as well, and I've experienced all those things. For me, when I talk publicly, it's not about my catharsis, it's about how can I talk about these topics in a way that people can take away from here in a way that they can sort of make use of later the way I have made use of these ideas on my own, in my own life.

Ken Harbaugh:

Do you think there's a way to bring that approach to communities? I'm thinking about just how divided we are as a society and some of the collective traumas we've experienced, how much faith do you put in storytelling the right way to create some kind of shared sense of purpose of identity? What hope do you have for our democracy's ability to rise above the division we're now experiencing?

Sebastian Junger:

I don't know. It's hard to tell. We're a nation of 330 million, that's a sort of experiment in human history, running a group of that size. And if one political party decides that the democratic process will keep it effectively out of power, for the foreseeable future, I'm talking about the GOP right now, you can kind of understand their cold-blooded calculation. Okay, well then we'll subvert the democratic process, because otherwise we're out of luck. We're no longer at the poker table. Right? And so, I don't know what calculations they're making. Would they really rather have power in an autocracy rather than share power in a democracy? I don't know. I would've thought no. I mean, back in the days of Nixon, the Republican Party told Nixon, "If you don't resign, we're going to impeach you," so Nixon spared them the trouble and resigned. I'm not sure that would happen in today's GOP. In fact, I'm sure it wouldn't. So I don't know how far they'll fall from their democratic ideals. It's an awfully strange question for me. But in terms of uniting the country among the people, right? Forget about the politicians, among the people, there are ways to do that and shared trauma is something that really bonds people very effectively. And so, you get trapped in an elevator with three people for eight hours, you're pretty bonded by the end of it. You go through the Blitz in London during World War II, you go through a hurricane or tornado, that bonds people very, very powerfully, an earthquake, and it erases all these ghastly distinctions of race and class and income and politics, it erases those distinctions for a while in a way that people find very, very liberating.

So one way to make use of this is, there was a dance, a ceremony called the gourd dance among the Native tribes of the Great Plains, northern and southern Great Plains before Western domination, American domination. And basically, warriors would go out and fight their enemies, whoever they may be and come back after an exceptionally bloody hand-to-hand sort of experience as warfare was in those days, and would come back, hopefully victorious, prideful, and traumatized, probably. And so, the community would allow them, each warrior to sing and dance and act out and tell of his exploits on the battlefield, what he did for his people. And I thought, "How could you incorporate that into modern American society?," and that's where Veterans Town Hall was born.

And you can go to our website vetstownhall, it's very easy to find, it's a very easy thing to do. Basically, in any community the town hall is the center of governance, the center of the community, it's not open for business on Veterans' Day. So open it up, turn on the PA system and our idea that- and we've done this for years now, in an increasing number of towns and cities. Any veteran of any war who served in any capacity who harbors any opinions whatsoever about the war that he or she fought in has the right to stand up for 10 minutes and tell the community, a community that they served for, that they fought for, what it felt like to go to war. Some veterans will be very proud and say it was the high point of their lives. Some veterans will be very angry that they had to do this and that they did this and that they came home and were received in the manner in which they were received. And some veterans will be, frankly, crying too hard to really say much of anything, because they're just saddled with such profound grief. It's all part of war and when people do that, the listeners become morally engaged in the war, it's their war, too. Right? We sent them over there, our tax dollars, our airplanes, our government decided that these wars must be fought and we sent young people to do it and they came back with burdens that should be our burdens, as well. And when you have that kind of cathartic, and it is cathartic, public experience, not only is the veteran helped by unburdening themselves of these thoughts, these feelings, or celebrating their thoughts and feelings, as the case may be, but the community itself is asked to engage and shoulder those burdens and participate in the celebrations and that is an experience that completely transcends race, income, politics, all those ghastly divisions.

Ken Harbaugh:

One of the most important elements of that experience, which is reflected in the way many Native cultures welcomed warriors back into the fold, was the care taken not to valorize or lionize or put them on a pedestal in a way that separated them even further from the society they were trying to reenter. Yeah, go ahead.

Sebastian Junger:

Yeah, I mean, one of the problems with overly lionizing, valorizing veterans of anybody is that you sort of ghettoize them in this place of valor that no one else can touch, and the task is to reintegrate people back into ordinary society, reintegrate people who have come back from heroic duty and experienced or even didn't experience trauma, was just a supply clerk in a rear base somewhere, whatever. It doesn't matter. But you have to bring them back and you can't bring them back into normal society and make the claim that they are physically and morally superior to everybody else. You can't do it. What you want to do is honor their service, acknowledge their service, thank them for their service, and then ask them to become a normal person again.

There's a wonderful painting by Winslow Homer of a civil war vet. It was painted in 1865 or 1866, right? Immediately after the Civil War ended. And it shows a union soldier with his musket and rucksack and his military blues, his union uniform sort of piled up in the corner on the ground, corner of the painting, and he has a big scythe and he's harvesting wheat and it's called The Veteran in New Fields. The message is really clear like, okay, done fighting, well done on the war, welcome home, now get to work, we need you. It's late September, the wheat needs to be gotten in before it gets cold. Life continues to grab your scythe and get to work and that's an enormously healthy thing for veterans to be asked to do and I think when you... I mean, of course there are people that are completely deeply, deeply physically and psychologically damaged from combat and they must be taken care of by our society. It's immoral not to.

But I think there's also a subset of the veteran population that has been affected by the war, very affected but are still functional. And when the government warehouses them with 100% PTSD or whatever, disability, just enough money so that they never have to work again in their lives, but not enough money to really do anything with their lives, if you want to engineer a depressed alcoholic, give a veteran enough money to live in their parent's basement and not have to work and see what happens. It's a really dangerous thing to do. If you call to them to continue contributing to society and to now engage like World War II veterans, engage in the society on a day to day basis.

I mean, my wife is the youngest of 12, her father fought in World War II. He came back and he ran a local savings and loan bank in a little small town in the Midwest and then became the mayor. He came home and went right to work and he served three straight years from North Africa to Sicily, Italy, France, all the way to Austria on foot. Right? In the infantry, fighting the entire way. And he came back and went right to work. It's a very, very healthy thing if you're capable, if you're able. It's a very, very healthy thing for veterans to do and for us to ask them to do.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, it's a tough distinction to make sometimes, given the archetypes that are out there and it takes either fellow vets or folks with immense credibility with that population, like you, to make that distinction between those who absolutely need help and need to be supported, in some cases, for the rest of their lives, and those who need a hand, but who are going to be better off if, like you said, they get out of the basement and you give them that opportunity.

Sebastian Junger:

Yeah, I mean, look, the human species for hundreds of thousands of years lived in small groups where everyone's contribution was necessary, groups of 30, 40, 50 people in a pretty harsh environment and young and old, male and female, everyone was sort of needed to make sure that everyone survived. And your survival came from being part of that group. Humans do not survive alone in nature, they die immediately, right? We all survive, whether you're a hunter-gatherer in Africa or an American citizen in New York, whatever, we all survive because we're part of a group. And the way to ensure that you'll continue to be part of that group is to be necessary, to be needed. So when you sort of warehouse someone, say, "You know what? You fought. Well done in the war. We don't really need you anymore. We'll give you just enough money so you don't starve, but don't worry about contributing anymore to this country, because we really don't need you anymore. We're good. Don't worry about it."

You know what you're doing is triggering this ancient human anxiety like, "I'm not needed, therefore I'm not safe. I mean, the group may decide that they don't want me anymore if I'm not needed." I mean that's why people get so depressed when they retire. The risk of suicide goes way up when people retire. It's this ancient human fear, if I'm not needed, I'm not safe, I'm not wanted. It's terrifying. So that's what we're doing, unintentionally that's what we're doing to vets.

Ken Harbaugh:

The picture you paint there describes a much larger share of the population in this modern era where we feel constantly surrounded by others, but as lonely as we have ever been.

Sebastian Junger:

Yeah, I mean, modern society is a strange thing. It's miraculous in a lot of ways, but it's the first time in history, I think, that you can go through an entire day seeing thousands of faces and not recognize any of them. If you live in New York city or in a major city, I mean, in one day how many people do you see? Hundreds and hundreds, thousands, and not know any of them. That's a very, very strange thing. Being alone in the woods is one thing, and being among people that you know is another thing, and those are all very, very human experiences, but being alone among people, that's novel and I think psychologically it's very, very hard on our species.

Ken Harbaugh:

I've been rereading Hannah Arendt, of course, famous for her observation about the banality of evil, but I've been diving into her insights on loneliness and authoritarianism and I don't think it's ever been truer that a lonely society is vulnerable to authoritarian demagogues.

Sebastian Junger:

Yeah, I mean, I'm blanking on his name. He was a wonderful writer, he was a stevedore, he was a dock worker in San Francisco for a long time and a brilliant, brilliant man who wrote shortly after World War II. His name will come to me. God, I can't believe I forgot it. Anyway, he made this amazing point about fascists and how the people that join these fascist movements, for these grand causes are often people with disappointing or failed lives and what it allows them to do is feel greater than themselves, part of something bigger than themselves. As the wonderful band, Queens of the Stone Age, sang at one point, the lead singer just died apparently, "I want something to die for to make it beautiful to live." Right? And so, what he found, and God I blanked on his name, what this writer found, he looked at the communists in Russia and the fascists in Germany and other European countries and what he found was that the most fervent adherents and I would say this applies to the January 6th people, as well, the most fervent adherents were actually people that were striving for a meaningful life and didn't really feel that they had one until this great moment in history where they could perform this heroic role sort of saving civilization. And that is a terrifying idea and demagogues make great use of that and I think that's what Hannah Arendt meant.

Ken Harbaugh:

I do, too. What are you working on now, Sebastian?

Sebastian Junger:

I had a very traumatic event happen to me a couple of years ago. I had an undiagnosed aneurysm in small artery in my abdomen, a completely sort of bizarre and rare anatomical anomaly, not related to anything really and I'm asymptomatic and undiagnosed and it ruptured, just one day, it ruptured and I basically bled out into my abdomen. It's something that is almost always fatal. And it took me 90 minutes to get to the ER, my blood pressure was 60/40. I mean, I was on the threshold of death and on that threshold I had a very strange experience. I'm an atheist. I don't believe in anything that I can't measure or count and there was my dead father over me, welcoming me to the other side. Because I was still conversing, I said to the doctor, "You got to hurry. You're losing me right now. I'm going." And he was cutting my neck open to put a line into my jugular and they put 10 units of blood into me and stabilized me and I'm a healthy guy, I'm a strong guy, I gave them something to work with and it took them another eight hours, but they finally managed to find the ruptured artery and plug it, embolize it with a catheter embolism and I managed to survive. And so, I'm writing about that experience both medically, psychologically, but also metaphysically. What was my father doing there? And it's a very common experience and I'm really sort of curious about near death experiences, because the dead show up to welcome you. It's very common, it happens all over the world to many, many people and it happened to me and I just can't explain it.

Ken Harbaugh:

Your father was a physicist, right? He wasn't a priest or a monk? Or...

Sebastian Junger:

No, he was an atheist physicist. Yeah. And there he was. And I wanted nothing to do with him. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love my dad, but I was like, "Not now, Dad, we got nothing to talk about. I'm staying over here. Get out of here." But it was very, very traumatic, as well. I've been in lots of combat and things that... whatever, I've run my risks and I'm fine from all that. But the trauma of almost dying in your own home of something completely unexpected, undiagnosable, just boom, like that, and that maybe it could happen again, which it can't. But I wound up with a real sort of panic... anxiety disorder after that and very depressed and with a lot of trauma. I mean, all very, very common symptoms after an experience like that. It was way worse than combat.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I look forward to reading it and I can only imagine how traumatic that must've been. Last question, because I've been looking for this quote that is stuck in my head and I can't find the source in your writings for it. You shared once that you thought God's greatest oversight was that dogs don't outlive their humans. Does that ring a bell? Was that you?

Sebastian Junger:

Yeah, God's greatest oversight is that dogs don't live as long as men. Yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, dogs don't live as long as men. I have shared that with several friends who have lost their canine companions and they all appreciated hearing it.

Sebastian Junger:

I mean, imagine if when you got together with your dog it was for life, the way marriage is or is supposed to be. Imagine the possibilities and the other sort of corollary, the other of God's great oversights is that men, and by men I mean people, but this is in the context of a trip I took with a group of men, that men can't run as fast as dogs. Now, imagine if both things are true what you could get up to.

Ken Harbaugh:

I love imagining that. Sebastian, it has been great having you. I feel like we could talk for hours and hours, so let's try to do it again.

Sebastian Junger:

Thank you. I look forward to it.

Ken Harbaugh:

That was Sebastian Junger. You can follow him on twitter @SebastianJunger

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter at @Team_Harbaugh.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.



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