Interview With Sebastian Junger
How long did the last patrol take in totality?
We did it off and on over the course of a year. We wanted to walk in each season, so we spread it out. We walked about 350 miles at about 3 miles per hour, so that's roughly 100-plus hours of walking.
What was the most difficult thing about it?
We were carrying a lot of weight and were completely self-supported. We didn't have a production team bringing us food; we carried everything. We were sleeping outside. In the winter, it was 15 degrees at night. Our bodies just got beat up. We didn't have tents because the nylon attracts attention and we were breaking the law. We felt a little bit like we were behind enemy lines and had to keep a low profile.
Were there emotional challenges?
There wasn't any sort of emotional issues from the trip itself, but we all were carrying a lot of emotional baggage. Two of us were in marriages that were falling apart and two of us had just lost our fathers. All of us had some sort of PTSD. We were walking wounded, and it was actually good because the experience helped us work through some of it.
It seems like an intense, bonding experience.
There's this enormous closeness in war. It's closeness with other men, which is an uncomplicated closeness. Being in a male group can be very, very relaxing because you don't have to deal with anyone else's emotions. The last patrol gave us an experience of male closeness without getting shot at ? except for once in Pennsylvania. I think it got us to acknowledge how changed we were by combat. Combat does a lot of complicated things to people, but some of it is quite good.
How did combat change you?
It sounds like a clich�, but you understand that you really don't have much meaning in the universe, and you're alive by the most random chances. If you really take both those things in, you are present in the world in this moment. It's a pretty radical understanding.
Why did you include church visits in the film?
I'm a total atheist. I had never been to church and I was curious about it, so we went to church in a poor African-American community and in a wealthy white community. The poor folks were definitely having way more fun. The wealthy church looked like a funeral for someone no one liked very much. It was subdued, really boring and disconnected -- no emotions. The African American church was filled with expression.
You ask, "What's the best thing about America?" What answer surprised you?
I was amazed that it was in the poor communities that people said "freedom." The wealthy communities didn't remember to say that because, I think, they take it for granted.
What do you believe is the best thing about America?
It's something connected to the idea that this is one of the politically freest countries in the world. The fact that you can stand on a street corner in New York City and yell criticisms of the president without getting arrested is amazing.
But I should say, there is an awful lot of economic injustice that cancels out those freedoms for a lot of people. And that should be a source of deep shame for all of us -- that in a country this wealthy, enlightened and politically free, we allow a situation where many people are effectively imprisoned in a cycle of poverty with the income gap widening and widening.
What do you hope veterans and civilians take away from this film?
I'd love to have veterans see this film as an example of how to create the closeness of combat, but back home. I'd love civilians to be able to see just how weird this country is; how varied, racially divided, rich, poor and beautiful. It's a very funky country.
I'd love to have civilians also just clock the emotional challenges of not just being a vet, but in some ways, of being a man in society. It's a little confusing. I'm sure it's confusing being a woman too but I think the conversation about men -- "What's it mean to be a man?" -- is one that's discouraged. I got a lot of sh*t from friends who said, "It's politically awkward to do that." I was like, "I think it feels pretty important." We're not trying to dictate what it means to be a man; we're trying to understand what people mean by the word.
I think it would be wonderful if women sort of watched this film and thought, "Wow, I'm sort of a fly on the wall. This is how men really are when women aren't around -- the best and worst of them." Personally, I would absolutely love to watch a film that followed four women walking 350 miles along the railroad lines and hear what they talked about.
Is anything that we can do for soldiers coming back home?
There's nothing simple or obvious. Male soldiers spend 15 months with a group of guys where no one really talks about their feelings very much. They come back to their home, and all of a sudden they're in this emotional world. Neither is better or worse, but it's a real transition to ease back into the more emotion-based world of your wife, family and children.
If you look at Western society, or just post-industrial society around the world, the rates of suicide, depression, insomnia, anxiety, loneliness and child abuse are at the highest levels ever in human history. That's what soldiers are coming home to -- of course they have trouble reintegrating. If we could save the soldiers, we'd be saving ourselves. They're just the canary in the coal mine.