12 min read

Highlights from Freedom (Sebastian Junger)

Freedom is a memoir of Sebastian Junger's journeys along the tracks of railroads in the Eastern United States. In between recollections of events he had while walking are historical anecdotes and philosophical meditations. It's a short, quick read and got me interested in learning more about the Westward expansion of the US.

Some basic American Indian history.

By the time the first European got there, however, the Onojutta-Haga were gone, wiped out by the Iroquois conquests of the 1600s. Using guns supplied by Dutch fur traders, the five-nation Iroquois Confederacy effectively tried to take over everything east of the Mississippi and north of the Carolinas. They fought and eventually destroyed the Cat Nation of Ohio—also known as the Erie—leaving behind nothing "but great droves of wolves." They walked five hundred miles to destroy the Cherokee and Choctaw of Carolina. They sent a thousand men into Ontario to overrun the Huron. They forced the Shawnee and the Delaware and the Mingo into a kind of vassal servitude. And they easily dispatched the smaller tribes of eastern Pennsylvania: the Great Flats People, as the Iroquois called them, around the Wyoming Valley; the Cave Devils of the West Branch; and Onojutta-Haga. All that remained was the name of the river, and their stone.

The mismatch between Indians and settlers.

Settlers working their way up the Juniata in the early 1700s faced a wall of wilderness inhabited by some of the most warlike people on the planet. The Natives were better fed than the Europeans and tended to be taller and more muscular. Some dressed in the skins of bears and wolves and even wore the head over their own, as if they were that animal. Captain John Smith met a Susquehannock with a wolf's skull hung around this neck like a huge piece of jewelry. During combat they carried musket balls in their mouths for easy reloading and moved through the forest so quickly and quietly that colonial forces often thought they were fighting five or ten times as many warriors as they actually were.

Railroad tracks are more complex than you might think.

The rails are high-quality steel rolled at the foundry into thirty-nine-foot lengths that weigh around one ton and are welded into sections almost a quarter mile long. The continuous-welded rail, as it's called, is laid onto steel tie plates spiked into wood crossties that sit on beds of crushed rock called top ballast. The top ballast is irregular and hard to walk on and the ties are spaced twenty-one inches apart which, coincidentally or not, falls midway between a long stride and short stride. It is extraordinarily hard to walk on railroad track.

Every component of a railroad track will eventually loosen, warp, break, or fail, which means that railroad lines are constantly being worked on by repair crews. Much of the 140,000 miles of railroad line in America has no original components left at all.

Walking in cadence.

Cadence sometimes descends on the entire group at once and can produce a strange feeling of elation. You know you're in cadence when walking feels easier than not walking. You know you're in cadence when you stop talking or even thinking and just walk. You'll know you're in cadence when the rhythm of everyone's footsteps coalesces into a long complex tattoo that evolves over hours and bears you along like the current of an invisible river you've been seeking your whole life.

The changes in daily life over the past hundred years or so must be greater than any other point in human history.

Most Americans did not own a car until after World War Two, and "traveling" often meant walking out your front door and not stopping. During the Great Depression, one-quarter of the labor force had no work and there were so many Americans on the move that rural schoolhouses were often left unlocked so travelers could find shelter for the night. Schools always had a well to draw water for the horses and benches for the children to sleep on. Families generally stayed in the schoolhouses and lone men slept in people's barns—when they were luckly—or simply out in the woods.

It's hard to define what freedom is.

[L]ots of things that look like freedom when you're with other people are just a form of exile when you're alone, and vagrancy might be one of them. But the inside joke about freedom—he would have found out soon enough—is that you're always trading obedience to one thing for obedience to another.

On Daniel Boone.

Throughout history, good people and bad have maintained their freedom by simply staying out of reach of those who would deprive them of it. That generally meant walking a lot. Walking is the single cheapest, most reliable way of traveling without others knowing. Daniel Boone, the famed trapper and explorer, was known for going into the wilderness with little more than a rifle, a bedroll, and the clothes he was wearing. He and one or two companions would spend six months walking from Carolina to Kentucky and Tennesse, trapping as they went and returning home with packhorses loaded with furs. Once Boone went as far as Florida. He called these trips "Long Hunts". He'd be gone so long that his wife would take lovers and people would think he was dead, but he wasn't. He was doing what people have always done to make sure no one can tell them what to do or how to live their life.

Seminole vs. US Army.

In 1835 the U.S. government got serious about rounding up the remaining Seminole and sent roughly 5,000 federal troops into the Everglades to root them out. A few hundred Seminole and fugitive slaves fought them to a standstill, in one battle wiping out almost an entire company—107 men. After losing 1,500 soldiers and spending an estimated $30 million, the government finally gave up and left this renegade tribe in peace. Ten years later another round of fighting ended the same way. The descendants of these people continued in almost complete isolation until the 1930s and they are the only indigenous group to have never signed a legal agreement with the United States.

Balancing freedom and self sufficiency

If subsistence-level survival were the standard for absolute freedom, the word would mean nothing because virtually no one could pass the test. People love to believe they're free, though, which is hard to achieve in a society that has outsourced virtually all of the tasks needed for survival. Few people grow their own food or build their own homes, and no one—literally no one—refines their own gasoline, performs their own surgery, makes their own ball bearings, grinds their own eyeglass lenses, or manufactures their own electronics from scratch. Everyone—including people who vehemently oppose any form of federal government—depend on a sprawling supply chain that can only function with federal oversight, and most of them pay roughly one-third of their income in taxes for the right to participate in this system.

For most of human history, freedom had to be at least suffered for, if not died for, and that raised its value to something almost sacred. In modern democracies, however, an ethos of public sacrifice is rarely needed because 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 draught, for example—are forms of government tyranny. They are no more forms of tyranny than rationing water on a lifeboat. The idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing.

On the Apache

Far more successful at defying the Spaniards—and everyone else—were the small, mobile bands of Apache hunters that lived in the same area. (The name means “our enemy” in Zuni.) Coronado first encountered them on the plains of west Texas, where he came upon an encampment of “Querechos,” as he called them—probably Lipan Apache. To his amazement, these people neither got out of the way nor showed much deference at the approach of his huge army. They were wild, fearless people who were perfectly adapted to their environment. They slept in buffalo-skin tents and ate almost nothing but buffalo meat and made buffalo-intestine canteens, which they filld with blood and looped around their necks. Their all-meat diet predisposed them to scurvy, but they prevented that by drinking the stomach contents of dead buffalo, which was mostly digested grasses that were high in vitamin C. Afoot in an immense land, they were still able to give Coronado's scouts a detailed description of the Mississippi River, which lay five hundred miles to the east. “These Indians left this place the following day", Castañeda reported, "drove of dogs carrying their belongings.”

Scattering like quail allowed the Apache to remain autonomous almost until the age of the airplane and automobile. While their wealthy Pueblo neighbors were being tortured, killed, and enslaved by the missionaries and conquistadores, the Apache roamed the same area unimpeded. While the Navajo were being rounded up and force-marched three hundred miles to an internment camp in the 1860s, the Apache were raiding deep into Mexico for horses, livestock, and weapons. While almost a million workers were launching the first nationwide labor strikes in American cities in the 1880s, the last free Apache were trying to decide whether it was better to die fighting or surrender to the federal government.

Here Junger is talking about an Indian from an unidentified tribe who had skills that were thought to be lost.

Waterman eventually brought him back to Berkeley, where he was named “Ishi”—the Yahi word for “man”—after he refused to reveal his tribal name. A Berkeley anthropologist named Alfred Kroeber took him under his wing and began to document his extraordinary skills. Ishi was eventually hired as a janitor at the university and began teaching members of the anthropology department to chip flint, make bows and arrows, start a fire without matches, and hunt rabbit and deer. He was, by some definitions, the last completely free person in North America, and it bears noting that even with his lifetime of wilderness skills, Ishi could not—physically and emotionally—keep himself alive without the help of others. He died of tuberculosis in 1916, at age fifty-five. His last words, reportedly, were, “You stay, I go.”

Conflict between Indians and settlers was frequently brutal.

They fought to the death because the consequences of losing were beyond contemplating. One settler was found in a thicket shot, tomahawked, and scalped but with his hands full of another man's hair that he must have pulled out during the fight. Most men were tomahawked on the spot, but some were marched back to the village to provide the entertainment of torture. A few were adopted if they were good shots and could help with hunting and fighting. Young women were adopted as well but tomahawked immediately if they couldn't keep up with the raiders on the way back. And if they tried to escape, they were tortured to death like the men, the honors often going to the women of the tribe. “First, they scalped her,” a German woman testified about another captive. “Next, they laid burning splinters of wood upon her body. Then they cut off her ears and fingers, forcing them into her mouth so that she had to swallow them.”

Any man who refused to help fight was shunned by the community; even failing to carry a rifle and tomahawk was cause for censure. If such a man were not yet married, there was little chance he ever would be. Theft was judged by a “jury of the neighborhood,” which usually imposed a sentence of flogging and banishment, and women who spoke ill of others were informed that they could say whatever they wanted but would never again be believed on any matter whatsoever. And unresolvable conflicts between men were usually settled with fistfights that had no rules other than prohibitions against weapons and eye-gouging. Once the fight was over, both men usually shook hands and forgot their differences; no one knew, day to day, who they might find themselves crouched next to during an Indian attack.

Railroad work was dangerous.

The building of America's railroads was the largest and most ambitious public works project of the industrial era and consumed men almost as fast as it did steel and timber. Railroad work relied on high explosives to blow holes through inconvenient geography and was so dangerous that slave owners often refused to contract out their slaves because they didn't want to lose them. Workers throughout the rest of the country—and much of the South—were often Irish and Chinese immigrants who arrived in America so poor that railroad companies felt free to essentially work them to death. Roughly 1,200 men died working on the Transcontinental Railroad, for example, though the exact number is not known because employers didn't even bother keeping careful records.

Like warfare, building a railroad is crushingly monotonous when it isn't absolutely deadly.[1]

Life on the frontier.

"The frontier was the principle area of single male brutality," observes historian David Courtwright, who has studied violence in all-male groups. “The surplus of young men, widespread bachelorhood, sensitivity about honor, racial hostility, heavy drinking, religious indifference, group indulgence in vice, ubiquitous armament and inadequate law enforcement were concentrated on the frontier.”

Railroad towns and other male-dominated communities had mortality rates that rivaled battlefields, and that did not change until women began to migrate westward and have children. The railroad town of Laramie, Wyoming, had so many murders that the town undertaker often just carted bodies into the desert and dumped them. Benton, Wyoming, lost 7 percent of its population to murder in the first two months of its existence. As dangerous as railroad work was, a Union Pacific employee was four times more likely to die after hours in towns like Benton and Laramie than on the job itself.

Railroads brought new, unimagined hazards.

Early steam engines were considered so risky that the president of the Erie Railroad insisted on doing the inaugural run entirely alone in case there was an accident. Railroad technology was brand new, and there were dangers associated with it that no engineer or actuary could possibly think up. Who could have imagined a swarm of grasshoppers so thick that their crushed bodies could derail trains in Pennsylvania in 1836? How could a twenty-three-year-old railroad worker named Edgar Herenden have known that a “frog”—a mechanical track switch—would grab his foot and not let go until a train ran over him in 1873? And when O.M. Wilmot leaned out the window of his locomotive while driving over a Vermont bridge in 1984, why would he worry about clearances that were so tight, a post would take his head off?

Some people are better at war than others.

In 1604, the Ottoman Empire decided that the small, mountainous principality of Montenegro had to be crushed. The Montenegrins were a famously warlike people who had always rejected any form of dominion and supposedly feared nothing except dying peacefully in bed. They inhabited a land that was too poor to support concentrations of people larger than a village, but these communities came together immediately when they were invaded. The men always kept a wool blanket over their shoulder to sleep in if need be and dressed in a long cassock that was sashed around the waist and jammed full of weapons. They never went to war with anything less than a pistol, musket, and a sword.

The Apache and the Taliban.

The parallel between current-day Taliban forces in Afghanistan and the Apache of the 1860s and '70s is so obvious that the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, has published a monograph on the Indian Wars. “The failed subjugation attempts assisted the Apache to develop a warrior culture based on resistance and survival through tactical action,” notes the author, Major Stephen P. Snyder, a former AWG commander. (The AWG was disbanded in 2020.) “The Apache... created a warrior that was an expert at fighting in austere environments, understood the use of irregular tactics to render a numerically superior force vulnerable, and possessed an intrinsic warrior ideology that defeated all previous foreign invaders.”

On dogs and man.

One of God's great oversights is that dogs, don't live as long as men, I thought. And that men don't move as fast as dogs.

How Junger and his companions travelled.

I kept the things I needed most next to my head when I slept; that way we could just grab our stuff and go. I wore my headlamp around my neck so I'd never have to look for it. I kept a knife in my boots, which were loosely laced so I could just drop my feet into them and run. My pillow was a rolled up jacket. I had a lighter and maps in my pocket and a water jug next to my boots. The machete was in a tree trunk. The dog was at our feet. It wasn't a lot, but you could keep yourself warm and dry for a while with that.

The rest of our gear was so easily replaced that it wasn't worth having a fight over or even a bad conversation. A tarp and metal pot and a hundred feet of parachute cord we could get at a hardware store for fifty bucks. A machete or short-handled ax for the woods and a small stove that runs on white gas for the city. A medium grit stone. A pump filter for water. A big metal stir spoon. Needle and thread. Toenail clippers. We carried oatmeal and coffee and brown sugar to eat in the morning and cheese and flour tortilla and pasta and tomato paste for everything else. A bottle of hot sauce and a flask of olive oil and a few onions. We bought food every few days so that we could go faster. If you can't run a mile in all your gear, you've got too much gear.

What made the American Revolution unique.

The authors of the American Constitution were among the wealthiest and most powerful men of their society and yet, with a few narrow exceptions, they made themselves subject to the same laws and penalties that governed others. (Many also risked being hanged for treason if the British won the war.) It was one of the few times in recorded history that a society's elite stripped themselves of special protections and offered to serve the populace, rather than demanding to be served by them.

  1. Junger made a documentary, Restrepo, and wrote a book, War, about modern warfare in Afghanistan. ↩︎