Video: Sebastian Junger on community and contempt, in Morristown
By Kevin Coughlin
Author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger learned the value of community in the mountains of Afghanistan, with a platoon of U.S. soldiers who were fighting the Taliban.
On his first day of filming, they were attacked four times and a bullet whizzed within inches of his head, showering him with dirt from the sandbag behind him.
That sort of intensity forges bonds which, paradoxically, make combat a gratifying experience for many soldiers, Junger writes in his latest book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.
And it’s why so many troops become disillusioned when they return home, he told a large audience at Friday’s keynote for the third annual Morristown Festival of Books.
“The country’s in a weird place, a weird, dangerous place,” said Junger, 54, asserting that the nation’s racial, economic, cultural and political divisions are growing worse.
“We’re the most powerful country in the world. No one can destroy us but us.”
His 90-minute discussion kicked off a festival that will include free talks by 40 authors at four downtown Morristown venues on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. A food and wine tasting with Jockey Hollow restaurateur Chis Cannon concludes the festivities at 5 pm; admission to that is $20.
Junger told the crowd in the Mayo Performing Arts Center that soldiers at Restrepo–an outpost named for a dead soldier, and the title of his 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary–had their differences. Some even hated each other.
“But no one spoke with contempt about someone inside the wire,” Junger said.
“You don’t speak with contempt about someone who may be saving your life tomorrow or who you may need to risk your life for tomorrow. One of the amazing things about the current political season is to watch very powerful people in politics and in the media speak with contempt about their fellow citizens inside the wire.
“Contempt,” Junger continued, “is poison to a democracy. And this is new. And it’s gotta go. And we the people — it’s an amazing phrase, ‘we the people’ — have an enormous amount of power. Contempt is protected by free speech. But that doesn’t mean we have to tolerate it within our politics. We have to stop it right away.”
Sept. 11, 2001, showed the United States how quickly it can land “inside the wire,” as a battleground. And Americans came together, as we always do during crises, said Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, who said he became a war correspondent to test his manhood.
Educated at Wesleyan University as an anthropologist, Junger became intrigued when his uncle, a native American, told stories about settlers refusing to leave tribes after being captured. He could not find any stories about Indians flocking to white society.
“The term is to ‘go native,’ not ‘go civilized,’ Junger said.
He posits that evolution has hard-wired humans to survive, and thrive, in small groups. We feel happiest when we’re pulling together and contributing in small teams. The internet is no substitute for real community, he said.
Yet this basic drive flies in the face of the wondrous advances of modern life — which provide our basic necessities — and contradicts our nation’s founding principles that exalt individuality and the right to free speech.
It’s the right that enables NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest during the national anthem, a ritual that traditionally symbolizes our unity. It’s the same right that allows Kaepernick’s critics to sound off.
“Wealthy modern society is amazing. We don’t want to get rid of it. It’s incredible what it’s done,” Junger acknowledged.
The ironic dilemma: “Being given everything is not a source of happiness. Human connection is the source of happiness. Over and over again, that is what gives life meaning. And the meaning of life is what makes people happy,” Junger said.
In a question-and-answer session, two women testified to that. One said she lived in a million-dollar home in Basking Ridge…and still attempted suicide.
Another, from Bernardsville, voiced frustration that she could not pry soccer moms and dads away from their suburban routines to honor veterans.
Moderator Lance Gould of the Huffington Post got off the evening’s best line. Junger was reminiscing about his boyhood in a tony Boston suburb, where he and his friends played Army, re-enacting scenes from World War II. One odd kid always wanted to be the German.
“I think he’s running for president,” cracked Gould, former editor of Spy magazine, to roars of laughter.
Another audience member quietly underscored the corrosive nature of this campaign. A man wearing an Army cap and camouflage fatigues, who said he was an Iraq veteran, expressed disillusionment over President Obama’s executive order banning the Pledge of Allegiance in schools.
That “executive order” is an internet hoax.