Sebastian Junger
Sebastian Junger met with a small group of students for a discussion prior to his public talk.

First, he ran. Then he ran toward danger. Then he probed the letdown when danger passes. Such was the theme that ran through Sebastian Junger’s talk on Nov. 14 at Johnson Chapel.

The author of 1997’s bestseller The Perfect Storm, 2010’s War and 2016’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger revealed he was an anthropology major at Wesleyan (class of 1984) and a cross country runner; he happily noted that he ran his personal best 1500 meters here at Amherst. He did his senior thesis on the running tradition in Native American societies, which included field work on a Navajo reservation.

That thesis, he told the crowd in the chapel, was “the first time I came alive as a student, by discovering something about humans and how they live.” Writing the thesis seemed “pretty close to journalism,” though that career held off for a few years while Junger worked in construction, waited tables and got “on casual terms with a chainsaw” as a climber for a tree company. “It was quite dangerous, well-paid and incredibly exciting,” Junger recalled of dismantling trees from above.

But when he nearly sawed off his ankle, he decided to court danger more as a raconteur rather than as a rappeller.

“A modern industrial nation relies on all kinds of dangerous work,” Junger said. “Logging, farm work, commercial fishing. We need these people, and they are not being honored. I thought ‘I want to write about dangerous jobs.’”

He got that chance in 1991, when he was living in Gloucester, Mass. and a huge nor’easter hit. The local commercial fishing boat Andrea Gail was lost offshore, which inspired The Perfect Storm. Later, he explored the dangers of the military.  

Junger, now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, decided to freelance from the siege of Sarajevo: “I wanted to know how war worked. I wanted to know: Would I be scared or courageous?” He learned that war “is unimaginably awful in all kinds of ways.” But he also learned that when there is not enough food or heat, “people start acting communally.” And when he left the war zone, he invariably got depressed.

A Conversation with Sebastian Junger

November 15, 2017

Prior to his lecture in Johnson Chapel, author Sebastian Junger sat down with Nathan Needham ’18E to discuss what it means to belong to a community and reveal the thing that has had the single biggest impact on his life. (Video by Marcus DeMaio)

“I only felt fully alive when in the middle of a war,” said Junger. “This felt shameful, but later I understood. What I missed was the communalism.” In Tribe, he quotes the World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon on this paradox: “In bitter safety I awake, unfriended.”

Said Junger in his talk: “That ability to defend a group and also to affiliate has kept humans safe for hundreds of thousands of years. We don’t have claws or sharp teeth. We can’t run that fast. We’re defenseless unless we work in groups.”

To that point, Junger said, “I think mandatory national service for the entire country would be incredible.” The crowd gave a big round of applause.

By studying the literature on PTSD and talking with the soldiers he embedded with in Afghanistan, Junger realized that the real trauma isn’t always war itself: it’s often adjusting to the non-communal life after war.

Some 20 percent of returning U.S. vets “get trapped in a trauma loop,” he said. But in Israel, where most share the experience of military service, PTSD affects only 1 percent of the population. Moreover, a nation’s suicide rates habitually go down during wartime. “When catastrophe is in your community, you are needed,” which curbs alienation, explained Junger. After a veteran returns home, he added, “the devastating thing is if you feel not needed.” 

Junger ended by running up the benefits of contemporary life: “The average person now lives like an incredibly wealthy person a century ago. We’re very, very lucky to have the rule of law, medicine, the safety and blessing of modern society. But the downside I’ve noticed most, and has affected me most, is our catastrophic loss of community.”