“The Last Patrol” is a film premiered at the 2014 Margaret Mead Film Festival of ethnographic film at the New York Museum of Natural History last October. In it, film-maker Sebastian Junger has portrayed himself together with three further homecoming soldiers and journalists who now try to find their way back into society. Determined never to return to war or the army again, the four take a back-packed, combat-mimicking weeks-long, sobering walking trip, starting out in the nation’s capital and heading north along Amtrak’s east coast rail-tracks. Losing themselves in nature and physical activity, they philosophize about life while seeing the poorest face of America along the way. They talk to people who don’t see any good in today’s government but keep believing in the basic pillars of the Constitution, especially freedom and opportunity. We encounter people in Chester, a town full of crime but united against outside infiltration. The camera shows us a man raving about “opportunity,” while we look into his face featuring a smile of extremely bad teeth, those of a man who obviously cannot afford a dentist. It is a poor image of an America that for decades has been promoting itself as a haven of freedom and choice.
The film tells a coming-of-age story in a country in which plenty of men like those soldiers seem to be coming of age for way too long. While many tribes mark adulthood with a ritual at about age fourteen, the individualized world prolongs teenage often until retirement. The four guys all try to prove their manhood to themselves and their fathers, who they all, in one way or another, run away from.
“Combat shows you how insignificant you are, but also how great it is to be alive,” says Brandon, a responsible man, whose father shot at him when young and who now is determined to cure himself of alcoholism, while having forgiven his father. This man describes the ‘American Dream’ as, “how to screw everybody to get ahead.” To him that is why war becomes attractive. There is a community and a regime of what and how daily things are being done.
Sebastian Junger, whose brainchild the tour and film was, sees war as the simple life that I think most men are looking for. “Things are obvious in war,” he says. “Your life depends on others. Coming home, the obviousness is gone and you have to learn to love someone without the life-death situation.”
In this HBO-documentary film the men feature themselves as role models of the homecoming soldiers, and that for all those young men who miss male camaraderie and the given protocol that the everyday combat situation offers. Back in the U.S., nobody keeps them in line. They have to know how to move in a society that they may have not been prepared for sufficiently. It is a very loose society in which a structured upbringing with a school that gets you on track and a sports team that serves as community are the smallest common denominators a society offers. It offers that to those who are willing to fit in exactly and play the carved-out role in that rather limiting space. Those with other ideas need to swim the vast ocean and find their way laboriously. Those who succeed are celebrated by that society, those who do not, are mostly let down.
Men, according to the experience shown in the film, also enter the army because they want an education but cannot afford it in a country where every lawyer is paying off a university far into his practicing years.
No outside thinking is necessary in the army, no female interruptions with their distinct viewpoint onto the world. This is another fact to deal with in society. Just like men, what woman does not feel more understood by women than by men? That, too, other societies have figured out. Though surely no general role model for gender questions, in Moslem society, men and women have their areas to get together, and share, apart from their counterpart. While cooking together, getting water from the well or in knitting circles, women even in European societies predating the USA used to be able to chat about their daily hard-ships, such as their marriages, while engaged in daily affairs of house-keeping together. That had a sobering and filtering effect, and after laughing about it with the like-minded females, they could return back home and see things in a lighter way. The same goes for men, who in restricted men’s clubs or playing male sports went through the same catharsis, and in a way still have the possibility to do so today, if they seek it.
The protagonists in the film define America as the land of freedom. Part truth, part illusion, nobody seems to be able to express freedom to or from what, though. The concept of “freedom” in our society automatically seems to be attributed with a positive meaning. Let us look at the “freedom – from what” somewhat deeper and question it simultaneously:
- Freedom from structure. A teen-ager as well as a teen-age society takes structure as something imposed from the outside, a bigger picture that the individual is not able to influence. Seldom is structure perceived as a society’s necessary glue that holds people within their community with the advantage of not having to solve every singular affair individually. But isn’t that just what the army provides according to Sebastian Junger and what he searched and meant by “a simple life”?
- Freedom from responsibility. Responsibility towards oneself and others create bonds to the community, and create purpose. Life’s purpose is to find oneself, yes, but within the bonds of society.
Freedom to experiment. To be free to experiment, a person has to have a very clear idea what to experiment. Otherwise, one must be very firm and spiritually strong to endure freedom, because freedom from it all means the very frightening loss of all bonds with society. A group is comforting.
Independence from group thinking requires being able to be alone. A free man needs to be able to make his own judgments and, in general, stand up for them when other members of society start to attack them. He needs to have a strong ability to explain them to others, if he wants to be independent within society. That is what artists do or used to do.
All of these supposed kinds of freedom are the same, both in real-life society or in the army. In the end we may resume that we cannot escape the matrix: we can only exchange one society for another.
And we may come to see another fact, that we are illiterates when it comes to defining the pillars of our society. This distinguishes us from traditional societies, where everything is determined by a long history and the experience of the ancestors who lived it and set the norms for their contemporaries. While we look at them as illiterates, they may just as well perceive us as such in principle for being unable to manage our chosen path of individualism “freely” within society.
Through their friend’s death, three of the four men, those who were by his side, learn that there is life beyond war. They are not going back. Instead, they have become advocates against war. What they cannot do is change a whole society to be more integrated and holistic in the opportunities it offers to its people, but they are trying to make an effort to share their experience so nobody will commit the same error and to run to war for the right or the wrong reason or to feel lost in any other way. To get way to community support seems to have become much more important to them upon coming home than making it financially.
This film shows that men are a fragile species beyond the economic and technological ambitions, and that there are lots of sociological questions to answer in the beginning of the 21st century. No matter the little flaws of the film in terms of thick description or the fact that some of us may think we have it all figured out already; those four men have opened the way for many of us to start improving America.
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The Margaret Mead Film Festival tackles many relevant subjects and is a gem of a festival, both for anthropologists and for the general public.
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The Author: Gabriela Jurosz-Landa is a Czech-born anthropologist and art-historian, graduate of Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany, with graduate studies in Vienna and Prague. She has widely published in the field of art and art anthropology, and recently put out her research of twenty years about the Maya in Guatemala. As the founder and CEO of FORUM of WORLD CULTURES, she engages in organizing inter-cultural encounters. www.ForumWorldCultures.com.