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The Heart And The Fist: The education of a humanitarian, the making of a Navy SEAL
The Heart And The Fist: The education of a humanitarian, the making of a Navy SEAL
Eric Greitens Navy SEAL
Mariner Books, 2011
320 pp., 27.00

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Neil Gussman

The Heart and the Fist

Humanitarian + Navy SEAL: no contradiction.

A week after Navy SEAL Team 6 killed Osama Bin Laden in a walled compound in Afghanistan, three books on Navy SEALs were listed among the Top 20 sellers on Amazon.com. Among them was The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL, by Eric Greitens (rhymes with "brightens").

Greitens' book is a memoir, currently a suspect genre. But military memoir is among the most reliable forms of the life-remembered story. Soldiers can tell horrendous tall tales, but the military keeps good records, and—as the 2004 presidential campaign showed—military exaggerations outside the barracks can provoke a rapid response.

The Greitens story begins with an ordinary boy obsessed with going to college. We are shown a few bumps on the road to Duke University, but college suits his natural curiosity. Then the story veers out of the experience of nearly every reader I could imagine. A Duke University sophomore from middle America drives to an urban boxing gym in Durham and starts doing pushups and sit-ups until he figures out what to do next. Within two weeks he has a trainer and spends the next three years working toward a Golden Glove tournament.


Did I mention he earned a Rhodes Scholarship during the period he was hanging out in an inner city gym? If you were thinking Greitens took summers to rest with friends or family, at age 20 he spent the summer caring for refugees in Bosnia during the period of some of the worst ethnic cleansing. The next summer he was in Rwanda and Zaire caring for refugees of the genocide that claimed at least a half-million people. Although he would not become a SEAL for years after his experience in Rwanda, in the chapter on Rwanda Greitens tells the reader why he went from aid worker to combatant:

The international community had watched the genocide in Rwanda without lifting a finger. Ultimately, it had taken a military victory …[—]a Tutsi army that swept down from Uganda—to bring an end to the killing. We should have sent military assistance, maybe even U.S. Marines. Instead, too late, we sent money and food.
[W]e live in a world marked by violence, and if we want to protect others, we sometimes have to be willing to fight. We all understand at the most basic level that caring requires strength as well as compassion.

While earning a PhD at Oxford, Greitens worked with genocide victims in Bosnia and met Mother Teresa. Along the way he decided that humanitarian work needs protection, so at 26 he turned down a lucrative consulting career, joined the US Navy, and became a SEAL.

The next year he was fighting in Fallujah. Greitens describes a suicide vehicle bomb attack that included chlorine gas. He survived the attack, got to a rooftop to defend his unit's position, then helped to rescue the wounded—in particular, a comrade who kept trying to put on his boots while he bled from a wound in the back of his head. I've been in that comrade's shoes, figuratively speaking. I once walked away from a missile test explosion peppered with shrapnel that would lead to six eye operations and reattaching two fingers. I knew my crew chief needed help and I knew nothing else. So I started walking the five miles across the desert to the base hospital and get help.

Although Greitens was gassed, he ran every day after the attack until the effects of the chlorine gas wore off many weeks later. Ran. After being gassed.

Did I say wow?

As I read about this amazing man, I thought about the amazing soldiers I served with during the Viet Nam War, in the Cold War, and in Iraq in 2009-10. And I thought about the not-so-amazing men and women I served with. I knew a few Rangers and Special Forces troops who could have been SEALs. But most of the soldiers I served with, even some of the best, would probably have rung the bell three times, signaling that they'd reached their limit, and gone for the coffee and doughnuts that temptingly await those who wash out of SEAL training. I know I would have.

Coincidentally, when I received this book for review, I had just finished a book on envy and was beginning to re-read Vergil's Aeneid. Reading Greitens' book, I could have repented of envy after every chapter. His story reminded me of Aeneas, Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, and the Seven Against Thebes. They were the élite warriors of their era. The Old Testament lovingly records David's Three and Thirty—the SEALs and Rangers of ancient Israel.

Then I thought about the thousands of soldiers each of those ancient heroes slew: the rest of the army. Reading The Aeneid, The Iliad, and the Book of Kings, it becomes clear that the role of most soldiers is to die at the hand of a champion or live to populate a new nation. Fall in battle or populate a village—all you have to do is stay clear of the champions and live through the war.

And that is my only quibble with this very well-told story: Greitens sweeps aside the heroism of all the lesser heroes of war. He writes, "I know—generally—who won't make it through Hell Week (the toughest part of SEAL training). The weightlifting meatheads who think that the size of their biceps is an indication of their strength; they usually fail. The kids covered in tattoos announcing to the world how tough they are; they usually fail." The list continues with preening leaders, me-first former athletes, blowhards, men who make excuses, talkers, and more—failures. Some of the best soldiers I ever served with were on this list.

Greitens says any 16 athletes can be trained to be killers, but that SEAL training, along with Army Ranger, Special Forces, and other élite training, gives these men the ability to use force with proportion. But with a few exceptions, American soldiers are the definition of proportional use of force when compared to any other army around the world and through most of recorded history.

I admire everything that Greitens is and all that he has accomplished. His book is a well-written memoir that shows just how good the best American soldiers really are, both with their hearts and their fists. But the rest of the military of the American military is, on the whole, a great fighting force.

Let me give one more example from my own experience. In 2009, I was stationed at Camp Adder in Iraq. The base commander was Colonel Peter Newell. In November 2004, Newell commanded the first battalion into the fight in Fallujah. He was among five soldiers who earned a Silver Star in that bloody day-and-night battle. The Army National Guard aviation unit at Camp Adder, the unit I served with, included an Illinois Blackhawk company that had flown for Newell in that 2004 battle. Newell's ground troops were regular Army, not élite units.

The Guardsmen were railroad engineers, aircraft mechanics, security guards, construction workers, and pilots in civilian life. They were up before the sun loading weapons getting ready to fly Newell's troops to the Iran-Iraq border. Sometimes they returned to the base wearing night vision goggles, then did post-flight maintenance under security lights before crawling into their bunks. In 2004, many of the same guys were flying into deadly fire in support of Newell's troops. As one Blackhawk pilot told me, "We flew 150 knots [airspeed], 50 feet off the deck [the ground], expending ammo on the 240s [door guns] laying down fire. That was flyin'." Between Fallujah in 2004 and deployment with us in 2009, he was one of the pilots for Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

The men who wash out of SEAL training or never qualify for it in the first place are the warriors who perform dull and dangerous missions every day. King David of Israel kept the Three and the Thirty in the palace, but he called up the rest of the army when it was time to go to war.

Despite this one caveat, I am going to read The Heart and the Fist to my sons this year. They are 11 and 12. They should know how a great life is lived in the modern world, and I can think of no one I would rather have them emulate than Eric Greitens.

Neil Gussman is communications manager at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He blogs at armynow.blogspot.com.

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