A couple of weeks ago at the Seattle airport I bought a book. A hardcover book. For full price. I never do that. But there were two compelling factors: (1) I had somehow neglected to bring enough reading material for my trip and (2) one book in particular caught my eye, both for subject matter and, yes, excellent cover art. The book is called The Heart and the Fist: The education of a humanitarian, the making of a Navy SEAL and it’s a relatively new release.
It’s the story of Eric Greitens, who has some deeply life-altering experiences in some of the poorest, most difficult places in the world — meeting orphans following the genocide in Rwanda, street children in Bolivia, the dying at Mother Teresa’s home in Calcutta, and refugees of war in Bosnia. He obviously had — and has — strong humanitarian impulses. But after all of these experiences, and following a stint as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, he became a Navy SEAL. He explains what led to his decision:
I’d learned that all of the best kinds of compassionate assistance, from Mother Teresa’s work with the poor to UNICEF’s work with refugee children, meant nothing if a warlord could command a militia and take control of the very place humanitarians were trying to aid. The world needs many more humanitarians than it needs warriors, but there can be none of the former without enough of the latter.
This is where the title of the book comes from. He reflects on the need for people with heart, people like humanitarians, who care about the poor and oppressed and the victims of atrocities throughout the world. But he decided that this wasn’t enough. In a world with all too many people willing to use force to do wrong, to oppress, there must be those who use their strength — the fist — to do good, to defend the vulnerable. He calls into question the sort of mindset that leads many to believe that torture (alternately spun as “enhanced interrogation techniques”) and a general posture of suspicion can possibly make us any safer. Rather, he calls for the building of bridges, citing instances where the military’s modus operandi endangered the troops unnecessarily and made their success that much more difficult:
In the name of ‘force protection,’ the military often rolls up windows, builds walls, and points rifles at the outside world. The best force protection, however, is to be surrounded by friends and allies. If we’d had permission to buy local food, we could have fed ourselves at one-tenth or even one-twentieth of what it costs American taxpayers to provide us with food. We’d have had better food, and we might have built valuable friendships.
One doesn’t need to agree with everything Greitens writes to appreciate the sense of discipline and compassion he demonstrates throughout the book’s pages. For me, it was a great reminder that while politicians and pundits leave no room for nuance and intelligent discussion about the weighty matters of war and peace and the dignity of every human being, it’s wrong to assume that men and women in uniform don’t wrestle through these questions. They — not bureaucrats or talk show hosts — are the ones on the front lines, after all. In our current cultural climate (maybe not exclusively so) it’s tempting to take a look at the world around us and then quickly latch onto a polarizing “ism” — in this case pacifism or militarism. For Greitens, that’s a false choice:
The world, I believe, is not constructed so that it presents us with perfect choices. I’d joined the military, in part, because I saw that to protect the innocent, we have to be willing to fight. It is also true, however, that for all the warrior’s discipline, when we pick up the sword, innocents will suffer… My own experiences in Rwanda, in Iraq, and elsewhere had not made me a militarist or a pacifist, or any kind of ‘ist.’ I knew that the world would continue to require us to make hard decisions about when we draw the sword and I’d seen that the use of force was both necessary and imperfect. There is no school of thought that can save us from the simple fact that hard decisions are best made by good people, and that the best people can only be shaped by hard experience.
It’s a challenging, at times entertaining, and always thought-provoking book, and for those reasons I recommend it.