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The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy Seal by Eric Greitens

April 1, 2012

Greitens’ search for a purposeful life, one in which he serves his fellow man around the world, leads him to two great epiphanies. The first, after years of humanitarian service in Bosnia, Africa and elsewhere, is that charity alone is not enough. Humanitarian aid is of no use if the food, supplies and wealth given to the suffering never reach the suffering—if they are blocked, stolen, rerouted or otherwise compromised by war, corruption, or incompetence. In other words, there are times when force is necessary for the aid to work.

This sends him on a new path with the same purpose in mind. He joins the Navy with the intent of becoming a SEAL. A good portion of this book describes his SEAL training—a program that is legendary for its difficulty and selectiveness. But what came through clearly here was that the training is only a small part physical. Many of the soldiers who attempt to become SEALs are elite athletes, but what sets SEALs apart are their minds—those with the courage, mental fortitude, leadership skills, creativity and ability to think clearly under every kind of stress one can imagine. On the other side of this training, Greitens finds himself on military assignment overseas in Indonesia, Iraq and Africa again. And here he finds the flip side of his earlier epiphany (something many people misunderstand about being a soldier): courage is not enough. To do the soldier’s job well, compassion is required. Understanding the local cultures, connecting with the populations and truly caring for them (not just hating the enemy), is the only way the mission will succeed.

A Rhodes Scholar, obviously physically tough and full of compassion, Greitens exemplifies the best of what service can be. This book should be required reading for anyone going into any form of service, be it the military, the Peace Corp or the Red Cross. At once pragmatic, philosophical, spiritual and courageous, Greitens lives his central point: We must be well-rounded, open-minded, inventive and adaptive. There is no one solution to the world’s problems. Each conflict, every famine, and every disaster relief mission must be approached with considerations of logistics, socio-politics, culture and security. “The world needs many more humanitarians than it needs warriors, but there can be none of the former without enough of the latter.”

While this could all come off as a moralistic lecture, it doesn’t. Greitens is a good writer on top of his other talents. His stories of his early days of boxing (where he learned many lessons that would serve him later), his travel experiences, his searching questions and the recounting of his training and missions as a SEAL are incredibly engaging (the latter calling to mind some of the writings of Tim O’Brien). More importantly, he is living proof that, despite our often cynical culture, America can still produce true heroes.

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