You stand in freezing water up to your chest. Every muscle in your body throbs with pain. You are exhausted beyond anything you could ever imagine, and all around you the night air carries the curses and groans of others who are gutting it out like you, who are trying to survive the night.
It’s not the beaches of Okinawa, but the San Diego surf, where Eric Greitens is gutting it out with a few dozen other candidates for Navy SEAL Basic Underwater Demolition (BUD/S) training, the toughest program on earth. A long journey has led him here from his hometown in St. Louis.
Born into a lower-middle-income family, the oldest of three boys, Eric was told throughout his boyhood that to succeed he had to go to college. Also, that his family couldn’t help much. College was his first challenge: getting there, that is. Once in, his academic record and personal character won him a Rhodes scholarship and a year’s study at Oxford. But there his life took a turn. Instead of joining a consulting firm for a high salary, he hit the road, traveling first to China where he taught English, learned kung fu and ran into a spot of trouble with the Communist government. Then to Croatia during the Balkan conflict, where he learned firsthand of the savagery of war–and what it takes to stop it. Those lessons were driven home even harder in Kenya, where he worked in refugee camps helping survivors of the Rwandan massacre. In Bolivia he mentored street kids who had no foreseeable future beyond cheap drugs and gang life, suffering a personal blow when a young friend died of neglect in a hospital. Obviously Eric had a wide streak of humanitarianism, which made his next decision hard to understand: why sign up for Naval Officer Candidate School? And then, why go out for SEAL training?
He shares what might have been his primary motivation: “In situations like [the Balkans], good intentions and heartfelt wishes are not enough. The great dividing line between words and results was courageous action. And sometimes that action meant the use of force.” This principle, so hard for pacifists to understand, is the bedrock of Just War theory and one stated reason for U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq (even though that reason went off the rails long ago). Whether used honestly or cynically, the “Fight Force with Force” argument has been used to justify all the U.S. military action in the 20th century. It’s why the adult version of Greiten’s memoir, a bestseller in 2011, was titled The Heart and the Fist.
Boys, especially, will enjoy reading about his adventures, and his account of BUD/S training will rivet them. He doesn’t write that much about his service in the Afghanistan and Iraq, after which he retired from active duty (but remains an officer in the Navy Reserve). There’s probably no better argument for the notion of a “Just War” than his life and experience, so parents who believe there is no justification for war will want to take note of that. Also, Greitens, who was raised Jewish, seems to admire all faiths equally, carrying Catholic, Protestant, Hindu and Jewish emblems into battle and admitting, “I’m not sure which one did the trick” when he survived. And, though the language is toned down for this YA version of his memoir, there are several occurrences of mild profanity and some harsher words represented by dashes. With these cautions in mind, much of Eric’s character is worthy of emulation and many of his statements need to be heard by young men today: “I learned that what you did, day by day, turned you into who you were.” He’s a great American.
For a roundup of Veteran’s Day picture books, go here. Also see Megan’s Memorial Day review of The Poppy Lady. For some backstory on previous conflicts, and why they may have been justified, see “Living Like a Refugee.” And young World War II enthusiasts will enjoy Soldier Bear.