Is Jocko Willink A Psychopath?

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After taking a regular interest in his podcasts, I’m finding it hard to tell.

The appeal of Willink to anyone with testicles is more than obvious. He has willingly suffered and become a monster. He was the super SEAL; commander of SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser during the Battle of Ramadi, one of the most hotly-contested, violent theatres of the Iraq war. Upon returning to the US, he was charged with the training of future SEALS and devising the kind of brutal torture necessary to produce soldiers of an elite standard.

Now retired from the military, Willink specialises in teaching leadership principles to corporate organisations via his organization, Echelon Front. He also kicks ass in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and trains and corners professional fighters while writing the occasional kid’s book in his spare time. He reaches the world at large through his podcast, appropriately entitled, ‘Jocko Podcast.’

Bottom line: he’s a great talker. Immensely articulate and very well read, books often form the cornerstones of his discussions. In episode 149, he interviews Jim Webb, author of Vietnam War Classic, ‘Fields of Fire’. The novel as discussed is an immensely complex piece of work.

In its featured excerpts, it details a complex experience of war that is both noble and bestial, tinged with both elation and degradation. Webb seems to present his novel as an alloy of light and dark, good and evil and their confusing intersection within the intimate person of the characters.

Jocko Podcast 56 is an interview with Peter Attia. While Attia is known from his appearances on both Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan as a super doctor whose focus is on the science of longevity, Willink precipitates a different kind of discussion. Jocko kicks off podcast 56 by reading an excerpt from ‘The Corner’, a book that details the drug war in Baltimore, the eventual source for television series The Wire.

Attia speaks of his time as a surgical intern at Baltimore hospital, a facility that seemed to specialise in gunshot and stabbing injuries as a result of the city’s booming drug trade. While Willink doesn’t contribute much other than what it takes to keep Attia talking, it’s clear that his own experience of war, and life in a combat zone, are the real trellis that structures Attia’s two hours of commentary.

So impressed with the podcasts featuring Webb and Attia, I decided to go back and find Tim Ferriss’ original interview with Willink. I had hoped to hear detailed storytelling similar to Attia’s: Attia reveals much about his character simply through his choice of anecdotes about the hectic life of a surgical intern.

Attia is a more mercurial speaker, however. It’s not that Jocko doesn’t have the material, but it doesn’t flow as readily, and he’s not really the raconteur.

He is, however, sincere. Jocko’s voice fills with emotion when he speaks of the suffering of the Iraqis he fought to liberate, and comes to the brink of tears when describing his fellows who suffered and died fighting for their country and for what they believed in.

However, there were a couple of things that hit my ear on a funny angle. The first was his admirably honest admission that his time in Iraq was the high point of his life, and he admitted struggling to accept that it was now behind him. It reminded me of the film The Hurt Locker, featuring a protagonist that can’t accept life at home after the ultimate adrenalin rush of war.

John Pilger, in his article, ‘John Pilger on Why the Oscars are a Con’ described The Hurt Locker as, “A film [that] offers a vicarious thrill through yet another standard-issue psychopath, high on violence in somebody else’s country.”

I understand that wars have been historically necessary, and I would pull up a long way short of trying to judge people like Willink and Attia in their various theatres of struggle. However, my grandfather spent four and a half years fighting the Japanese in the jungles of New Guinea. He was very glad to come home to his wife.

The other thing that took me aback were his comments on music. He explained his love for Black Sabbath, one of whose most famous songs is ‘War Pigs’. Its anti-war, and anti-authoritarian message is pretty obvious:

Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role for the poor, yeah

Time will tell on their power minds,
Making war just for fun
Treating people just like pawns in chess,
Wait ’till their judgment day comes

When you think of it, it’s hard to imagine Ozzy in the army.

Jocko also talks about the Black Flag album My War, specifically its second side. My War is Henry Rollins-era Black Flag at its strongest. The intricate blues-oriented dirges of that album prefigure the greatness of Rollins’ magnum-opus, The End Of Silence.

Rollins’ oeuvre forms a broken-glass mosaic of an emotionally disturbed man in a state of intense psychological suffering. Appreciation of a band like Black Flag, one of the most acerbic listening experiences of its time, requires recognition of that.

From the title track, ‘My War’:

I feel it in my heart, the end will come
Come on! My war you’re one of them
You say that you’re my friend
But you’re one of them

Tell me that I’m wrong 

Try to sing me your ego song
You’re one of them
My war you’re one of them

You say that you’re my friend
But you’re one of them
My War

The lyrics are instructive. Rollins is a proponent of blunt-force poetry, and it makes it easy for an unsympathetic listener to overlook his meaning.

Such people deride rock and roll as simplistic, and that may be true, but what people do with the music they listen to, injecting it with their fantasies and frustrations, is far from.

I recently read the biography of Mark Donaldson, the first Australian soldier to receive the Victoria Cross for service in Afghanistan, a profoundly unpopular war amongst the Australian people.

In it, Donaldson details the life that led to him dedicating himself to military service. There was a great deal of angst and mental suffering, stemming from the death of his parents under separate, tragic circumstances.

The weird thing about it, what figures as the shadow of a possible truth, is Donaldson’s preoccupation with extreme music and its focus on violence and aggression.

While people like my grandfather fought in World War Two because they were called up to prevent invasion, these men seem to have found their own way to unpopular wars fought in other people’s countries.

**

My introduction to Willink was via Tim Ferriss in his book, Tools of Titans. There’s a great quote which has become part of his legend, the 4:45 am wake time:

“I’m up and getting after it by 4:45am. I like to have that psychological advantage over the enemy. For me, when I wake up in the morning – and I don’t know why – I’m thinking about the enemy and what they’re doing.

“I know I’m not on active duty anymore, but it’s still in my head: that there’s a guy in a cave somewhere, he’s rocking back and forth, and he‘s got a machine gun in one hand and a grenade in the other. He’s waiting for me, and we’re going to meet.

“When I wake up in the morning, I’m thinking to myself: ‘What can I do to be ready for that moment, which is coming? That propels me out of bed.”

  • Tools of Titans,

P.415

I love this quote. The man is a juggernaut.

But then, I find myself asking the question: whose war is he fighting? And who is the man crouching in the cave?

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