Jocko Willink and David Goggins versus Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway and Hayden Carruth

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I just can’t come to a place of peace with either Jocko Willink or David Goggins.

I’ve listened to some of Willink’s podcasts and read his book, Extreme Ownership. Similarly, I read Goggins’ book, Can’t Hurt Me, after hearing his second appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience.

Goggins was very interesting, and very, very funny. But after sitting down with both books, I’ve been left feeling very disappointed, and more than a little wary.

As everybody can agree, both Goggins’ and Willink’s ‘man’ credentials are solid. As former Navy SEALS, both of them enter the public eye with narratives spun out of personal experience, essentially providing staircases for others to climb as a way to make meaning in their own lives.

I’ve written about Willink on this blog before. He’s a highly intelligent man with a lot to say. One of the first episodes of the Jocko Podcast focuses his on favourite book, About Face, written by David Hackworth.

Later in that episode, Jocko talks about reading Tom Wolfe while on deployment in Iraq. At the time, he was looking around the barracks for something that could take his mind off war and the military, and came upon a copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Willink has a degree in English Literature, which implies that he values literature, as well as reading both widely and critically.

He retells an episode from the novel when Wolfe attended a rock concert and watched the crowd united as it chanted, and how that chanting echoed back to the writer as, ‘Me! Me! Me!’ This, Wolfe explained, was the refrain that drove men to war.

Willink said that he looked up from the book and around the barracks to see how unselfish his fellow soldiers were; each was dedicated to his brother and his brother’s welfare. Thus, Jocko concluded, that Wolfe was wrong; simple as that. And Jocko dismissed him accordingly.

I’ve since tried to read About Face myself and just couldn’t get anywhere; it’s almost a thousand pages and I decided to give it away after about fifty. I quickly came to feel that the time invested in it was time I would never get back and for that reason, should be reading something else.

The principal thing that killed it for me was because many of the aspects of his story that I needed to see into – such as the moral politics of killing – were crucially obscured. As I understand, Hackworth felt that military bureaucracy wasted the lives of its soldiers and for that reason, ultimately failed to win the Vietnam war.

It’s also hard to square that against Ken Burns’ perspective. In his documentary, The Vietnam War, American intervention is positioned as a humanitarian disaster, bought on by decades of colonialist interference in Vietnam.

That intervention shook American society to its core, very nearly bringing it apart along every one of its cultural fault-lines.

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In the novel Jarhead, Anthony Swofford writes about being a ‘grunt’ during the first Gulf War. In basic training, he describes how young soldiers in training watch Apocalypse Now to psych themselves up for battle.

Similarly, David Goggins describes similar antics in his book, Can’t Hurt Me. To amuse his fellow recruits, he re-enacts Willem Dafoe’s death scene from the film Platoon during SEAL training. Now, obviously I wasn’t there and maybe it was funnier at the time.

But my question is, how do these men integrate the terror, suffering and madness that makes up such a huge amount of the weft of these films and novels? And how do they account for their absence when telling their own?

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