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



There are some novels you read that make you think, ‘Why can’t all books be like this one?’ Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat is one of them.

It’s set around 1850: the story of a Chechen warlord, Murat is a long-time adversary of the Russian army compelled to forge an uneasy alliance with his old foes once a rival warlord makes hostages of his mother, wives and son.

Hadji Murat is essentially an action story through which courses all of the moral complexity and spiritual sophistication of a ‘literary’ work. And it’s not boring, and exploring these themes doesn’t hold the story up in any way.

Hemingway was clearly an admirer of Tolstoy’s novel, and his own work, For Whom the Bell Tolls resonates with many of its echoes.

In fact, both these novels are stories of men engaged in action that resonate with the psychological implications of what happens to them, and around them. They move from the political into the personal.

The truth is, the most potent stories address these currents and are, in fact, what we relate to as ‘Truth’. They take us as close as possible to a true vicarious experience of what we’re reading. What we see, or what we imagine, becomes an extension of us.

And maybe this is my problem; at this point of identification, both Goggins and Wilink get muddy, and then go silent.


Both Goggins and Willink have been trained as killers. They kill on behalf of their government, in accordance with orders. I take it that killing is morally acceptable to both men, once it’s sanctioned accordingly.

I listened to ‘Jocko Podcast 133: Face history so you can learn from it. The horrors of Unit 731.’ Unit 731 can be roughly considered the Japanese equivalent of Auschwitz.

In the course of discussion, Jocko relates the history of the facility and explains that, after the war, the Japanese soldiers running 731 received immunity from the US Government in exchange for surrendering their research.

In fact, various war criminals received this kind of amnesty from the US and the Soviets in exchange for research after the Second World War had concluded.

Jocko’s homily, at the conclusion of the episode and the full explanation of its horrors, was to say, ‘Good won. We won.’

One thing for sure, Jocko is not stupid. So how does he come up with that one? Surely, benefiting from those kinds of crimes against humanity implies some kind of complicity on the part of the allies?


I recently began reading the American poet, Hayden Carruth. He sticks in my mind because his style of sonnet composition is so unique. They’re kind of like these explanations, or diegesis on a given subject, that happen to follow the traditional sonnet structure.

You rose from our embrace and the small light spread
like an aureole around you. The long parabola
of neck and shoulder, flank and thigh I saw
permute itself through unfolding and unlimited
minuteness in the movement of your tall tread,
the spine-root swaying, the Picasso-like éclat
of scissoring slender legs. I knew some law
of Being was at work. At one time I had said
that love bestows such values, and so it does,
but the old man in his canto was right and wise:
ubi amor ibi ocullus est.
Always I wanted to give and in wanting
the poet. A man now, aging, I know the best
of love is not to bestow, but to recognize.

– Sonnet 10.

I wonder about a guy like Carruth; a refined, sophisticated body of work, but someone I’d never heard of. This is a guy whose life is pretty fast and loose, doesn’t do a lot but suffer, and I suspect a lot of his demons are personal.

But he’s produced these remarkable sonnets that are so beautiful, they become universal. His poetry reminds me of Carl Jung’s maxim that the purpose of human existence is to candle a flame of meaning in the darkness of mere being.

In fact, Carruth has done better; he’s kindled something that warms others, not only himself.       

It’s all very well to admire a polished, refined degree of fitness and the toughness required to develop it, as in the examples made by Goggins or Willink. But what about Carruth and his skills as a poet?

Jocko is certainly right about the value of discipline. I’m not sure if Carruth’s life – chequered with stints in mental institutions – necessarily demonstrates the adage, ‘Discipline equals freedom’. But Carruth certainly had it – his oeuvre is proof of that.

I think an idealist could certainly make a case that Carruth’s discipline creates what we can relate to as truth, and beauty. What is easily, and truthfully described as good. And it is a good that is not superficial; it is a profound good, sprung from a pellucid truth.


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