October 24, 2017

Eric Greitens: the Pugilist at Best

Pugilistatrest

Thom Jones’s “The Pugilist at Rest” is a brilliant collection of short stories describing pain and mortality, fighting and overcoming fear.  When looking at the Roman statue, Jones describes the “suggestion of weariness and philosophical resignation” reminding him of Shakespeare’s famous line that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Jones writes, “The world is replete with badness.”

heartandthefist

In a world replete with badness, an All-Star player named Eric Greitens has just written “The Heart and the Fist,” describing his accounts on the world stage. Greitens is a graduate of Duke, Rhodes Scholar, Golden Gloves boxer, Navy SEAL, and came back from the war zones to establish his foundation The Mission Continues. From the refugee camps around the world to terrorist strongholds, Greitens, all before the age of 40, has witnessed firsthand what most of us just watch on the news.

While the headline hotspots are promoted to help sell his story, the best parts of “The Heart and the Fist” are in depicting the ordinary struggles. Greitens has done so much, there’s a feeling of being rushed from one headline to another lest the publisher leave something out. He could have easily doubled the length of the book and still left readers asking for more. Hopefully Greitens will write more. The warrior and humanitarian in Greitens have the top billing but in reading “The Heart and the Fist” you get the sense he is foremost a teacher.

In “The Pugilist at Rest,” Jones writes that “Jack Dempsey used to get so scared before his fights that he sometimes wet his pants.” In “The Heart and the Fist,” Greitens writes of SEALs who were shaking in fear at the start of their training yet qualified while those with the false bravado fell.

The most profound insights from “The Heart and the Fist” don’t always come from something that happened in Iraq or Afghanistan or what the headline writers would anticipate. Some of the best passages come from his boxing days at Duke, and his trainer, Earl Blair.  Another passage depicts Officer Candidate School and the drill instructor giving a recruit named Wong much grief that made me burst out laughing.

“Wong, have you ever played a goddarn sport in your life?!”

“Yes, sir!”

“Really?” the drill instructor asked. “What sport did you play?”

“Football, sir!”

“Really, Wong, you played football? What position did you play?”

“It was John Madden Football, sir!”

The Navy has a tradition for “crossing the line” from a wog to a shellback. When a sailor crosses the equator, he leaves behind that lowly “wog” status and is now officially a “shellback.” Greitens was commander of a Mark V special operations craft in Southeast Asia. All that esteemed education he acquired at Duke and Oxford, relief work in Rwanda, Croatia, Calcutta, earning a spot with the SEALs, didn’t help him shed the wog label. The SEALs who were still wogs had to cross the equator. And being SEALs, they decided to swim. They discovered the current was too strong to swim. The SEALs who were shellbacks wouldn’t let them in the Mark Vs and tossed them ropes to drag the wogs across the equator.

They had asked a chaplain to join them. After successfully crossing the equator, the chaplain had them bow their heads and said, “This has been a wonderful day, and we have fulfilled a great Navy tradition in the best possible way. I also believe crossing the equator like this demonstrates that sometimes you first have to believe in something to make it real.”

Eric Greitens is a true believer.

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