(The Humanitarian Social Network)
Teamhouse Book Club
This week we're reviewing The Heart and the Fist, by Eric Greitens.
Many of us are familiar with the narrative of someone - a banker, a journalist, maybe a soldier - who comes to her or his senses, leaves her/his life, and becomes an aid worker. But Greitens does the opposite. He started as an aid worker (volunteer, actually), and as a result of that experience left the aid world and became a US Navy SEAL.
What do you think about The Heart and the Fist? Read it, write a review and post it in the thread here.
We'll feature the best one(s).
I know a lot of people who like this book. Definitely going to have to check it out now.
Here's my review- cheers!
I don’t want to detract from the previous reviewer’s glowing remarks about this book, so I will stick to the elements most relevant to aid work.
Greitens’ The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL is many things. It is a touching autobiography of a young man who follows his passions to lead an extraordinary life. It is a travelogue that gives us glimpses into life in places that most people will never see. And it is a rousing description of what it takes to become a US Navy SEAL.
This book is not, however, about “The Education of a Humanitarian”, as half of its subtitle suggests. My first hint should have been the absence of a dust jacket blurb from an actual aid worker. Yet I was drawn in by the summary describing the author “working in refugee camps and servings the sick and the poor on four continents, from Gaza to Croatia to Mother Teresa’s home in Calcutta, among others.” How could someone from an industry full of almost pathological distrust of all things military leave the fold to join Team America? Just how horrible had this man’s experience in the field been if it drove him not only to quit his job – as too many fed up aid workers do – but then start a career as a soldier, almost the polar opposite of a humanitarian?
I had myself witnessed first-hand the bizarre relationship that aid workers tend to have with the military in the field. I worked in the field on Eastern Chad’s IDP issue for a large humanitarian organization just as the European Union’s EUFOR soldiers were deploying, in part as a response to aid sector pleas for international action, given the limited possibilities for engagement across the border in Darfur itself. After initially seeing no other foreigners for weeks in the Sahelian bush, it was surreal to suddenly be making way on the sandy pistes that served as roads between remote villages for convoys of Swedish armored cars. The bearded, burly blond men behind massive gun mounts seemed to stare at me through their wrap-around shades with the same startled look that I must have produced for them.
Occasionally we would stop and chat. “Seen any janjaweed?” they would ask early on in their deployments, as I politely said no and tried to avoid shaking my head in disbelief about what they had expected to find on the edge of the desert. Later in their deployments, having failed to spot a single janjaweed militiaman hiding behind the infrequent and skinny acacias, they would simply ask “Seen any villages we could help?” Once, in a particularly lawless area, I was surprised to come across a small French team bivouacking near our camp. I asked them if they knew the location of a remote village populated by a minority ethnicity that I needed to fill out the map I was making of the area, and, watching them fumble with their colonial era charts, I realized these men had no idea where they really were.
I came to feel bad for these soldiers, not because they were sent on a laughably impossible mission and were clueless about the local context, but because they were completely rejected by the aid community they thought they were coming to protect. Fresh-out-of-college girls manning remote aid agency field offices refused to let them enter their compounds when they made the rounds for introductions, for fear of losing an aura of neutrality. A five foot two inch colleague berated a barrel-chested middle-aged officer in a dusty border town for showing up at our seed distribution site. As unwise as the EUFOR mission was, I felt it was a step too far to greet these well-intentioned soldiers with closed doors and open hostility. As I would see again later in Afghanistan, for most humanitarians, the military force was not just unwelcome, it was the enemy, trying to accomplish with guns what we felt we could do with sympathy, participatory methodologies, and truckloads of food.
Reading about Greitens’ experience, therefore, I was open to the idea that he dismissed the knee-jerk antagonism towards soldiers that characterizes many in the industry, and instead sought to accomplish through force what he failed to do through humanitarian work.
The problem, however, is that no matter how good a person Greitens may be, he was never a humanitarian as the aid community understands the term. Rather, the book’s use of the word is purely in the sense of a caring, compassionate, charitable individual. Though much of the book focuses on his path to amateur boxing and his time in the Navy, the brief descriptions of his “humanitarian work” are more familiar to us from short-term student volunteers’ blogs than the reflections of professional aid workers. The author therefore has nothing to add to the important discourse over the future of aid.
Greitens remains very vague on the details, but it seems that none of his work in Rwanda, Bosnia, Bolivia, Cambodia, Gaza, and India lasted more than a summer break from his studies. In Mother Teresa’s mission in Calcutta, for instance, among other menial tasks, he “washed blankets, and I fed an old man.” In Gaza and Cambodia, he took photographs to document poverty and the effects of war. In Bolivia and Bosnia, he volunteered to work as a sort of big brother to street children and refugees. And in Rwanda, he briefly accompanied a professor who took a job with UNHCR. These experiences led him to conclude that “aid alone was not enough.”
Volunteerism is fantastic. It opens many young Westerners’ eyes to the reality of poverty and war in places we usually only read about in the news. And it teaches those people important lessons they will likely cherish for life. But it has very little to do with professional aid work. This book, like too many others, gives the public a wildly off-the-mark understanding of humanitarian and development work. To the non-initiated, reading this book must make it seem as though the sector is not an industry seeking to professionalize and provide value for money, but rather a hobby, to be indulged with simple, unskilled and unpaid summer work that is worthy of praise because, at long last, here is a citizen “doing something” rather than focusing on his own pursuits.
Eric Greitens is an honorable man. He established a charity for veterans, applied himself to great causes in his free time, and introduced foreign lands and heartbreaking deprivation to a public that too easily ignores life beyond national borders. I admire his dedication to the less fortunate and his fortitude as a warrior. Perhaps he would have made a great aid worker. Instead, he chose to become a soldier.
A few thoughts in response:
First, good review. It is more or less the review that I'd have written. As I read The Heart and the Fist I kept going back to Kicking Ass & Saving Souls (which I review here- see the cranky comment by the author ;) ). If I had to guess, I'd say that Greitens is nowhere near the BS-artist that Templeton is (as you say, he is an honorable man. Not so sure that's the case with Templeton). But in both instances the emphasis seemed to be on the wild life of international adventure, while the humanitarian side is, at my most generous, difficult to pin down.
Second, appreciate your reflections on the interface between humanitarian and military actors (and no, I'm not talking about George Clooney or Sean Penn). Seems we wrestle with similar tensions. Would be interested in your thoughts on this post: Humanitarian Space (the final frontier)
Finally, it would be good to see you engage with this AidSource group: CIVMIL
Hi J., thanks for the positive feedback and Tweets. I’d read your review of KASS a while back (but hadn’t seen the author’s response), and it definitely popped up in my mind while writing my review. In fact, I focused on the positive aspects in part to avoid the trolling you got. But I do honestly think there’s no BSing by Greitens… he could have easily gotten away with it yet to his credit he didn’t play up his awesomeness and even had several self-deprecating moments. He struck me as someone who’d be nice to have a beer with but overall, I just felt that this book, like KASS, doesn’t belong on the shelf of aid industry tomes. In fact, I feel a bit weird having my review as a counterpoint to Doug’s, as I don’t really disagree with what he wrote; I just wanted a different focus, to keep potential readers’ expectations of the book low when it comes to the aid discourse. I put a list of some cooler books that are critical of aid, and that could be interesting to open up for public reviews in the future, on the FB page for the book I’m writing (www.facebook.com/AidHappens, Nov 1 post); some of those are relatively recent.
Regarding your post on CivMil relations, I definitely agree with your observations; it’s nice to see someone questioning conventional wisdom, particularly when it comes to armed actors. My previous work was in an organization (I’m sure you can guess which one) that is unique in its level of engagement with soldiers, but even there most staff had an anti-military stance and therefore, oddly, a pro-rebel/underdog stance. But they don’t really share their experiences enough to make a contribution to the conversations you are trying to advance :) In general, as always, I think the issue you highlight in your post is important but that there’s little to no space for staff within aid organizations to address these deeper questions, so discussing them online is fun and cathartic, but I look forward to the day when these sorts of discussion groups are encouraged in each organization out in the field. That said, I’ll join CIVMIL now and explore what’s up there, thanks for the tip!
Dammit J, why did you stop blogging again?