I shook his hand. His hand was different. It was big and strong and rough—it felt like leather more than skin. “Is that all ya got?” he said.
“What?” I replied, not entirely sure what he was talking about.
“That handshake. Is that as hard as you can squeeze?”
I squeezed harder.
“Better,” said Uncle Jake. “We’ll work on that.”
Way of the Warrior Kid: From Wimpy to Warrior the Navy SEAL Way is a 182-page novelized self-help book for pre-teen boys. Its author, John “Jocko” Willink, served 20 years in the United States military, and in Iraq commanded SEAL Team Three, Task Unit Bruiser, perhaps best known for being the unit of American Sniper’s Chris Kyle. Since retiring from service in 2010, Willink has continued to make use of his training, forming a leadership consulting firm for civilians, and turning to instructional writing. His first book, Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win, was a #1 New York Times bestseller.
Way of the Warrior Kid is Willink’s attempt to adapt his positions on hard work and self-discipline to a childhood audience. The book will attract parents who are weary of snowflake pedagogies and bubble-wrap approaches, both of which tend to devalue traditional masculinity. While its positions on exercising, eating right, studying hard, and sticking up for one’s self are worthwhile, however, Way of the Warrior Kid is less about kid than about the heroic figure who drops in to reshape him, for whose teachings the child is more of a sock puppet than a credible figure.
It tells the story of ten-year-old Marc, and the summer vacation between grades 5 and 6 when he is whipped into shape by his uncle Jake. Marc, who describes himself as a dumb wimp, a dork, and a disgrace—among other things—is not looking forward to his next year of school. He can’t do pull-ups, can’t swim, has trouble with multiplication, and is scared of a bully named Kenny Williamson, whom the teachers and their anti-bullying measures seem to overlook. Enter Uncle Jake, a Navy SEAL, who comes to stay with Marc and his mother for the summer. According to Marc,
Uncle Jake is the best. First, he is super cool because he is a Navy SEAL. He fought in real wars. My mom says he was “on the front lines.” That means he was face-to-face with the bad guys. Whoa! Uncle Jake is also awesome because he is the COMPLETE OPPOSITE OF ME. I am weak—he is strong. I am dumb—he is smart. I can’t swim—he can swim with a backpack on! I’m scared of bullies—bullies are scared of him!
The self-loathing on which Marc’s adulation is premised is the first of several black eyes the book earns, particularly when the reader considers who is writing it. Marc seems to exist in a vacuum of identity, which larger-than-life Uncle Jake is only too prepared to fill. Although the child comes from an intact family (his father, who never appears, is said always to be traveling for work), he lacks prior guidance, interests, and influences. He is a blank slate, the kind on which simple lessons are best inscribed.
For the next couple of months, Uncle Jake wakes Marc at zero dark thirty, or military slang for well before dawn (the author is known for Tweeting pictures of his wristwatch at around 4:30am, to show his followers what time he is starting his day). Marc is then put through his paces—pushups, burpees, and his dreaded pull-ups, on which he gradually improves. Uncle Jake enrolls him in jiu-jitsu, where he learns not to judge an opponent by his size. He also learns to swim at a nearby river, not exactly by being thrown off the dock, but near enough—Uncle Jake tells Marc what to do, and Marc, after a little hesitation, complies and succeeds. In terms of schoolwork, Marc masters his times tables and memorizes the Presidents of the United States, both by rote.
With every success, Uncle Jake pushes him harder, and shames him for celebrating prematurely. By the time Marc returns to school in the fall, he can do more pull-ups than all but one kid in his class, nails his times tables, and is able to end the playground bully’s reign of terror—bloodlessly, as it turns out (once chastened, the bully becomes his friend).
As for the teachings that Marc’s fictional successes are intended to validate, Way of the Warrior Kid is soft in core areas. For one, the Warrior Code itself is not fixed, despite serving as the anchor of the book’s philosophy. It is instead portrayed as a relativist, and even arbitrary, body of principles, dependent on different times, cultures, and tastes. “‘They are all different,’ Uncle Jake explains. ‘You need to go look at them yourself. Read through them. Try to understand their different codes. And then come up with your own Warrior Code that you can live by.’”
The book then provides samples of American military codes, including the SEAL Code, The Ranger Creed, and The United States Marine Corps Values, as well as condensed historical examples such as The Seven Virtues of Bushido (Samurai Code), The Code of Chivalry for Knights of the Middle Ages, and a list of apocryphal guidelines called the “The Viking Laws.” Instead of this concession to pluralism, Way of the Warrior Kid would have come out stronger to base its teachings on the SEAL Code specifically.
The issue of motivation, however, is likely the most debatable. Here, as elsewhere in his work, the author makes discipline the true engine of accomplishment, and characterizes motivation as an unnecessary luxury. The position emphasizes the Navy SEALs’ perpetual readiness, reflecting the belief that pressure does not inspire people to new heights, but instead reduces them to the bedrock of their training. As Uncle Jake puts it,
“I don’t worry about motivation, because motivation comes and goes. It’s just a feeling. You might feel motivated to do something, and you might not. The thing that keeps you on course and keeps you on the warrior path isn’t motivation. It is discipline. Discipline gets you out of bed. Discipline gets you onto the pull-up bar. Discipline gets you to grind it out in jiu-jitsu class. If you do those things only when you are motivated to do them, you might to them only fifty percent of the time. Sure, it’s nice when motivation is there, but you can’t count on motivation. You have to rely on the personal discipline you develop.”
The problem between theory and practice in The Way of the Warrior Kid is that Marc is given extreme motivation to do the things he does, primarily by Uncle Jake’s example as a role model, and the heroic reputation that empowers it. When at last Uncle Jake has to leave, Marc asks how he will get along without him. Who will make sure he doesn’t go back his “old lazy ways?” Uncle Jake’s answer is as predictable as it is disingenuous:
“You don’t need me for that anymore. As a matter of fact, you never needed me. Sure, I showed you the path, but you could have found it on your own. You know what you need to do to stay on the warrior path. Hard work. Discipline. Study. Eat good food. Keep your room and your gear in order. Set new goals and work hard to meet them. Keep training jiu-jitsu.”
It is worth adding, though children may not notice, that the incentives of the Warrior Code make for a perpetual wild goose chase. Uncle Jake is a warrior because, as a Navy SEAL, he is literally a warrior; his example, and his teachings, are premised upon that professional role. Marc, on the other hand, must find incentive for his self-discipline in imagination. He is a warrior because he has discipline, and has discipline because that is what makes a warrior.
As with sports stars, elite soldiers such as Navy SEALs enjoy a solid celebrity among boys, but this does not necessarily make their practices and livelihoods into good tools for childhood character building. Neither professional is known for reintegrating easily into mainstream society after retirement, though this is a much more complex issue.
For a prepubescent child to base his self-worth so heavily on his physical achievements must also be framed much more sensitively—when, for example, Marc is ashamed that some of the girls were able to do more pull-ups than he was, it might have been pointed out that boys and girls still have comparable strength at his age.
As a program for self-improvement, Way of the Warrior Kid has a legitimate market, one that believes in cultivating toughness, bravery, and self-discipline in boys, but its audience deserves a better primer than a guide to hero worship, and a more diversified portrayal of virtue.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com/