Futile wars may inspire worthy books, after the fact. Unfortunately the “global war on terror” is both futile and perpetual, leaving no practical room for experience-chastened hindsight. Much like the mobbed-up system of government contracting and lobbying kickbacks, the shabby structure of the terror-war is too large and lucrative to voluntarily mothball. It is not, however, too big to fail. Indeed, the longer the war goes on failing, the more money can be made. Behold, then, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, by Lieutenant Commanders John “Jocko” Willink and Leif Babin.
Following several tours in Iraq, Willink and Babin (who is married to Fox News anchor Jenna Lee) formed a management consultancy with clients such as Citibank, Sysco, and Triangle Petroleum Corporation. The book’s conceit is a brutally simple version of the U.S. military’s standard recruiting pitch: battlefield experience (assuming you survive) can bring civilian success and satisfaction to “leaders of teams large and small . . . men and women . . . anyone who aspires to better themselves.” And unlike a PhD in the humanities or a Facebook contact list, military service is readily transferable to other spheres of corporate endeavor. “Combat is reflective of life, only amplified and intensified,” assert the authors. “A combat leader can acquire a lifetime of leadership lessons learned in only a few deployments.” Something like this logic of analogy informs a long line of battlefield handbooks turned into management science, such as Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (favored by Jack Welch) and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (recommended by Tony Soprano). Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun has been a staple of MBA programs since 1985.
But Extreme Ownership is uniquely depraved—beyond repurposing battlefield tactics for the boardroom, it shamelessly mines a catastrophic war to provide pep talks for sociopaths. The titular emphasis on “ownership,” for example, is an unwitting echo of Colin Powell’s counsel to George W. Bush in 2002 prior to the Iraq invasion: “You break it, you own it.” Even as they preach humility and responsibility, Willink and Babin refuse to own up to the fiasco. In keeping with the false pretenses of the invasion, they fudge facts, employing “combined situations, condensed timelines, and modified story lines.” That’s leadership for you.
Extreme Ownership tails the Hollywood success of American Sniper, which was based on the memoir of late Navy SEAL and serial fabulist Chris Kyle, who served with Willink and Babin in the 2006 Battle of Ramadi. The authors gamely puff up their “liberation” of that pivotal Iraqi city as an unalloyed success story and a vindication of the Iraq war. “Despite the doubters and naysayers, Ramadi was won,” they boast. “Ramadi remained a model of stability . . . for years afterward.” Yet as the ink dried on the authors’ July 2014 publishing contract, Ramadi came under siege by Islamic State fighters led by generals once loyal to Saddam Hussein. When the book came out in October 2015, ISIS had controlled Ramadi for five months. Why let reality muddle the message?
One does sympathize with the authors’ dreary civilian grind as consultants rehashing their hard-won battlefield wisdom to pallid, craven suits. “The enemy is out there,” Babin tells one such suit, and then points “out the window to the world beyond.” The hapless clients struggle to maintain productivity after, say, cutting employee pay, and the SEALs respond with platitudes cribbed from Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters (“simple, not easy”) and Word War II colonels (“no bad units, only bad officers”). Jocko supplies the best advice: wake up early.
This same reliable inanity reflex plagues even their accounts of the wartime traumas that launched their consulting careers: “This was not a movie and it certainly was no game”; “The entire place was crawling with >muj”; “Were any of us to fall into their hands, we could expect to be tortured in unspeakable ways.” (One imagines that the Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib might find ways to speak of it.)
Extreme Ownership is uniquely depraved and shamelessly mines a catastrophic war to provide pep talks for sociopaths
The banality of the advice on offer in Extreme Ownership might be more palatable if the authors didn’t consistently undermine their own points by garlanding them with anecdotes demonstrating the polar opposite. A section on the value of empowering junior leaders, for example, hangs on a story in which a commander resolves a dicey situation by second-guessing and micromanaging his subordinates.
The wartime scenes unfold a bit like Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow adapting Keystone Kops routines. The book’s introduction has the SEALs lured into an ambush and then arresting the wrong man. Later, an Iraqi ally is killed and a U.S. solider “fragged in the face” by high-caliber rifle rounds fired with the utmost precision . . . from the American side. Narrowly averted “blue-on-blue” killings—Pentagon jargon for friendly fire—are a recurring theme. That’s understandable, since the “good guys” in these stories rarely knew where they were or whom they were shooting at—a notorious shortcoming of the Iraq counterinsurgency campaign that the authors bluff their way past, betting on the reader’s ignorance. The night raids hated by Iraqi civilians are recalled here with glee. “We flipped over furniture, emptied desks and dresser drawers onto the floor, ripped down curtains and pictures from the walls,” Willink writes. A SEAL falls through a roof. A SEAL kills some unlucky sheep in the line of fire—“muj sheep,” he quips. The SEALs retreat: mission accomplished. Through sheer force of ego, the authors transmute patently ugly episodes into upbeat boardroom sermons.
There is much unseemly gloating over the high-piled corpses of the “evil” enemy and telling contempt for their nameless Iraqi allies—“some of the worst combat troops in the world,” trained and equipped by you-know-who. (So much for ownership.) In a chapter titled “Believe”—about, yes, the importance of believing in the mission, whether it means spreading democracy from the barrel of a gun or maximizing quarterly profits—Willink acknowledges that the Iraqis sometimes proved useful. They could open doors. Where “a SEAL breacher might use a sledgehammer or explosive charge to open a gate . . . Iraqi soldiers knew how the doors and gates were secured and would quietly pop them open by hand with little effort.” Whoa! Even better, they “could tell the bad guys from the good.”
I’m no expert, but I think I found the problem.