Can Jocko Save America?

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Can Jocko Save America?

Feb 17, 2022 11 min read

Former Director, Simon Center for American Studies

Richard was Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
American author Jocko Willink is seen on set during a taping of "Candace" on March 17, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. Jason Kempin / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Freedom is the gift we possess as human persons, and our virtue enables us to use it well.

Jocko doesn’t believe the government taking responsibility over much of our lives to be a positive development.

Can Jocko save America? Not alone, but he’s certainly there with the virtue we need to make another go at things.

“Stand by to get some.” So begins Jocko Willink’s account in The Dichotomy of Leadership, co-authored with Leif Babin, of one in a series of clashes during the battle of Ramadi in the Iraq War. Willink and Babin are former Navy SEALs and veterans of the Iraq War. What were they about “to get”? Combat. Willink commanded SEAL forces in the 2006 effort to prepare the way and offer protection to the more numerous conventional allied forces whose goal was to take and hold Ramadi. The fighting was intense for SEALs, Marines, and Army forces, replete with numerous casualties. In fact, the radio call “Stand by to get some” had become a way not only of alerting but of steadying combatants before another bout, so common had skirmishing become. To stand by in civilian contexts means to take a breath, pause briefly, but in Ramadi, Jocko says, it meant get ready and get low: hostile fire incoming.  

And it was Ramadi where Jocko as a commanding officer would exercise the full panoply of his combat and leadership skills developed over a nearly two-decade Navy career. In Ramadi, his beloved Task Unit Bruiser (part of Seal Team Three) paid a high price. Three members of that team died in the battle: Marc Lee, Mike Monsoor, and Ryan Job. Chris Kyle, the legendary sniper and subject of the award-winning film American Sniper, was also under Willink’s command. And these men, along with Seth Stone, who died years later in a training accident, are prominently mentioned by Jocko in his writing and podcasting efforts. His work is devoted to their sacrifices.

Those communicative projects are extensive and successful. He hosts not one but four podcasts. His highly rated and followed Jocko Podcast features lengthy discussions titled “Pinned Down, Shot in the Head, Still Winning,” “Pain Makes You Better,” “Seek, Never Settle, Inspire, Never Complain, Rise, Never Stay Down, No Legs, No Vision, No Problem.” At nearly 400 episodes, the podcast is best described as the application of classical virtues, forged in martial endeavors, to the practical affairs facing listeners in their careers and family lives. His most recent podcast is Jocko Unraveling, where he discusses military history and statecraft with an array of guests. He has authored and co-authored over a half-dozen books, including children’s books and a novel. His consulting firm, Echelon Front, translates the leadership and strategy tactics from his SEALs experience to companies across America. Lately, Jocko has branched out with companies manufacturing workout attire and nutritional supplements. His products are proudly made in America, he notes in a recent podcast with Congressman Dan Crenshaw (R), a fellow former SEAL.

He is, to put it mildly, a fitness and diet guru. His training regimen consists of free weights, jiu-jitsu (his passion), and surfing. All of this begins at 4:30 am. The diet is spartan: think Keto but without cheat days. You fast for 24 hours every month, and for 72 hours every quarter. Occasionally, you get a pizza after some intense physical training sessions have been performed. In fitness, he has surely impacted me. If I’m tempted to miss a predawn workout, I can hear his low-booming voice inside my head: “Get out of bed, Reinsch.” Food is another matter. There, I’m a work in progress.

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A Return to Virtue

What does Jocko have to say? Why does his challenging discourse attract so many listeners, many of them devoted to his counsel? He is summoning people from the shades of therapeutic talk, of complacent wandering, of nihilistic thoughts. There is no hint of self-help language, although Jocko aims to uplift the lives of his listeners. Rather, we encounter the charged moral and ethical drama of life. Jocko is clear to those with ears to hear: You are the only one who can make your life worthy by pursuing a mission with courage, endurance, prudence, gratitude, and a will to victory.

Freedom is the gift we possess as human persons, and our virtue enables us to use it well. In the practically-minded book, Discipline Equals Freedom, he emphatically reminds readers that weakness and decline are choices that we face every day. “How can I work out consistently every day?” Answer: “Work out consistently every day.” “How can I stop eating sugar?” Answer: “Stop Eating Sugar.” Jocko adds, “You can even control your emotions: How can I stop missing that girl or guy or whoever broke up with me?” Answer: “Stop Missing Them.”

A consistent theme Jocko explores is the need to be on the “Warpath” in your work and your preparation. And that means having a mission and a victory that you pursue. And the Warpath consists of the training and sacrifice necessary for that victory to become reality. His counsel is to stop wasting time, stop waiting on other people to serve you, to lead you. In his words, “Go get some.”

Most importantly, Jocko positively scorns complaining or pushing the blame on others for your own failures and mistakes. His first book, also co-authored with Leif Babin, is titled Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win. Its unremitting theme is that authentic leadership accepts total responsibility, serves and trains subordinates, develops new leaders, and entrusts them with decentered command to maximize opportunities for mission success. That first element of leadership is the most difficult in the military, business, and politics.

The virtue, if only without consistently naming it, that Jocko evokes is prudence. In positions of leadership, and such leadership speaks even to the lowly assistant or line worker, we make decisions on the edge of failure. The leader must take counsel from Aristotle in finding the mean, in discovering and making virtuous decisions. In that regard, Jocko thinks in terms of navigating between what he sees as life’s crucial dichotomies: humility and aggression, command and deference, accountability and forgiveness. All these qualities are needed in a leader, Jocko notes. But knowing when and how to deploy them is the difference between being a leader who is voluntarily followed by people who know the mission and seek its accomplishment versus a leader who must always command and insist upon constant accountability measures rather than trust subordinates.

Jocko’s return to Stoic virtue is clearly evidenced in his writings and podcasts. In his De Officiis, Cicero notes of the great-souled man that “it takes a brave and resolute spirit not to be disconcerted in times of difficulty or ruffled and thrown off one’s feet, as the saying is, but to keep one’s presence of mind and one’s self-possession and not to swerve from the path of reason. . . . These are the activities that mark a spirit strong, high, and self-reliant in its prudence and wisdom.” One could not find a better description for the guests that Jocko consistently interviews, many of them veterans, and for the recommendations he makes in his writings and podcasts.

In “Pain Makes You Better,” Kirstie Ennis, a Marine and Afghanistan War veteran, discusses the injuries she suffered as a 50-caliber helicopter gunner when her chopper crashed. Her jaw was nearly ripped off, her leg was broken so badly that amputation was required, and her brain was so negatively impacted by the crash that she temporarily lost her speech. During the interview, Jocko doesn’t respond with great mercy. He asks her, “And then what did you do?” after she describes each element of the pain, trauma, surgeries, and recovery she experienced. So bleak was her path that she almost committed suicide. She stopped short of the attempt upon concluding that it was the ultimate statement of victimhood. At that moment, Jocko briefly pauses, letting that important moment strike home. Freedom is a gift, tenuously held, painfully realized. Ennis graduated from college and graduate school despite being told that she lacked the cognitive capacity for academic study resulting from her injuries. She is calm, articulate, and at peace, a warrior in full. This interview and so many others are examples of Americans leading us to a deeper appreciation of our country and its calling upon us.

Responsibility and Accountability

Jocko refrains from giving much political commentary. In an interview with Joe Rogan, he observed that he’s for “individual freedom” and he doesn’t believe the government taking responsibility over much of our lives to be a positive development. He has also noted that we need “decentralized command,” or federalism to use more constitutional sounding language. But we might take Jocko’s political measure by whom he chooses to interview in this regard. Regulars are Tulsi Gabbard, Dan Crenshaw, and Jordan Peterson. Jocko doesn’t seek from them a political platform or a theoretical approach, but he wants to know how they approach decision-making. How do you gather information and use it? Are you willing to admit your own uncertainty? How do you approach problem-solving? What do you do when your plan fails?

In an interview with Gabbard, Jocko opens with descriptions of American leaders screaming and hectoring each other in political arenas. His conclusion: those behaving in that manner are possessed of certitude and see no reason to let opponents speak. “I can’t be wrong,” is the predominant attitude, he notes. But who is humble? Who listens? Who can deflect the anger of others and lead them to ask questions? These are the people, he adds, who make good neighbors, good friends, good leaders, good citizens, good soldiers.

He then introduces Gabbard to the podcast and the impression is unmistakable that Tulsi is one of these people. And the examples of her career, military and political, clearly evidence goodness, strength, and decency. She grew tired of the military leaders she had during her service, so she went through Officer Candidate School to provide better leadership. She ran for Congress and once in Washington as a Democrat decided against supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016. She publicly opposed the Democratic National Committee’s attempt to turn the primary process in Clinton’s favor, and she endorsed Bernie Sanders over Clinton. Gabbard was warned she had sealed the door shut on her career. Of course, Hillary lost and Gabbard emerged as an insightful leader in the party. But it’s also a party she no longer fits.

Congressman Crenshaw, a Navy Seal at roughly the same time as Jocko, is a kindred spirit. Their shared understanding of leadership and teamwork are manifest. One area where Jocko does offer commentary concerns bad military decision-making. He hasn’t been shy in condemning the Biden administration’s evacuation of Afghanistan, and this emerges in Jocko’s conversation with Crenshaw on his podcast “Hold These Truths.” His conclusion is that the lack of ownership from political and military leaders for the choices and tactics utilized prevents us from learning how delinquent we’ve become. There is no improvement to military operations, he notes, until that process of responsibility and accountability ensues. Jocko thinks it must start at the top of the command structure as each leader closely looks at what they did, why they did it, and what happened as a result. But that process doesn’t seem likely any time soon.

A subject that does come up in the interview is Colonel David Hackworth, one of the finest warriors America has produced in Jocko’s estimation. “Hack,” as he was affectionately known and still remembered, wrote a memoir about his service called About Face, detailing his time in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Jocko wrote the Foreword for a recent edition, praising his courage, strategic and tactical brilliance, love for his soldiers, and dedication to victory. Hack was the consummate military leader, exemplifying the desire to accomplish missions and to serve and protect his men. Frequently his efforts led him against the brass. So profound were his disagreements with military leadership in Vietnam that he infamously blasted on national television their cowardice, bureaucratic insularity, and ineffectiveness in the war. It would amount, ultimately, to defeat, Hack explained, and had already contributed to unnecessary losses to American lives. He resigned his commission after these shocking public accusations and never looked back. Here is another example of magnanimous leadership and virtue that our nation might look to.

The Warrior Spirit

Apart from military and political leadership, one of Jocko’s most profound interviews is with Jordan Peterson in 2017. At times, Jocko is taken with Peterson’s metaphysical, theological, and psychological analysis of the human person. Jocko reflects that Peterson helped him know that his instincts, his understanding of people and organizations, are there for a reason. There is a truth in the way of human beings, all is not arbitrary.

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Peterson responds that the hardest fundamental realities are ethical and metaphysical. Evil is how we come to know the good. What path are we going to follow? That’s the question confronting us every day, Peterson remarks. He follows with long disquisitions on Christ’s sacrifice, an ownership of the sinful mess man has made of the structure of being through his sinful acts. Cain and Abel, Peterson argues, are an archetype of how our selfishness and jealousy explode across relationships and across history. And what we know is that we need a firm understanding of good and evil and that we must repent and walk with God. We need God to accept our sacrifices, Peterson concludes.

Jocko, though, wants to know where his all-consuming desire to be a commando stemmed from. Peterson replies that the warrior spirit runs deep, and he describes the cultures that built themselves on it. But the question is what is done with this spirit? We need, says Peterson, warriors, but those who follow rules and use their power to protect others. We need dangerous men, disciplined men, to uphold our free countries. The most dangerous men aren’t in SEAL Team Three, they are men who made themselves weak through nihilism and passivity. Those are the men who will stab you in the back, Peterson states. Indeed. Nihilism has become attractive. It absolves us of responsibility, but it also will kill you, Peterson concludes. Perhaps this is the key to thinking about our growing suicide problem.

“Other than death, all failure is psychological.” So states a World War II field manual for American soldiers. From it, Jocko deduces that we don’t surrender our lives to the forces of darkness and night. We learn and gain experience. We might tactically withdraw, but we regroup and reattack. Those are words many could use now. An acknowledgment of failure and the need to reassess, reflect, and put together what has been shattered. Can Jocko save America? Not alone, but he’s certainly there with the virtue we need to make another go at things. Let’s get some. 

This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty

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