Artillery Row

Jocko vs. Evil

Jocko Willink, a retired Navy SEAL and podcaster, grapples with classic accounts of atrocity—and nurtures a spark of 20th-century American idealism

In these early decades of the twenty-first century, the word “evil” sits pissing its pants in the back of the room. Once elevated to respectability by the trials of the top Nazis, it fell later into the hands of American Cold War types, who celebrated when Ronald Reagan called the USSR an “evil empire” at a 1983 gathering of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida.

Reagan’s use of “evil” has aged not-too-terribly, since his bid for the moral high ground prefaced solid diplomacy and major arms control treaties rather than, say, the nuclear overthrow of Yuri Andropov. George W. Bush, by contrast, fumbled it in his 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech, in which he lumped together Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—states that did not form an “Axis,” since Iraq and Iran were enemies, and for which, in two cases out of three, the US prepared no casus belli.

That Bush’s hopes of standing up an exemplary democracy in Iraq and quantifying a WMD threat fell so quickly by the wayside helped America and the world to forget that Saddam Hussein’s regime had ever been evil at all. But Jocko Willink, a retired US Navy SEAL turned popular podcaster—he now has 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube—still remembers that regime’s torture rooms in the palaces near Baghdad. He has told of how, during his first deployment, he and his fellow SEALs would indulge their “dark side” by touring them. “There would be hooks on the ceiling, drainage holes on the floor, implements of torture”, he says in one podcast. “Your four obnoxious, gregarious SEAL buddies and you walk into that room and it’s just quiet … guys that are completely comfortable with violence and death … You walk in and you’re like, ‘This is sickening.’”

There are details in these podcasts to make any healthy person nauseous

After Willink retired from the Navy in 2010, he set himself up as a leadership consultant and co-authored a book called Extreme Ownership with his fellow veteran Leif Babin. While promoting the book on a succession of big American podcasts—Tim Ferriss, Joe Rogan, Sam Harris—Iraq and the reality of evil came up time and again. He told the hosts of how commanding the SEALs’ Task Unit Bruiser, charged with protecting Ramadi from Al Qaeda in Iraq (roughly, the people who later became ISIS) was the most meaningful experience of his life. His enemies, he said, had skinned people alive, had left a father’s severed head on his family’s doorstep. He told Harris he was still haunted by the malevolent look on the face of one captured insurgent. “Evil”, he said, “is a real thing” that can’t be stopped by debate or charity. “Evil people have to be stopped through violence.”

It was Harris, it seems, who put Willink onto the literature of the inferno by recommending Jean Hatzfeld’s book Machete Season, a collection of nauseating testimonies from Rwandan Hutu génocidaires who had participated in the killing of perhaps 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbours in 1994. Willink read from the book on his 16th episode, in which he revealed that his platoon had been stationed “a quick helicopter flight away” during that massacre. “It sickens my heart to know that we did nothing,” he said. “We sat while this evil unfolded.” His readings were strong, resonant, and vibrated with emotion. Some of the quotations he selected drove, much like his conversation with Harris, at the theme of western naivety. Why did westerners leave the Tutsis to their fate, wondered one of the Rwandan survivors. “Whites do not want to see what they cannot believe,” she said.

Jocko Willink reads Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning

Born in Connecticut in 1971, Willink entered his teens in the Reagan era, though it is hard to imagine him as any sort of junior Reaganite; he describes himself as a “rebellious kid” and a fan of the California hardcore punk group Black Flag (his favourite album, naturally, is “My War”). Even so, he seems to have imbibed some of Reagan’s faith in America as a “shining city on a hill” or, as Willink puts it, a “benevolent nation.” But his atrocity podcasts—a minority on a program devoted largely to accounts of military leadership and training, business advice, martial arts and self-improvement—are neither naive nor, on the whole, do they exculpate American failures. At their best, they recall what George Orwell called “the power of facing unpleasant facts,” as when he delves into the moral and leadership implosions that led to the American massacre and rapes at My Lai.

Although Willink deprecates himself as a “knuckle dragger,” his atrocity project may best be thought of as an experiment in the uses of theme that harks back to his time as an English major at the University of San Diego in the early 2000s (he is fond of Shakespeare and Cormac McCarthy). His accumulated work on atrocity-related books since 2016—on subjects ranging from early Nazi endeavours in genocide, to Jews struggling for survival in death camps, to Imperial Japan’s revolting human medical experiments in China, to the Soviet Gulag Archipelago, to the life of American serial killer Karl Panzram—amounts to the most ambitious recent investigation of the idea of evil in a popular medium.

Most atrocity stories turn out to be tales of identity gone sour

Among his recurring themes is the problem of incredulity, whether of European Jews or of Soviet Gulag prisoners not daring to protest as they are lured to the ultimate secondary crime scenes, or of foreign onlookers too eager for excuses to ignore far-off horrors. The rape and sexual enslavement of women is a near-universal subject. The collapse of men’s natural sympathy for women and children and their resulting moral free-fall is another. Dehumanisation and the description of groups of people as insects or vermin are, as everyone ought to know, an ill omen: the Nazis and the Rwandan génocidaires did it; fewer people know that Lenin did it during the Russian Revolution, too. Cults of race and the punishment of bloodlines (whether race, class, or politics-based) are sure routes to the inferno. Bureaucracies and careerism can play a role. And the inferno, it seems, has no bottom: there are details in these podcasts to make any healthy person nauseous.

Willink is quite aware that “evil” is, in our time, a tough sell. One possible thesis implied in his podcasts is that even acknowledging events that necessitate the negative superlative can have a cost. One of his most emotionally affecting episodes details the life and work of the Chinese-American scholar Iris Chang, who experienced a mental breakdown and committed suicide after writing The Rape of Nanking, her bestseller on Japanese atrocities in China during the Second World War. The uses of this painful recognition are—and here Willink appears to nurture one of the great hopes of the late 20th century—prevention through memory and the strengthening of individuals to dissent before it’s too late. The hero of his episode on Four Hours in My Lai, for example, is Hugh Thompson, a US helicopter pilot who, recognising a direct parallel with what he knew about the Nazis, threatened to open fire on Americans who were executing civilians.

Part of what makes Willink’s “evil” podcasts remarkable is that, though he would be unlikely to call himself an intellectual (he is highly intelligent but sometimes seems surprised to learn of the types of conversations going on in academic or media settings) he operates on what has long been considered intellectual territory, covering subjects Americans might typically expect to read about in The New York Review of Books. Willink’s audience appears to be comprised (at a guess) largely of US military types and first responders, martial artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, and the patriotic wing of the self-help crowd. In some instances, he may be reaching an under-served audience, parts of which could be expected to end up on the frontiers of good and evil in their working lives.

Willink says almost nothing about religion, though he speaks metaphorically of forces of light and darkness

Willink also enjoys some audience overlap with a disparate group of media figures that the former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss profiled in 2018 as “The Intellectual Dark Web”—notably the aforementioned Harris and Rogan, as well as the popular psychologist Jordan Peterson. Peterson, it turned out, was to be something of a special case. Before the two men did their first podcast together in late 2017, Willink had already produced episodes on three books—Ordinary Men, Man’s Search for Meaning and The Rape of Nanking—that Peterson had discussed in his lectures. Willink and Peterson hit it off, it seemed, because Peterson admired Willink’s self-discipline, and Willink was already exploring aspects of psychology. At a time when Peterson was weathering sustained criticism from a range of journalists and academics over his stances on identity politics, Willink handed him his soldier’s imprimatur, calling him “a guest who has a clear understanding of evil.” Most atrocity stories turn out to be tales of identity gone sour.

The encounter lifted the lid—wholly inconclusively—on the question of Christianity as it relates to American conceptions of evil. Willink, for his part, says almost nothing about religion, though he sometimes speaks metaphorically of forces of light and darkness, or of “demonic” behaviour. Peterson, a decade or so Willink’s senior and noticeably influenced (or overly influenced) by the religious atmosphere surrounding Reagan’s challenge to the USSR, raised a curious analogy between the New Testament and the reading of dark history, suggesting that, just as Jesus had taken the world’s sins upon himself, readers should imagine themselves implicated in history because their choices matter. “Look at that guy in Charlottesville,” he said, referring to the far-right murderer James Fields, who had run over protester Heather Heyer at the “Unite the Right” rally that year. “That was one guy, and he probably increased polarisation in the United States by five per cent.”

There is a hint in these podcasts of nostalgia for bygone times in which America knew what its mission was

The background of extreme polarisation against which Willink’s podcast emerged is one reason it is so fascinating—and culturally discordant. His emerging theses on evil seem to suggest a possibility now almost unimaginable: that of a revived idealist American foreign policy interested doing good in the world, by force of arms in some cases. There has long been a reticence within US foreign policy circles of “going abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” which has only been heightened by the vagaries of recent wars. Barack Obama’s willingness to stand aside while Bashar al-Assad mass-murdered Syrian civilians gave it new emphasis, as did Donald Trump’s sullen “America first” chauvinism. The US is now a long way indeed from the earnest conversations of the late 1990s as to what might have been done in Rwanda, or of the “responsibility to protect” in the 2000s.

There is a hint in these podcasts of nostalgia for bygone times in which America knew what its mission was. This is not to say there is no sense of mission now—at the time of his debut, Willink was concerned with the urgency of destroying ISIS, which had just overrun Ramadi—but it has seldom looked so attenuated. When Sam Harris asked him if it was really possible to bomb bad ideas, he had to reach for such distant glories as the defeat of Germany and Japan and the smashing of the Confederacy to argue that it was. But within the nostalgia, there is also a sense of the responsibility that ought still to accompany American power. It surfaced this year in Willink’s thoughtful, sensitive interview with Rose Schindler, a woman who, having witnessed the world’s silence over Hitler’s persecution of the Jews as a young girl, had survived Auschwitz and moved to America. Her voice breaking with frailty and emotion in the presence of her polite, strong, steady, and serious host, she told him, “It’s a tremendous thing that you’re doing.”

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