The Heart and the Fist Summary

Eric Greitens

The Heart and the Fist

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The Heart and the Fist Summary

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The autobiography opens with Greitens stating the importance of courage and compassion going hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other. His book will be the story of him deciding to work to honor the memory of his friend, Travis Manion, a Marine who was killed during in Iraq.

The book then flashes back to the early 1990s. Greitens is in college, and decides he wants to see the world. He heads to China on a grant to study emerging business sectors. Immersing himself in the culture, Greitens begins learning kung fu, and teaches English. His students, he learns, had been part of the anti-Communist protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The subject of his class shifts toward human rights, and when word gets out, Greitens is detained by Chinese authorities. He returns to the United States upon his release.

Undeterred by his experience in China, Greitens receives another grant, this time to work with the children of parents killed during the war in Bosnia. Then he goes to work in Rwanda, another site of genocide. From there, Greitens goes to work with street children in Bolivia, until he finishes college at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.

Throughout his travels, Greitens learns some powerful lessons. First, he wishes the United States had taken a more proactive role in preventing the genocides, versus the reactive role of cleaning up after the fact. Second, he sees the terrible impact of poverty, especially its role in the devastation of the lives of children. Finally, he comes to terms with the terrible cruelty that humans are capable of subjecting each other to.

Greitens resolves to become a Navy SEAL. The training he endures is brutal, designed to weed out everyone but the toughest, most-determined soldiers. Greitens’s secret is to stay calm, as calm as he can, even in the harshest trials. He becomes a leader and excels during the training, eventually graduating from the SEAL program. He is sent to Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, Kenya, and then finally Iraq. In Iraq, he takes part in battle. He recounts the story of fighting in Fallujah, helping a fellow soldier put on his boots while the soldier fights to stay alive after suffering a head wound. Greitens is in the middle of a gas attack. He tells us that, after the attack, he ran every day, for weeks, as he tried to recover from the effects of the gas.

While Greitens understands the importance of fighting, and being trained to fight well, he notices the United States does not begin to have success in Iraq until it reachs out to the people. The soldiers needed to earn the trust of the locals, and that brought success.

Greitens ultimately returns to the beginning of the book, and he again tells the reader that he wants to do something that will honor the sacrifice of his friend, Travis Manion. Upon visiting wounded soldiers at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Greitens learns how much wounded servicemen and servicewomen wish they could go back and continue helping their fellow soldiers. The visit inspires him to start The Mission Continues, a non-profit organization that awards fellowships to veterans who use the money to do projects around the world that help people.

Through The Mission Continues, more than 25,000 volunteers have worked on projects, and more than 250 fellowships have been awarded.

The title of the book, The Heart and the Fist, alludes to the book’s overall theme, which is that strength must always be coupled with compassion. Being able to fight—especially through military power—is important, but without the ability also to care and to build, fighting alone rarely provides positive outcomes. He is quick to point out that it is not always the strongest or toughest people who make it through SEAL training, success is found by people who show a combination of heart and determination that compliments their brawn.

Greitens’s book is a world-reaching review of the United States’ recent foreign policy efforts, and though he is not critical of the military’s decision-making, Greitens obviously feels that US policy too often neglects the humanitarian needs of people around the world.

The Heart and the Fist is Greitens’s second book, following the collection of essays and photographs, Strength and Compassion. In both books, Greitens is quick to dispel any notion that he thinks SEALs are superhuman. More importantly, he believes  a soldier’s humanity is what makes him or her effective. Just pointing a gun is not enough. There are two people on each end of the weapon, and thinking about that before pulling a trigger can solve a lot of problems before they even begin.