7. Oxford

IN BOLIVIA, I REREAD Albert Camus's The Plague. In the story, Bernard Rieux, a local doctor, and Jean Tarrou, a visitor unable to return home, are caught up in a plague epidemic in the Algerian city of Oran. Taking a break—for a moment—from fighting disease, Rieux and Tarrou discuss what it means to live well, and Tarrou says, "Of course a man should fight for victims, but if he ceases caring for anything outside that, what's the use of his fighting?"1

Doing humanitarian work overseas, I had come to realize that it's not enough to fight for a better world; we also have to live lives worth fighting for. In my senior year of college I applied for a Rhodes scholarship, awarded annually to men and women who are meant to "fight the world's fight." Scholars are sent to graduate school at Oxford University in England, and it was at Oxford that I really began to appreciate all of life's beauty: joy, delight, rest, love, tranquillity, peace. These are things worth fighting for, for others and for ourselves.

Oxford offered an almost unimaginable gift of time, and more opportunity for revelry than I'd ever known. Oxford offered, above all, incredible freedom. I took classes, but there were no grades. At the end of the year, I simply had to show up and pass an exam. The Rhodes offered a modest stipend, and provided that I budgeted well, I could use it to travel widely. The only real guidance I'd been given was: "Make the most of it."

With its manicured grounds, Queen Elizabeth House looked like an English country manor, and after an interview with the director of an academic program in development studies, I was admitted into a diverse class of students from South Africa, Spain, India, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, and Belgium. During my time there, I would learn as much from the other students as I would from my professors.

I soon found that Oxford not only welcomed diversity but embraced the eccentric. One scholar, "Turkish Tom," who was over six and a half feet tall—if you included his mad-scientist hair—walked the halls of the college in a black trench coat, mumbling about his dissertation, then seven years in the making. Oxford academics really did bike through town dressed in tweed.

A dark wooden desk sat in front of the window in my attic room, and in the morning I'd read and write there as the sun rose over the college chapel. The university hosted lectures on a wide range of subjects, which were open to every student, and one morning I sat at my desk reviewing the university lecture list. With a yellow marker I highlighted lectures in British history, contemporary literature, moral philosophy, the history of science, modern art, Greek civilization, parliamentary politics. It was an academic all-you-can-eat buffet. One day I dropped in on a philosophy lecture. In an ancient room lined with wood shelves weighted with leather-bound books, the professor began, "What is truth?"

Dinners lasted all night. At Lady Margaret Hall, my college, I sat down to "Formal Halls" with British historians, Swiss chemists, Chilean anthropologists, and Polish conductors. In a letter to my family I wrote, "I have no idea how people get work done here. At 5 we start with pre-dinner drinks and then go for cocktails and then sit down at 6:30 for dinner and eat one course after another, and then just when you think it's over you go into another room for chocolates and drinks, and then everyone goes to the pub after that. When you add in two tea times per day and lunch with a friend, I feel like I spend all day eating and drinking and talking."

The Rhodes Trust owned a large log cabin in the Alps, and I was invited there for a "Reading Party." We'd read in the mornings and take extraordinary alpine hikes most of the day, and then each night a member of the group would make an informal presentation and lead a discussion. My presentation was not very memorable, but I did introduce a bunch of international scholars to the American s'more.

I spent a week in an English country manor with friends. We read philosophy and took long walks over worn brown paths that wound through a vibrant green countryside dotted with packs of white sheep. Back at Oxford, we all went punting down the river. With sixteen-footlong sticks we pushed flat-bottomed boats, ate strawberries, drank champagne and juice, and periodically crashed into the bank.

My American classmates and I tried to make our own cultural contributions. We tried, for example, to introduce the international graduate students to a game of American football. My friend Ed aimed to be a professor, and he patiently explained the rules of the game until all of the international students nodded back at him. On the first play, I called hike, and as I brought the ball up, I saw an open receiver—a British chemist—running across the field. I overthrew the chemist, and when the ball flew past him and hit the ground, a German historian on the other team grabbed it and started running. A Polish engineer tried to tackle him. Ed yelled, "No, no, the play is over!" but just then a Greek linguist threw her shoulder into the German, who crumpled to the ground. Then a South African lawyer on my team threw himself on the downed German, wrestled the ball away, and threw it ten yards forward to an Australian biologist, who bobbled the pass, dropped the ball, picked it up again, and ran into the end zone. My team went wild in celebration.

"Yes!" "Ja!" "Nai!" "Tak!"

Ed was doubled over laughing, his hands on his knees, and I said, "I guess that's a touchdown. Do you want to explain the whole kickoff thing?"

Oxford can be magical at night. As the light of the day softens into dark and the bright traces of modern life recede, what is left are the winding cobblestone streets, the colleges built like castles, the gargoyles who have been smiling and frowning and clowning in permanent expressions of mischief and terror for five hundred years. One night before a concert, I stood outside the old Sheldonian Theatre as the river rush of the crowd's energy flowed around me and people pressed into the theater. A beautiful woman rode past on her bicycle and flashed me a smile. We were together for the next five years.

On Saturday mornings we would make a breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes and cheesy eggs, and then pack fruit in a backpack and head out for a walk along the Oxford Canal. We'd take different forks in the path, turning left where last we had turned right, making our way through overgrown fields and along rivers, and eventually—it works like magic in England—we'd come across a pub where we'd stop for a lunch of fish and chips.

We walked to open-air markets on the weekends, pulled fresh fruit from the stalls, and then packed our backpack with French bread and tomatoes and smoked turkey and Brie and avocado. When the days were long, we'd start off early in the morning and bike for miles over hills and past green fields filled with running horses and grazing sheep. We'd roll past farmers striding with tall wooden walking sticks, their sheepdogs behind them. We'd leave with a map and a "let's head for that town" notion of a plan, and at the end of the day we'd find a pub that served as a bed and breakfast and we'd sit down to a dinner that tasted delicious in our near exhaustion, and then we'd shower and scrub the splattered mud of a day's ride from our bodies and we'd fall into a happy, deep sleep. In winter we'd walk over to the Trout Pub, where we'd order hot chocolate and sit near a fire where they actually roasted chestnuts over the open flames.

Other weekends I'd bike to Rent-a-Wreck and rent a cheap car for a few days, and we'd roll out to explore Britain. Once we headed to Hay-on-Wye, a village full of old bookstores, and once we drove to the Lake District, where we walked through heather-filled fields. In northern Wales we scrambled up a steep hill to the remains of a twelfth-century castle. We sat on the partially collapsed stone walls and talked, and then we walked down the hill across green fields and past a roaring white stream into a Welsh village, where we took shelter from the rain in a teashop.

We went to Malta and spent two weeks snorkeling in the Mediterranean, exploring the famous old city of Knights Hospitallers and driving around the island in a rented open-top jeep. We took the ferry to Northern Ireland and walked through the city of Galway on Good Friday in 1998, the day the peace accords were signed. On several weekends we escaped to Paris, where we'd wake up late and head downstairs to the local boulangerie to buy a bag of croissants and pains au chocolat and walk beside the river Seine.

One morning at the Rodin Museum in Paris I was waiting outside for my girlfriend next to Rodin's sculpture The Thinker. The sun was high and I sat peeling an orange. As I split a section in half, every fiber of the bursting fruit seemed to glisten silver. The whole world had opened itself to me. Here was all its beauty, right here in my hands.

I joined the Oxford University Amateur Boxing Club (founded 1881). The head coach, Henry Dean, was to Oxford boxing what Bear Bryant was to Alabama football or Mike Krzyzewski is to Duke basketball. The Varsity Match—the annual competition against Cambridge—was the most important event in Oxford sports, and by the time I joined the Oxford team, Henry had won seven Varsity Matches in a row. It was one of the longest winning streaks in any sport in the history of the Varsity Match. In the privileged world of Oxford, Henry Dean was an island of solid British working-class sense and courage, and boxing at Oxford became a central part of my life.

A few practices into the season, when dozens of men were still training, I asked the team captain how boxers were cut from the team, and he said, "Henry doesn't cut anyone. He doesn't have to." Henry simply subjected everyone to his training.

With all its revelry, life tended to start late at Oxford. A 10 A.M. class was early. But the boxing team was different. The team gathered several mornings a week at the base of Headington Hill, the longest, tallest hill in Oxford. Pedaling through the city before sunrise, I flew down Oxford High Street. The High Street was usually choked with traffic and tourist buses and scholars in gowns, but this early in the morning the city lay quiet like a napping child. I biked past Magdalen College—sitting like an old castle in front of the bridge—and over the river Cherwell.

The ride to practice was a pleasant interlude before a vicious morning. When I arrived, Henry Dean would be standing at the bottom of Headington Hill wearing his rough blue coat, his brown work gloves on his hands, his stopwatch ready. Henry was about five foot nine, and though he had grown stouter with age and now walked with a slight limp, when he was teaching a jab—"You just hit him: Bing! Bing! Bing!"—he still moved like the national champion he'd once been. We would gather at the base of the hill, and at exactly 7:30 A.M. Henry would say, "Let's go," and we'd start off like a pack of gazelles that had just smelled a lion as, arms pumping, feet flying, we ran up the steep hill.

We were a motley, unshaven crew most mornings, and when we ran along the park paths we would startle the half-dozing English ladies taking their dogs for a morning stroll. We ran the paths in wild team races, and then Henry broke us into pairs and we raced against each other in hill sprints. Henry had the course rigged so that at the end of each sprint we jogged downhill. As we reached the bottom of the hill, the whistle would blow and we'd sprint again. When we paused for a fleeting moment, sucking down air, our hands behind our heads, Henry would say, "Cambridge is sleeping right now."

Henry did not tolerate whining, and he did not tolerate cowardice. If someone tried to make an excuse about not showing up at Headington Hill, he'd say, "I don't need to hear about it. These boys don't want to do the work, then they don't want to be boxers. They can leave."

When I first sparred against Dave Crellin, who had never boxed before, I gave him a bloody nose. Dave turned away from me, but Henry turned him back to the fight and said, "Welcome to boxing, then." People feared Henry's wrath, and they also feared his boxing hygiene. When Dave got a bloody nose, Henry walked to the corner, grabbed a yellow sponge from a bucket of water, mashed the sponge into Dave's face, then bent and wiped the spattered blood off the floor before tossing the sponge back in the bucket. When the next man was bloodied, Henry reached into the bucket again, grabbed the same sponge, and mashed it into the next man's face.

Henry beat us exhausted. "More work, need more work out of you," he'd say as he worked me on the pads: "Bing! Bing! Jab—now!" As he floated around the ring, his limp gone, and with the sound of my fists cracking against the pads echoing through the gym, he'd yell, "Come on!" and keep me punching until I could barely hold my hands in front of my face. When the round ended he'd hit me on the head with one of the pads and say, "Good boxing," and in that moment he couldn't hide the fact that he had a golden heart.

With Henry and the Oxford boxing team I fought all over Britain. In the Town vs. Gown boxing match we squared off against local fighters in a small ring surrounded by tables where men dressed in tuxedoes ate steaks and smoked cigars. We went to the British Universities Sports Association National Championships, and my teammates and I brought home gold medals. We traveled to small working-class boxing clubs and to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, where we walked to the ring behind a military bagpiper.

The Varsity Match my second year at Oxford would prove to be our biggest test and one of the most memorable nights of my "Oxford education." The Oxford Town Hall holds hundreds of spectators for boxing matches. Seats are pressed around the ring and people yell from the rafters, and much of the crowd feels close enough to be splattered with the fighters' sweat. Shadowboxing in the locker room before our fights, we could hear the roar of the crowd. When it was time for my fight and they opened the door to the arena, I felt like I was stepping into a riot.

Students in sport jackets, their ties loosened and their sleeves pushed up, held their fists in the air, screaming, "Hit him! Hit him!" The Oxford supporters chanted "OX ... FORD!" while the Cambridge fans echoed, "CAM ... BRIDGE!" Old Blues—boxing alums from years past—sat ringside in their blue blazers, yelling, "Shoe! The! Tab! Shoe! The! Tab!" A "tab" was a Cambridge student and to "shoe" meant to beat without mercy—like kicking someone in the face while they were on the ground. All of the eccentric individuals who made up life at Oxford—the scholars, poets, scientists, philosophers from a hundred different countries and a thousand different cultures—were now nothing more than one screaming-for-blood crowd.

At the beginning of a fight, boxers typically engage in a stare-down with their opponents. They look hard at each other's eyes until the referee sends them back to their corners. Earl had taught me differently.

"Why are you gonna stare in another man's eyes?" He had told me, "Walk to the center of the ring like a gentleman and bow your head with respect while the ref talks. It's gonna make the ref like you and, more important, the other man now has to sit there lookin' tough, starin' at the top of your head. He has to ask himself, Does he stare mean at the top of your head? Should he relax? Should he bow his head too? You've got him confused before the fight starts!

"Then you smile at him and you tell him 'Good luck,'" Earl had said. "Then you're in charge. You're the bigger man. It also confuses him again. A guy that smiles before a fight? Now that'll make a man have to think."

When the referee told us to touch gloves, I looked up and smiled and said, "Good luck."

Henry told me as I stepped in the ring, "The jab, Eric. You use your jab on this boy and you'll knock him out. Nice and easy now."

The crowd was mad with screaming and my opponent stared at me from across the ring. My mind could pick up the voices of my teammates in the crowd: "Go get him, Eric!" And then Henry: "Nice and easy. Nice and easy."

The bell rang and I came forward and threw two jabs. My opponent stepped back and I saw his eyes just over the tops of his gloves. We circled each other in the ring. I threw a jab and felt my fist crack against his face. I pressed forward, and as he backed away I shot two jabs and I followed with an Earl-built, Henry-trained right that caught him cleanly on the chin and immediately his legs buckled a crazy dance and his body started to spasm. I walked to the neutral corner as the ref counted, "Four, five, six, seven," and then the referee saw that my opponent couldn't continue and he raised his hands and waved the fight off.

The crowd exploded in an animal frenzy and I fired my fist in the air. After five years of training, the bout lasted a glorious eighty-four seconds.

We went to Vinnie's for dinner. Vinnie's is the club for Oxford Blues, and it was decorated with photographs of Oxford boxers and athletes from past years: 1892, 1904, 1937, 1972. But for the fact that they went from black-and-white to color, they all looked like the same photograph—year after year—young men trained to fight, looking straight ahead at the camera. To this day, some of my best friends are the men from the Oxford University Amateur Boxing Club, 1998. That year we beat Cambridge 5–4. It was Henry's eighth victory. He would go on to win thirteen Varsity Matches in a row. Those wins, combined with the three victories prior to Henry's arrival, gave the Oxford boxing team the longest winning streak in the history of Oxford sports, an honor it continues to hold. Sometimes, when I'm running in the morning, I can still hear Henry's voice.

"Cambridge is sleeping right now."

Amid the pleasures of Oxford life and the draw of the boxing team, I was still determined to find a pathway for humanitarian work. I wrote a dissertation on the subject. My thesis was simple: What matters for the long-term health and vitality of people who have suffered is not what they are given, but what they do. Rather than simply giving aid to children, it made sense to support children, families, and communities that were already engaged in their own recovery.

I studied the history of Save the Children and learned how its founder, who had established the organization to help starving children after World War I, became critical of giving aid to children as a solution and began focusing on helping families find constructive work. I studied the starvation crisis in Biafra (1967–1971)2 and the emerging literature coming out of Rwanda. I found the repeated appearance, in the literature on humanitarian crises from World War I to the present, of sets of "recommendations" and "suggestions" that were all strikingly similar. "Lessons," it seemed, had been written down repeatedly, but never learned or put into practice well enough the keep the same mistakes from happening again and again.

I focused on understanding why it seemed so difficult for traditional charities to draw on strengths rather than just dole out relief, and as I read about the history of humanitarian movements, I was inspired by the story of Henri Dunant. In 1859 Dunant was an unsuccessful businessman on an errand of personal profit when he woke one morning to find himself near a battlefield littered with the dead and wounded. Troops of the Franco-Sardinian and Austrian armies were lying desperate in the fields of Solferino in northern Italy. Dunant later wrote, "The poor wounded men ... were ghostly pale and exhausted. Some, who had been the most badly hurt, had a stupefied look...[Others] had gaping wounds already beginning to show infection, [and] were almost crazed with suffering."3

Dunant stopped for only two days and did what he could to help. Given the enormity of the suffering, his efforts were tragically inadequate. Dunant pressed passers-by into service and wrote letters to the families of the wounded men.

Later he wrote about his experience. Inspired by the reception his book received, he decided to promote a simple idea: soldiers should not suffer and die alone, volunteers should help, and the wounded and those who aid them should be exempt from attack. From this idea, the International Red Cross was born.

Dunant was on a battlefield for just two days. He was a businessman with no knowledge of medicine or war. Yet, on the basis of his experience, he felt that he should form an organization (the Red Cross) and embed a set of principles in the conscience of humanity (his ideas formed the basis of the Geneva Conventions) that became relevant to all people, everywhere, then, now, and forever.

Dunant walked away from the battlefield inspired to change the way that the world took care of those who suffered in war. He could have just as easily walked away disgusted by men's wastefulness of other men's lives, and he could have left dismayed at the minuscule amount of service that a single pair of hands could provide amid so much suffering. Dunant had been preceded by tens of thousands of military men and professionals in various medical corps before him: yet none of them, with all of the time they had passed with the wounded, were possessed of Dunant's vision.

I knew that whatever I wrote and said, I wouldn't have the influence of an Henri Dunant. But I did believe that if I listened well and worked hard, it would be possible to—like Dunant—both make a contribution with my own hands and give testimony to the fundamental strength of human beings. I hoped to call attention to the immense possibilities that exist if we are willing to tap into that strength. So while I worked in the archives during the academic terms at Oxford, I used my breaks to travel and to research and to photograph.

In December 1996 I went to the Gaza Strip. As my cab driver took me to the border, he said, "I've never been to Gaza, and I am never going to go to Gaza. You want to go to Gaza, you serious? The people there, they're terrorists, all terrorists."

On the streets of Gaza I was offered tea and bread by groups of curious men who seemed to hang out on nearly every corner. We sat on boxes and stools on dusty streets and they would ask me, "What are you doing here in Gaza?" "What do Americans know about Gaza?" We talked about politics and history and unemployment and living conditions and trash pickup and the United Nations and Yasser Arafat, as children dressed in donated sweaters played tag in the streets, ran under laundry lines, and sat at piles of rock and stone that they had fashioned into pretend kitchens. Buildings stood pressed against each other shoulder to shoulder as bands of children ran through alleys.

Every conversation seemed political. Every observation was steeped in history. If I asked a child where she was from, she would likely tell me Haifa or Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, even though neither she nor her parents had ever even seen these cities. The adults referred to Gaza—the place where they had lived every day of their lives—with a wave of the hand as "this place." I had to rethink the word "refugee." In Gaza, families had lived on the same block for fifty years, yet they still had dreams of another "home."

Walking the streets bred humility. In 1996 Gaza had been controlled by Israel for nearly thirty years, by Egypt for twenty years before that, by the British for thirty years before that, by the Ottomans for four hundred years before that, and—over the course of the three thousand previous years—by others, including the Crusaders, the Caliphate, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Macedonians, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Israelites. I wore hiking boots that had just a few days of dust on them. How much time would it take to even begin to understand such a place?

In Gaza—perhaps more than anywhere else I'd ever been—young people grew up conscious of their history. Not only did they tell me about homes they had only imagined, but even young children—nine, ten years old—recounted their version of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Prominent graffiti portraits of dead Gazan teenagers testified to the most recent clashes. As I watched kids run in the streets, an elderly man quoted Arafat to me. Arafat had said that the womb of the Palestinian woman was a "biological weapon," which he could use to create a Palestinian state by crowding people into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.4 The man smiled at me with the smug confidence of someone who believed that every humiliation he had ever suffered, every feeling of powerlessness, every real and perceived assault on his dignity, would one day be rectified in a violent vindication. Gaza had one of the highest population densities in the world. Fifty-three percent of the population was under the age of eighteen,5 and the children, he believed, were weapons.

The streets were teeming with young men my age. They were all well fed (in part by United Nations support), they had access to some education, but they had no real prospects to ever leave Gaza, and in Gaza there was little work to be had. I'd learned that the classic view of "the poor" as a breeding ground for terrorists and insurgents was mistaken. Poor people, hungry people, rarely dedicate their lives to violence. They are too focused on their next meal. Revolutionaries are often middle and upper class, comfortable but frustrated people who choose violence.

I took a photograph of a young man standing in front of a graffiti mural that displayed a portrait of another young man who had recently died in political violence. The two of them looked as though they could have been brothers: one of them dead, a reminder of the world as it is and has been; the other living, a testament to the world as it might yet be.

I sat down in a little shop in Gaza and ate a one-shekel falafel loaded with fried chickpeas, lettuce, and tomatoes while I scratched notes in my notebook. I was just passing through, and I knew I could never fully understand Gaza or all of the forces that had determined one kid's fate and would shape another's future. "Certainly, I was a tourist," Dunant had written, describing his experience in a war zone, "but a tourist much concerned with questions about humanity."6

In a humble building not far from the river Ganges in Varanasi, India, Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity run a home for the destitute and dying. Their mission is simple: help the poorest of the poor die with dignity. Many of the patients are seriously physically ill, while some are severely mentally ill, and together, they live in a small concrete compound that is unadorned and true to the mission of the sisters who have pledged to live just as the poorest of the poor do.

I had expected to see only adults in the home, but one boy lived there also. Mentally and physically disabled, he had been abandoned and for years before coming to the home he had begged on the street. He squatted in the home just as he had squatted on the street as a beggar, and he had squatted for so long that he could no longer straighten his legs. He smiled often, but the only word he could say was "namaste." Each time he said it, he would offer the traditional Hindu greeting and bring his hands together in front of his chest and lower his head. The namaste greeting has a spiritual origin that is usually understood to mean, "I salute the divinity within you."

The other patients were all men. Some of them suffered from tuberculosis and their eyes bulged from gaunt, skeletal faces as they lay in bed. Around me, men wrapped in blankets lay dying of other maladies. Other patients were mentally ill. In a country without effective social services, these ill men would have otherwise been subject to the same nasty, short, brutish existence as the destitute, elderly, sick, and insane left on the streets. Here they were cared for.

I had expected to find an atmosphere of sorrow and penance and heavy burden under the shadow of death in this home. This was a place where people had come to die, and the dying were tended to by sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, who express their faith by living a life of absolute poverty and extraordinary hardship.

These sisters, I knew, washed everything by hand just as the poor did. They owned three saris and a pair of sandals and nothing more. But I saw that the sisters sometimes skipped and ran through the home. They shared jokes with the patients. They laughed out loud. They did work that most of us would consider onerous—cleaning vomit from the face of a dying man—and they did it with a sense of great joy and light. My own work in the home was straightforward: wash blankets, feed patients, clean dishes, serve meals.

The sisters were models of compassion, but I struggled to follow their example. On the streets, I was accosted by beggars who were more aggressive than any I'd ever encountered. I had learned not to give money. Many children are sent into the streets to beg for money, and giving money only ensures that more children will be sent into the streets. Some children had even been disfigured so that they might make more effective beggars. A one-legged boy in Delhi sitting on a piece of cardboard on a dirty street scooted after me to beg for "one rupee." I knew not to give money, but when confronted with a hungry child, it's difficult to turn your back. I'd spent many days saying no on past trips, and at the end of those days I'd come home exhausted after repeatedly refusing hungry children. I had made it a habit to carry a bag of food—rolls, bread, cookies, grapes—so that when a barefoot child walked beside me and tugged at my shirt I could give her something. It seemed like a good solution. The children got something to eat. Those who exploited them did not benefit, and I felt spiritually whole. But in India, my plan failed. There were so many begging on the streets that when I handed a roll to one child I was swarmed by a dozen children grabbing at my bag with sore-ridden hands, and when my bag was empty those same children and a dozen more would follow me down the street, begging for money.

One day I visited a Varanasi bakery that made loaves of bread filled with grapes and nuts, and I bought one for lunch. As I sat down to eat on a stairwell tucked away from the crowd along the bank of the Ganges, two boys poked their heads around the wall and looked at me. I looked back at them. Then they stepped out from behind the wall and stuck their hands out asking for money. I was exhausted and hungry and I waved them away with the back of my hand and turned my head. One of them picked up a stone like he was going to throw it at me. I looked hard at him as if to say that I would stand and beat him in the street if he did that. He turned and threw the stone toward the river and then they both ran away. I'd come to work in a place of compassion, but I found that I had stopped looking at people on the street.

One of the patients at the home was a taxi driver who had been gravely injured in an accident but was now almost fully recovered. He had assisted me in my volunteer duties, showing me where blankets were washed, where pans were stored. A kind man, he spent an hour each day doing the most basic of physical therapy with the namaste boy in the hopes that one day the boy might be able to straighten his legs and walk again. He fed the other patients. One of the more severely mentally ill men spent all day conversing with himself, and my kind friend always made an effort to talk with him. My friend was, however, nearing the end of his stay. The home was for the dying. He had recovered. He was a welcome volunteer, but the sisters had told him that it was time for him to move on.

One day he showed me around the outside of the home, and as we walked he pulled out a cigarette and started to drag on it. We stood and talked. Then one of the sisters came out and started to yell at him and I felt like a busted teenager. I can't remember what language she was yelling in, but the man replied, "It [the cigarette] is only one rupee, sister," but the sister told him that would be one less rupee that he'd have when she kicked him out of the home. The sisters were as tough as they were compassionate.

On another day I walked into the home as one of the sisters was serving lunch to the patients, and she handed a cracker to my friend. Without a thought he set the cracker in his left hand, dropped a quick chop on it with his right hand to split it in two, and then handed me half. The man owned nothing. He did not even own the pants he was wearing, the shirt on his back, the sandals on his feet. Yet when he was given food and he saw that I had none, the first thing he did was to hand half of it to me.

After my time at the home in Varanasi, I traveled to the home for the destitute and dying in Calcutta. My first morning there, I went to a room that served as a chapel where I had been told the volunteers were to gather. I stepped in a few paces and stood. The room was quiet. A few dozen people sat facing an altar. I looked to my left, and there sitting alone in a wheelchair, her eyes forward, was Mother Teresa. I had read her biography and her writings, and I knew how miraculous—I don't think there's a better word for it—her life had been. And here she was, sitting silently just a few feet away. I spent that day volunteering in the home. I washed blankets, and I fed an old man, shrunken on a green cot, his eyes wide, who had come there to die.

Mother Teresa's missionaries were able to embrace people—complete with all sorts of weaknesses, failures, foibles, strengths, and faiths—and work with them wholeheartedly. The sisters lived their entire lives in faith, but to me, it seemed that they needed to whisper barely a word about their theology because the integrity of their work said everything.

After spending time in a place of such care and love, I came to understand that when we see self-righteousness it is often an expression of self-doubt and self-hatred. In a place where people are able to accept themselves, love themselves, and know that they are loved, there is no need to criticize or compare, cajole or convince. The sisters concentrated, instead, on loving their neighbors.

When I traveled to Cambodia in the spring of 1998, I visited a hospital outside Phnom Penh where the rooms were packed with men who had recently lost limbs to land mines planted during decades of warfare. Families cooked rice in the hallways, and the half-dressed children of injured soldiers lay crying in the arms of their mothers. Patients lay crowded one next to another. Most of the men had lost legs, a few had lost arms, and some had taken shrapnel to the face and had bright white bandages over their eyes. Mosquitoes buzzed in the patients' rooms as nurses in surgical masks dabbed at bleeding stumps. Groups of newly injured men sat together on blankets laid over the ground. Some of them held the stumps of their legs over buckets as their friends—themselves missing limbs—attempted to clean their wounds.

When I photographed at a clinic run by the British charity the Cambodia Trust in Phnom Penh, I saw a girl—not more than seven years old—lean back on an examination table on one elbow while an orthotic brace was fitted over her right leg. Then she stood and walked with confidence the length of the clinic floor. Polio had shriveled her leg; still she walked with strength.

My travels took me from Cambodia to Chiapas, Mexico, to an orphanage in Albania. By the time I finished my dissertation, I had seen many kinds of humanitarian work, and I had read about many more. Yet for all the compassion and power and beauty I had witnessed, I continued to believe that aid alone was not enough.


I had become an advocate for using power, where necessary, to protect the weak, to end ethnic cleansing, to end genocide. But as I wrote papers to make this argument and spoke at conferences, my words seemed hollow. I was really saying (in so many words) that someone else should go somewhere to do dangerous work that I thought was important. How could I ask others to put themselves in harm's way if I hadn't done so myself?

I don't remember ever thinking about joining the military as a kid. I had an awareness of military service only because of the grandfather I never met. My father, Rob Greitens, was born on November 26, 1947. His father, August Robert Greitens, was a chief petty officer in the United States Navy, and died on September 11, 1953, when my dad was five years old. My father grew up the child of a widowed single mother in Springfield, Illinois. As kids we called our grandmother, Jeanette Greitens, "Granner." She worked as a shoe saleswoman, and she raised my father and his two sisters.

We always celebrate my father's birthday when the family gathers for Thanksgiving. One Thanksgiving as we sat around the dining room table, Granner handed my dad a gift wrapped in tissue paper. My two younger brothers and I walked over to watch him open it. As my dad pulled back the tissue paper, we saw a framed photograph of my grandfather in his Navy uniform. Medals from his service in World War II hung on either side of the portrait. It was the first time I saw my dad cry. The portrait of my grandfather still hangs over my father's dresser.

When I was a kid, if you'd asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, it's unlikely that I would have said "soldier" or "sailor." Like most boys, my brothers and I pretended to shoot each other with Wiffle ball bats and we lobbed plastic bowling pins as pretend grenades. I remember liking the movies Top Gun and Rambo, and I was intrigued by the idea of special operations, but only because I associated it with camouflage. In other words, I was just a boy. I don't know that as a child I really had any more interest in the military than I did in dinosaurs or outer space or the St. Louis Cardinals.

When I worked in Croatia, however, and sat in a shelter and listened to the man who'd been victimized by torturous militiamen, and when I worked in Rwanda and stood at the open door of a church full of skeletal remains, it became more and more clear to me that all of the articles, dissertations, protests, and policy papers in the world had their limits. Sometimes, talking, negotiating, and volunteering to bring food just didn't cut it. It took people with courage to protect those in need of protection. I had written a 441-page dissertation about international assistance.7 I could keep talking or I could live my beliefs.

So between reading articles about land-mine-clearing projects in Afghanistan and microfinance programs in Bangladesh, I also researched the U.S. Navy SEALs. The Sea, Air, and Land commando teams promised an intensely physical, demanding life, and the test of the training and the camaraderie of the teams appealed to me. The SEALs offered not only the chance to jump out of airplanes, scuba dive, and ride fast boats, but at a deeper level, they offered an opportunity to lead and the chance to serve my country. By the time I finished my dissertation, I was twenty-six. The cutoff age for the SEAL teams was twenty-eight. It was now or never.

I'd learned that all of the best kinds of compassionate assistance, from Mother Teresa's work with the poor to UNICEF's work with refugee children, meant nothing if a warlord could command a militia and take control of the very place humanitarians were trying to aid. The world needs many more humanitarians than it needs warriors, but there can be none of the former without enough of the latter. I could not shake the memory of little kids in Croatia drawing chalk pictures of the homes that their families had fled at gunpoint.

I took the bus to London and met two SEALs who were working there. We sat down to talk. At the time, I had an offer to stay at Oxford and begin an academic career. I also had an offer to join a consulting firm, where I would have earned more money in my first twelve months of work than both of my parents combined had ever earned in a year. I thought about all of the freedom that Oxford promised, and I thought about all of the wealth that a consulting firm had offered me, and I listened to the deal that the United States Navy put on the table.

If my application was accepted—and they'd accept fewer than ten that year—they would send me to Officer Candidate School. The Navy would pay me $1,332.60 per month. I would submit to the Navy's rules and regulations, and in my first months in the military I would have zero minutes per day of privacy. If I graduated from Officer Candidate School, the Navy would make me an officer, but in turn I would owe them eight years of service. They would offer me one and only one chance to pass Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. If I passed, I'd be on my way to becoming a SEAL officer and leader. If I failed, as over 80 percent of the men who entered SEAL training did, I would still owe the Navy eight years, and they would tell me where and how I would serve.

When I returned to Oxford, I attended a fancy dinner at Rhodes House, built in honor of Cecil Rhodes, who had established the Rhodes scholarships. When we arrived, I pushed open a heavy black door with an iron door knocker cast in the shape of a lion. My date's heels echoed off the white marble floor.

The main dining room of Rhodes House feels like the inside of a small cathedral. At one end of the room a balcony holds pews, and at the opposite end, a wood-paneled wall holds a portrait of Cecil Rhodes. The house was sumptuous in a way that was unlike anything I'd ever seen before Oxford. Thick wooden beams, iron and white glass chandeliers, portraits of former Rhodes scholars, massive black marble fireplaces, woven tapestries on the walls, wood-paneled rooms, leather-bound books, grandfather clocks, paintings of the rugged South African plains, marble floors, a grand piano. A long rectangular table was draped with a thick tablecloth and set with wineglasses, silverware, plates, and napkins folded to look like bishops' hats. Wooden cane chairs with woven seat bottoms creaked when we sat down.

Here was everything that Oxford offered: luxury, rest, time, freedom, wealth.

Yet in the rotunda, I looked up and saw that the stone walls were etched with the names of Rhodes scholars who had died during the two world wars. Seeing those names reminded me that the intention of the scholarship was to create public servants who would "fight the world's fight." Many had left the comfort of Oxford for the trenches of Europe in World War I, or for combat across the globe in World War II. If they had chosen to stay at home rather than to serve, I knew that I wouldn't be standing in Rhodes House, looking up at them.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill once wrote, "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."8

I had no desire to see my name etched into any wall anywhere. But I felt a sense of obligation. My family was not wealthy. My parents had worked every day of their lives to support me as a kid. People before me had endowed scholarships that allowed me to pursue eight years of higher education and never have to pay one penny. What was all of that investment for?

Oxford could give me time. The consulting firm could give me money. The SEAL teams would give me little, but make me more. I thought, I might fail at BUD/S; I might find myself miserable; but I'd live with no regrets.

I signed the papers as soon as they were set in front of me.


Aftermath of the suicide truck bomb in Fallujah, Iraq. The crater in the foreground is where the truck exploded. The blast blew off the entire western wall of the barracks.


All uncredited photographs appear courtesy of the author.


The shifu smashing bricks over the heads of kung fu students in a test of their strength and willpower.



Survivors of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, in the Gasinci refugee camp. These families had lost all of their material possessions; many had lost friends and family.


Refugee boys in the Puntizela camp played soccer in the afternoon. These moments of recreation and joy helped children and their families to maintain hope.


Mothers and children outside a health care clinic in Rwanda. I hesitated to take photographs until the women welcomed me.


Boys and girls whose parents died during the genocide in Rwanda were sheltered in centers for unaccompanied children. Here a volunteer brings some joy into their lives.


Sitting with some of the younger children at the Mano Amiga home in Bolivia. Spending time with children of the street in Bolivia convinced me that in some ways, a background of abuse and abandonment was harder for children to overcome than the violence of war.


Juan Carlos, one of the children of the street, died as a result of poor medical care.


A boy in Mother Teresa's home for the destitute and dying in Varanasi, India. He had squatted and begged for so many years that his legs became deformed.


With an orphan named Fjorda in Albania. Many of the children were severely underdeveloped.


The Oxford boxing team, 1998, after we beat Cambridge, 5–4. The victory was part of the longest winning streak in the history of Oxford sports.


Landing an uppercut in my first Varsity Match.


The grinder: the famous concrete compound where men crank out thousands of pushups and sit-ups. With the exception of the week after Hell Week, all students at BUD/S are required to run from place to place during training. RICHARD SCHOENBERG


As indoctrination at BUD/S begins, classes often start with over two hundred men learning how to run with boots on, in soft sand. By the end of training, only two or three out of every ten men will graduate. RICHARD SCHOENBERG


An oddity of BUD/S is that part of the brutal training takes place on one of the most beautiful beaches in the country. Here, students run toward the Hotel del Coronado, a famous luxury resort. RICHARD SCHOENBERG


Drown-proofing is one of BUD/S's most feared evolutions. With their feet tied together and their hands bound behind their backs, these men will swim fifty meters, then perform a series of exercises, including retrieving a face mask from the bottom of the pool with their teeth. RICHARD SCHOENBERG



The principle of surf torture is simple: Lie in fifty-degree water. Stay there as your core body temperature drops. RICHARD SCHOENBERG


Boat races. The goal is to get the boat out past the surf zone before the waves crash down on you. Boats that fail to make it can send seven two-hundred-pound men flying through the air. RICHARD SCHOENBERG


Log PT is a truly painful evolution. Spiritual training by physical means, it tests teamwork as much as endurance. RICHARD SCHOENBERG


A student reaches for the wall at the end of his fifty-meter underwater swim. Notice the instructor swimming several feet above him, ready to pull him to the surface if he passes out. Because of the difficulty and danger of BUD/S, instructors watch over students every step of the way. RICHARD SCHOENBERG


Fifteen feet down, a student (right) performs underwater knot-tying in front of an instructor. During this evolution, one of our classmates passed out and had to be revived on the pool deck. RICHARD SCHOENBERG


Instructors blast rounds at the beginning of Hell Week. Water from hoses, smoke from grenades, insults from bullhorns, and the whine of air raid sirens bombard trainees. The instructors aim to sow chaos and confusion. RICHARD SCHOENBERG


During Hell Week the instructors always made sure the bell was nearby. Men who quit "rang out" by ringing the bell three times. RICHARD SCHOENBERG


The instructors lined us up on the sand berm to watch the sun go down at the beginning of the first full night of Hell Week. At night, the water gets colder, the hours get longer, and the instructors become more vicious. RICHARD SCHOENBERG


In the demo pit at BUD/S, students practice taking cover during incoming artillery fire. Practice creates habits, and I fell into this position when we were hit by the suicide truck bomb in Iraq. RICHARD SCHOENBERG


James Suh and Matt Axelson were both in my boat crew during SEAL Qualification Training. When Axe was later pinned down in a firefight with the Taliban in Afghanistan, James boarded a helicopter to fly in for a rescue mission. Both men died that day, June 28, 2005.


With James Suh before a training evolution in the California desert.


Our Mark V detachment outside our base in Zamboanga, Philippines.


Riding an elephant with my BUD/S classmate and fellow boat detachment commander Kaj Larsen in Thailand.


The Mark V special operations craft. Commanding two of these boats in Southeast Asia was one of the highlights of my military service.


Outside the government center in Fallujah, Iraq. Note the American Humvee beside me and the Iraqi police trucks in the background. We were most effective when we were able to work well with our Iraqi allies.


At the opening of The Mission Continues in 2008. With me are Matthew Trotter, whose fellowship was named in honor of Travis Manion, and Travis's mother, Janet Manion.

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