“I HAVE AN UNUSUAL relationship with death.…”
So begins a saga, a story of war and training, of death and life, and also by any measure — certainly by word count — the biggest book I’ve ever written.
I’ve written in this blog before about my partnership with former Navy SEAL sniper Brandon Webb and our first two books together, The Red Circle and Among Heroes. Today, we launch the third in the series, a book bearing the mild, gentle title of The Killing School.
A disclaimer may be in order here: for those of you who know me through the Go-Giver books, this one is going to show you an ever so slightly different side of JDM. (“I am dark,” as I frequently tell my wife. “Very dark.” I still puzzle over why she always bursts out laughing when I say that.)
This is a book about many things — courage, commitment, excellence, ambition, loyalty, and sacrifice. But it is also first and foremost, as I think the title makes abundantly clear, a book about death.
Death is a terrifying topic, yet at the same time a mesmerizing one, as we say right at the book’s outset.
“For most of us, death is a mystery, a thing we fear and seek to avoid, evade, or deny, even to the point of pretending it doesn’t exist, at least until we reach our sixties or seventies and it starts coming around to claim the lives of those we know and love. For me, the face of death is as familiar as the barista at my local coffee shop.…
“Orpheus may have tricked Hades; Ingmar Bergman may have had Max von Sydow play chess with Death; but those are only stories. In real life, death isn’t something you cheat or outmaneuver. Death is like the wind: it blows where it wants to blow. You can’t argue with death; you can’t stop it. Best you can do, as any sailor will tell you, is your damnedest to harness it.…” — from the Introduction
The Killing School weaves the story of four snipers — a Navy SEAL, a Marine sniper, an Army Ranger, and a Canadian infantry sharpshooter — in four different battles over the span of fourteen years, from Mogadishu to Afghanistan to Iraq. It tells their stories, from childhood through enlistment and basic training, through sniper selection and the honing of superhuman skills that comes with sniper school, onto the battlefield and home again. It tells of their quest to become the best, as well as their struggles to come to grips with the brutal facts of their deadly mission.
Most of all, it tells the story of their experience, close up and personal, with death.
“I’ve never drowned to death, but I’ve come close. I’m familiar with how it feels to be surrounded, invaded, swallowed by water, that intimate sense of skin-close death. There’s something primal about being taken over by water, something deeply peaceful even as it terrifies you. ‘Ashes to ashes,’ goes the familiar funeral patter, ‘dust to dust…’ — but it’s not really like that. Dust isn’t where we started. We came from water, and the water is always ready to claim us back.…”
The book’s structure, with its accelerating pace cross-cutting back and forth between four different battle scenes, may be the most unusual writing challenge I’ve ever taken on. Its last chapter, “Taking Life,” is probably the most soul-searching writing Brandon and I have done together. The last few paragraphs of its epilogue, “Alive,” gave me chills when they spilled out onto the page.
I have never gone to war, never known the heat of battle nor the chill of hand-to-hand combat, never heard the cries of comrades struck down next to me, nor the visceral reality of striking down the comrades of others where they stood.
But till, I have seen death, up close and personal, as we all do sooner or later. And while it may be something, as we write here, that “we fear and seek to avoid, evade, or deny, even to the point of pretending it doesn’t exist,” exist it does, never further than a heartbeat away.
Writing this book reminded me of that — and of the potential that embracing death offers, curiously enough, of living a fuller life. Here’s how we said it, elsewhere in the book’s introduction:
“As many thinkers over the ages have pointed out, your relationship with death colors your relationship with life, perhaps even determines it. Crazy Horse rode into battle at the Little Bighorn saying, ‘Today is a good day to die.’ That’s not simply a declaration of balls and bravery. Embracing death is the only thing that allows you to fully embrace being alive. ‘The fear of death follows from the fear of life,’ said Mark Twain. ‘A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.’”
As usual, Twain had it right. To which I can only add Mr. Spock’s version of the traditional Jewish benediction: Live long and prosper.
The Killing School: Inside the World’s Deadliest Sniper Program, was released today (May 9, 2017) in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook editions. Photo: from The Killing School, courtesy Rob Furlong.