The Warrior Pose
The fights were real, I knew, because they sounded real: dead silent but for grunts and the occasional queasy thwup—like a wing being sheared off a raw chicken. Only AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” resounded through the office-park MMA gym, providing a score for every bout between these 18 heaving, ruddy-faced, white-collar professionals.
Two of the recruits squared off; their faces blurred into mixtures of fear, excitement, and—how else to say it?—joy as they clinched. Afterward, aglow and rampant, these men leaned against their sparring partners along the chain-link cage. Smiling smeary smiles, they appeared to drift off somewhere else altogether.
They were brought back from their reveries by Sam Falsafi, aka Coach Sam, who reminded them of the point of this, and every, Warrior Week exercise: “You don’t die for your family. You live for them. You fight for them.”
The first time I encountered the program on Facebook—which was how every one of the recruits present for Warrior Week came across it—my immediate reaction was: Huh, sure, a terrorist training camp for toxic masculinity. The accompanying videos featured slickly edited footage of middle-aged white dudes in black shirts, black tactical pants, and black combat boots getting into formation; middle-aged white dudes army crawling through the surf; middle-aged white dudes slo-mo boxing each other, screaming into each other’s faces, embracing each other with vehemence. There were drone shots of middle-aged white dudes being thrown off boats and lifting logs in tandem. Middle-aged white dudes expressing joy at their power increasing.
Strong militia vibe, I thought. Except the videos also featured these same middle-aged white dudes drinking green juice and attending holistic marketing seminars. Sometimes, they appeared to be meditating. Journaling, even. Constructing dream boards. Weeping openly.
The host of the videos was the founder of the larger outfit Wake Up Warrior, a lantern-jawed 40-something named Garrett J. White who exuded replacement-level GQ style and casual affluence. Garrett had a relaxed yet practiced manner of speaking in which he seemed always to be leveling with his audience, like a youth pastor. He said things like, “I was just a man dying in my own heart. And in that place, I made a decision. A decision to wake up. A decision to take a stand.”
“The truth is your weapon! That’s the king’s weapon! He goes to war for love. Every day, he loves. He loves himself. ”
—Warrior Week trainer Sam Falsafi
Mostly what he did, though, was implore men to feel, truly, their inward sense of potential greatness, while also feeling disheartened by their present state of disrepair. Through multiple shifts in tone and rappy hand gestures, Garrett explained how bullshit and lethargy had come to police the world. And the men we call men? Why, these layabouts, dilettantes, and, in a word, pussies had helped to midwife this sorry state of affairs.
“Women are leading [both] across the board in business and at home … and living more powerfully than men today,” Garrett proclaimed to the New York Post in 2017. “And that’s causing complete chaos for men.” To address this chaos, he cold-soldered a program of male improvement out of military-training methods, mixed-martial-arts drills, New Age spiritual exercises, and a mishmash of therapeutic techniques. “There is a primal nature inside men that has been sedated, between the way that boys have been raised like me, raised by my mother, and the way that churches and society and government … have taught men that it is not OK,” he explained.
In 2012 he launched Wake Up Warrior as a suite of self-help programs, of which the boot camp was just the tip. According to its literature, Warrior, as the outfit is usually called, is for professional men—C-level executives, entrepreneurs, real estate developers, financial services providers, doctors—who wish to learn the “hidden science of accessing (nearly) unlimited sex, power and money as a married business man.” (Unmarried men are also welcome.) This brotherhood—or roundtable, or council of kings; the group mixes a lot of metaphors when self-describing—seeks guys who “desire a quality of life not just measured in dollars” but also in the strength of their marriages and filial relationships, their spiritual fulfillment, and “the quality of the personal certainty and confidence in [their] body and mind.”
The first step: attend Warrior Week, based out of the Surf & Sand Resort in Laguna Beach, California, for the low, low price of $10,000.
About a dozen times a year, 10, 15, or 20 Warrior Week recruits between the ages of 25 and 65 come to swank Orange County to be bound, gagged, slapped around, sleep deprived, filmed by drones—and then, when they’re at their absolute lowest points, they are subjected to a bunch of courses in emotional development. Approximately 500 dudes per week apply to be one of the men to receive such treatment. But before any one of them is granted the privilege, he must fill out an application in which he is asked questions such as: “Have you ever been PUNCHED IN THE FACE by another man?” “WERE YOU RAISED RELIGIOUS? IF YES -> What Religion where [sic] you raised in?” “Have you ever PUNCHED A MAN in the face?” If the applicant’s answers are deemed acceptable, he is then subjected to an intense, two-hour phone interview. If he passes the interview, he undergoes a month of “run-up” in which he must film himself completing assigned tasks (E.g., “WHAT IS YOUR SUPER POWER STRENGTH?”), must bear his darkest shames to Warrior coaches over FaceTime, must prove repeatedly that he is neither a lunatic nor a wisenheimer. If he manages all this, and can pony up the $10k, he is admitted to Warrior’s crash course in how a bro should be.
I did none of that crap. Instead, for four days in late May, I tagged along with Warrior staff in a reportorial capacity in an effort to understand how a dude can be rebuilt from the ground up. As a wise man once said, “The role of periods of decline is to lay a civilization bare, to unmask it, to strip it of the glamour and arrogance linked to its achievements.” I figured Warrior Week would be symptomatic of such decline. It would make for a pat little conceit for the fall of the house of manliness.
I’d been instructed to dress like one of the recruits so as not to “break scene,” although the black cargo pants and black bobo sneakers I’d purchased from Target had me looking less like one of the enlisted than like a Heaven’s Gate stiff. That first day, I tried my best not to interfere with the coaches, trainers, and support staff who outnumbered the 18 attendees by a decent margin. These were Bic-bald hulks in Oakleys with carefully sculpted facial hair who were disconcertingly taciturn whenever they weren’t talking earnestly about “movements.” Most resembled cops: off-duty cops, retired cops, dumpy TSA agents who wished they were cops.
One staff member had been a cop for 15 years before he saw his first Garrett J. White video, after which he gave his two-weeks’ notice, forfeited his pension, and signed on to coach with Warrior. Another was an Iraq War veteran who, thanks to Garrett, had repaired his relationship with his father. All had gone through Warrior Week themselves and were active members of the brotherhood, keeping up with others on Facebook and during reunions like WarriorCon and Return of the King, where Garrett’s precepts were further entrenched.
My favorite staffer was Kevin Voisin, aka Coach Kevin, an enormous, goateed Cajun whose bearlike blend of soft and hard—cuddliness with occasional full-throated rage—induced a strange gravitational pull. Kevin is a deeply intelligent father of five who can quote from the Bible, Koran, or Bhagavad Gita in English as well as French. Before upending his life to join Warrior, Kevin had run a marketing firm in New Orleans. That’s where he came across an online ad for Warrior, screenshotted it, and prepared to tell his designers to copy its aesthetic for a client before deciding to click through and see what it was all about. “Within 10 minutes I was crying,” Kevin told me as he loaded supplies onto the company’s two Mercedes-Benz minibuses. “Within 40, I was on the phone giving them my credit card information.” When I asked what it was about Garrett’s talk that had moved him so, Kevin said, “I swear, he’s the second coming of Seneca.”
On the afternoon of Day One, we drove an hour and a half inland from Laguna Beach to an “undisclosed location” in the California desert, where the recruits were already assembled. Kevin deconstructed Warrior Week’s highly regimented structure for me, but asked that I not reveal the proprietary nuts and bolts. The important thing, he stressed, was that “we break them down and then provide a framework for them to build themselves up however they want. We all create ourselves, but very few of us do it on purpose. Warrior makes you do it on purpose.”
There was a lot of this sort of jargon in Kevin’s explanations. Warrior is practically ecclesiastical in that sense—every exercise and bit of dogma has a specific name. There’s the Foundation, the Code, the Stack, the Core, and the Keys. There’s the Pit, the Possibility, the Path. The Dark, the Drift, the Shift, the Lift, and the Light. Neophytes go through Evolutions, they have Collisions. In fact, brothers are to spend an hour and a half each morning doing their Core Four exercises and their Stack before posting results to Warrior’s software, like latter-day monks following some gamified Rule of St. Benedict.
“It kinda feels like a cult because it is kind of a cult,” Kevin admitted as our SUV pulled up to a body of water sunk into craggy Martian landscape. “That’s why I love it. A cult of one. A cult of you, and you, and you.”
Under a white skullcap of sky, beneath tiered silhouettes of mountains receding in visibility, the recruits lay prone on the ground, spiraled around a big rock like petals on a daisy. Covered in mud and ketchup and flour, each was panting softly, holding one hand to the stone. They ran the gamut from short to towering, pear-shaped to wood-carved, alabaster to Dutch white (save the lone African American participant). There was a real estate developer, a video game developer, a CEO, a fireman, a cop, general contractors, jacks-of-all-trades, opportunists, a pianist, three or four chiropractors. Not exactly titans of industry or masters of the universe. Rather, a practicality-inflected bunch of rung climbers. Precarious arrivistes of what today constitutes the … lower-upper class? Upper-middle class? Honestly, I’m not sure. I don’t even have health insurance, man.
Buzzing about them was Coach Sam, the bad cop to Coach Kevin’s good. Sam, another man in his 40s, is short, dense, and swarthy, with a beard like an Assyrian statue’s. His powerful chest, arms, and shoulders bracket a gut that dangles from him like the payload hanging from a fighter-bomber’s fuselage. Sam’s family had fled from Iran to French Canada when he was young; he worked oil rigs before discovering Warrior; after completing the fifth-ever Warrior Week, he simply refused to leave Southern California. This is why his Oakleys bore American flag decals, and why he was laying into the recruits with a spittle-flecked tirade that would’ve had Tocqueville nodding in recognition.
Escape the spirit of systems! Sam was telling them in so many words. The yoke of habit, the precepts of family, the opinions of class, and, to a certain extent, the prejudices of facts! Search by yourself and in yourself alone for the reason of things; strive for the ends without being enslaved by the means!
Sam told the recruits to stand, whereupon he paced before them like a drill sergeant. He started cooking with Warrior’s secret mythopoetic recipe: talking about how their real self is a king on an island far away; this king is dormant and needs to be stirred, but doing so will require a descent, an ascent, and a return—a real hero’s journey. “That version of you knows he’s a king! He doesn’t tell people he’s a king!” Sam shouted in his clipped Quebecois rat-a-tat. “Abandoned, and forsaken, on an island by himself! Many years back, you left him alone. Specifically, when you were seven! You left that little boy alone on that island. And so he had to fight against the wolves and the dogs and all the fucking animals in the dark! Alone! And so he struggled, and he felt pain. And he became a goddamned fucking king! On that island! He became the king of the motherfucking island!”
If you happened to read any Robert Bly during the men’s-group revival of the early 1990s—or if you’ve happened to come across Jordan Peterson videos today—this will all be familiar to you. It’s of a Jungian piece: men need to rediscover the primal, positive masculinity that has been nefariously discredited and covered up by a wider culture that prefers its sons benumbed and compliant. How we are to do this is with an active program of mythmaking and ersatz ritual. There are warrior-poets and ancient monarchs coursing through my veins! Powerful, age-old archetypes are echoing through my hollow chest—and I don’t even know it! If I just ran through the woods waving spears or pet every cat I came across, I might rouse these heroes, and compel their return from Avalon.
There is of course an impregnable humorlessness about this. After all, this type of theorizing presupposes that men are like this and women are like this. It presupposes certain roles that all men—all men throughout time—not only want to play but need to play. This way of thinking, it’s Procrustean. It holds that every man can be poured into one of the same few molds, sure, don’t worry about it. The suit of armor will fit everybody, no problemo.
“Fuck you and your fucking country!” Sam was hollering as the damp recruits shivered in the breeze. “Your country’s right here!” He slapped one on the chest. “It’s called the love of union! … And the truth is your weapon! That’s the king’s weapon! He goes to war for love. Every day, he loves. He loves himself. He loves the relationship he creates with the people on the island!”
Sam then led them through a few more symbolically grueling exercises that I am not at liberty to describe. (Warrior doesn’t want me ruining the experience for potential brothers with spoilers.) Following that, the recruits were emotionally tortured. Not all of them, mind you. The ones who told the truth straightaway got off pretty easy. But all were required to blindfold themselves and strip to their skivvies. All were brought into a hut, where one by one they were interrogated by Sam and Kevin.
“It kinda feels like a cult because it is kind of a cult. That’s why I love it. A cult of one. A cult of you, and you, and you.”
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done!” the coaches shrieked over and over. They shook the men, they crackled Tasers next to their ears. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done!” Those waiting their turn began to blubber. Those whose turn it was ran through sins from lesser to greater severity.
Recruit: I thought about killing myself every day since I was sixteen.
Sam: Where was your dad?
Recruit [sobbing]: He wasn’t there.
The coaches had assured me that they knew each man’s ultimate answer. Whether they’d learned this through the month of “run-up” or through background checks, I am not certain. But as soon as they received the answer they were looking for, the coaches took each blindfolded man out of the hut, left him to stand trembling for a few seconds in front of God and the handful of support staff, and then said, “Receive what’s coming to you,” before splashing him clean with two fire buckets full of water.
If the recruits weren’t forthcoming, however, they were frog-marched to rubber tubs brimming with ice cubes and spigot water. “You cannot fucking hide in this place,” the coaches would say. They would forcibly whole-body dunk the men in the tubs. “Fuck you, what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done!” They would dunk them again. Some recruits willingly dunked themselves. Should their nervously squirted answers not satisfy Sam or Kevin, the coaches would pour entire buckets of water over the recruits’ faces. Should their answers still not satisfy, the men would be dragged out of the tubs and pushed to the ground, where a German shepherd barked inches away from their faces before nosing their testicles.
“If you can't remember, you’re going home,” the coaches would say. “You wanna fucking go home?”
Until: I’ve driven drunk with my kids in the car.
Until: I hate my fucking family. They’re the bane of my existence.
Throughout it all, a young Warrior photographer orbited, snapping promotional photos. A young videographer did similarly with a $10,000 4K camera. Also standing by, as per the law, was Larry Harris, a wry and mustachioed EMT. I asked Larry if he’d ever done a Week. He scoffed, shook his head no. I asked if he ever worried for the recruits. He answered, “The worst part is seeing this and not thinking it’s barbaric, but deserved. It’s about owning up to your shit. Even Mother Teresa has done some shit. Relatively speaking. This is just another form of therapy.”
At twilight, the temperature dropped to the mid 50s. Already, some recruits—who were required to stay in their wet, short-sleeved uniform—were beginning to cough and sniffle; a few coaches standing at attention behind them did, too. According to Kevin, walking pneumonia is exchanged as casually as handshakes over the course of Warrior Week.
Late into the evening, the men were left to quake around two small fires before each was brought into a tight circle of coaches and trainers. Sam or Kevin aimed a red-filtered flashlight into the eyes of each man and demanded to know what it is that scares him most. “You’ll sell your life down the river so you won’t upset me?” Kevin wondered of the reticent. “So these guys won’t laugh? Fuck you!” When a recruit stammered or gave an inadequate response, Sam would say, “Let him know,” and the ring of support staff would raise an ear-splitting cacophony: “FUCK YOU!” “YOU’RE FULL OF SHIT!” “WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF, PUSSY?” “JUST DIE, THEN!” The idea here, Kevin explained, was to disabuse each man of the notion that his pain was in any way unique or worth holding on to. Each man was to understand that his darkness was no more special than any other’s. “Sort of like at the end of Good Will Hunting,” one coach-in-training added helpfully.
Recruit: I’m afraid that everyone’s gonna find out that I don’t know what I’m doing.
Recruit: I don’t want to see my kids getting raised by a guy who isn’t me.
Recruit: I’m scared my daughter’s going to get violated by a man worse than me.
The excitement reached its apex when the group was brought to an abandoned-looking structure at the top of a low hill. There, they faced its outer walls and holes in its facade. Sam and Kevin led them in visualization exercises; they helped the recruits dredge their earliest, most compacted traumas. Inevitably, these involved their fathers.
“You have an opportunity to meet him face-to-face,” Kevin instructed after a spell of hypnotic, guided meditation. “Is there anything you want to say to your dad?”
Recruit: Fuck you, Dad! Fuck you and your fucking religion! Bullshit!
Recruit: Fuck you, motherfucker! God damn it! How did you do this to your life?! How did you let us all down?! How did you let my mom just live a life that she hates?!
“Don’t you fucking hold that in,” Kevin said to one. “Let it out all the way.”
Recruit: Stupid fucking asshole! We fucking trusted you! You were supposed to be the leader of the goddamned family!
“Keep going!” Sam said. “Against the wall. If you have anything to say to your fucking dad, you say it right now.”
Whatever levees were holding back recruits’ sorrow, they broke at once. Pained recriminations and throaty howls tumbled out of every man. How did you think that was OK?!—I fucking hate you!—I don’t want to! No!—I’m not going to be like you!—I want nothing to do with you!—You will never see our family again!—I’ll kill you!—You worthless piece of shit!
For about a minute and a half, the men punched walls and pounded on boarded-up doors with both fists. Pride was collapsing in on itself, threatening to obliterate everything around it like a black hole. I couldn’t see much in the darkness—but I say to you I’d never confronted anything approaching that noise. The dissonance was unbearable. If damnation exists, I now know what it sounds like when the heavy door is unlocked from the inside and opened a crack.
Before the recruits could board the buses back to Laguna Beach and round out the night with yet another hour of therapeutic journaling, they were ordered by Kevin and Sam to recite “Invictus,” the 1875 ode to resilience written by Englishman William Ernest Henley after the amputation of one of his legs. Memorization of the 16-line poem was part of their “run-up” training; nevertheless, they made a hash of it and were told to recite the whole thing again. And then the final couplet—“I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul”—four times more.
While not explicitly forbidden from communicating with the outside world during Warrior Week, the recruits were nonetheless discouraged from doing so in the strongest possible terms. Sam insisted that texts or phone calls would interfere with the metaphysical workings they were trying to effect. “Strange dreams,” he promised the technologically abstinent. “Voodoo shit.”
Up after three hours of sleep at the Surf & Sand, however, Sam could hardly get a sentence out without having to stifle coughs at its outset. Must’ve been confusing for recruits to hear, since it sounded like he was trying not to laugh at his own commands. Still, though: line up here, lug this there, everywhere we went—grown-ass men were obediently erect volunteers. No one made any small-talk, since talking out of turn was forbidden. Communication came exclusively through raw “shares,” i.e., the venting of fears, desires, and other emotions to the group. These men knew next to nothing about what the others did for a living, yet they could tell you what animated and poisoned each one of them like a cracked reactor.
I kept thinking to myself, Consciously or not, Warrior is creating the inverse of typical male friendships. What looks like typical male friendship to the uninitiated is often, in reality, just companionship. Big group of guys sitting around, watching the game, busting each other’s balls—chances are, the majority of them consider the other men to be their companions. Their drinking buddies, their fellow travelers. Distinct instruments to be added to the polyphony, to amplify its counterpoint. Or variables to be inserted into an equation, to exponentially increase its amount of potential outcomes. Amid this companionship, the question of, say, “How’s Jim doing, in his life?” is almost always answered, “Who the fuck knows?” (With an implicit “or wants to hear about it” appended.)
This way of relating is comfortable; more importantly, it’s effortless. For the truth of the matter is that America contains innumerable men who are emotionally articulate only to the extent of hinting in movie quotes or memes as to what’s locked within them. They might talk disparagingly of athletes or politicians; they might joke about sex and theorize solemnly about how to make money; as they do so, they are merely pantomiming something they have no interest in achieving, or are scared to death of: intimacy. Their predictable, ritual conversations with one another help them to endure the day-to-day—nothing further.
The Warrior recruits appeared to be doing the exact opposite. All killer, no filler here. And I could feel their bond intensifying silently, much like the murdering sun ball that was rising higher over our bus as we readied ourselves for Day Two.
The first tears of the day were those of relief, when the recruits were told that they wouldn’t be forced to undergo a signature Warrior challenge—breakfast on a short stack of pancakes while doing push-ups. In the Warrior community, apparently, this is a notoriously excruciating task—gotta eat the whole thing using only one’s mouth, lots of barfing, lots of eating on in spite of the barf, etc. “We treat you that way, like animals, because we’re reminding you how you treat yourself,” Kevin announced. “But you guys seem to be getting the picture, so.” Many of the recruits’ faces winced into quiver-lip gratitude, as if kindness were something they hadn’t even thought to expect.
There followed a bit of light mountaineering in Orange County’s 2,400-acre Crystal Cove State Park. More repetitious and infuriatingly exhausting exercises—these involving packs, collapsible chairs, the surprisingly contentious definition of “semicircle.” The men were meant to acquire a sense of urgency about their lives during this second day. They were meant to confront their addictive behaviors—smoking, drinking, overeating, cranking it—and make concrete plans as to how to combat those behaviors. If Sam didn’t like your plan, he threw your pack, notebook, and collapsible chair off the mountain.
That guy who admitted his family was the bane of his existence? He promised he’d play soccer with his kids three times a week moving forward. And I absolutely believed that he would.
“Everything matters,” Kevin said. “You matter. And if you don't matter, nothing matters.”
“Poverty of body—shitty life,” Sam added. “Poverty of soul—failure of generations.”
There was an introduction to Warrior’s main spiritual precept: follow your heart, not your mind. That is, stop listening to your head, because it fucks you, and start listening with your center. Breathe in the life-giving Universal Spirit, which fans your Divine Spark; trust not your craven ego; turn away from the allure of your pain-body; relinquish future and past so that you may live no longer in anxiety and regret; yada yada. Things got very Krishnamurti-ish up there. It was time to stop stopping to think, the coaches said.
“The ones that you are seeking—it is also seeking you!” Sam shouted. “So seek, motherfucker! Seek! Your country is black, white, Chinese, Arabs, Muslims, Jews, Christian! Women, children, dogs, cats! Don’t you let them separate your love and package it!”
“You have to find your truth,” Kevin kept imploring. “We’ll hold you ruthlessly, painfully accountable, but you’ve got to find what worldview works for you. This is not church. You want a bunch of rules and you want to feel guilty, go to church. Fuck that. The game is to stop becoming. Just be. Fuck thinking! Thinking is becoming! Thinking is what got you into this in the first place. Fuck thinking!”
Later that afternoon, on a bluff overlooking the surf, the recruits gathered into two groups. In the middle of each, a coach seated himself on the ground. Then one man placed himself between the coach’s outstretched legs as if on a log flume ride. The coach enveloped him with his whole body. The rest of the men coalesced around those two, laying hands on the held. Swaddled like this in turn, each cried out his lamentations to the Father.
I need help!—I can't do this alone!—I don’t want to be scared!—I have always loved you … —Why did you leave me?—I’m so sorry.—I ... don’t know. I don’t know what to do anymore.
As the touchees keened, the touchers snuffled, whimpered. Viscous ropes ran from many noses. Self-forgetful men let this snot dangle even as groups of hikers pushed past us with their trekking poles. (“Thank you for your service,” they said to the support staff, assuming this was some kind of PTSD support group for veterans.) My hard feelings for “spirituality” aside—did I have to turn my head and search the ridgeline for something, anything, so that no one would see me wipe away tears? Absolutely. Did I reprise this Kabuki every time I heard a man struggle for breath before half-verbally articulating the truest index of our real situation: his heartrending need for reunification with that which he knows he is cut off from? Ho ho, you bet.
Where the fuck were you?! Where were you?—I want to be loved. Please, tell me I am loved.
When the final Warrior ended his embrace, he was held aloft by his group. His limbs hung limply as though he’d been trampled.
The numinous glow of the cuddle puddle was still radiating from every face when we boarded our buses a few hours later. Of course, that’s when Kevin announced, “Now that you understand the value of your life—are you ready to fight for it?”
And off we went to the office-park MMA gym.
Day Three. Up again after three or so hours of sleep at the hotel, and temporal reality was beginning to smear. The staff referred to this as the “Warrior time warp,” though the Geneva Conventions might call it something else. Struggling through this state, I joined Kevin as he left the staff and recruits for the morning to tape a segment of Warrior’s thrice-weekly interactive webcast.
“We’ve got a wonderful prize for you—it’s called massive fucking connection with your kids,” Kevin told the camera after exhorting one online brother to take regular walks with his family. “The prize is the thing! The prize is the work! When are you gonna figure this out in your life?”
Kevin prowled the Laguna-adjacent storefront studio, which was outfitted in top-of-the-line cameras, mixing boards, and iMacs, while ministering to the thousand or so men currently in the program. He was good. Real good. It didn’t surprise me to learn that he had been a Mormon missionary in his previous life. (“A lot of ways to jack into God, though,” was how he apologized for leaving that church.) The man knew from proselytization.
“What do you feel?” Kevin asked one man who was Skyping in from a car parked outside a client’s office in Buffalo, New York. “And loosen your tie, Jesus. Making me nervous.”
“I feel dead,” the guy stated flatly. “I feel dead inside. Does that work?”
Kevin worked with the man in unknotting his fearful decision-making processes. He led him through a set of exercises that ended with the man affirming, “Yes, I will choose discomfort for growth.”
Of these men in the brotherhood, Garrett had once said, “They are guys who have built something and lost it and are stuck … and then we have guys who are even more dangerous. They’re killing it and bored.” I found this to be true. One such stuck guy beamed in from Australia to detail his marriage problems. “Hold up a picture of your wife,” Kevin told him. “There’s your marriage consultant. Never do we have the thought that maybe our wives know what our wives want. So fucking simple! We have this crazy fucking story that women are so complicated and difficult to understand. No. The number of us who are so committed to customer feedback yet don’t do the same thing with our wife, ours kids, God? It’s amazing.”
These are the sorts of lessons that are obvious ones, that should’ve been learned long ago: Be strong but also empathetic. Listen, and ask questions. Place your own needs last, but take care of yourself so that you might take care of those less able or advantaged. Never blame others for your own feelings. Or failings. Protect the weak. Respect your elders. Be kind and generous, but be firm with your boundaries. Try new things, learn new skills, make yourself as well-rounded as possible. Be open to changing your mind, but be careful not to change it too often. When you feel ready to give up, try just a little longer. Try a little longer the time after that.
That’s the thing about Warrior, I realized. The fact that something so remedial exists, and is patronized by a growing number of men, is less an indictment of the state of masculinity (though it absolutely is that) than it is a sign that some guys, at least, are sick and tired of being schlongs.
As Margaret Mead once said, “The central problem of every society is to define appropriate roles for the men.” And Warrior, noticing what it believes to be a vacuum in contemporary society (as well as the marketplace), has rushed to fill it. The role it offers men is the traditional one, the one that used to be free, commonsensical, and upheld by a larger community. That, too, is a big part of Warrior’s appeal—the sense of accountability. These men are paying for instruction, true, but they are also paying for a community of like-minded men to hold them to a standard. (Hell, one of the segments on Kevin’s webcast is titled “Do the Shit You Said You Were Gonna Do.”) And via video conferences, “homework,” and a rather impressive suite of progress-tracking software, recruits are impelled to do just that.
“If your goal is to be held accountable by powerful men around a dynamic lifestyle of ‘HAVING IT ALL,’” Warrior’s promotional materials assert crypto-sexually, “then this brotherhood is exactly what you’ve been looking for.”
In the end, this is what the mythopoetic men’s movement of the ’90s was peddling, and it’s the same thing Jordan Peterson is currently stacking knots for shilling: discipline. The idea that you deepen a dude by narrowing him. That you solve the larger problem of men “through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path.” That’s Peterson right there, but what the fuck’s the difference? I could quote some Aristotle in which the ancient argues for something similar.
Virtue. These men are clamoring for virtue, I think. The learned and practiced capacity to overcome one’s pursuit of base or self-defeating desires. And as Aristotle himself taught, virtue isn’t something you just happen across. You have to choose to cultivate it. Virtue is entirely volitional, but you have to opt in and work at it, you have to adhere to a superstructure that supports its growth à la the trellis around a climbing vine, until your solo practice of virtue becomes one day possible and then effortless after that.
Kevin closed the 90-minute broadcast with the Brotherhood Boardroom, in which he dispensed Warrior-approved parenting advice to three besuited men FaceTiming during their lunch break. “Just be honest about your fears with your daughter,” Kevin was saying. “I realized I was the first boy who was pressuring my daughter to do something she didn’t want to do—and she was saying no. And I was so fucking proud. To the point right now of tears. I’m so fucking proud of her for saying no.” Kevin wiped at his face. “That being said, I love you guys.”
Following sign-off, he held a short rap session with the two-man film crew. All offered suggestions as to what could be improved going forward. Then they group hugged. Beaming on the way out the door, Kevin proclaimed, “Turning the tide of intergenerational poverty of the soul—that’s what we’re doing here.”
After a surf-and-turf dinner at the end of Day Three—an intentional far cry from the Week’s first meal, which was taken in two dumpsters at the “undisclosed location”—the recruits were blindfolded and marched into a small storefront office beneath Warrior’s TV studio. The office, detailed in black and chrome, with a faint acrid smell emanating from the rubberized flooring, contained 18 stools arranged around a projection screen. There, the men were shown an extended infomercial for the brotherhood. Slick as the videos I’d watched on Warrior’s Facebook page, set to the same orchestral pump-up music, except edited into this one was footage captured during this week’s particular program. The recruits saw their blood, sweat, and tears spliced between testimonials by the grateful wives and daughters of previous Warrior Week attendees, all of whom appeared to be Lamborghini-driving pinky-ring wearers from Scottsdale.
Big boss Garrett popped up on-screen in his usual too-tight suit. In front of a white backdrop, he unlocked a small case and withdrew a pistol. “Most of what you’ve known in the past will fall away as you unify with us,” he explained. He talked a lot of strange nonsense quickly—about tools, using tools but not turning into tools, things like that. I couldn’t really focus on the words; I was transfixed by his careful handling of bullets, his loading them into his gun.
The music cut out. Garrett’s face filled the screen. “You’ve got one more critical decision to make,” this leader said. “Are you ready to go all-in?”
He asked if the recruits could handle collapsing “ten years of success into 12 months or less.” He actually used the phrase “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” He demanded the men close their eyes. He led them in their ten thousandth visualization exercise. Picture your new life to come, the riches and fulfillment, he said. Then, in a quieter voice, he asked them to raise their hands if they were prepared to fully commit to Warrior.
All but one recruit did. Garrett told these “yeas” to open their eyes. He ordered them to file outside. The lone “nay” was instructed to keep his eyes shut. Though the video was pretaped, not live, Garrett had a few things to say to him.
In the empty parking lot, the recruits tearfully embraced Kevin, Sam, the rest of the coaches, one another. Kevin told each, “I honor you.” They fell into formation. They were reminded that everyone “back in the world” would question them. “The world is going to ask why,” Sam said. The people closest to them would be most critical of all. But the new Warriors were to keep their heads high, their upper lips stiff.
The lone “nay” came running out of the storefront, his head lowered like a chastened dog’s. He joined the formation. Sam led them in the ritual bequeathment of a new black track jacket to be added to their uniform. No one but me paid any heed to the rusty sedan that pulled up, the puzzled custodians who entered the Dawgy Style Groom Shop next door. The brothers stood at attention under the streetlights’ dull pall. Fresh tears fell.
Warrior Week ended with a formal. Sunburnt faces were radiating heat—as well as immense relief—like desert rocks at dusk. The recruits, support staff, and alumni all cleaned up, noshed on a slider buffet in the wine cellar of the Monarch Beach Resort. Just a few hours earlier, as Hall & Oates drifted from the speakers at Monarch’s beachside café, the recruits had been brought individually to a rear table where, nudged along by a trainer, each signed the contract that had been drawn up for him. In exchange for a year’s worth of Warrior’s services, he would be charged $25,000.
Garrett himself was in the wine cellar to shake hands, having just flown in from Tampa, Florida. I couldn’t help but think that his IRL presence, like his on-screen presence, evoked nothing so much as a retired slot receiver in the process of reinventing himself after crashing out of the smoothie-franchise game.
Garrett opened his remarks with an acknowledgment of that day’s school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, in which ten people were killed and ten others were wounded. He also relayed the news that a Warrior’s 13-year-old son had committed suicide (and was discovered by the man’s 10-year-old son). Many of the assembled were failing to stifle their coughs.
“I’m gonna have you consider something,” Garrett said. “Consider the possibility that we are the ones that are gonna break the fucking chains. But we won’t see the full impact of what we choose to do with our life … it’s the young men who come right behind us that’ll have a chance to create an entirely new frame for living. And their boys will only know the way.”
He called up Coach Sam’s son Nikon, an elementary-school-age kid in tails who was at that moment slurping an onion out of its ring. Nikon recited the last two lines of “Invictus” with gusto. Garrett then called up the youngest members of the brotherhood, including his own 19-year-old son. One of these young men, the company photographer, told the group, “I'm learning not to fuck my life up like you and my dad.” Garrett’s son announced his plan to create a Millennial Warrior Week. Nikon made a finger pistol and told the room to freeze.
After dinner, I was granted a short audience with Garrett on the sidewalk outside the wine cellar. He told me he expected Warrior’s network to grow to 2,000 men by July 1. Seven months later, that number should grow to 10,000, as newly minted brothers bring Warrior’s teachings to their home communities. (A less physically grueling women’s edition of Warrior Week is planed for this August, with 400 participants.) I asked what such a future Warrior might look like. “Software,” Garrett said. “Games. Apps. Networks. Connecting. We will become the number-one training company in the world. Warrior will be taught around the country by the men who go through the program; they will create splinter cells.”
As Garrett explained all this, a young family began to pass us by. The father stopped. The wife thought he was looking past us into the cellar. “Oooh, wine cave!” she said. The father approached Garrett: “I’m sorry, can I just say something totally random? I’m signed up for the Kingskit in June. Pleasure to meet you, man.” He and Garrett bro-grabbed, slapped backs. “Dude, you saved my life over the last few weeks, man,” the father said. “For sure.”
To the man’s wife, Garrett said, “You’re about to get an ignited firework over here!”
She sighed heavily. “I’m sorry, I was more excited about the wine cave.”
The family walked on. “Seriously, did you slip them 50 bucks?” I asked. Garrett turned back to me, big smile on his face. “That shit happens all the time,” he assured me. Then he resumed his line: “We’re going to the marketplace and saying, ‘Just so you know, we’re going to define what it means to be a man now.’ It’s a belief system. We’re gonna infiltrate, like a virus. Into the money markets. The political systems. The religious systems. We’re gonna take this belief system and we’re gonna embed it everywhere. And we’re gonna teach men to rise up in these industries and teach the way.”
“Within 10 minutes I was crying ... Within 40, I was on the phone giving them my credit card information.”
Back inside, the brothers were being led through half a dozen ad hoc rites meant to cement their fealty to the brotherhood. They gave speeches while a sweeping Hans Zimmer soundtrack played. (This time, it was from Gladiator; over the previous three days, the staff had played selections from The Dark Knight for dramatic effect.) They received gifts of Ka-Bar knives—the US Marine Corps’ standard-issue fighting knife—emblazoned with Garrett’s full name.
Then the men sat in two columns face-to-face, clasping hands as if about to arm wrestle, and completing the phrase, “Brother, the power I see in you …” They did this with every man in turn. Brother, the power I see in you is your newfound devotion to your family. They rotated clockwise like the teeth on a chain saw. Brother, the power I see in you is a commitment to love and honor every person you come across. The Week’s last tears caught the candlelight as they streaked down faces. Brother, the power I see in you is the power to keep me walking the right path.
And all of that other bullshit—the advanced-interrogation techniques, the coercive culty shakedown—I could overlook all that in this moment. What Warrior Week gets right is the simple fact that masculinity is conferred. It is bestowed or withheld by the community of men around you who are always watching, weighing, judging. No one becomes a man; one is deemed a man by one’s peers—meaning masculinity is something that can be revoked at a moment’s notice. Meaning, too, that it is incredibly important who your confreres are. Or, as Warrior’s literature puts it, “You become who you associate with, period.”
Women give birth to boys, the old saw goes, but men give birth to men. And these guys were attempting to do at least that. Counts for something, does it not?