The best heroes in our pop culture tend to save the day not by brute strength alone, but by employing their quick wits between blows. Think James Bond, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or MacGyver. These are cultured warriors, always ready for a fight but never eager for one.
In 100 Deadly Skills: The SEAL Operative’s Guide to Eluding Pursuers, Evading Capture, and Surviving Any Dangerous Situation retired Navy SEAL Clint Emerson molds the cultured warrior trope into something more belligerent: a ruthlessly pragmatic role model he calls “the Violent Nomad,” who avoids gun fights and car chases to preserve his strength, rather than his honor.
Deadly Skills bears many similarities, both in theme and aesthetic, to 1999’s The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht—all the way down to both books’ field guide-style rounded corners and simple but evocative illustrations, reminiscent of an old Boy Scout Handbook. That could bode well for Deadly Skills, since its spiritual predecessor blossomed in the early 2000s into a minor multimedia phenomenon that was spun off into card games, calendars, a TV show, and a wide range of tongue-in-cheek “survival handbooks” for distinctly non-fatal contexts such as college, parenting, and golf.
Where The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook and Deadly Skills part ways, however, is in the threats they prepare their readers against. The worst cases conjured in Piven’s and Borgenicht’s earlier book tend to pit man against nature: quicksand, earthquakes, poisonous snakes, and the like. In Deadly Skills, the danger mostly comes from other people: mass shooters, kidnappers, terrorists, and foreign governments. The result is a book that is less of a survival manual and comes off as more of neo-conservative propaganda tool.
As it turns out, fending off the bad guys requires a lot of MacGyver-esque creativity—and yes, some of the “deadly” skills in this book are defensive, not offensive, rendering the title a little misleading. “In order to remain deadly,” Emerson explains in a chapter on how to brace oneself for a car crash (Skill #093: Survive Vehicular Impact), “a Violent Nomad must remain safe.” Some of the skills on offer truly could be fatal, as when the reader learns how to turn a fishing weight and a bandana into a weapon “powerful enough to crack a coconut and do equivalent damage to a human skull.” What connects these violent how-to’s with the book’s more general-interest tips is an underlying hope that the reader will learn to think like a Violent Nomad without becoming one. An author’s note states that the book’s primary goal is to entertain, not create vigilantes. “Be deadly in spirit, but not in action,” Emerson impels. And then he continues talking about cutting off thumbs, crushing skulls, and impaling people with screws.
In some cases, Emerson veers into the brutal facts of real-world espionage. “For an operative,” Emerson deadpans, “collecting fingerprints is frequently a postmortem scenario…the operative will go the most direct route: severing the target’s thumb” (Skill #081: Trick Fingerprint Scanning Software). Similarly, in the event that your homemade Taser doesn’t discharge, you’re still jamming two sharp screws into a person’s body, so “breaking the skin should injure an attacker enough for the operative to gain the upper hand and make a rapid escape.” One hopes this book’s readers will never have cause to apply these deadly skills, but nonetheless they offer a fascinating glimpse into the world of shady intelligence gathering.
Emerson spent 20 years conducting special ops around the world as a Navy SEAL and NSA staffer, and Deadly Skills takes a simplistic, binary view of the world, splitting it into good guys and bad guys without pausing to consider anyone’s motivations. Emerson has clearly bought into the system.
Deadly Skills evinces a special distrust of foreign governments, which “sometimes use Western detainees as a form of political currency.” Emerson never names specific countries as particularly dangerous for Westerners, but it’s easy enough to read between the lines: for the reader hoping to assemble some makeshift body armor on the go, for instance, the reader is reminded that “every hotel has a Bible or a Koran stashed in a bedside drawer.” This special attention to the Islamic world is reinforced by Ted Slampyak’s illustrations, which frequently portray “bad guys”–or good guys impersonating bad guys–wearing Middle Eastern keffiyeh headdresses. Emerson advises his readers to practice cultural awareness, but only enough to blend into a crowd. “If the general population forgoes ketchup on their sandwiches or ice in their drinks, the operative will follow suit.” Absent is any deeper awareness of the danger in reflexively painting the massive and diverse array of Middle Eastern cultures as the bad guys—especially in the case of mass shootings (Deadly Skill #073: Survive an Active Shooter), since the vast majority of such crimes in the U.S. are carried out by white men.
Also strange is Emerson’s assumption that Violent Nomads must be men. This requirement is never stated explicitly, but Emerson’s exclusive use of masculine pronouns–e.g. “he may assume the outward appearance of… a businessman…as he understands that terrorist groups…may be targeting him”–feels strangely dated, especially in light of recent U.S. military milestones such as the Army graduating its first female Rangers and the Navy opening the door to female SEALs. Even when instructing the reader specifically to fill a tampon applicator with emergency supplies like cash and a map, Emerson seems unable to imagine anywhere to conceal this feminine product besides a man’s rectum–a maneuver helpfully illustrated with a picture of a muscular naked Nomad, bound and hooded in a gloomy cell.
At first I found it helpful when Deadly Skills mentioned useful products by name–Rain-X to keep windows from fogging, a steel Zebra pen’s utility as “an incredible makeshift stabbing tool”–which would make it very easy to write a shopping list before tackling my hit list. But I appreciated this name-dropping a little less when I found out that Emerson was also shilling products of his own–namely the Zero Trace line of signal-dampening electronics cases, and an app called Photo Trap that helps the user detect telltale signs of rummaging through a desk or cabinet. Both of these products are sold by personal security firm Escape the Wolf, of which Emerson is a founder and managing partner. I suppose unforced disclosure is a weakness in the intelligence community, but even the briefest admission of Emerson’s ties to the wares he’s hawking would have sufficed.
In sum, Deadly Skills is occasionally a fun and sometimes useful read that nonetheless reflects the shortcomings of the agencies in which its author was trained. It’s intriguing to read about the lives of Violent Nomads, and if governments collapse and we're all forced to become mercenaries, then this book may become a relevant tool. But God help us if we're living in that future.