It is an American antiwar novel. It is written by someone who had a long career in the US military, knows it extremely well and is remarkably able to set the scene and paint the characters. Amazingly for someone who has so far only written nonfiction, he suffers from none of the pathologies that afflict nonfiction authors who foray into fiction. He does not explain or describe—he portrays and he channels. Not only do his dialogues ring true—there was hardly a false note anywhere—but he also reads minds, telepathically inviting the reader into the minds of his characters.
And then there are the characters, who will enter your mind just as you are allowed to enter theirs: you won’t help but fell sympathy for the professional killer family man or his teenage savant daughter who struggles to come to terms with his damaged mind and suffering soul. The thumbnail sketches of the high-ranking officers as well as the grunts are quite memorable too; after reading this book, you will never look at the pompous asses of the Pentagon or the pumped-up Special Forces troops the same way.
In spite of war being a perennial, quintessential American subject, great American antiwar novels are a bit thin on the ground. There is Ernest Hemenway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and perhaps a handful more worth mentioning. Compared to the unholy mob of authors who spew uncritically patriotic rah-rah pablum, the genre of antiwar fiction seems missing in action.
And yet by all rights the situation should be mirror-image: an unruly mob of literary greats decrying America’s endless failures in its wars of choice and two or three Pentagon’s useful idiots to rip into pieces in critical reviews. The root cause of this unwholesome tendency lies somewhere between the terms “mind control” and “failure of imagination.” This book addresses the root cause: it will make your mind uncontrollable and fire your imagination. And it does something that no amount of nonfiction writing, be it newspaper or magazine articles (should any still exist), blog posts or full-length academic treatises, can achieve: it strikes at your heart and your moral core. It may make you think but, even more importantly, it will certainly make you feel.
There is no shortage of Americans who, on a rational level, can see that US militarism is a failure. They can intellectually process the idea that invading and destroying countries that do not pose a threat to the US without a UN Security Council resolution is a war crime. They can also see that antiwar protests, of which there were plenty in the run-up to the Iraq war, served no practical purpose whatsoever. They can think all of these thoughts, and then go on with their lives, paying taxes that are spent on organized, gratuitous murder and mayhem. But what do they feel? Do they feel revulsion at what is being done? Do they feel ashamed—because these shameful things are being done in their name? And do they feel fear—because unjust wars of aggression have a way of eventually destroying the societies that perpetuate them through the damaged and violence-infected souls of those who commit war crimes.
No thinking man can survive without damaging his soul in an environment in which disobeying, or even questioning, an order to commit a war crime or an atrocity is at best regarded as an act of insubordination and, at worst, treason. But thinking has little to do with it. Fully 1/3 of military recruits either dropped out of high school or didn’t even matriculate. Under the newly relaxed standards (the US military is having lots of trouble finding enough recruits who are fit to serve) a history of drug use, suicidal tendencies or a criminal record are no longer an impediment. And then these men are ordered to act out violent macho fantasies by bombing and shooting dark-skinned people in faraway lands. With millions of them cycling through the system, what chance is there of constructing a gender-neutral, colorblind, peaceable society? Why, none at all!
Let us briefly describe the background. If you are already familiar with the relevant facts, then you may skip ahead to the bottom. The United States has been at war for 222 out of its 239 years—more than any other country on Earth, making it the most warlike, least peaceable nation on earth. The vast majority of military conflicts were not wars of survival but wars over tribute: over access to markets and resources; in defense of monetarist policy; in pursuit of a geopolitical strategy of world domination.
And yet the vast majority of the more recent armed conflicts have not ended in victory: not Korea, which was fought to an armistice; certainly not Vietnam. The invasion of Afghanistan has turned it into the world’s predominant supplier of heroin, driving the out of control opioid epidemic in the US while enriching rather than destroying the Taliban. Iraq is now aligned with Iran, and neither is a US ally. Syria is a defeat for the US strategy of arming and training Islamist extremists. Other proxy wars fought by US allies using US-supplied weapons, such as Georgia in 2008 and Yemen right now, are all fiascos.
The United States has an official, publicly disclosed defense budget of over $650 billion—more than the next eight countries combined—while bleeding much more money through various secret programs and through military and weapons-related programs within departments other than Defense. It fights wars on credit, and just the interest payments on the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to amount to over $8 trillion. This is a stunning amount of money that is being continuously drained from the US economy and spent on nonproductive assets and activities; as a result, the civilian infrastructure in many parts of the US has deteriorated to a point where the country as a whole is quickly becoming noncompetitive with other, less warlike nations.
In spending on defense, the US does not get its money’s worth. A system of for-profit defense contractors siphons away extravagant amounts of money that are lavished on technological albatrosses such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program which, at $1 trillion and counting, so far has yielded a multipurpose plane that is not ready for combat duty and is unfit for any of its stated purposes—such as providing close air support, winning in air combat against planes from the 1970s such as the F-16 or reliably landing on an aircraft carrier. Speaking of aircraft carriers, the US still lavishes funds on its carrier fleet in spite of the fact that it can no longer deploy aircraft carriers against any well-armed foe because of the widespread availability of relatively cheap weapons which can be launched from land, sea and underwater and reliably destroy them from a large standoff distance.
In the meantime, Russia has rearmed to a point where the US cannot attack it at all without risking instant annihilation, and several other countries are not far behind it. Furthermore, Russia has succeeded in doing so on what amounts to a shoestring budget, and is now positioning itself as a major purveyor of defensive weaponry around the world, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia—who are supposedly allied with the US—among the interested buyers. And so we now have a situation where the US has a military designed for offense, but offensive action is now too risky. In the meantime, all the major potential adversaries have militaries designed for defense and have no interest in attacking the US militarily, especially since a bit of international financial reform would serve much the same purpose. This combination of factors makes the US military harmful yet useless.
There is a lot of writing that attempts to preach to the choir: peaceniks writing for other peaceniks. This book is not of that mold at all. It makes no political claims or pronouncements. Instead, it immerses you in the world of elite soldiering, such as it is. It is written for those who like gritty tales of combat written by those who know it well firsthand. The author spins quite a riveting tale, but he doesn’t lie or exaggerate the everyday realities of that life. It will appeal to those who like the military, feel patriotic about it, but are open-minded enough to read something other than a sugar-coated, sanitized, propagandistic portrayal of heroic action. And it lets them come to their own conclusions.
If you know any such people, then give them this book. This is how you can change the world—one person at a time.