Saturday, November 29, 2014

Book Review: The Profession, by Steven Pressfield

Pressfield has always had a gift for writing the warrior's mind. His first novel was The Legend of Bagger Vance and he somehow went from writing about a magic black man to the Spartans at Thermopylae.  The Hot Gates was the first Pressfield novel I ever read many years ago and I was hooked. Thanks to 300 everyone now knows the story of Leonidas's stand at the Hot Gates. The movie was based on a comic book fantasy. The novel takes a more realistic approach but it was still a great read.

The Profession takes place in the not too distant future, almost next Sunday AD. In the year 2032 private military companies wield power that rivals some nation states. The story is told through the mouth of Colonel Gilbert "Gent" Gentilhomme. He works for Force Insertion which is commanded by disgraced ex-Marine Corps General James Salter. Salter manipulates, bribes, and forces his way onto the world stage when his company seizes control of Middle Eastern oil fields. He becomes the wealthiest and most powerful man on earth. What he wants most is to return to the United States where the American people are willing to make him a Roman-style dictator. Salter and Gent are as close as father and son. The climax of the novel is Gent having to decide what he loves more: the general under whom he's served all of his adult life, or the principles on which the United States was founded. I have to admit, the ending was a surprise.

Gent admits that no PMC is a match for the United States military in a straight up fight. The American people quickly grow to love mercenaries though because 1) many of them are American born and American trained professional soldiers who are finally getting paid what they deserve; 2) mercs specialize in the kind of warfare that takes place inside so-called failed states; and 3) Americans can continue scratching that itch for humanitarian interventions around the world without putting their own children in harms way anymore. Just hire your friendly neighborhood mercenaries.

Gent waxes poetical a few times about the nature of soldiering in a world dominated by mercenaries. Every one of them has fought for a nation or a flag. All soldiers - all men for that matter - are romantics. The mercs all had their hearts broken fighting for a nation. It's become a cliche that soldiers fight for the man next to them, but the mercenaries in this book have gone even further: they fight because they like to fight. For some of them, it's the only thing they're good at.

In the real world, PMCs are mostly used to provide support or personal protection for VIPs (see Blackwater in Iraq.) In waging conventional warfare, the United States is second to none. But conventional wars a la World War II are now the exception and not the norm. Small scale clashes involving non-state actors is what makes the world go round today. Twice in this century the US has attempted and failed to put down insurgencies by guerrilla forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The much celebrated "Surge" during the Bush years only made the insurgents lie low. In short, they live there and we don't. The only reasonable opportunity for victory we ever had was strengthening the feckless Iraqi government. Rumors on the internets say that Iraqi soldiers are throwing down their weapons and running for their lives against the forces of ISIS. Afghanistan was never going to change. Alexander the Great, the British, and the Soviets were all serious about building empires and they all failed. The United States, which is an empire in denial, never stood a chance.

Bill O'Reilly received much mockery for his suggestion that the US create a mercenary force to fight for us against ISIS. But who else is going to do it if the US is unable or unwilling to wage another full scale war in Iraq? One thing insurgents everywhere understand is that the will to fight is paramount. If you can break your opponent's will, then it doesn't matter how strong he his, how much hardware he has, how much money he can throw around. The Vietnamese communists never stood a chance against the full power of the American military, so they continued the strategy that was so effective against the French: avoid pitched battles whenever possible and whittle down their forces through attrition. The Confederate States of America never officially made up its mind how it wanted to fight the Civil War. Robert E. Lee wanted to wage conventional warfare offensively against the more powerful North. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman believed that they had to destroy the Confederate army and break the Confederate will to fight, respectively.

As Satanically evil as ISIS may be, the United States won't wage war against them unless and until they strike us personally. As always when it comes to American policy in the Middle East, it's the Christians who are suffering the most for it. And what will we have to show for our Iraqi adventures fifty years from now? I hope the Iraqis have tasty cuisine because they're going to open a lot of restaurants here.

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