So you think that war has evolved in dizzying, dismaying ways, do you? That drones fire missiles, nukes proliferate, nonstate players and rogue states share unholy alliances, bomb-laden terrorists seek martyrdom, the Russians and Chinese connive and oil politics looms over all while the United States is caught like a geopolitical deer in the headlights?
Is that what you think, bunkie?
If so, novelist Steven Pressfield, in his superb new action-thriller, "The Profession," has disturbing news for you: The world has only begun to get more complex, more dangerous and more ethically murky, and the U.S. "has lost its way and is struggling desperately merely to hang on."
Pressfield's considerable reputation was made by a series of historic novels set in the days of the Spartans and Alexander the Great, including "The Afghan Campaign," "The Amazons" and his classic "Gates of Fire." Then came "Killing Rommel," a tale of World War II. Now he's turned his attention to the future: 2032, after Long Beach has been nuked, the Iranians and Iraqis have fought three wars, the Saudis are freaking out, the oil-rich "stans" above Afghanistan are up for grabs, oil companies have private armies and battalions of mercenaries — the heirs of Blackwater et al — boldy roam the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.
Pressfield, a former Marine, does his homework. He is no armchair theorizer. After the Marines battled Taliban fighters last year in Marjah, Afghanistan, he was there to listen to the grunts talk about the fight.
"The Profession" is a compelling mix of modern weaponry, modern communications, modern politics and the warrior's ancient ethos of honor and loyalty. It moves quickly and with deadly precision. Like a recalcitrant recruit, sometimes you feel screamed at and sometimes booted in the butt. Into the action comes a defrocked Marine general, James Salter, and a loyalist, Gilbert Gentilhomme. Their confrontation, which builds slowly and ends with heart-pounding suddenness, is the center of "The Profession."
If "The Profession" has literary antecedents, the closest may be "Seven Days in May," the 1962 political-military thriller by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II — and later a movie starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Ava Gardner. Pressfield is sneaky enough to have a minor character named Mattoon, the middle name of the runaway general played by Lancaster.
In the future, Pressfield posits, electronic and Internet media have become even more ubiquitous, more doctrinaire, more corrupt and corrupting. The blogosphere seems free and unregulated but, truth be told, smart players like Salter have learned to manipulate it:
"A thousand inflammatory fables ricochet around the blogosphere, from which they are tweeted and retweeted … Holo-magnified, inflated, and bloviated, before metastasizing onto the mainstream airways. Salter, the myths declare, has concluded a pact with Revolutionary Guard Iran; he now has nuclear weapons. He is in bed with China, India, Brazil."
Even though Pressfield imagines gizmos not yet invented, or not yet perfected to the nth-degree, there is nothing science-fictiony about "The Profession." This is the modern world taken to its logical and frightening extreme.
There are throwaway touches aplenty, including mergers of survival between Trump and CNN, and between Google and the New York Times. Anderson Cooper does a walk-on. The attorney general of California offers Salter 40,000 early release prisoners: a good financial deal both for the bankrupt state and the ruthless mercenary with grand designs.
Like the most engaging of protagonists, the charismatic Salter appears in only a few pages but his manipulations, and his influence on the fighters devoted to him, dominate "The Profession." When a journalist asks Salter about his world view, the general is unapologetic: "The United States is an empire.… But the American people lack the imperial temperament. We're not legionnaires, we're mechanics; De Tocqueville nailed that in 1835. In the end the American Dream boils down to what? 'I'm getting mine and to hell with you.'"
"Seven Days" had a comforting tidiness: Keep the military in check and we'll be OK. The world of Pressfield is much messier. Maybe his solution for the future comes in a conversation between Gentilhomme and a fellow Salter follower.
"Bro, you gotta learn to stop asking questions."
"Because you might get answers."