Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Profession by Steven Pressfield (4/5)

The Profession by Steven Pressfield is the story of Gent, a soldier employed by the single largest standing army in the world, that of the mercenary firm Force Insertion. Set in the year 2032, the narrative illustrates the geopolitical events that gave rise to resurgence of the mercenary profession. From dwindling oil reserves to growing Chinese and Iranian power to continuing Middle East and African unrest, each piece adds to a futuristic geopolitical maelstrom that, if not a prophesy of things to come, is at least frighteningly plausible.

But as intriguing as all of that sounds, it’s not the real story of The Profession. The real story is the fall of the American Republic, and that’s what makes Pressfield’s vision of the near future so very haunting.

The novel opens with Gent and his team on a mission for Force Insertion (don’t get me started on name symbolism here—Pressfield might as well have called it “Rape Squad”) to extract a team of engineers and the ground survey report they possess from an Iraqi city that has devolved into a war zone overnight. After the successful extraction, the pace slows down somewhat as Gent relates his own personal history, the history of Force Insertion’s commander, General James Salter (the real protagonist of the story), Gent’s interactions with the Salter, and an exposition of how the world of 2032 got so hosed up. He explains that Salter, a charismatic American Marine Corps General whom Gent admires like a father, was disgraced and ultimately removed from command when he disobeyed direct Presidential orders a la Douglas MacArthur (in fact, many parallels are drawn between the two). After a congressional inquiry Salter and leaves the country to take command of the Force Insertion mercenary firm. Troops from every nation and creed flocked to his command for the opportunity to fight for a warrior’s warrior and a substantially larger paycheck. Force Insertion became the premiere fighting force in the world almost overnight.

With all the exposition out of the way the narrative really takes off. Salter begins making strategic moves, taking lands, overthrowing governments, generally making a mess of the Middle East in an effort to seize valuable resources and pit world powers against each other. Gent is one of his right hand men during all of it. Back home, an election season is brewing, and the name topping the polls is a name that isn’t even on the ballot—General James Salter. Quickly it becomes apparent that the American people are scared. They want a warrior at the helm, someone who kick ass and take names and ensure both the country’s oil supplies and its national security. A proposal is soon put forth to institute an “emergency powers” amendment to the constitution in which an individual can be appointed de facto dictator (even though they call it something else, that’s what it is) over the U.S. in order to provide the action and energy that a gridlocked congress cannot. While Force Insertion continues to stir the pot in the Middle East, Salter, seeing that his “duty” is calling him back home, sends his trusted associates and political allies back to the U.S. to begin laying the groundwork for his return. Gent is one of these, but he quickly begins to see things he wished he hadn’t. Force Insertion seizes the Saudi and Iraqi oil fields. The provisions of the emergency powers act become horrifyingly clear. Salter’s political enemies start dying. Slowly his awareness changes and he begins to doubt Salter’s course of action, which puts Gent on a collision course with his mentor and the people that seek to put him in power.

I won’t give away the ending, but suffice to say that it won’t disappoint. The twist seems to come out of left field a little bit, but it does tie in well with the prologue. While both of these elements seem somewhat disjointed from the rest of the novel, in the end it worked. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt it was an apropos way to end the book.

Throughout the novel there are many parallels to historical events and personalities. General Salter is explicitly compared to MacArthur, but there are also implicit comparisons to Pericles, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar. In each case, a charismatic military general seized and consolidated power to become dictator of his nation while conquering or making war on other countries. They were able to do so because their people wanted a strong, energetic leader to secure wealth and resources for the state through decisive action. The same thing has happened countless times throughout history: Napoleon, Cromwell, Hitler, the list goes on. Almost every time—no matter how well intentioned from the start—dictatorships have ended badly. And as Georges Santayana so famously wrote, “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.”

That’s what made Pressfield’s novel so intriguing. In the United States (and just about any other developed country) governmental permanence is looked upon with utmost certainty. Here in the States, few people think about the possibility of the Republic’s demise. As an institution it has been around as long as any of our citizens have been alive, and therefore it is looked upon with the same aura of permanence as the sun or the seas or God himself. But history shows that the flame of liberty and of self-governance can be snuffed out in the blink of an eye—not by foreign invaders or by rogue politicians, but by the will of the masses. As soon as the people believe that security is more important than liberty, then the Republic dies. Pressfield’s novel is not only a good story. It’s a warning. It’s a lesson in history. It’s a prophecy of what could be.

The copy I received had “UNCORRECTED PROOF” printed across the cover, so I assume they’re still going to be tweaking the manuscript a little bit. That’s probably why I noticed a few typos, and why the narrative seemed a little disjointed at times. Or maybe the disjointedness was on purpose since the story is being told by a battle-hardened merc. Whatever the reason, I was more than willing to overlook it due to the strength of the story, the speculative premise, and the research and thought that Pressfield put into it. Even if you’re not a fan of military fiction (it’s by no means my go-to genre either), I would still recommend The Profession for its uncompromising look at what the near future could hold in store.

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