In Bureaucracy, History, Politics, Social commentary on July 7, 2011 at 11:11 am

Steven Pressfield knows history.  He knows it well enough to have written four great historical novels about ancient Greece.

  • In Gates of Fire, he re-imagined the immortal last stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. 
  • In Tides of War, he re-fought the Greeks’ 25-year version of the Cold War between Athens and Sparta.
  • In The Virtues of War, he resurrected Alexander the Great as a luminous but murderous military genius.
  • And in The Afghan Campaign, he depicted the first great conflict between the West and Afghanistan, as Alexander sought to brutally “pacify” the country so he could press on to conquer India.

And now, with The Profession, Pressfield has abandoned history altogether for the future.  Or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a warning about the history that Americans may well face in the near-future.

Pressfield creates his futuristic world out of events now shaping our lives.  In doing so, he reveals more truths about our military and civilian bureaucracies than many Americans might want to learn.

American military and Intelligence agencies are increasingly relying on private–and highly-paid–contractors to meet their needs. The 2003 invasion of Iraq saw more private “soldiers-for-hire” operating there than soldiers from the regular American military.

It was in Iraq that Blackwater became a household word–as much for its wholesale brutality as its effectiveness.

Pressfield slams us forwad into the ultra-violent world of 2032, where   apocalypse hovers around every corner.  The third Iraq-Iran war is over, and Americans are still reeling from the November, 2011 “dirty bomb” attack on Long Beach, California.

America has attained the power of an empire–but has lost the will to put its own sons at risk to defend it.

Instead, it turns to the privately-funded armies of such multi-national corporations as BP and ExxonMobil. And the largest of these mercenary armies is Force Insertion–whose leader is a cashiered United States Marine general named James Salter.

Salter is a combination of two great Pressfield characters. He has the far-seeing strategic genius of the Athenian general, Alcibiades (Tides of War). And he has the charismatic authority of Alexander the Great, who’s worshipped by the soldiers he commands (The Virtues of War, The Afghan Campaign).

He is thus a highly attractive character.  It’s easy to see why so many people–soldiers and civilians–want to see him victorious.

But there is a dark purpose behind his every maneuver. Again like Alcibiades, who deserted Athens for Sparta, he’s driven by rage and pride to avenge himself on those he blames for his disgrace and exile.

And he has an audacious plan to make this a reality:  Seize the oilfields of Saudi Arabia–fifty years’ worth of crude–and offer these as a gift to his fellow Americans.  In exchange, he will return home—as an American Caesar/President.

Standing firmly behind him for most of the novel is its narrator, Gilbert “Gent” Gentilhomme. A former Marine-turned-mercenary himself, Gentilhomme seeks a place of honor and purpose in a world he sees as generally lacking both. He sees Salter as a second father and warrior ideal–a courageous, brilliant, true patriot wronged by those in power who despise such qualities.

It is only when Gent comes to realize the terrible danger Salter poses to the Republic that he moves from devoted follower to would-be assassin. At the climax of the novel, he faces off with his longtime hero, in an exchange containing more blunt truths about America today than many readers may want to accept.

“The United States is an empire,” says Salter. “But the American people lack the imperial temperament. We’re not legionnaires, we’re mechanics. In the end the American Dream boils down to what? `I’m getting mine and the hell with you.'”

Salter realizes he is ultimately fighting a losing war to preserve the country he loves.  The ambitious part of him hungers to accept the gift of absolute power his fellow Americans want to gratefully confer on him.

The reflective part of him knows he is, in effect, betraying the very Republic he longs to save–and hopes an assassin’s bullet will spare him this disgrace.

 “The very ascension of someone like me–a mercenary general plucked from the provinces–is history’s sign that the nation has lost its way and is struggling desperately, merely to hang on.”

Most reviews of The Profession have focused on its depiction of futuristic techno-war: Holographic, hand-held phones. Cloaking technology to conceal high-end weaponry from satellite eyes-in-the-sky. Tactical nuclear weapons that are commonly possessed and plausibly used.

Like a Tom Clancy novel, The Profession can be read by those who simply want an exciting page-turner. But, unlike Clancy’s thrillers, this is a book with an urgent warning for its audience: A warning that what we are today threatens to lead us to the edge of an abyss–in which there is no freedom, and from which there is no return.

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