Special Operations Old and New: Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days

Eleven DaysLea Carpenter’s novel Eleven Days presents a different portrait of United States special operations capability than does Masha Hamilton’s What Changes Everything, which I reviewed two posts ago. In What Changes Everything, the wife of an American civilian kidnapped in Afghanistan refuses entreaties by US officials to deploy military forces—we can presume unconventional operators—to rescue him. She doesn’t trust the military; their track record of success is poor and they’re as likely to get her husband killed as save him. In Eleven Days, the mother of a Navy SEAL who has disappeared in Afghanistan places her hopes in his recovery in the hands of high-level Washington insiders deeply instantiated in the world of clandestine operations. Where What Changes Everything is skeptical of American military might, Eleven Days is admiring, especially of elite formations of those termed “special,” “unconventional,” “black ops,” or “members of the intelligence community.”

The polarized perspectives of the two novels reflect a deep military debate about the role of special operations in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that now is also playing itself out in the homefront cultural domains of art, entertainment, and the courting of public opinion.

In military terms, the question is to what extent did special operations save American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, vanquish our enemies, and help achieve our nation’s greater war aims, primarily that of forestalling further 9/11-style attacks on American soil, but also those related to nation-building overseas. In the art, entertainment, and public opinion domains, the question is whether the glamor of special operations will make any sort of reasoned consideration of the military issue possible.

The military question is explored at some length in this recent New York Times article titled SEAL Team 6: A Secret History of Quiet Killers and Blurred Lines” and in even greater detail in Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill’s account of the rise of the military’s umbrella organization for unconventional and elite forces, Joint Special Operations Command. The Times report is ambivalent, while Scahill is scathingly critical about the now unquestionable prominence of special operations as a strategic and tactical capability within our military-defense apparatus.

The cultural question is reflected in the public’s fascination with films such as American Sniper and Captain Phillips, as well as the dozen or so books written by ex-operators, many of them Navy SEALs who seemingly have little regard for the dark-side credo of “silent professionalism.” That clear thinking about the military question has been complicated by the Hollywood glitz machine and the self-promotion of those involved is unfortunate.

It is unfair to hold Eleven Days’ feet to the fire regarding these ginormous questions, though. Carpenter’s admiration for SEALs is writ large on every page of Eleven Days, but the novel’s unique and valuable aspects are other than descriptions of SEAL training, equipment, culture, and history, of which there are many. Its most obvious interest is the mother-son bond that joins Sara, and Jason, the Navy SEAL lieutenant who goes missing while on an operation in Afghanistan. Actions in-country are barely described; the emphasis is on Sara’s turbulent emotions as she is subjected to prying media inquiry and intense deliberations with highly-placed government officials trying to secure Jason’s release. As Sara endures these extremely unwelcome intrusions on her privacy, her mind and the book’s narration ruminate on things past, especially Jason’s childhood love for all things military that led him as a young adult first to Annapolis, then the SEALs, and finally to combat in Afghanistan. As it happens, Jason’s father David was a decorated operator himself in Vietnam and remains deeply connected to the SpecOps and DC intelligence worlds. Though long out of Sara’s and Jason’s life after the brief affair that brought Jason into the world, he now returns to help facilitate Jason’s return.  In conjunction with another DC insider known as “the godfather,” Dave arranges for a private jet to bring Sara and him to Afghanistan in hopes of reuniting with their son. The plot seems to stretch a bit thin in these parts, but who am I to say whether things like that happen or not? In any case, Carpenter’s imagining of Sara and Jason’s lived lives, their thoughts about things, their love for each other, and especially Sara’s distress when Jason goes missing, is moving and rich.

Eleven Days’ greatest interest for me, however, lies in its portrait of how our millennial wars are perceived and engaged in by upper-tier inside-the-Beltway older men such as David and the godfather. David especially has spent his long life matching his militaristic inclinations with the militaristic opportunities of the moment in ways that accord with his wealth, his educational pedigree, his social standing, his breeding and culture, his notion of public service, and most of all, his sense of belonging to a fraternity of manly men of adventure and accomplishment. Sara no longer lives in proximity to such men, but her dalliance with David as a young woman gives her permanent re-entry rights into their milieu of richy-rich-rich swashbucklers, men whose early CIA, SEAL, and Green Beret years are only the beginning of many decades spent doing clandestine things in exotic locales. This elite faction of the war machine is more James Bond than John Rambo, as reflected in a passage about David narrated through the perspective of Sara:

He is in his mid-seventies now, he has a beard, and he is thinner, but it is him. He is wearing a beautiful suit, his blue collar (always a blue collar) open at the neck just enough that she sees a glint of gold. A necklace. He always liked nice things, an air of disrepair shattered by the presence of a Rolex submariner or a double-stitched Charvat tie.

If one matches this description against any of number of passages from American Sniper, such as one in which Chris Kyle reports spending off-duty time in Iraq “watching porn, playing video games, and lifting weights,” we have the beginnings of a pretty good social analysis of an older and newer style of special operations culture. Jason, twixt the two eras, affects the tattooed, bearded, and iron-pumping mode of the modern-man-of-special-operations-war, while retaining a few traits of the gentleman-warrior, such as packing Seven Pillars of Wisdom in his rucksack when he heads off to fight, that are characteristic of David’s generation. We might usefully also compare David and Jason to men such as Blackwater founder and war profiteer Erik Prince—an ex-Navy SEAL who seems very much a man of our modern times, though one whose ties to the first wave of sea-air-land operatives who came-of-age in the Kennedy administration seem more superficial than profound.

I suppose there must be somewhere between 500 and 5,000 men like David in real life. Too old to be on the front lines, but still in the game at some rarified level of governance, industry, and social connection. As eager to get their war on as anybody else, how do they remain relevant? At what level do they still influence the things that matter? Are they vestiges of an aristocratic older style, unaccounted for contemporary power-brokers, or models for what may come as the dark-side operators of Iraq and Afghanistan themselves grow too old for ground combat and find new modes of serving the nation militaristically and fresh outlets for their thrill-seeking spirits? Eleven Days has piqued my interest in warrior greybeards such as David as much as it has in young operator-bucks like Jason and proud-but-worried moms such as Sara. That’s probably a reflection on my own long-in-the-tooth, white male, now-firmly-on-the-outside-looking-in subject position, but so it is. I invite you to read Eleven Days and consider for yourself.

Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days. Vintage, 2013.

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