In a 2014 Los Angeles Review of Books article titled “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play,” author Brian Castner wonders why so few novels have been written about America’s long war in Afghanistan. One idea Castner considers is that Operation Enduring Freedom was fought mainly by special operators—serious warfighters who lacked the artistic, empathetic, and reflective bents required to write fiction. To the point, Castner quotes Brandon Willitts, a vet-writer who served in Afghanistan as intelligence analyst in support of US Army Special Forces:
“These guys are such high achievers, Olympic athletes who have been trained to kill,” [Willitts] says. “They’ve spent a decade doing night raids. And now you want them to sit in a chair and write a novel? You might as well ask why more NFL players aren’t writing novels.”
Castner’s query and Willitts’ comment, rather than foreclosing future possibilities, seems to have initiated a flood of novels about war in Afghanistan, and, in truth, there were already a few out there that Castner overlooked in 2014. Some of the new arrivals are “literary” novels Castner and most LARB readers would consider most worth talking about, such as Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue. More, however, are genre fiction: war-adventure thrillers, many written by authors with impressive military pedigrees.
Thomas Greer, for example, is a former Delta Force squadron commander who capitalized on his initial foray into print, Kill Bin Laden, a memoir of his leadership of the ground force that searched for Osama Bin Laden in the eastern Afghanistan mountains in 2001, to write a series of war-action novels under the name “Dalton Fury.” Between 2012 and 2016, Dalton Fury published (by my count) six war-adventure novels before unfortunately dying of pancreatic cancer. A second Delta Force squadron commander, Brad Taylor, has also drawn on his real-life exploits and insider knowledge to pen a series of military thrillers. Taylor, whose first book also predates Castner’s article, appearing in 2011, has written (again, by my count; it’s hard to keep up) eighteen novels, each pushing 500 pages. A third former Army officer, Sean Parnell, doesn’t have the stellar military credentials of Greer and Taylor—he has but a single tour in Afghanistan as an infantry platoon leader to brag about (and boy does he, here). But Parnell, like Greer, parlayed the success of his initial book, a lieutenant’s memoir titled Outlaw Platoon, into a second, the war-thriller Man of War. As the newcomer of the bunch, he has written only one novel so far, with another on the way. He is, however, a protégé of Scott Miller, a literary agent who helped Dalton Fury’s rise in the world of letters, and Parnell and Taylor cutely name characters after each other in their books, so it seems reasonable to group him with the prolific Fury and Taylor to obtain a sense of what contemporary war adventure and military thrillers are all about.
Below are capsule summaries and a few thoughts about Fury’s Black Site, Taylor’s The Forgotten Soldier, and Parnell’s Man of War. Only Black Site is directly about war in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but all are connected in their way to the Global War on Terror, so within the purview of the blog.
Dalton Fury (Thomas Greer)’s Black Site (2012). The hero of Black Site is Kolt Raynor, an ex-Delta Force operator who has been exiled from the elite unit’s ranks for a tactical mistake that led to the deaths and capture of fellow operators on a covert mission across the Afghanistan border into Pakistan. Three years later, Raynor atones for his screw-up by sneaking into Pakistan to confirm intelligence that several of his former teammates are held prisoner in a remote compound guarded by Pashtun tribesmen, Taliban zealots, and Middle-Eastern Al Qaeda operatives, and a platoon of Chechens led by an American-born Al Qaeda convert who are hatching a plan to infiltrate a CIA-run “black site” prison by posing as US Army Rangers. While not escaping the generic conventions of war adventure, Black Site executes them well. Of the three novels I read, it was the most focused on military operations–as opposed to spy-and-espionage sleuthing–which I liked, and I also enjoyed the descriptions of the Pashtun regions of western Pakistan.
Brad Taylor’s The Forgotten Soldier (2017). Taylor’s novels feature protagonist Pike Logan, a member of a top-secret spy-and-fighting force known as the “Taskforce.” In The Forgotten Warrior, a Taskforce member goes rogue after learning that his brother, a US Army Special Forces soldier, has been killed in Afghanistan by four Yemini Al Qaeda members. Seeking vengeance, the aggrieved Taskforce operator hunts-and-kills the Yemini responsible one-by-one, while also uncovering treacherous connections linking the Yemini ruling clan and the highest echelons of the US State Department. Pike Logan is dispatched by the Taskforce to retrieve his off-the-reservation teammate while minimizing damage to international relations, duties that take him from Washington, DC, to the Cayman Islands to Greece to Norway. The Forgotten War does well depicting the complicated diplomatic-strategic-economic dimensions of global conflict: how they present opportunities to be exploited by adversaries and trouble-makers and how things become personal in the hands of the upper-echelon players who wield enormous amounts of power.
Sean Parnell’s Man of War (2018). Man of War splits the difference between Black Site‘s military emphasis and The Forgotten Soldier‘s spy-vs-spy storyline. Its action hero is Eric Steele, who like Pike Logan works for an off-the-books government agency that answers directly to the President. When a former member of the unit—called the Project in Man of War—hatches a plot to steal a manpack nuclear weapon from Iran, while also kidnapping Iran’s and Pakistan’s leading nuclear engineers, Steele is dispatched to kill him before he detonates the nuke in America. Steele chases his nemesis—the man who trained him in the ways of the Project—across northern Africa and Spain, both men leaving trails littered with bodies, before they finally confront in mano-y-mano battle in southern Maryland. Man of War has a more crazed, one-thing-after-another, can-you-believe-what-happens now? feel to it than Black Site and The Forgotten Warrior, which is saying something, and which is either a virtue or a flaw depending on your taste for over-the-top characters and plot turns.
The covers of all three novels announce that their authors are “New York Times Best-Selling Authors,” which no doubt is true. It’s amusing, though, somewhat, that they draw on the prestige of the mainstream “fake news” newspaper giant to burnish their reputations and attract readers, since the works themselves are thoroughly “Red State” war fiction (as defined here by Brian Castner and Brian Van Reet) that glorify military prowess and American greatness. Or, maybe, the bold-faced references to New York Times popularity are their way of sticking it to elite taste-makers and their condescending attitudes toward what “real people” really like. Who knows? That none of the authors are great stylists or lifelong, serious students of novel form and craft is another point hardly worth dwelling on, save for an interesting comment offered by Dalton Fury. In the Acknowledgements to Black Site, Fury reports that his hatred of high school English and “the lack of grounding in proper sentence structure and point of view made life miserable as I wrote Kill Bin Laden. I needed a ton of help. In fact, I learned quickly that there is absolutely no intrinsic crossover between leading commandos and writing about commandos” (cf Willetts!). Fury then describes how his agent, the afore-mentioned Scott Miller, provided him with an “incredibly talented” ghostwriter named Mark Greaney. Greaney, the author of his own thriller series and a former collaborator with Tom Clancy, is a pro’s pro, and as a result Black Site is a much more tautly written book than Kill Bin Laden.
I can imagine authors who have devoted their life to writing burning at the effrontery of men such as Fury, Taylor, and Parnell turning to novel-writing in middle-age as if anyone could write (a good) one, and then seething even more as they watch the books by these warrior-writer Johnny-come-latelies fly up the New York Times best-seller lists. For me, however, Fury’s confession is as endearing as it is telling, but, really, who cares if war adventure novels are well-written or not? I do, but that’s not what is important here. War adventure’s all about action heroes, heinous villains, hair-raising escapades, and gee-whiz technology and weapons, for which there is a ginormous reading market, as evidenced by the New York Times rankings.
Let the record show that I read Black Site, The Forgotten Soldier, and Man of War pretty much straight through; in other words, I never stopped turning the pages. I enjoyed the glimpses of operator-and-spy craft they offered, and I appreciated how they fully incorporated technology into the lives of the men and women they describe (as opposed to so much literary war fiction that proceeds as if the Internet had never been invented). Though the enemies of America the protagonists kill by the dozens are generally Arab and South Asian Muslims (a few white Americans, Europeans, and South Africans swell the ranks of villains), there seems to be an effort across the board to avoid the worst race-and-religion baiting imaginable. Parnell can’t resist describing how highly Steele regards President Reagan, and Parnell’s Twitter feed makes it clear that he thinks President Trump is great and the problem with America is liberals and Democrats. On the other hand, the presidents and portraits of American politics in Black Site and The Forgotten Soldier are generic enough that it’s hard to tell who in the upper tiers of government is red and who is blue. That’s strange, because it seems unlikely many Democrats read war adventure, and so it would be logical that the authors play to the Red State masses by demonizing softy liberal politicians at every opportunity. In Fury and Taylor, however, I detect a determined non-partisanship and desire for unity and consensus typical of the officer lifers I’ve known who aren’t raging conservatives. Taylor’s blog, for evidence, leans right, predictably enough, but clearly avoids knee-jerk side-taking as it explores (sensibly in my mind) international security issues. Back to the novels, the protagonists’ support teams are pointedly diverse, and each novel incorporates at least one woman-of-action into the mix. The operator equivalent of “manic pixie dream girls,” war-thriller women tend to be chiseled hotties as capable of snapping a man’s neck as seducing him. The female protagonists in Black Site, The Forgotten Soldier, and Man of War prove themselves worthy sidekicks to their action-hero leading men, and each is given at least one “you go, girl” moment in which she socks it to hapless members of the patriarchy by cutting through their bullshit or kicking their ass.
All that’s good, or at least not terrible. But let’s also get serious: the comic-book hero names of the protagonists, as well as Thomas Greer’s pen-name, signal tongue-in-cheek fantasies of heroic military manliness. The authors maybe are self-consciously spoofing the conventions of war adventure, and perhaps being in-on-the-joke is one of the prerequisites for enjoying the genre; I’m reminded of an old National Lampoon parody of Sergeant Rock comics in which the hero was named Sergeant Nick Penis. And yet, despite their cartoonish qualities, the novels, with their breathless depictions of good-guy grown adults fighting bad-guy grown adults with the fate of the world at stake, project the notion that they take themselves very seriously, and I have little doubt a fair number of their readers do, too. Just spit-balling here, but it seems obvious that war adventure novels serve not merely as escape and entertainment, but as morality plays that shape, reflect, and confirm ideas and attitudes about the world. All three novels, for example, dramatize fears that America not only faces danger from threats abroad, but from within as well, by traitors, imposters, infiltrators, criminals, and power-hungry self-servers and ideological zealots. Whatever the political vision, though, the ideological message that really drives the popularity of war adventure, I’d say, is the dream of unlimited power and maximum freedom concentrated in individuals who feel they are born to wage war and are well-trained to do so. High-level operators are uniformly characterized as rough-hewn, wildly independent, and contrarian men-of-action whose capacity for bad behavior is part of their appeal and their effectiveness. The stories undoubtedly glorify the way-of-the-gun: an oft-repeated set piece is the highly-trained operator taking out three or four bad guys in seconds with an equal number of well-aimed shots, the implication being that he who has the most guns and uses them best has the most power and freedom. Another way this sensibility plays out is through constant reference to civilian politicians and bureaucrats who constrain the free exercise of the operators’ right to break rules, disobey orders, take extravagant risks, and shoot-to-kill. You can’t read four pages in a war adventure novel without coming across a passage that expresses some version of this sentiment.
In the world of the novels, the dream of unrestrained freedom sits uneasily with the tight command-and-control structure of elite military units and the presence of strong authority figures who call the shots. The books are entranced by the idea that small cells of warrior-spies exist that answer directly to the President, and that Presidents spend the better part of their days personally supervising clandestine operations that must be undertaken to save the country and the free world. Still, the potential for elite warriors to “go rogue” drives the plot in each of the novels; going rouge comes up so often as a plot catalyst that it acquires the tangible quality of a consummation devoutly to be wished–in other words, more freedom, more opportunity to exercise individual power. The specific spur that affords operators the chance to go rogue is revenge: in each novel, the protagonists are compelled to operate even further off the books than normal to avenge the deaths of fellow operator or family members. And yet, the revenge is typically revealed to be just, not just in personal terms, but in regard to the ongoing international battles the operators’ units exist to fight—the individual vendetta is connected to an effort to stop America’s enemies from killing our Secretary of State, stealing a portable nuclear weapon, infiltrating the United States military, or other such rigamarole. The operators’ instincts in these matters are true: the books aggressively assert that elite soldiers are not just fighting machines, but ethically astute judges of right, wrong, and what really needs to happen right now to save the country.
Brad Taylor and Dalton Fury attempt to problematize these issues in earnestly-crafted acknowledgments and introductions. Taylor, for example, writes:
The crux of repeated covert action in a democracy is that a nation can go only so far before its actions begin to erode the very ideals the unit was designed to protect, which is precisely why we have such robust oversight in US Code. The Taskforce has no such constraints, and I’ve threaded the potential for its abuse throughout my books. This time, I decided to explore it as a main theme.
Well, OK, but excuse me if I find the statement a little disingenuous, judging by the reading experience of The Forgotten Soldier—it’s a little as if an author of pornography tells us he has written the work to warn readers of the dangers of pornography. Riiight… Dalton Fury, for his part, reports that the genesis of Black Site was a remark made by a fellow operator that he was “impetuous” and thus Fury wrote Black Site to work out the role that impetuousness plays in the character and mentality of elite soldiers. Let’s just say, based on the evidence, a lot…. for better in the world of the books, but maybe for worse, understood more broadly. Impetuousness is a characteristic associated with immaturity, which is not an especially flattering trait to define men who wield the power that the operators feel entitled to. Cue Herman Melville’s great observation: “All wars are boyish and fought by boys.”
For all my carping, I’m not particularly worried that war adventure novels glamorize men-with-guns; of course they do, but that American cultural cake has been baked at least since readers went nuts over John Filson’s The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boone in 1785, and whatever influence books might still have on the tide of things is a tiny rivulet feeding the mighty Mississippi of overall American fascination with guns, violence, fighting, crime, militarism, and war. An issue that comes up in reviews of Black Site and The Forgotten Soldier is the ethics and consequences of former senior Delta Force commanders such as Taylor and Fury revealing so much inside knowledge about their secret-squirrel units. For me, that’s not as interesting a question as one that asks why men who rose to the top of elite units after retiring desire to write novels that fantasize about men who are even more awesome fighting machines than they were themselves? Does that strike anyone else as curious? It’s as if, say, a very good writer were to write an un-ironical, non-satirical novel about a Nobel Prize winning author who is a dashing bon-vivant who never makes a regrettable mistake.
It’s probably just me, but as a fellow former Army officer, it’s interesting to observe other former officers write books that that settle for so little in terms of vision, craft, or smarts compared to those of ex-enlisted soldiers such as Brian Turner, Roy Scranton, and Brian Van Reet, to name three. Why are these the kind of books my peers want to write? I salute anyone who tries their hand as an author of fiction, but couldn’t Taylor and Fury have written interesting novels about Delta Force commandos and Parnell about infantry platoons that don’t reveal them—the authors–to be intoxicated by hyperbolic visions of what they actually were in real life? I’ll also salute Fury, Taylor, and Parnell for writing books that many readers and lots of soldiers (judging by the authors’ presence on military Post Exchange shelves) relate to, and God bless them if they donate huge hunks of their profits to charities that aid veterans. Still, it’s not exactly reassuring to think that the authors were possessed by such dreamy fantasies while on active duty, leading soldiers and accomplishing missions. That military thrillers exist as a genre isn’t such a big problem, but they seem like the stuff for geeky boy-men and aging armchair warriors who couldn’t cut the mustard for two seconds in the high-speed units described in the books. To return to Brian Castner’s and Brandon Willitts’ comments with which we began, it’s not so much that former special operators and hardcore infantrymen can’t write novels, it’s a question of what their novels look like when they do.
Final note: I greatly enjoyed the sections of Black Site set in Darra Adam Khal, a legendary arms bazaar just over the Afghanistan border near Peshawar, Pakistan. As I was reading Black Site I came across this article in (where else?) the New York Times, describing the efforts of a young man named Raj Muhammad to start a library in Darra Adam Khal. Very cool, and the library even has a Facebook page, so please like it. Books not guns, can we all agree?
Dalton Fury (Thomas Greer). Black Site: A Delta Force Novel. St. Martin’s, 2012.
Brad Taylor. The Forgotten Soldier: A Pike Logan Thriller. Dutton, 2017.
Sean Parnell. Man of War: An Eric Steele Novel. Harper’s, 2018.