A VERY SPECIAL EDITION OF READING WITH XIPHOS: THE PROFESSION BY STEVEN PRESSFIELD
Corollary observation by Xiphos: What the hell is the problem with getting paid beau coup dinero for letting people do that?
Before I begin the actual review portion of this article I have to make some statements for the record so you understand where I am coming from in the meat and potatoes part of the review. First, I am big Steven Pressfield fan. I have reviewed a number of his works on WOTM including, Gates of Fire, The Afghan Campaign and Killing Rommel. Dude usually gets it right so keep that in mind for later.
Secondly, I have no real problem (more on my exact complaint further on) with Private Military Contractors (hence forth referred to as “PMCs”). They do a lot of good work like stopping wars in Africa and keeping the peace in Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia. They also are technological and tactical idea factories. By this time next year I’ll probably be working for one. Further, I should have been working for one since 2007 if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m a stupid ass and choked on dopey pride and useless obstinacy that the scumbag Navy shouldn’t shitcan me and other injured Marines for being injured. I would have had a cushy and a very well paying recruitment/vetting job while I recuperated. Along with the job I would have also received a substantial combat signing bonus even though I wouldn’t have been able to deploy for a year. In short
I • AM • AN • IDIOT
Lastly, I have taken business, accounting (though Pillows is the acknowledged pro in this department) and economic courses plus I have read a lot in all three areas so keep that in mind for later on, it figures into my analysis of the book.
Okay everybody good to go? Questions? No? Good. Let’s light the fires and kick the tires on this bitch.
The Profession is set 20 years in the future and deals with PMCs working for a company called Force Insertion, the largest private military corporation in the world. In this future, the world is going crazy. A radiological weapon was deployed at the Port of Long Beach in California (To be honest I wouldn’t know how you could tell. That dump looks like it was nuked years ago and it’s full of mutant looking motherfuckers. To be fair though that is LA in general.) The third Iran-Iraq war just ended and Iran is already getting antsy and with China’s backing, they are making moves. Russia and the Turks are on the verge of going to war in the Caspian basin and Saudi Arabia managed to quell a major rebellion. Because of the fierce maelstrom engulfing the world, FI is beloved by Multinationals for securing oilfields, installations and employees all over the world. According to the book Force Insertion “employs powerful, cutting-edge mercenary armies to control global chaos and protect their riches.” Force Insertion are to the Merc world what Siemens, Halliburton or that huge Chinese multinational are to corporations. What that means is FI is top of the food chain and entirely diversified. They have ground troops, armor, artillery, fixed and rotary wing assets and Naval sections. FI also has even larger support sections like technology, economics, engineers, intelligence, teachers, translators and medical staffs, etc. The contractors are drawn from all over the world.
FI was built by disgraced former Marine Lt. General James Salter who is one of the main characters in the book. Salter is a strategic, tactical and political genius and has that rare leadership gift of getting his fighters to follow him to the gates of hell and beyond. Salter’s gifts have led him to winning wars and peace. Unfortunately he also pulled a MacArthur and rattled the nuclear saber with China and let a massacre by local tribes “happen” in East Africa. For those actions Salter was stripped of command, lost his rank and was kicked out of the Marine Corps. Salter is an amalgamation of many people from history including but not limited to Caesar, Hannibal, MacArthur, Patton, Themistocles and others. I believe though the true basis for this character is Marine Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, the current commander of US Central Command.
Mattis, who should have been the commandant of the Marine Corps and not the fly boy we have now, got fucked over by former Commandant Hagee (on whose name I spit. Welcome to the club, now you know how we felt getting fucked by that scumbag) The reason he got screwed was for this true and accurate statement he made “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.” (Before everybody gets their panties in a knot and starts to ride side saddle on their high horse, go read the entire quote in context and others he made. The man is quite intelligent and understands the world quite well.) The reason I think the character of Salter is based on Mattis is due to the letter he sent to the tribal leaders in the 1st MARDIV AO in Iraq after the invasion in 2003. It’s one of the greatest letters written by a war leader ever and shows just how much Mattis understands the mentality of Tribal people (and by extension Salter). This is what he sent, “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.” Most listened and the ones in Fallujah that didn’t learned, much to their detriment, that Mattis keeps his word. You don’t mess with the warrior monk.
The story in The Profession is told through former Marine Gilbert “Gent” Gentilhomme who was a protégé of Salter’s in the Marines. Gent, as he is known, is one hell of an operator. Tough, ballsy, smart, quick thinking and cares about his men. He’s very loyal to his men and his commander and that loyalty really screws him. Salter asks him to do a favor (for considerable financial remuneration) and deliver a briefcase to a former First Lady of the United States who is stag Hunting in Scotland. From there Gent and his team get caught up in a brutal game of political intrigue (and fights) which the end goal is for Salter to become the President of the United States. Gent has to fight against his own instincts for loyalty in order to stop Salter from achieving his objective and extracting revenge on those that had wronged him. Yes I’m being deliberately vague here. There would be a lot ruined if I went into detail and plan on reading the book.
So by now I figure everybody is wondering, is it a good book? I’ll go ahead and answer that right now. Unfortunately, I’m sad to say, overall no, it isn’t. It’s really a tale of two halves and below I’ll go into why.
THE GOOD: This will be a short section. Like all of Pressfield’s works, it is exhaustively researched. The tactics, history, politics and technology are all up to snuff. The action scenes are well written, cogent and plausible. Pressfield, for a guy who’s never been in a fight (he was a Marine in the 60s but was never in combat as far as I know), understands the most inviolate rule of combat which is, war is like fire, it goes where it wants and consumes everything in it’s path. Pressfield also has an innate sense for combat geography which nearly all authors lack.
Pressfield’s true gift though is he completely understands the internal complexities that make men want to test their mettle in war. Pressfield can hear and comprehend the cry of the warrior like almost no other civilian author (and many servicemen for that matter) I have ever known of. Pressfield recognizes that the kid on patrol, probing for contact in Helman province, nervously wiping his hand on his utilities to get a better grip on the hand guard of his M4 carbine is no different from the Spartan in the phalanx, with his shield held at high port nervously gripping his the shaft of his spear as the Spartans advance in battalion front to carve up their foes. Technology, tactics and objectives have changed but the warrior is eternal and unbowed by time.Fighting men come from an unbroken line of brothers that stretches from the dawn of time to the unfathomable future where time ends. Pressfield understands this and gets it right in all his books.
Lastly, it was good to see that Pressfield kept his writing preference of using a mentor/mentee situation as the core of the story. The relationship between Gent and Salter is the cement that binds the story together. Without the father/son relationship between Salter and Gent being as strong as it was, the choices both characters make wouldn’t have nearly the same impact. Gent’s pain at what he experiences at the hands of Salter because of his affection for him is palpable.
First, the story is very choppy. Usually Pressfield’s words flow like fine Irish Whiskey on a cool October night. In The Profession he breaks up the story with long ultra detailed descriptions of weapons, vehicles, technology, tactics, politics and anything else that strikes his fancy. I think the problem here is that he is working outside his usual history bubble. In The Profession, Pressfield is working in the future with modern weapons and technology, essentially he is in the Tom Clancy “techno” thriller land and I don’t think he’s that comfortable there yet. The other choice he made was to jump around time wise and a few of the trips to the past didn’t add much to the story and ruined the flow of the narrative.
Secondly, the characters, the ones outside of Gent, Gent’s team and Salter, weren’t so much characters but wish fulfillment. Absolutely everybody you meet in the book is hyper accomplished.For example, Gent’s beautiful ex-wife has a bucket load of degrees from high speed institutions, she’s a famous war correspondent who goes into war zones basically alone, hosts a highly successful TV show on the Fox/BBC Network and almost won the Pulitzer Prize twice. Another example of this is in the first five pages of the book, you meet a former DEVGRU member who is a graduate of the Wharton School of Business. There are DOZENS of other examples like this in the book. What you never see though are the regular schmoes that actually keep the world spinning and I found that to be odd.
Third, technology and exploding populations. The story takes place 20 years from now and the world is in complete turmoil, in a constant state of warfare and populations explode nearly doubling? Nope. No way am I buying that one. Much of the tech they are using is only a dream right now. The lag time from development to use would put it years past two decades from now. That really bugged me.
Fourth, Force Insertion. The way Force Insertion was created is beyond improbable. In less than a decade FI gobbled up almost every contractor business that exists? FI are some super duper Carl Icahn mothers I guess. I think it would be nearly impossible to buy almost 200 individual private military corporations (the approximate number today) based all around the world in such a short period of time. Then there is the issue of being able to integrate so many individual ways of operating into one huge viable corporation. Further, Pressfield didn’t take into consideration the nature of the people that create and run Private Military Corporations. They like being “the man”. Yes I know most of these businesses are now run by guys with degrees from the London School of Economics or Harvard MBAs but like the operators they replaced, the nerds like to be “shadowy” mystery men that pull the strings. Even though military types aren’t the CEO, COO, CFO or presidents much anymore they still dominate the board of directors and because their Maslow needs have been more than met, “respect” becomes paramount. Getting bought out means no more scared, fear fueled screeds in Mother Jones, The New York Slimes or The Economist. For money and “cred”, those corporations would fight tooth and nail against a corporate raid and reject ridiculous buy out money.
Fifth, using Force Insertion the ROI is nearly nil. Think about it like this, the ability to field the kind of operations FI is capable of, its contracts would have to be in the billions, several billions of dollars. Further, look at where they are operating, predominately in places that are dominated by tribal culture and what do ALL tribal cultures have in common? They all operate under the principle of La Mordida. In most of the world bribes are standard operating procedure. It’s part and parcel of doing business, it’s expected and it would be rude not to bribe somebody to do their job. That is a hard concept for westerners to grasp. So instead of just bribing the locals, for relatively cheap amounts I might add, corporations decide to spend billions or maybe trillions of dollars on FI? I believe that kind of large ongoing expense would put a dent in the old bottom line. I mean correct me if I’m wrong here Pillow but one of the basic tenants of accounting is to take in more money than you pay out, right? If the corporations just made pay offs they could hire much smaller security forces. To me that sounds a lot more fiscally prudent. If the corporations are worried about changing faces in third world countries they shouldn’t, revolutions and religious wars don’t matter. The one thing that survives any ethno/religious/political type revolution, besides cockroaches, is the bureaucracy. The people might change but replacements are ready to step up and will have their hand out. It’s why they have revolutions, to get the pay offs. Religion and ideology exist solely to mask the greed and to exploit the stupid believers. You know who are invariability the first victims of successful revolutions? The “true” revolutionaries. True believers get in the way of doing business and the bureaucracy makes sure to protect itself.
Final Thoughts: The funny thing about writing this is, it has let me clarify my thoughts about the book. My first reaction was a sense of profound disappointment. Pressfield’s previous works are excellent but this one doesn’t pass that high bar. I think the problem I have with the book is that Pressfield is not right for techno thrillers or maybe not right yet is a better way of stating it. He needs to make a choice and go all in on modern works and don’t try to make a hybrid that is reminiscent of his earlier writings. I think choosing the safe road wasn’t the optimal choice for this type of book.
By the way I’m going to change recommendation to a mild thumbs up. I think if you aren’t that close to the material it would be an okay but ultimately an empty book to read. The action scenes are well written and Gents race against Salter and all his might is handled well, but outside of those, the book has some serious faults.