First posted on Amazon.com on 9/06/2012
Another reviewer on Amazon.com has already spotted the several dimensions that this book explores: techno-thriller, military science fiction, a cautionary tale of the future, and, in particular, of America's future more than anything else, but also the personal story of a "lost" soldier who becomes a 21th century mercenary and is torn between what is left of his ideals and his deep sense of loyalty towards his brothers in arms and his commander officer.
The last theme is one that Pressfield has already got us rather used to. You find it in particular in his "Tides of War" and his "The Afghan Campaign". There are even a couple of hints to these pieces of historical fiction in this one, for instance the passing reference to a sergeant named Telamon, from Akadia in the USA - the very same place and name as that of a mercenary solddier that pops up here and there in Pressfiled's novels taking place in Antiquity.
Another familiar element is Pressfield's ability to make the story gripping and ripping, so that, at least at times, it seems almost "real" for the reader, especially for the action and combat scenes. Although, to be honest, I am no soldier, so I could probably not tell to what extent the story is plausible anyway, the way the operations are presented correspond to what I would imagine them to be like.
What is more original for Pressfield, is the story which takes place in 2032, with numerous "flash-backs" of events that have taken place since 2016. The period has seen the rise of Private Military Companies (PMCs) - mercenaries in other words - to the extent that these - and one of them in particular - have become a major force capable of fielding tens of thousands of soldiers. Their major field of operations is the Middle East and they are employed by a range of States and multinational corporations, especially oil companies and large international banks. America seems to have largely pulled back its forces from the Middle East and concentrates on "Homeland Security" after another dreadful terrorist attack on its soil and a highly publicised scandal that has taken place in Africa and has tarnished the reputation of its armed forces and of the US Marine Corp in particular.
Contrary to another reviewer on Amazon.com, I found this geopolitical piece interesting, even if not always entirely convincing or credible. The story is made up of bits pieced together and taken from various conflicts that have taken place since the 1990s, especially in Africa and the Middle East. The story taking place in Zamibia, and its multiple atrocities, for instance, seems to be a cross between the wars and massacres in Liberia and Sierra Leone, with the "long sleeve" and "short sleeve" amputations, in particular, and those that took place in Rwanda and in Congo (ex-Zaïre, were, despite UN forces, some atrocities still tale place). However, US forces were not deployed in any of these conflicts. Also, existing PMCs are not almost exclusively made up of ex-US soldiers, along with a sprinkling of Brits, Australians and South Africans. Nowadays, they happen to include ex-soldiers coming from a much wider range of countries, including European countries. I won't comment on the weaponry used: another reviewer has done so already. However, that a single PMC would be able, or even allowed, to take over half a dozen others and become a near monopoly seems, for the moment at least, rather unlikely for at least a couple of reasons. Some PMCs are multinational, but many are not and may even be VERY national indeed. More importantly perhaps, governments from so-called rich countries (say the G8 including Russia, to keep it short) have close contacts with, and keep an eye on "their" respective SMCs composed on "their" nationals. This is where the "outsourcing" comes in. Some governments are ready to outsource some functions to the private sector, such as the protection of pipelines or of corporate executives and staff. Others, at least officially, have banned by law such companies altogether. All might use them for deniable operations that have more to do with secret services than waging an open war. In 20 years time, we might have reached a situation familiar to that described by Pressfield. For the moment, we are rather far from this.
Another limit to this book is the theme of America's decline and increasing vulnerability. These are very topical, of course. In the book, however, they may be somewhat overblown and not entirely realistic, although this is not necessarily a problem since the book is fiction. First, I have been hearing sporadically about the decline of the United States for a very long time. I learned in school that there was a decline after the Viêtnam war. I heard about it again during the 80s (Japan was the menace at the time) and at the end of the 80s, with the Savings and Loans debacle. Then, as the USRR collapsed, I didn't hear about it at all (quite the contrary in fact) for the next 10 years. Since 2000, the next menace is supposed to be China, which is growing about 4 to 5 times faster than America. While true, and while the US has not yet fully recovered (far from it), it is worthwhile remembering that China's GDP is still less than half that of the US and that its population, which is foiur times larger, is ageing very rapidly. Even assuming that China's GDP overtakes that of America in ten years time (a rather big assumption), GDP per head in America will still be four times that of China. So, is this decline? Perhaps, but only in relative terms. It is also a slow one and it may not be as irresistible as it seems.
Finally, there is the US dependance on oil. Oddly enough, Pressfield has not been innovative here. He has not taken into account the latest breakthrough in technology, nor the ones still to come over the next 20 years. He comes up with fuel worth 8 and then 14 dollars a gallon because of events taking place in the Middle East. Interestingly, given the potential for exploiting existing fields both on land and of the US coasts (and without even mentioning whatever oil could be discovered in the next 20 years), America is becoming increasingly self-sufficient with regards oil and gas. THis is a situation that America has not known for about half a century. So the oil shock described in the book has a distinct 1970s or 1980s flavour to it, instead of being science fiction.
So, I very much liked this book. It is a superb read. It makes a lot of good points, although I do not know, for instance, whether the ridiculously low number of Ivy League graduates or Congessmen's children that have enlisted in the armed forces is true or not. Because I enjoyed it so much, I believe it is worth four stars, but I do not think that the very pessimistic (and sometimes a bit populist) picture that it draws of America in 20 years time is realistic. At least - and this is another of the book's merits - I hope it is not. Anyway, it is up to this country's citizens to make sure that this picture does not come true and this is - of course - the whole purpose of Pressfield's cautionary tale.