Several weeks ago Luke Larson offered to send me a copy of his first novel. There was no quid pro quo involved but I promised to have a look. If I had found the book uninteresting, that would have been the end of the matter, but as I started to read, it quickly became apparent that I was entering a fascinating and important world.
I found the book gripping and it crowded out a number of other books I am currently reading. That is unusual since I typically am reading 3-4 books concurrently and usually range through the library in my Kindle in a semi-random fashion.
Senator's Son has an immediacy and intimacy that the finest novels have. There is a "You Are There" feeling to the novel that invests you emotionally in the lives of the main protagonists. In my post yesterday on The Hurt Locker, I commented on the everyday heroism of our man and women in Iraq and Afghanistan; Luke Larson makes this quotidian heroism personal, and their heroism is all the more remarkable for how unremarkable it is for them.
The novel is not perfect. Luke Larson writes like a Marine, which is much more a compliment than a criticism. But, bear with me on this: the comment that Luke writes like a Marine is a great compliment since it means that the writing is crisp and has little extraneous ornamentation. Most of the time that is perfect for the novel and gives it an authenticity that is organic to the language, but sometimes the novel could benefit from a more literary approach. Too many current novels are padded with extraneous language that often gives one the sense that the authors are being paid by the word. I do not mean to imply that Luke should follow that path. However, there were scenes and dialogues in which some additional elaboration might have deepened our understanding, especially of the narrator, who is not as well fleshed out as his colleagues. Since the novel has everything to do with the change in strategy and tactics that allowed us to snatch victory in Iraq from the jaws of defeat, a richer novel would have allowed us to understand how the callow narrator in his youth began the process of maturation that led to the wise, mature voice of the future. As Luke Larson matures as a writer I expect that he will become as adept as showing us the accretions of internal process and evolution as he already is at showing us an evolving strategy in "real time" on the ground in Iraq.
If you are interested in one of the key questions of our time, dealing with the intersection of military power, nation building, and grand strategy (which is ultimately, in a COIN environment, determined by young officers on the ground) then Senator's Son should be on your reading list.
From a very different point of view, Tom Barnett wrote a highly laudatory review of Senator's Son yesterday. As you would expect, Barnett focuses on the strategic implications:
National security types have long noted -- and complained about -- the relative lack of military veterans in Congress, which results in too few experienced votes being cast when the prospect of overseas interventions is raised. I have long noted -- and complained about -- the fact that Congress' most prominent military vets hail from the Vietnam era, which has led many to instinctively reject the necessity and utility of conducting nation-building and counterinsurgency. Clearly, our lengthy interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan will alter this generational equation, but how will the experiences of today's veterans impact their votes in tomorrow's Congress?
Luke S. Larson's new book, "Senator's Son: An Iraq War Novel," attempts to answer that question. Forget the weak crisis scenario he offers in the flash-forwards that dot this here-and-now novel. (No great powers will be clashing over oil reserves in 2047, because oil just won't be that important come mid-century.) Instead, concentrate on the terrific way in which this former Marine infantry officer captures the day-to-day challenges facing platoon leaders in Ramadi just prior to and then during the "surge" period in which counterinsurgency logic was finally -- and seriously -- re-embraced by the U.S. military.
Tom Barnett's major quibble with Luke Larson has to do with references to Tom Barnett's area of expertise, ie, the imagined strategic crisis that frames the novel. My only quibble with Luke is also a relatively minor one but likewise has to do with references to my field of expertise. Keeping in mind that I get annoyed at movies that violate the laws of Physics, I was annoyed that in a novel that seemed to this layman to be so realistically limning the situation of our young officers at a pivotal moment in recent history, getting the Psychiatry/Psychology wrong in a chapter related to PTSD bothered me. A character who is injured early in the novel has an appointment back in the States with a Psychologist who claims to have expertise in treating PTSD. There were several problems with the chapter:
1) The Psychologist diagnoses a "classic case of PTSD" with no evidence that the Doctor has obtained a history from the patient. Further, if he had obtained a history he would have known that the Marine not only had suffered a leg wound which removed him from the fight, but had also suffered a concussion from the IED explosion. PTSD compounded by post-concussive syndrome and/or TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) symptoms are anything but "classic" for PTSD. Such patients present a complicated series of Psychological, Neurological, and Cognitive effects that are quite challenging to manage.
2) The Psychologist prescribes a drug called Xyenatac and warns the Marine not to succumb to its abuse potential. Aside from the fact that Psychologists have prescribing privileges in only a few states, the drug does not exist. If it is meant to evoke Xanax and/or other anxiolytics or analgesics, these are poor choices for treating symptoms of PTSD, especially in the context of possible TBI; such drugs tend to exacerbate PTSD symptoms and significantly worsen cognitive deficits for too many patients to make it worth prescribing so readily.
One more point about the Psychologist: he exhibits the kind of "empathic failure" more often seen in second year Residents than expert Therapists. I emphasize these points in part because it leads easily to a plug for The Soldiers Project, in which experienced Psychotherapists and Psychoanalysts volunteer to see Iraq/Afghanistan Veterans and their families in their private offices at no charge. The Soldiers Project started in Los Angeles and there are now chapters in New York, Chicago, and Seattle as well. If you know of anyone who might benefit fr0m speaking to a therapist outside of the VA system, consider The Soldiers Project.
Finally I would be remiss if I did not note an additional point from Tom Barnett's review:
Larson knows what he's talking about, having served two tours in Ramadi -- one well before the surge and one during it. Since then, he's studied non-lethal weapons at Penn State and then moved on to an MBA at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Frankly, Larson should consider running for the Senate someday, or at least working as a civilian in the Pentagon, because that's a wonderful mix of experience for a future national leader.
Although I often take issue with Tom Barnett's views, it seems to me that the appreciation of complexity and the deep understanding of the necessity of accepting a "good enough" solution when an ideal solution is unavailable, along with the acceptance of life and death responsibility at an age when most young people are more concerned with collecting tunes for their iPods, suggests that we would be a very lucky to have our returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans become politically engaged.