January 28, 2023

Steven Pressfield’s The Profession

A Can't Do Without Thriller


School guidance counselors didn’t have to ask James Salter the color of his parachute. Blood red had to be the only choice. The Marine general in Steven Pressfield’s new novel The Profession is in charge of Force Insertion, the General Electric of military contractors.  Combine Douglas MacArthur with Jack Welch or Blackwater founder Erik Prince and you get a new thriller from Pressfield that’s set in the future year 2032 but feels like what’s coming next year.

“Probably no commander since Philip of Macedon has so skillfully employed bribery, intimidation and cooptation to achieve his military and political ends. If they gave Ph.D.s in Taking Over Foreign Countries, Salter would be running his own school at Harvard.”

Salter has bigger ambitions than running his own school at Harvard. First the oil fields in the Middle East, and then onto the Middle East’s best customer, an America thrown into chaos by a 2019 dirty bomb attack on Long Beach and a nuclear counterstrike against Iran. Massive demonstrations and radioactive material crippled the conventional military and weakened public support. Into the contaminated dust went the new dogs of war.

“The mercs didn’t care if their nutsacks glowed in the dark; they lined up by the hundreds for the bonuses and incentive pay.”

The success of the mercenary forces turned these dogs of war into the Big Dawg on the block. And none are bigger than General Salter.

The boots on the ground, eyeballs on the target narrator of The Profession is Salter’s right hand man, former Marine colonel Gent who has all of Steven Pressfield’s military knowledge and insight, and his wit.

Gent is sent to recruit “a gentleman named Abu Hassan el-Masri,” and to recruit him CDW- “Can’t Do Without.” The “gentleman” was also a Salter confident, interpreter, and bagman. Gent and el-Masri have this exchange:

“By the way,” he asks me, “you’re not here to kill me, are you?”

No immediate response from Gent and he asks again, “Seriously, are you here to assassinate me?”

“I tell el-Masri I’m not sure his status merits the term ‘assassinate.’”

“I would not hold it against you…”

“I repeat my denial.”

“…in fact, I would respect Salter more if I knew he was operating with such prudence.”

If Gent’s the post-modern operator with the earthy humor and perspective, Salter’s the warrior of ancient times, his words and actions providing the warrior-statesman arc of the novel, his poetic language asking the central question-“Who would be a warrior for hire?”

Salter answers his own question:

“Only a fool or a madman. That’s what I am- and that’s what you are too, brothers, or you wouldn’t be here with me. But there is wisdom to our lunacy- and cunning inside our folly. For war, we have learned, is the crucible within which all that is base and unworthy is purged from our impure and polluted hearts. The god of strife sees to that. I worship him. He is my teacher.”

The questions Salter won’t answer are the ones asked by A.D., the journalist and estranged wife of Gent.  She wrote that Salter’s earned a school at Harvard for taking over foreign countries and compared him to Philip of Macedon. She eventually joins the Salter camp as Gent loses trust in nearly everyone but el-Masri.

The Profession doesn’t read like a novel set that far into the future. Events in the Middle East are rewinding The Profession into the current timeslot as shown on “Trump/CNN,” the network of the future, the future being probably tomorrow.  Wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan are now fought with a combination of high tech military weaponry and private contractors.  The House of Saud is going to be recruiting some Salter’s and Gent’s long before the year 2032.

Erik Prince, the founder of the private security firm Blackwater, has set up a new firm in the United Arab Emirates named Reflex Responses, or R2. Prince, who is called the “Kingfish” over there, uses American Special Forces trainers to train Colombians and other recruits to defend the United Arab Emirates against Iranian threats. It could have come straight from the pages of The Profession. CIA contract employee Raymond Davis made headlines a few months ago when he was arrested in Pakistan for killing two Pakistanis tailing him with the supposed intent to rob him. Davis was actually a Blackwater/Xe hire as were the other CIA contract employees who came to his rescue. Many of the drone attacks in Pakistan are reportedly carried out by private military contractors from Blackwater/Xe.

I had thought Tom Clancy lost it when he wrote a plot about a 747 airliner crashing into the U.S. Capitol building in Debt of Honor. I read all his novels and marveled at his knowledge. But an airliner crashing into the U.S. Capitol building? What kind of plot is that? Then 9/11 happened. That mistake won’t be made with The Profession. Salter’s government in waiting isn’t just a fictional device. Who can say how people will react to a nuclear event , a dirty bomb going off, and the military and political repercussions.  Someone asked a Detroit congressman who gave the Obama administration the authority to fire the CEO of General Motors and seize control of the auto industry. The congressman simply smiled and said he admired the power move.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and into it steps the power men, whether in the Middle East, Russia, or maybe someday America.

Steven Pressfield is known for his great historical novels. He openly admits how he struggled to write a novel set in the future. I’m glad he stuck with it. He’s a master storyteller and The Profession should sail high on the winds of current events, a Can’t Do Without thriller.


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