September 18, 2021

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.


Lee Child’s Jack Reacher

Lee Child

Memorial Weekend is over and it’s back to work for everyone except the soldiers and institution everyone praised on their way to the golf course and beach. The military was already back to work, with eight soldiers killed in Afghanistan over Memorial Weekend.  The military doesn’t get weekends off, and going to the beach means Normandy for the World War Two vets.  Neville Chamberlain had asked Hitler to cancel the picnic. Hitler refused and the Brits sent Churchill in his place. The Allied soldiers were the ants at Hitler’s picnic. The rest is history that we celebrated this past weekend.

What’s really worth dying and living for was the agenda for Memorial Day, and for every day.

Lee Child’s Worth Dying For is the 13th of 14 books in the Jack Reacher series. Child’s 14th is 61 Hours, with a review here in Esquire, asking if American fiction is killing the tough guy. Not if Jack Reacher is still around.

Jack Reacher has some rules for living and dying, unless he’s in a fight. When in a fight, Reacher has no rules other than to win, explaining his streak of going without a broken nose. It’s his way of saying he’s still standing.

Nothing is really worth living for unless the day begins with coffee. I can’t argue about the day beginning with coffee. Not that I’d ever want to argue with Jack Reacher about anything. When Reacher asks for coffee, he means the real stuff, black and strong. The coffee can burn a hole in a sewer pipe but that’s okay. Reacher’s got a strong stomach for a lot of things and he can handle the hard stuff in a coffee mug. Like a real pro, equipment is everything and to Reacher, the coffee mug is as important, if  not more so, than the coffee. Reacher is not a Starbucks kind of guy. Certainly not tea,  especially not green tea, and God forbid, decaf anything. Reacher has been fighting since he was five years old. Concern for his health comes from his fists, and attention to detail, not tea bags.

Now, about that broken nose. Everyone is going to get one, metaphorically speaking. It comes from letting your guard down, believing the hype, thinking you’re all that because you conquered or vanquished an enemy or opposition of some kind. But every day is a new day. The situation has changed, and so has the enemy or opposition. Coffee and situational awareness, paying attention to the little details, the change in rules, if there are any rules in this fight, ignoring the plaudits from your coaches, teachers, cheerleaders, fans, friends, employer, and study the new landscape in front of you.

Jim Tressel and Ohio State just got a broken nose for NCAA infractions. He sure fooled me with the sweater vest. Reacher comes down hard on the football guys in Worth Dying For. For the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Worth Dying For, beating Reacher is a hell of a lot tougher than beating Oklahoma. It’s that hangup about rules, traditional way of doing things, asking why. Don’t ever ask why or worry about the rules when in a fight with Reacher.  Worry about your nose. Everyone gets the broken nose. It’s only a matter of time. Or as Jack Reacher would say, a matter of human nature. If you’re human and I’m assuming Google’s unique visitors is counting only humans, your CRACK (!) is coming, if it hasn’t already. False confidence is a dangerous thing, and a very human thing.

Don’t waste good food. That’s a way of saying make something of yourself and your life. Turn your life into something worth living and dying for. If you’re going to eat something good, do something good. Reacher doesn’t eat the fancy meals, but he appreciates the importance of a full stomach. Fighting and killing someone on an empty stomach is just more aggravation.

Cases go cold, not your heart. Reacher operates in a lot of cold, lonely environments, and with people who have given up on themselves. They’ve accepted their fate, the learned helplessness. Reacher is a big guy, all of six five, and has a bigger heart. If Reacher has a cold heart, it’s because he’s dead. Reacher won’t ever die. He might fade away into some literary rocking chair in the sky, but if Child decides to knock him off, it’ll be Armageddon time for all of us.

Don’t try to take all the glory for yourself. Reacher buried a lot of bad guys who tried to go it alone against him, wanting to impress their bosses. Each of them thinks they’re the invincible one in the group. Reacher breaks their egos with their legs.

The earth listens. You may think no one is watching, but the earth still listens. Mother Nature gets more respect than human nature. The harsh setting of the Nebraska landscape in Worth Dying For reminds me of this quote by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

“Nature understands no jesting. She is always true, always serious, always severe. She is always right, and the errors are always those of man.”

Those Nebraska football players make a lot of errors against Reacher. They need to add a military cop to the coaching staff.

Everyone has a “barn.” That place where you think your bad behavior is safe from public viewing. It’s that human nature thing, as Jack Reacher would say. Jim Tressel’s barn door was just opened. It’s better to just let the old barns rot and collapse into the earth.

The British author said he named his character Jack Reacher because people in grocery stores kept asking him for help reaching items on the top shelf. His wife said if writing didn’t work out, he could become a “reacher.”

His writing is working out. Fourteen Jack Reacher books and Lee Child is still standing.



Dietrich Bonhoeffer and bin Laden

The death toll of the suicide bombing in Pakistan is now at 89, and the Pakistan parliament has passed a resolution condemning the raid. Many Christian groups in the West have also criticized the celebration of bin Laden’s death, if not the military operation itself. Bin Laden’s death and the different reactions around the world to it underscore the moral ambiguity of war, and assassination.

The best-selling biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas echoes much of what is being debated about bin Laden. When is assassination morally justified? The publisher Thomas Nelson has a very good YouTube video about Metaxas’s book which won Christian book of the year. The Christian Post has a good story on Eric Metaxas, and what motivated him to write about Bonhoeffer, and a previous book on Wilberforce. Kathryn Jean Lopez has a “Bonhoeffer Yes We Can” column in the National Review.

Here’s an interview with a 9/11 widow about the death of bin Laden and the cheering of his demise. She says Jesus isn’t cheering bin Laden’s death, nor can she cheer the death of a man who is going to burn in hell for what he has done. My own feeling is that bin Laden got exactly what he deserved, and needed. The victory tour by politicians needs to wrap up since it wasn’t that long ago that they were trying to prosecute some Navy SEAL commandos in Iraq for punching a terrorist in the nose. Bin Laden’s death is like putting an animal with rabies to sleep.

An Archbishop mocks the premier religious think tank in England for their condemnation of the bin Laden “murder.”

There’s also Philip Kennicott’s 2003 Washington Post essay  “Thou Shalt Kill” on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the parable of the theologian who decided Hitler had to die:

“Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German cleric and theologian, considered the Hitler question not in the abstract, but in the most real and direct way. As a quiet member of a well-heeled resistance cell that plotted to kill the Nazi dictator, he grappled with the moral and theological implications of using violence to stop violence. ”

News stories have an insatiable supply of violence, acts of terrorism, murder, torture, and death. In the words of John Donne, “Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men” decide “thou shalt die.”

John Donne, Divine Sonnet X

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

British actress Emma Thompson on John Donne…

“Now is the time for kindness”



In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Beauty will Save the World” Nobel lecture on literature, he writes:

“Dostoyevsky once let drop the enigmatic phrase: ‘Beauty will save the world.’ What does this mean? For a long time it used to seem to me that this was a mere phrase. Just how could such a thing be possible? When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything? Beauty had provided embellishment certainly, given uplift—but whom had it ever saved?”

It will save us, he says.



Steven Pressfield’s “Do the Work!”


Seth Godin doesn’t look much like Magic Johnson but he sure is playing like Magic. There’s something really special about those people who like to pass the ball and take pride in making their teammates better. That was the gift of Magic Johnson, and it’s what’s setting Seth Godin and the Domino Project apart from everyone else.

Out here in the rust belt the good ideas really do matter. We’re playing for keeps. Thanks to the Domino Project, Steven Pressfield’s “Do the Work!” is out as a followup to his “War of Art” and the central theme attacks again the need to overcome resistance and get out of your own way.

In Eric Greiten’s “The Heart and the Fist,” he tells the story of crossing the equator. I loved the Navy chaplain’s quote about the importance of believing. There’s an equator in our heads, a line of resistance that everyone has to cross emotionally if they are going to go all in. That “crossing the line” is what Pressfield means when he describes the voice of Resistance.

When you come from a city (Flint, MI) the New York Times just described as more violent than Baghdad, this enemy called Resistance isn’t some high concept stuff for screenwriters with writer’s block. My job requires that I drive around 40,000 miles a year and what I see in the big cities and small towns is at times just ruinous.

Pressfield writes that “Resistance is a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”

Then he adds: “Resistance will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine millimeter in your face like a stickup man.”

“Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.”

Isn’t that the truth.

We had a project at Nielsen where we had to track customers as they shopped through the stores. One of the stores selected as a sample was a store in Flint and another was fifty miles away in a growing suburb. We were to track customers as they moved around the stores for twelve hours a day, seven days a week, all year round. As the project progressed and costs increased, sample stores were continually dropped from the list. By the end of the project, the Flint store was one of only a few on the list that was still being observed twelve hours a day, seven days a week. A choice of stores nationwide and this store in a town described as more dangerous than Baghdad stays on the list all the way to the finish.

So what was the difference between the Flint store and the store in the growing suburb?

The same as it is everywhere there is defeat and victory. Where there’s defeat, the You Suck Voice, as Pressfield explains it, is howling. In Flint, it was HOWLING.

Pressfield writes: “The last thing we want is to remain where we are.”

In the defeated neighborhoods, people are pummeled to stay where they are. The only “trainers” in their corner are the liquor store clerks (as the NY Times reporter noticed) and the lottery reps (which the reporter failed to notice).

Nielsen’s Claritas devised several social groups based on demographics and one of the social groups for Flint is Micro-City Blues. “Surveys show they excel in going to movies, playing basketball, and shooting pool.”

The most positive spin on succumbing to Resistance ever written.

On her show, Rachel Maddow talked about a controversy in Benton Harbor, Michigan and she noted the beauty of Lake Michigan just a short distance away from this hard hit area. That’s the amazing thing about Benton Harbor. You’re driving through a very destitute, down on its luck area, the You Suck Voice just screaming through the boarded up homes and abandoned buildings, and suddenly wham! You’re looking at this incredible beauty of Lake Michigan staring right back at you through the windshield. You’re thinking, wow, how did that happen?

Resistance is strongest at the finish. Some of the most hard hit areas are right at the finish line, right at shore of some of the most beautiful scenery in the country.

On the opposite end of the state, right on the tip of the thumb, is another store we do for Nielsen. A girl with an obvious disability came in while I was there and she bought several lottery tickets with I assumed to be money from a disability check. Instead of leaving the store, she stood right there in front of everyone and scratched off one losing ticket after another, her disabled brain trying to compute “loser, loser, loser” with each scratch off.

Shortly after she left, in came the state lottery rep with a “sell, sell, sell” sales pitch. There was an exclamation point to his message, like Pressfield’s “Do the Work!.” Only his message was You Suck. I left the store and went only a few yards to the finish line and took this picture. Both Steven Pressfield and Seth Godin say ship it. Your ship isn’t in this picture. Only a lighthouse. The ship’s inside you.



Eric Greitens: the Pugilist at Best


Thom Jones’s “The Pugilist at Rest” is a brilliant collection of short stories describing pain and mortality, fighting and overcoming fear.  When looking at the Roman statue, Jones describes the “suggestion of weariness and philosophical resignation” reminding him of Shakespeare’s famous line that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Jones writes, “The world is replete with badness.”


In a world replete with badness, an All-Star player named Eric Greitens has just written “The Heart and the Fist,” describing his accounts on the world stage. Greitens is a graduate of Duke, Rhodes Scholar, Golden Gloves boxer, Navy SEAL, and came back from the war zones to establish his foundation The Mission Continues. From the refugee camps around the world to terrorist strongholds, Greitens, all before the age of 40, has witnessed firsthand what most of us just watch on the news.

While the headline hotspots are promoted to help sell his story, the best parts of “The Heart and the Fist” are in depicting the ordinary struggles. Greitens has done so much, there’s a feeling of being rushed from one headline to another lest the publisher leave something out. He could have easily doubled the length of the book and still left readers asking for more. Hopefully Greitens will write more. The warrior and humanitarian in Greitens have the top billing but in reading “The Heart and the Fist” you get the sense he is foremost a teacher.

In “The Pugilist at Rest,” Jones writes that “Jack Dempsey used to get so scared before his fights that he sometimes wet his pants.” In “The Heart and the Fist,” Greitens writes of SEALs who were shaking in fear at the start of their training yet qualified while those with the false bravado fell.

The most profound insights from “The Heart and the Fist” don’t always come from something that happened in Iraq or Afghanistan or what the headline writers would anticipate. Some of the best passages come from his boxing days at Duke, and his trainer, Earl Blair.  Another passage depicts Officer Candidate School and the drill instructor giving a recruit named Wong much grief that made me burst out laughing.

“Wong, have you ever played a goddarn sport in your life?!”

“Yes, sir!”

“Really?” the drill instructor asked. “What sport did you play?”

“Football, sir!”

“Really, Wong, you played football? What position did you play?”

“It was John Madden Football, sir!”

The Navy has a tradition for “crossing the line” from a wog to a shellback. When a sailor crosses the equator, he leaves behind that lowly “wog” status and is now officially a “shellback.” Greitens was commander of a Mark V special operations craft in Southeast Asia. All that esteemed education he acquired at Duke and Oxford, relief work in Rwanda, Croatia, Calcutta, earning a spot with the SEALs, didn’t help him shed the wog label. The SEALs who were still wogs had to cross the equator. And being SEALs, they decided to swim. They discovered the current was too strong to swim. The SEALs who were shellbacks wouldn’t let them in the Mark Vs and tossed them ropes to drag the wogs across the equator.

They had asked a chaplain to join them. After successfully crossing the equator, the chaplain had them bow their heads and said, “This has been a wonderful day, and we have fulfilled a great Navy tradition in the best possible way. I also believe crossing the equator like this demonstrates that sometimes you first have to believe in something to make it real.”

Eric Greitens is a true believer.


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