The Higher Patriotism

Tony Perry is The Times' bureau chief in San Diego

In "A Soldier's Duty," a U.S.-military-at-war-with-itself-novel by reporter Thomas E. Ricks, an Army major wonders what most officers will have to show for a lifetime in uniform compared to their famed predecessors: "What would be in the [obituaries] of today's colonels, she wondered, that they had managed the downsizing, or kept the peace in places that no one cared about anymore, where there was no peace as soon as the Americans left?"

At the heart of this briskly paced, engrossing tale of individual maneuvering and institutional agony is the dilemma of the U.S. Army in the post-Cold War era: Buffeted by politics, misunderstood by the media, bereft of a sense of mission and stretched to the limit by its commitments around the world.

This is turf Ricks knows well. He won a Pulitzer Prize as a military reporter for the Wall Street Journal and now covers the same beat for the Washington Post. His 1997 nonfiction book, "Making the Corps," was an insightful look at Marine Corps boot camp. "A Soldier's Duty" picks up where "Making the Corps" left off: with Ricks' interest in how each military service shapes the people who serve in it and whether there is a danger that an all-volunteer force will become detached from the society it is sworn to defend.

The Army of "A Soldier's Duty" is a bulky and "inarticulate" bureaucracy where careerism is rampant and officers talk in strings of acronyms and buzz phrases. Ricks' protagonist, Maj. Cindy Sherman, takes aim at the military-endorsed notion that soldiers should consider themselves "warriors":

"If the U.S. Army is warriors, then it is a separate group, like knights of the Middle Ages, nobles doing battle in shining armor. But we are not individual fighters, and we are not a separate class. We're a team, the American Army. Americans."

Taking a somewhat farfetched premise--that a group of renegade officers would mount an offensive to undermine the commander-in-chief--"A Soldier's Duty" is a story of backstabbing at the Pentagon, duplicity at the White House and a cyberwar waged on the Department of Defense computer system by alienated Army officers calling themselves the Sons of Liberty.

Add violence, sex and humor and you've got a dandy work of military fiction, without the hero-worship and right-wing politics that are the starter dough of much of that genre.

"A Soldier's Duty" asks whether Army officers, particularly high-ranking brass, should shut up and obey when given an order that they know will cost American lives needlessly or whether the higher patriotism is to stop a tragedy in the making, even if it means leaking to the press or stirring up discontent in the ranks. There are some clunky moments. Why did the Air Force computer sleuth have to fit the cliche of the hairy geek with food stains on his shirt? And would that a copy editor had laid down a field of interlocking fire on lines like: "It amazed her sometimes how much painting was like intelligence preparation of the battlefield."

Be prepared: The Washington, D.C. of "A Soldier's Duty" may seem familiar. The president is a conservative bent on reshaping the military. The national security advisor is an academic with no knowledge of the military or appreciation of the human cost of geopolitical brinkmanship. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is a cranky geezer.

And the press? Even when it gets things half right, it gets them half wrong.

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