A review of Steven Pressfield’s The Profession

(Spoiler free!)

I’ve read most of Steven Pressfield‘s books, and The Afghan Campaign was the one that really made me realize that we couldn’t win in Afghanistan.  I had no idea that the tribes had been around since before Alexander’s time, and if Alexander, the British, and the Soviets couldn’t subdue them, how would we?

Since then I’ve followed Mr. Pressfield’s blog where he discussed the tribes and how an understanding of those tribal groups was a key to the fight in AfPak.  I looked forward to reading his newest novel, The Profession, because it combined three things that I have an interest in: the classics, futuring, and modern warfare.

By 2032, most land warfare is fought by mercenaries.  These range from Marine MEU-sized groups complete with logistical support such as intelligence and communications to Apache helicopters owned and operated by individuals.  Most of the action in this book takes place in the Middle East and the United States.  The events in the book cover the gamut from the tactical level – ambushes and so on – to the geostrategic level.

The story is well done, and I did get a pretty good feel for the characters.  There’s enough action to keep things moving but Pressfield also gives a sense of the geopolitical background and the history that has led to this world.  The book excels in portraying the brotherhood between warriors – the knowledge that above all else you are fighting for the man beside you.  You are left with no doubt that these men would die for each other.  Pressfield also does a good job of portraying what it takes to lead such men, at least in the character of Gentilhomme.  I also liked how he worked in quotes from and references to the classics such as Thucydides, Alexander, Xenophon, and others.

As for the geopolitics, personally, I hope Pressfield’s wrong about this becoming a world where nations and corporations hire their armies to do their dirty work.  One of the complaints I have about the book is that mercenaries are portrayed as honorable – in real life, some are, but many aren’t.  For example, in the Sudan, it has been noted that:

“among those in the counterinsurgency accused of war crimes were “foreign army officers acting in their personal capacity” – that is, mercenaries, presumably recruited from armed forces outside Sudan.  The involvement of mercenaries in perpetrating gross violence has also been seen…in Iraq.”(1)

Another thing that disturbed me – although I think Pressfield’s portrayal is spot on – was the utter amorailty of the characters.  For the most part, each one seemed to feel that the ends justified the means and it seemed many of them had values that changed with their circumstances.  As one of the characters notes, this is how things are done in 75% of the world.  My question is, if we abandon what makes us the other 25%, what makes us any different than those we fight?  It’s a tough question and I certainly don’t have the answer.  For a mercenary, it’s probably not as big an issue.

I was also interested in how much this reminded me of the Hammer’s Slammers series by David Drake – I wonder if Mr. Pressfield is aware of that series, which has a tank regiment of mercenaries that is employed by different groups on other planets to fight – you guessed it – other mercenary armies, and often is based on historical themes such as the odyssey or Xenophon.  A collaboration by these two authors would be outstanding (hint, hint)!

Overall, this was a good if disturbing read, and I highly recommend it.

(1) Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror – Mahmood Mamdani, Pantheon Books, NY, NY 2009. p.43.