The literary landscape is littered with ex-military types trying to be the next Tom Clancy, with only a few - such as James W. Huston, Ralph Peters and Chris Stewart - doing first-rate work. In general, military officers have had the creativity beaten out of their writing by years of mind-numbing paperwork. I had already slogged through too many 400 page sit-reps masquerading as novels when I came across Man in the Middle, by Brian Haig, a retired Army officer--and son of Reagan's former Secretary of State, General Alexander Haig. I assumed it would be too establishment-bound to be any fun. Boy, was I wrong -- you really can't judge a book by its author's cover story.
Haig's hero, Sean Drummond, is a JAG lawyer with a black ops Special Forces background. He's an amalgam of TV heroes Harmon Rabb and Jack Bauer, with a mouth that's all Philip Marlowe. There's more irreverent humor in a typical chapter than you might think existed in the entire Haig family.
Man in the Middle begins as the 2004 presidential campaign is in full swing, and the Marines are about to retake Fallujah. Drummond, who is on loan from the Army to the CIA, is ordered to investigate the death of Clifford Daniels,a prominent Department of Defense official who apparently committed suicide in a particularly kinky manner.
Daniels was about to testify before a congressional committee about intelligence matters in the run-up to the Iraq War. He also was the government's main link to Mahmoud Charabi (a thinly veiled stand-in for Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress), the leader of an Iraqi exile group that lobbied Washington for years to oust Saddam Hussein.
With Drummond on the case is Bian Tran, a sexy Vietnamese-American JAG officer who can match him wisecrack for wisecrack. When Tran and Drummond conclude Daniels was assassinated, (surprise, surprise) they form a team of sorts as the only soldiers in the mix of FBI and D.C. police investigators.
For a while, readers might think someone needs to jump in and declare, "I'm in charge, here" as the plot meanders around Washington, and various witnesses give their theories on how we got into the Iraq War, and the mysterious Charabi's role in it.
Drummond describes the Washington scene as teeming with "thousands of these expat revolutionaries in the wings . all vying to get on Uncle Sam's to-do list." His explanation of why this is could easily have been drawn from Robert Kagan's latest book Dangerous Nation: "[I]t's clear what draws these galvanized exiles to our shores: our unimaginable power, and their deplorable lack of it; our 'light on the shining hill mentality, and their fingers pointed at dark places; our uniquely American sense of can-do compassion, and their desire, no matter how selfless, to exploit it. Indeed, America has a grand record of knocking over other nations, even if our history of installing lasting new regimes is a bit checkered. Plus, I suppose it's hard these days to find a great power willing to kick a little butt for a righteous cause."
Haig mixes fact with fiction - sometime awkwardly - as Drummond and Tran investigate the notion that Charabi (as has been alleged with Chalabi) has ties that are too cozy with Iran and may have traded American intelligence secrets for his own ends. But the plot takes off when it turns out that an al Qaeda financier whom a black ops unit is chasing in Fallujah may have the scoop on Charabi's guilt or innocence. Since our heroes have the necessary background for the operation - Drummond as a Special Forces operator and Tran as a intelligence officer recently returned from Iraq - the need to keep the interrogation concerning Charabi as secret as possible means they are given charge of the mission to capture the terrorist.
Drummond and Tran are plunged into a war zone within the war zone of CIA paramilitary teams, Saudi allies with mysterious agendas and even American agencies whose conflicting visions of what the outcome in Iraq should be. Drummond also must examine whether his personal ethics and his lawyerly training have any place in a fight against terrorists. It also becomes obvious that for Tran, who suffered loss in her tour of duty in Iraq, there is an emotional stake in victory that even the patriotic Drummond can't match and is thus willing to go farther than he is.
Man in the Middle is not without its faults. It takes too long to get going, some of the heroes' sarcastic banter is forced and out of place, and the ways Haig maneuvers the plot to cover every argument about the war in Iraq sometimes are a little too obvious.
On the other hand, Haig does expose the media and antiwar politicians' preoccupations with the reasons for the war, discussions of mistaken tactics or future war plans, and attempts to find scapegoats for every failure, as irrelevant dangerous grandstanding without good motive.
Haig uses the device of characters who aren't wild about the war in Iraq -- and are even a little pessimistic - to demolish the notion that one can be for the troops and against the mission. For all practical purposes, it doesn't matter how we got here, he finally reasons -- what matters is what we leave behind. The one parallel Haig draws with Vietnam is the tragedy of what happened in its aftermath, and he makes a persuasive case that the jihadis are even more bloodthirsty and brutal than the North Vietnamese victors who rolled over the South when we cut and walked.
Drummond's boss, a woman who has been at the CIA since before it was the CIA, takes a crack at the idiocy of critics and members of Congress who want transparency during war - and especially those who want wartime mistakes publicly examined while the conflict is still going on:
"I've been in this agency or its predecessor through seven or eight wars. World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, two Gulf wars - fill in the blanks. Were you to closely scrutinize any of these wars, were you to look past the sepia-tinted memories and turn over all the rocks in this town, you would discover a dismaying array of bad decisions, mistakes, misimpressions, incompetence and, in a few cases, outright lunacy. Many tens of thousands of lives were wasted. The historians know barely a quarter of it. . Bad things happen in wars, and had those things become exposed to the public during those wars, our history books might… well, they would look quite different."
Haig worries that the battle may not be between the forces of Islamic radicalism and Islamic moderation - if the latter even exists - but a sectarian conflict between Shiites and Sunnis that extends far beyond Iraq. The book was written before current reports that the Saudis would back the Sunnis in their civil war if we left Iraq and the recent evidence of Iranian involvement with Shiite militias, but both play a part in his prescient plot.
Drummond is not able to completely solve the riddle of Charabi/Chalabi, whose enigmatic presence is still a source of controversy even among pro-victory forces. But even the closest of allies seldom have identical agendas. As Drummond is forced to admit, who wouldn't lie to rescue his country from Saddam Hussein? If soldiers kill to save their country -- why not lie to save it?
Ultimately, the heart of a Brian Haig book is not about geopolitics, it's about the soldier on the frontlines of freedom. Drummond finds that while he is skeptical of the whole Iraq enterprise and many Americans, egged on by political naysayers, have tired of it, there is a reason why re-enlistment rates are highest in combat units. To really "support the troops" is to support their mission. Drummon reflects, "War, they say, is supposed to be the extension of politics by other means; for those who are fighting it, though, and for those who love them, it becomes an affair not of the mind but of the heart."