In Cardiac Gap, I aimed through fiction to highlight how much we have at stake today. The challenges are real; social dislocation borne of things like explosive technological advancement, rising income inequality, and active threats to 21st century democracy. At the same time, so many of us abhor the examples of hate and divisiveness which have come to dominate our public discourse. The novel offers a reminder that the darker things may get, the more important it becomes to find common ground and work together as citizens. As Lincoln said so well, we must appeal to the better angels of our nature.
The books in this article each informed Cardiac Gap in personally meaningful ways. Books on governance and social challenges lent insight as to why our industrial-era government models struggle to adapt in a post-industrial world. In light of this dilemma, might bad actors give up altogether on the nation-state and simply grab what they can for themselves?
But if those were the macro topics, I opted at the micro level to write what I knew – and put special operators into this chaotic future world. As a retired Army Special Forces officer, I’ve had the great privilege to live and work in a tribe of amazing colleagues and friends. I’ve had to sprint just to keep up; had to learn to raise my game beyond what I ever thought possible. The books below on combat arms service and developing excellence each gave insight on how I might possibly explain what it meant to serve with such a cohort.
Finally, I was entering a true “first rodeo” of writing for publication. I needed to work past the excitement, uncertainty and fear – and get to work on the task at hand. The two books at the end each helped demystify the process of writing a novel.
The nature of combat arms service
Airborne Trooper Statue adjacent to the La Fiere bridge in Normandy (Photo source 1)
These first books capture, for me, some core truths of what it means to serve in combat arms units. Success rests on a bedrock of preparation, preparation, and more preparation. Winning armies drill until their formations can maneuver in battle like a single, living organism. This training builds cohesiveness and trust. Cohesiveness breeds the courage for individuals to suppress fear and continue their mission, even under the worst of circumstances. And, all successful militaries have a strong leadership development process. Leaders at every level must exploit fleeting opportunities that appear during the chaos of operations. In the moment of truth, these factors combine to produce smart, aggressive action that can mean the difference between success and failure.
1. Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae – by Steven Pressfield
Stephen Pressfield knocked it out of the park with this 1998 story about the Spartan stand against the Persians at Thermopylae. His storytelling captures timeless lessons about zealous training, rock solid leadership, unwavering unit cohesion, and disciplined execution. Swap the swords and bronze shields for assault rifles and Kevlar body armor, and the book could just a easily describe dynamics inside ground combat formations today. Notice to readers – the book spares few details regarding the brutality of life and warfare in that era. It also glamorizes the
Spartan society in a way that historical consensus doesn’t really support. Regardless, Pressfield presents important observations on soldiering. I read Gates of Fire in late 2002, shortly before departing on my third deployment to Afghanistan. It could not have felt more relevant.
2. The Killer Angels – by Michael Shaara
This book was required reading as an ROTC cadet in college. Michael Shaara spent seven years researching and writing this breakthrough historical novel, which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The Killer Angels spans several days during the Civil War battle at Gettysburg. Shaara highlights the scale of human tragedy that any war produces – a tone I sought to emulate in Cardiac Gap. The story follows discussion and deliberation between key leaders on each side of the fight. In doing so, it highlights where leadership decisions play important roles in the outcome of battles. The book also explores how, in the face of unrelenting tragedy and suffering, soldiers on each side might stay committed to their cause and find solace in their comradeship.
3. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to
Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest – by Stephen E. Ambrose
Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book was a New York Times bestseller. But I have to say, Band of Brothers makes this list more by way of recommending the 2001 miniseries produced by HBO.,
The show received twenty Emmy nominations and won seven. I re-watch the series periodically. Each time it prompts a strong sense of connection with the camaraderie and commitment I felt in my own service. Band of Brothers follows a rifle company in the famed 101st Airborne Division, in the American Army’s World War II progression from mobilization and training, to staging in the UK, to combat drops in Normandy and the fight across the Europe. Like Gates of Fire, the show impeccably captures how highly trained, well led units can have an outsized impact on the battlefield. This show also captures the game-changing value of aggressive, well executed offense – even in the face of superior numbers or an enemy who holds an advantageous position. Paratroopers can defend when necessary. But their specialty is to assault where the enemy least expects it, and wreak havoc.
4. Chancellorsville – by Stephen W. Sears
In this account of the Civil War battle of Chancellorsville, Sears chronicles what many have called Robert E. Lee’s finest example of generalship. Facing a much larger and stronger Union Army, Lee divided his force and launched aggressive flanking attacks. This maneuver violated the long-held principle of massing combat power for greatest effect. But Lee sensed an opportunity to put the Union force back on its heels. The Union Commander, Major General Hooker, faltered at the moment of truth. The South won the battle. In Cardiac Gap, when the main characters confront an untenable tactical situation in the Middle East and divide their force, I drew from the Chancellorsville maneuver as an example.
5. Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu – by Bernard Fall
When I was a young platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division, a mentor in the battalion headquarters had a poster hung on his wall. It showed an American enlisted soldier in field kit facing straight at the camera. He looked dirty and worn out, but determined and ready to shoulder into his next mission. I was always struck by the caption that ran in large bold letters across the image. As I recall, it read, “Staff Officer! Remember that every plan you write must be executed by this man.”
The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu gives stark warning of what happens when planners and senior leaders get it wrong. In 1954, several years into a Vietnamese counterinsurgency campaign, the French military occupied this remote valley in the belief it would draw their enemy into a decisive defeat. Instead, Viet Minh General Giap employed masterful stealth and siege tactics to strangle and crush the French strong point. This defeat led to a French retreat from Indochina as part of their colonial decline. Bernard Fall was a gifted writer whose 1966 book provided the first comprehensive account of the engagement. He died in Vietnam the following year, while serving as a war correspondent.
Governance in a fast changing world
Cuban Missile Crisis Map (Photo source 2)
Most of us wrestle with a world changing in unprecedented speed and scope. Of course, the world has seen great periods of reinvention before. The Roman empire brought social and technological disruption to Europe. The 17th century Scientific Revolution and 19th century Industrial Revolution each paved the way for amazing advancements in the 20th century. But these changes can sound quaint compared to the potential disruption we see on the horizon. The central characters in Cardiac Gap struggle to cope with and make sense of this unrelenting
6. Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation – by Tyler
This 2013 book covers a topic important to every advanced economy: the hollowing outof the middle class and rising income inequality. Cowen’s account looks specifically at the role of technology and the rise of artificial intelligence. He lays out why these trends amplify the gap between the few at the top whose income grows higher and faster, and the remainder whose wages stay flat or fall in aggregate (even during times of economic growth). He advocates how future workers can maintain relevance by leveraging these technology tools. But I have to say, overall it paints a pretty bleak picture. I thought about Cowen’s book when crafting an economic collapse in Cardiac Gap.
7. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine – by Michael Lewis
I’m hardly alone among writers in considering Michael Lewis a role model. He has an uncanny ability to explain complex topics with digestible and captivating narrative. He finds compelling, usually unknown characters who live at the center of big issues, and he follows their personal experience as a way of explaining the whole. In this case, Lewis teases out the human frailty and greed that fueled the late 2000’s housing bubble and recession. He spotlights where numerous executives at US financial institutions were in a position to see structural flaws in the sub-prime real estate market. But too many viewed it as an opportunity to make money, or in other cases felt it was too big for them to stop. It also begs an age-old question when studying organizational failure: how do you get those at ground level, who identify such problems, in contact with those who have influence and who might head off disaster?
8. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (2nd Edition) – by Graham
Allison and Philip Zelikow
Essence of Decision is a political science classic. First published in 1971, the authors applythe Cuban Missile Crisis as a model to show where different components of a large government can work against each other. They start with the assumption (at least in the 1970s) of a rational actor model. This model takes as a given that lawmakers and leaders study problems and apply logical solutions. Debunking this as the norm, they apply two other models. The organizational behavior model illustrates where institutional interests can and do take on lives of their own. Another model, government politics, delineates where elected officials and senior leaders can take on priorities and incentives wholly different from the organizations they represent. Cardiac Gap takes this model of fractured incentives to an entirely new level – we don’t realize until to late that the antagonist has abandoned the best interests of those under his charge.
9. The Best and the Brightest – by David Halberstam
Halberstam gives a lucid account of the quicksand we entered in Vietnam. Focusing on the early 1960’s, The Best and the Brightest can, at times, make our entry into that conflict feel inevitable. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations, not wanting political charges of being soft on communism, felt compelled to incrementally raise the stakes. The US military, organizationally geared toward large scale conflict in Europe, took too long to understand the nature of the counterinsurgency it faced. And a larger message echoes today’s Afghanistan fight: after many years invested and with no clear path to victory, our country seems to most often stay involved not with a sense of surety, but out of a sense of obligation to make good on the sunk costs.
10. The Third World Security Predicament: State Making, Regional Conflict, and the
International System (Emerging Global Issues) – by Mohammed Ayoob
My first Special Forces deployment was to Haiti in the mid 1990s. A military coup had deposed Jean-Bertrand Arisitide – Haiti’s democratically elected president – a few years before. The situation had only worsened since. Under threat of US invasion, the military regime agreed to step down and accept multinational peacekeepers who would oversee a return to elective government.
I was in Special Forces training during the initial US military deployments. I would join my assigned team already down there. I did, however, have a chance to meet my Team Sergeant who was home for several weeks before returning to the island nation. Eager for my first Special Forces mission, I asked him what final preparations I should make before flying down there. He had only one piece of advice. Find a high school civics textbook, he said. We’d be rebuilding a society, and that would be our road map. That advice was spot on, and it always stuck with me. The wars of the 21st century involve issues of governance and society as much as they are about combatants clashing in direct conflict. Ayoob’s book can get pretty dense with information. But it covers dynamics in the developing world which today seem to apply more broadly. He explains how, in many developing countries, a small slice of elite population holds on to the vast majority of wealth and resource rights. In these “rentier states,” the elites derive most of their wealth from the mere fact of being in charge. They profit from the sale of resources to external customers. And for their customers – i.e. the developed world – there is incentive not to interfere or complain about government repression in the rentier countries. It creates a transactional cycle that allows repressive regimes to stay in power.
This begs a troubling question for a future America. As economic class mobility slows, and the tech economy crowns fewer winners at the top of a very steep pyramid, access to investment capital becomes the ultimate resource. What happens in America if there are simply no longer enough liveable-wage professions to go around? What happens if the economic elite are permanently perched at the top, with everyone else permanently held down? That’s a central question that Cardiac Gap aimed to explore.
11. The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy – by
Rodrik’s 2011 book paints his belief that modern democracy cannot survive in today’s world of hyper globalization. He believes the financial winners in a global economy have incentives that run counter to the best interest of democratic nation states and their citizens. Rodrik goes so far as to recommend a new evolution into a globally unified democratic government. Personally, I neither endorse that nor believe it’s even remotely plausible. But, Cardiac Gap looks at global unification in a different way: What happens if the top 1% do fully abandon faith in the nation state? Would the powerful in America ever openly work with a foreign military, to safeguard their place at the top?
Steve Prefontaine (Photo source 3)
This section is a spinoff from the section on combat arms service. Of course, “developing excellence” applies to the military and to special operations. But in any profession, it helps to study entirely different areas where people perform at the highest levels. Common traits shine through. Standout excellence in anything takes exacting work and years of dedication. It often comes at great price, and – along the way – people and organizations can rise above themselves in ways that feel magical. I had the privilege to chase excellence in several different units over the years. It gave great pleasure to read each of these books for inspiration.
12. Apollo: The Race to the Moon – by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox.
Our country achieved mind bending technology gains during the space race. The Saturn V rocket that powered Apollo contained more than 3 million parts in 700,000 working components. Each part required exquisite production tolerances and painstaking testing. Work flow spanned from coast to coast and integrated the efforts of an estimated 400,000 people. Most histories of Apollo focus on the astronauts. I like this book because it brings to life the fascinating story of the scientists, engineers, and leaders who built the amazing machines. And it carries a great corollary to the modern military. The fighter pilot, the special operator on the ground, the high-profile commander; they understandably receive the lion’s share of fascination and credit. But with the complexity of modern operations, these individuals represent just a small fragment of the whole. It’s an entire team, including analysts, support specialists – you name it – working in collaboration toward something bigger than themselves.
13. The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. – By Daniel Coyle
I had the chance to meet Dan Coyle in the fall of 2010 at Fort Campbell, KY. A fellow commander in 5th Special Forces Group had read The Talent Code and invited him to visit and speak. Coyle studied common approaches to talent building in sports like tennis, baseball and soccer, and both vocal and instrumental music. From these case studies, Coyle found a universal “deep practice.” This is the ignition threshold to achieve greatness. He also saw the outsized impact that master coaches can bring to individual and group performance. The principles he identified compare quite well with the traits that distinguish great soldiers and great units.
14. Bowerman and the Men of Oregon – by Kenny Moore.
Kenny Moore had a front row seat for the writing of this book. He ran for Bill Bowerman and twice broke the American marathon record. Few people have shaped the modern American fitness landscape more than Bowerman. For 24 years, he coached the powerhouse University of Oregon men’s track team. His runners won four national team titles, set 13 world records and 22 American records. Bowerman created innovative track shoes, co-founded Nike, and along the way helped foster the 1970’s running and fitness boom. Steve Prefontaine, pictured at the start of this section, was one of Bowerman’s brightest stars. Prefontaine died tragically young in a car accident, and his life offers its own study in the pursuit of excellence. I like this book because it captures relationships between Bowerman and many of the great runners in that era. Together they made each other better. It reminds me how peers in the special operations community forced me to raise my own game time and again.
Developing a Writing Practice
Soldiers in Texas writing home, 1914” (Photo source 4)
An early inspiration to someday write for publication came from Dr. Jay Luvaas. He was a leading historian on the Civil War and taught generations of American military officers. In 1992 Luvaas led our cohort of officers from the 82nd Airborne Division on a battlefield tour of Gettysburg. We flew from Fort Bragg and made a dusk parachute jump into a farmer’s plot just off the park grounds. Viewing the landscape under canopy, it struck a chord that tied our modern service with the lessons we would study on that trip. Luvaas’ style reinforced this. In his mid 60’s
at the time, he led us on foot through the most difficult sections of Devil’s Den and the approach march to Little Round Top. Luvaas never served in the military, but he demonstrated an expert’s eye for terrain that made us young leaders take notice. He also described his view that deep reading and focused writing were central to military leadership. The reading, he advised, would allow us to greatly expand our world view. And writing would force us to synthesize ideas and bring coherence to our thoughts. I was hooked on the idea ever since.
15. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – by Stephen King.
King’s book is a master class from one of our iconic modern storytellers. I hung on every word from the 2000 edition. The early pages serve more as memoir than instruction book. Early 1 2 chapters give the reader an appreciation for King’s dexterity with the English language. The book then progresses to his philosophy and practices on writing as a craft. Here I kept a mechanical pencil by my side, and rarely went more than a page without finding something to circle or annotate.
16. The Extreme Novelist: The No-Time-to-Write Method for Drafting Your Novel in 8
Weeks – by Kathryn Johnson.
Full disclosure – Kathryn is my writing coach for fiction and served as the primary editor on Cardiac Gap. Meaning I’m hardly an unbiased source here. Regardless, The Extreme Novelist is a great companion to Stephen King’s book. King’s lessons proceed on a very conversational style; almost as if we’ve joined him on a summer afternoon walk in Maine. With Kathryn’s book we get a road map. She breaks into specific components such as plot and character development, pacing, good endings, and revision. Her detailed discussion builds well on the broad concepts and principles from Stephen King’s book.
Author Photo, 2012.
Photo 2: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9e/Cuban_crisis_map_missile_range.jpg
“Cuban crisis map missile range,” Wikimedia commons public domain document.
Associated Press: Steve Prefontaine in Portland, Ore., Jan. 29, 1973, at the Oregon Invitational Indoor Track and Field Meet.
Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection, 1914, LCCN 2009631306 tif #1,167/ 41,443, Wikimedia commons public domain document.