Tradpub Thriller Idea, Character Sketch #2: Captain Derek Reed

Okay, I buried the lead by going with Jeremiah first. The whole hook of the story is the generational divide, and I should have started with the younger characters. But nothing flows, story wise, until we have the knowledge about the effect of the protease inhibitors on the new virus – Jeremiah has to see it first, then Senator Solange Pierre gets wise to it, then Captain Reed has to act on, or against, orders based on that knowledge. All the same, that’s what a developmental edit is for, and I’m sure my soon-to-be-editor-at-a-major-publishing-house will help me out there!

If there’s any institution in America that provides a compelling argument for lopping off everyone over 50, it’s the United States military, whose promotional system is based more on seniority than competence. There’s no fast-tracking brilliant young officers to command, and, worse, the brilliant and the stupid are promoted at equal rates. Which is one of the reasons that our best and brightest young officers have been leaving the military in droves for years, and the gerontocracy in the Pentagon and Congress have spent years moving heaven and earth to stop any initiatives to change that.

Captain Derek Reed is the product of years of reading for other projects. I started reading about Special Forces for my Sam and Derek stories (yes, I even research my erotica), and I became fascinated by the “skunkworks” nature of SF, an army within the Army, selecting its own weapons, managing its own battle plans, doing what a massive lumbering organization can’t. And then, for my Adam Vance science fiction stories, I started thinking about the efficiency of small operational groups in general, whether as special forces or guerrillas. And counterinsurgency was an eye-opener to me, the way the Surge was conducted against all prevailing military wisdom: don’t stay behind the walls, where you remain the faceless enemy – work and live in the community and address local issues; work with existing power structures rather than “spreadin’ freedom” by trying to replace tribal cultures with an individualistic Western system; be pragmatic – you can spend money on munitions, supply chain, medical care for injured troops, and accomplish nothing, or you can pay people not to kill you, and not to support the killers.

The thing that made me shake my head was how much resistance smart, resourceful young men and women in the armed forces met from their superiors. I think the most telling story is from the conquest of Afghanistan – a handful of men took down the Taliban, adapting to local conditions, growing the beards that the locals saw as marks of manhood…and when one of the generals back home saw a photo of a grinning, triumphant operator celebrating America’s fastest victory, all he could say was “Order that man to shave his beard!”

To frame our idealistic captain’s disillusionment and exit from the military, I’m going to use the history of the “Force of the Future” initiative discussed in the links above. That first Atlantic story linked above was from five years ago, a survey of West Point graduates in which “an astonishing 93 percent believed that half or more of ‘the best officers leave the military early rather than serving a full career.’”

[T]he reason overwhelmingly cited by veterans and active-duty officers alike is that the military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command. Promotions can be anticipated almost to the day— regardless of an officer’s competence—so that there is essentially no difference in rank among officers the same age, even after 15 years of service.

Imagine if every slacker and lackwit in your office got a promotion the same day you did. What would that do to your sense of dedication, to your confidence in the mission?

And those who’ve left for other pastures don’t do it because of the money, nearly as often as they do it because the military as an institution has left no place for them to go other than to be herded into a narrow career path. The article’s author contrasts the sclerotic hierarchy of the military with Silicon Valley, where your rise or fall is about competence. He ends the article with this conversation with a former Marine officer, now a tech manager. In tech, “engineers rule,” that is, the doers do and management is there to assist.

I asked Smith—a supremely tech-savvy, gung-ho leader—whether he would consider rejoining if the Marines recruited him to serve as a general officer, perhaps to command their cyber-security efforts. I anticipated that his resolute willingness to serve would offer a vivid contrast to the military’s closed-mindedness. But he surprised me. He thought quietly for a minute. Then, shaking his head, he said something much more damning: “I can’t see it,” the Silicon Valley marine said. “Even if they made that offer … I have no confidence that I could pierce the bureaucracy.”

That was five years ago. Five years later, Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s “Force of the Future” initiative, intent on demolishing some of the reasons the Best and Brightest are leaving, has been obstructed by Congress. One of the prime examples of idiocy FOTF is trying to overcome is the obstacles to active duty military members going to civilian grad school. Here’s the example of Super Cobra pilot Katey van Dam.

Van Dam also yearned to be back in an academic environment—her job at TBS was highly rewarding, but a long way from her goal of eventually getting an advanced degree. But she soon discovered that Marine officers cannot even compete for slots to attend graduate school until after completing battalion-level command, probably at age 40 or older—meaning that she would have to wait nearly 10 more years.

And the military’s “up or out” promotion policy means that you either accept promotion from, say, a slot where you’re in the field, making shit happen, doing what you do best, to a desk job that may have little or nothing to do with your skill set…or, you leave the military.

Lack of access to advanced civilian education also causes many young officers to leave the military. Masters and Ph.D. programs throughout the nation’s top schools are chock full of former military officers who were simply unable to find any venue to pursue civilian graduate education inside the military—and who, thanks to the generous benefits of the post-9/11 GI Bill, can afford to attend these programs if they leave the military. In the Army alone, the annual number of fully funded civilian graduate-school slots for officers dropped from as many as 7,000 in the 1980s to approximately 600 to 700 today.

Many of the best and brightest know this, and they want the challenge of going to a top-rated graduate school with others who have survived the rigorous admissions processes. Once they are admitted, they often find that the military personnel system will not accommodate their desire to attend, even though, in many cases, the military wouldn’t have to pay for it. But the “up or out” system, combined with the need for most to command in order to advance, means that the service’s personnel offices do not support this. As a result, many of the best and brightest must leave the military in order to receive the best graduate education that this country has to offer.

And that Force of the Future initiative, that would have upset the apple cart in favor of real change? Well, some of it can be pushed through by the Secretary, but much of it is dependent on congressional approval. And guess what happened there.

Senator John McCain (age 79) said, “This initiative has been an outrageous waste of official time and resources during a period of severe fiscal constraints.”

Wait for the kicker. He concludes with no sense of irony that “It illustrates the worst aspects of a bloated and inefficient defense organization.”

Old generals go to lunch with old Senators, they golf together, their social and power networks are deeply tangled.

And here we are again, back to the point of the novel, a world left waiting for the obstructionists, the careerists, the deadwood to die off…

So. Captain Derek Reed. He’s been building in my mind as I read more memoirs from intelligent, articulate former officers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom was an amazing book, and a lot of Captain Reed’s personality will be coming from him. (I’ve got more books from other young officers in the pipeline, but again, I’m trying not to go too far down the rabbit hole with purchases and reading time, in case this All Ends In Tears and I need to get cracking on something else for $$$.)

Derek is from a military family, with a long tradition of service. And like many of those interviewed in these articles, like many who’ve written books about their experience, he didn’t leave the military for money, or out of combat fatigue, but because the system has failed. And yes, he’s in grad school when we first meet him. He’s single, because as you’ll see, he and Senator Solange will embark on a passionate but adversarial relationship, so I need his hands free.

His father is a retired general, and Derek’s separation from the military is a gulf between them. To his dad, you don’t quit, you follow orders, even if they’re stupid or crazy. But Derek needs to know the why of things, he wants an explanation. It’s not that he’ll refuse to follow the order, but he needs more than just “do it” as impetus.

Now, I’m as wary as anyone should be about defining “millennials” as this that or the other. I was “Generation X” or so Time magazine told me (technically a Boomer, born in 1962 but, let’s get real – if you turn 18 just before Reagan is elected president, you’re not culturally a Baby Boomer). (That’s right, I’m 53. I’m on “the list” of those who’ll drop dead in my future vision.)

And some of it was frankly laughable, but some was true. We were the first wave of workers who wouldn’t have “jobs for life” anymore, we were more focused on “being” than “doing,” our sense of irony was our defense against a world where artifice was a growth industry.

And that need for a “why” in their work environments is, I think, an accurate assessment of millennials. Previous generations had good reasons for “why ask why,” because they were invested in a system that protected them – do you have a job for life? Do you have a good retirement set up? Does your company ask you to do stupid things? Why ask why? Whereas in a new world, where there are no rewards anymore for loyalty or conformist behavior, why not ask why?

Then the top of the military’s command chain all drop dead. In an institution that’s favored seniority over competence for so long, that makes it the most vulnerable to the world-warping changes caused by the pandemic. And there’s only one way to get that command and control chain rebuilt, and that’s to bring back in as many of the good officers who left as possible.

So suddenly our captain is a colonel, because the sort of leaps and bounds in promotion that “just aren’t done” normally are perfectly normal under the extreme conditions we’re in now.

That’s the upside of the military’s culture – it’s one institution that manages to get shit done in a crisis, even despite itself. Its members know damn well in wartime how to defy or ignore or hide from poor command decisions and do what actually needs to be done. From that first Atlantic article again:

During World War II, German generals often complained that U.S. forces were unpredictable: they didn’t follow their own doctrine. Colonel Jeff Peterson, a member of the faculty at West Point, likes to illustrate this point using a parable about hedgerows. After the Normandy invasion in 1944, American troops found that their movements were constrained by the thick hedgerows that lined the countryside of northern France. The hedges frequently channeled American units into German ambushes, and they were too thick to cut or drive through. In response, “Army soldiers invented a mechanism on the fly that they welded onto the front of a tank to cut through hedgerows,” Peterson told me.

American troops are famous for this kind of individual initiative. It’s a point of pride among officers that the American way of war emphasizes independent judgment in the fog and friction of battle, rather than obedience and rules. Lieutenants, even corporals and privates, are trained to be entrepreneurial in combat. This emphasis doesn’t just attract inspirational leaders and efficient managers—it produces revolutionary innovators. From the naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose insights on sea power transformed warfare at the beginning of the 20th century, to General Billy Mitchell, the godfather of the Air Force, to General Petraeus, who’s now implementing his counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has a long and proud tradition of innovative thought.

So at first, Colonel Reed is exuberant, exultant, glad to be back in the military and helping restructure the organization he loves. Needless to say, there’s as much international impact to my pandemic as there is domestic, and that’s where I’ll be needing time and money to do demographic research – what happens to say North Korea when it loses its gerontocracy? Iran, where more than half the population, as of 2012, was under 35? The military will still have to deal with our enemies; the question will be how best to do that with technological superiority but limited boots.

(Oh yeah, this will be another opportunity for some serious battle/action scenes. No riding a desk for our guy. Check out my Adam Vance science fiction stories – I’m pretty good now at the fightin’ and killin’ scenes.)

Of course, he has to work closely with the new Armed Services Committee chairperson, Senator Solange Pierre, who’s as smart and as idealistic and as driven and as coolly pragmatic as he is. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna do it so hard.

And, his dad is going to die, so he has to resolve all his family shit at the same time. That’s a major plot thread I haven’t really talked about yet – the conflicted relationship most of us have with our parents, the national grief we’ll experience when we lose them (or the bitter joy when they finally kick, depending on your circumstances). That relationship stuff is the deep shit that will make the book more than just a thriller. Please see under: Given the Circumstances and Have a Little Faith in Me re my ability to do daddy issues and difficult father shit. I fucking rule at that.

But then, the pivot. Suddenly international affairs are no longer Colonel Reed’s daily bread and butter. Through the rest of the characters’ stories, we’ve seen the pandemic sweep across the country, we’ve seen it become apparent that it strikes only those over 50, and Senator Pierre has just discovered that the protease inhibitors are the key to arresting the virus. And now she’s got a very narrow window between that moment and the time the public finds out, and starts to loot pharmacies, riot in hospitals, hunt down people with HIV and beat or kill them for their pills.

The government’s only option is to impose martial law, which means the American military is about to fight a civil war.

This is where Derek’s conflict really begins. He’ll be going to war against the people of his own country, and against “contractors” (some of whom are former brothers in arms) who’ve been transformed into private militias for 1%ers hell bent on getting the meds. On one hand, he knows he’s preserving the supplies of drugs for “essential personnel” who keep the lights on and the water running. On the other, he knows that powerful people will kill less powerful people to stay alive. And how does he reconcile the quandary he’s in, that to accomplish his mission, he has to take those meds from others and give them to those who, really, should just fucking die already?

I’ve learned over the years not to try and finish a character’s story arc before I write the book. Especially on a project this size, there’s tons of room for the plot to change, for the character to grow into someone who wouldn’t do what I planned for him, for the changes that happen to other characters to inform who Derek Reed ends up being at the end.

What I do know is that he’ll do the right thing, whatever that is. It may leave him in mortal opposition to Senator Pierre, or not, too early to tell. But we’ll see who these folks become as the story develops…

That number again, Call me now for your free readin’!

And last (for now):


2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Dear Tradpub: Here’s my Doorstopper Thriller Query! – Brad Vance Author
  2. Tradpub Thriller Idea, Character Sketch #1: Jeremiah Bridges – Brad Vance Author

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