Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Bad Idea Disguised as a Strange Novel

Ben Coes, The Last Refuge: A Dewey Andreas Novel

Just in time for Independence Day, former political insider Ben Coes presents the most ill-considered praise of militant nationalism in many moons. The author, who has connections to George HW Bush and Mitt Romney, punches every hot-button issue on this year’s electoral slate, and apparently seeks to enflame feelings. I fear, if read by uncritical audiences, this novel will cause irreparable harm to US foreign policy.

Dewey Andreas, ex-Delta, covert assassin, and semi-illicit security consultant, is ready to settle into a life of relative normalcy. Unfortunately, a Mossad officer—the same one who rescued Andreas from Hezbollah insurgents mere months earlier—is captured and spirited to Iran’s most notorious prison. With American agents sitting on their hands, and Israel on the verge of prompting World War III, Andreas goes guerilla to pay his debts at the point of a gun.

But Andreas discovers bigger forces at play. In Israel, the father of the officer he means to rescue has Polaroids, originally meant for Andreas himself, of a nuclear weapon. Painted on the nose-cone, in Farsi: “Goodbye Tel Aviv.” Suddenly, besides rescuing a friend, Andreas must also prevent the most deadly act of terrorism in world history. That isn’t even the final revelation in a book that never stops accelerating.

It’s impossible to separate this book’s story from its politics, and impossible to ignore that I consider its politics flat damn wrong. Coes uses moralistic words like “evil” and “detestable” to describe Iran, while pinching his description of Dewey Andreas from other well-known heroes like James Bond and Jack Ryan. This includes violence so comically choreographed that it would only make sense inside the Matrix.

The narrative implies that Andreas is justified in anything he does, no matter how heinous or brutal, by the exigencies of a hard world. This includes murder, kidnapping, torture, and what I can only describe as acts of war on American and international soil. Though he does this all officially off the grid, he has the tacit blessing and under-the-table financial support of America’s military intelligence apparatus.

If this guy were real, we’d call him a war criminal. In a prior book, he orchestrated a military coup in Pakistan, and continues to trade on that accomplishment in this book. He admits that, back in the Reagan years, he assassinated foreign nationals on foreign soil. In this book, he uses human shields, hires contract enforcers, and smuggles weapons across international borders. Serbia extradited Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague for less.

Moreover, Coes’ Iran is at best paradoxical. On the one hand, Iranian agents capture an Israeli national on US soil and spirit him to Tehran undetected. On the other hand, Iran’s rulers behave so maniacally that they beg to be played on film by Gary Oldman. They’re prone to petty grudges, incoherent rants, and Fascist shenanigans, including a kangaroo court so transparent that Judge Judy would fling her gavel. And with good reason: this Iran is a circus.

Ask yourself: if your arsenal had only one nuclear weapon, would you announce where you intended to set it off? Would you set it off at all? I venture that you would not. A single nuclear weapon serves best as a threat, when it could appear anywhere without warning. Once you use it, you’ve squandered your strategic advantage. But Coes’ Iranians don’t think that far ahead, because they’re mere hand puppets for Coes’ diatribe.

And some of the violence is so awkward it’s almost funny. At one point, Andreas jumps off a hotel balcony, twists in mid-air, and shoots well enough to hit a target on the balcony he just fled, at night, before splashing down in the hotel pool. Yeah, right. Elsewhere, his two contract enforcers open fire in an elevator, killing five Iranian bodyguards without hitting the diplomat they mean to capture, and even more remarkably, without hitting themselves with a ricochet.

This works, perhaps, because Coes thinks like a filmmaker, not a novelist. If he had a Hong Kong fight choreographer, flight rig, and soundtrack orchestra, his storyline might make sense. But in prose, his audience has time to wonder if everything he describes could work in a Newtonian universe. The sad answer is, it can’t. Then we wonder if his politics are as comically misguided.

Coes’ press biography stresses his connection to Mitt Romney. If Michigan Mittens wants to win this November, he might want to cork Ben Coes’ yap, because a post-Bush electorate will resist such weenie-swinging nationalism. At least I hope they will.

On a related topic:
Operation Ajax—America's First Battle With Iran

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