The upcoming presidential election and the economy are pretty poor excuses for our inability to focus on Iraq. Especially since we've not only passed the 4,000 mark of American dead, but 25 were killed in a recent two-week span.
It's frightening how comfortable we've learned to live with the war since the "surge" supposedly turned things around. The continuing carnage among those who were supposed to enjoy some of the fruits of our liberation isn't even on our radar screens.
Not only aren't most of us following Iraq in the news, we turn our backs on books and movies that dramatize it. Yet our veterans aren't just returning with problems, but with a whole lore. You can't help but conclude that their experiences need to be watered down to be made palatable.
Perhaps not -- if folded within another narrative. In other words, instead of telling war stories, incorporate them into other genres. In fact it's a time-honored tradition, such as when veterans turn up as law enforcement agents in books or movies.
Their war experiences, particularly in Vietnam, color their attitude and affect their performance. No one is more successful at this than the great crime novelist James Lee Burke with his Viet vet protagonists Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell.
Mark Biskeborn has taken this route with an Iraq vet in his new novel, "Mojave Winds," which, marketed as a thriller, is garnering attention and generating sales for Veritas Vino Publishing in Los Angeles. But doing Iraq vets justice, instead of using them as characters just because they're current and convenient, requires a different type of thriller -- one serious about character development. Of necessity, this intrudes on the non-stop action and displays of technical know-how common to the genre.
In fact, "Mojave Winds" is a thinking-man's thriller. Until he was dishonorably discharged for failing to follow a foolhardy order and, instead, saving his men, protagonist Kris Klug was a Green Beret. Upon his return stateside, he goes through the rocky decompression typical of vets, especially those who fight in wars with ill-defined goals, like Vietnam and Iraq.
Klug is fortunate though because his aging Uncle Fred is retiring and handing him his trucking firm in California. But Klug doesn't realize that Fred is also giving up the livelihood in which he moonlights -- drug-dealing. It turns out he'd been doing business with Middle-Easterners, and though he doesn't realize it, they've been using their earnings to finance a dirty bomb attack on US soil.
A rich-kid cokehead negotiates to buy Fred's client list, but rips him off. Not only is Fred cheated out of his money, but the Middle-Easterners with whom he does business are too. Biskeborn leavens his portrayal of the terrorists as pathological by honoring Islam, which they in turn dishonor.
When his flight to Las Vegas to finalize his takeover of the trucking business is canceled due to weather conditions, Klug winds up taking alternate transportation provided by the airline. He's ferried through the Mojave in a mini-bus on which the rich kid and one of the terrorists tracking him also ride.
An SUV with the other terrorists pursues the bus -- a veritable ship of fools -- into the desert. In a kind of low-speed chase, Klug's background is fleshed out, thanks in part to a burgeoning love interest, a Las Vegas belly dancer from Iran. The book finally kicks into high gear as the bus passengers are reduced to pedestrians, who Klug leads through the Mojave.
In keeping with a book committed to developing its protagonist's point of view, the high body count typical of the genre is mercifully kept to a minimum. Each time a bad guy is killed, it's the result of a painstakingly drawn series of action.
It's not only the character development that differentiates "Mojave Winds" from the thriller pack but the author's knowledge of military tactics, as well as the Mojave Desert. (Where, as Klug's love interest says, "All the easy answers, everything falls apart.")
We asked Biskeborn (full disclosure: an email acquaintance of this writer) how he'd acquired his familiarity with the Mojave desert.
"The Mojave covers large chunks of four states," he replied. "California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. I grew up in California [and] I love to go out there and take long walks." He's also familiar with the stories about fathers who took their sons for a weekend hike in the desert. "The search and rescue teams don't find them."
Who was his source was for the Special Operations background and the fighting scenes?
"When I worked on [the political website] Intervention Magazine," he said, "I befriended Stewart Nusbaumer, a former Marine Recon guy with combat experience in Nam. I learned from him that adaptability was [key]."
Meanwhile, "most guys who've served in the Special Forces are seldom eager to admit it, much less talk about it." But while visiting friends in Lima, Peru he met two guys in a Starbucks and asked what they did for a living. "'We did some security type work,' one of them said. After doing an eye-to-eye, the [other] finally admitted, 'We did military recon in Afghanistan, then Iraq.'"
"In the first drafts of 'Mojave Winds,'" Biskeborn continued, "I'd made Klug a regular grunt in the Army. But after talking about it with these guys who [had] a certain edge about them, they really opened my eyes as to how to characterize him and were happy to give me some pointers."
He pointed out that "you go to the shopping malls and see these big, muscled, tough guys walking around with tattoos and bling, trying to look intimidating and badass. They wouldn't even recognize a Spec Ops guy walking by who could do serious damage in the blink of an eye. Appearances are deceptive."
Klug's disenchantment with the Iraq War is obvious. Does "Mojave Winds," we asked Biskeborn, have a progressive agenda? "Personally, I'm neither Republican nor Democrat [but circumstances today] make it difficult for any forward-thinking American to be anything but progressive or liberal." But, he added, "the characters have their own political views."
For instance, while lost in the Mojave, one character says: "Kris is our Moses, leading us out of the desert. You know he listened to a bush and then walked his people through the wilderness for forty years. The last time Americans listened to a bush, the sent years wandering and struggling in the deserts of Babylon."
Political agenda or not, "Mojave Winds" reinforces the notion that Iraq creates terrorists who are more than capable of finding their way here. It also makes clear that our Special Forces do the most good when fighting actual terrorists -- not when they're in Iraq screwing up its citizens' lives as well as their own. Finally, "Mojave Winds" helps raise the bar on thrillers by requiring that they not only thrill but engage the heart and intellect.