[Early Reviewers review]
The Professional is Steven Pressfield's take on the modern near future thriller. Pressfield is the author of a number of extraordinary historical novels set in ancient Greece. Gates of Fire is his masterpiece, a novel of the battle of Thermopylae and the 300 Spartans who died defending the pass. Tides of War is deeper and just as good, but requires a bit more careful reading. Tides of War is a historical novel of the Peleponnesian War, with a particular focus on the general and politician Alcibiades. Alcibiades is a charismatic, near egomaniacal leader of the Athenians, until he becomes feared by the other leaders, who work to bring him down. Condemned to death and barely escaping with his life to arch-enemy Sparta, he adopts the mindset of Sparta, becomes their general, and then tries to "re-conquer" Athens. It's a magnificent novel and study in leadership, and as it happens, The Profession is semi-explictly a version of Tides of War for the modern era.
The Profession has two things going for it - insight into the military mind, and some very interesting and realistic future thinking on private armies, mercenaries, and geo-political developments in the Middle East. Think Tom Clancy meets Tom Friedman.
As with most Pressfield novels, the central narrator is a sidekick to the "major" characters, a device that lets Pressfield remark on the major characters through the voice of a participant. Gent the mercenary is the voice of the novel. He's an employee of Force Insertion, the world's largest private army, commanded (CEO'd) by General Salter, our standin for Alcibiades. A "lead by example" former US general, admired by his men, exiled from his country for his actions after a peacekeeping mission run amok. Salter subscribes to the same theory of Necessity as a guide to action as does Alcibiades; exiled as Alcibiades, and finally, without spoiling anything, tries to retake his country as does Alcibiades.
Salter commands a force that is in the employ of large oil companies and multi-nationals, and protecting or taking over significant regions of the Middle East. The interactions between the Gent and Salter, and Gent and his men, give insight into the values and thought processes of a foot soldier as well as a general, as well as the demands and requirements of being a leader. The characters are real, with flaws and foibles as well as nobility. The inevitable murky moral ground of war arises naturally; you are torn, as are the characters, about what the right thing to do is.
The storyline is interesting and all-too-plausible; even today private contractors fulfill many of the duties that "should" fall to our armed forces. Pressfield spends a bit too much time for my taste on the intricacies of his fictional mercenary army, how they are structured into legions, armatures, brigades, battalions and divisions, and how their logistics work, but it does lend authenticity to the narrative. The dynamics of how a large, well-financed mercenary force could impact Middle East dynamics are well-drawn, and feel entirely possible. Governments and dictatorships rise and fall, and with them the fate of our mercenaries. Gent and Salter are brought into deep conflict, in spite of their long loyalty to each other.
In the end it's a good read: thoughtful yet fast paced, and well worth the read, but not as good as his Greece novels - do yourself a favor and read Tides of War before you read The Profession, you'll be the better for both.
[I was supposed to receive The Profession through the Early Reviewers program, but the publisher never sent it]