The soldiers in Shock & Awe, K. R. Newman's self-published military-espionage novel, make fun of George W. Bush—they think he's stupid and they don't trust him, which is maybe more of a sea change than you'd initially think. The military-thriller section of any bookstore, bloated with Tom Clancy masturbatoria and whichever old bastard shits out those Dirk Pitt adventures, tends to celebrate old-school Republican-American patriotism. They're anachronisms, occasionally dusted off and brought into faux modernity by including a conspiracy, always run by some rogue general. But these little-boy, shiny-medal, colonial fantasies are seeming today as stale as Love Story—our military is pissed-off, weary, and paranoid, and the places Shock & Awe takes us are far from Nelson DeMille−land: into the hearts and minds of Righteously Aggravated Military America.
Set at the beginning of our Grand Iraqi Adventure, Part Deux, a squad of American soldiers (with nicknames like Hair-Ass, Mama, and Chin) suffers the death-by-suicide-bomb of iconic team leader Jimmy. The soldiers quickly descend into bitterness, disturbed by the pointlessness of their jobs in liberated Iraq, and a great deal of Shock & Awe consists of Platonic dialogues—page-and-a-half-long dueling monologues between members of the team—about Iraq, and what we're doing there, and how we can get the fuck out. You won't find this dialogue (or, it must be said, this many grammatical errors) in most of those Stars 'n' Stripes−spined potboilers:
The fact that the author, according to the dust jacket, is "a former Naval Flight Officer and Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Instructor" here becomes vitally important: These soldiers understand that they're fucked. They're still soldiers—they still love America, and they want to do a good job, but they know that they're getting screwed, and they want out, now. Their way out—the engine of the book—comes fairly quickly, when the boys discover an unaccounted-for Russian nuclear suitcase bomb. Our disgruntled soldiers have a few different ideas on what should be done with the bomb, but they all come to the same conclusion: Nuke Mecca and blame it on Saddam. Most of what follows is the implementation of that plan, which is supposed to begin some sort of Muslim civil war that will save the Western world.
Deep breath. I know.
The problem with having a religion that's got a whole lot of taboos is that people who are outside your religion, under the banner of "free speech," are going to want to punch holes through your taboos. And the problem with having a religion that's been visibly co-opted by fundamentalists (are you taking notes, American Christians?) is that people are going to want to attack your religion. We've seen enough Muhammad-cartoon riot deaths and retaliatory mosque bombings by now to make everyone a little bit jumpy.
But anyway, our culture demands that Envelopes Simply Must Be Pushed, and here we have our Nuke Mecca Novel, and I'm sure that it is a fine one as far as Nuke Mecca Novels go, and I know that it must have a constituency—I'm sure this conversation is playing out in bars all across America every night, and that our soldiers Over There are whispering it among themselves.
It's not very Shocking anymore, to be honest, and I think that the idea of Awe bit the dust somewhere around LBJ. But still, Shock & Awe is a paranoid, red-eyed, straight-faced book that's a lot more honest about its roots than a half-dozen Clancy rip-offs. Should it be on the next Blue State Book Club discussion slate? No. Is it well written? God, no. Does it provide a voice for the people who think that Reagan was a swell guy, America is a Christian country first, and Bill Clinton was the most shameful man to ever sit in the Oval Office, but Bush is maybe a little sleazy, too? Yes. Has that voice, since 9/11, become maybe a little bit, well, terrifying? Um... sit down, sonny, you ask too many questions.