First Review for The Fall of Moscow Station

The most nerve-wracking part of being a writer is waiting for the first reviews of a new book to come in. It's one thing to hear a friend or family member say they like the book; it's another to hear a professional critic say the same. So it's a relief when that critic reports that your book is a good one.

I'm therefore happy to report that Kirkus—one of the heavies of literary criticism—likes The Fall of Moscow Station. This review will appear in their 15 December edition:

After a vital clandestine U.S. spy network is gutted by a defector, CIA Red Cell agent Kyra Stryker is forced to make a daring last-ditch attempt to avert disaster. Former real-life intelligence analyst Henshaw (Cold Shot, 2014, etc.) has set this tale of international intrigue in the immediate future. Russia's still a bully. The Putin kleptocracy remains in power, considering the U.S. its main enemy. Gen. Arkady Lavrov, head of the military intelligence agency and chief of the Foundation for Advanced Research, especially enjoys stepping on Yankee toes, slipping stealth technology to China and nukes from Iran to Venezuela. The CIA put the screws to those adventures. Now, rumors suggest the clandestine-weapons-trading FAR will sell an electromagnetic pulse weapon to Syria. The situation worsens when CIA agent Alden Maines offers to turn mole for the Russians—this needs better motivation—but is double-crossed. Lavrov personally tortures Maines and gets the identities of every CIA asset in Russia. The clandestine-weapons quandary takes a back seat as Red Cell leader Jonathan Burke and Stryker make a Maines damage-control run to Berlin. People die. Next attempting to rescue Russians working for the CIA, Stryker goes lone-wolf to Moscow. The amoral yet philosophical Lavrov makes a worthy villain, compelled to confront his counterpart, Anatoly Grigoriyev, the FSB (the old KGB) chief who railed against the "madness of selling our technologies to third-world runts" and who now resents Lavrov's dangerous ambitions. The settings seem spot-on, whether a luxurious Moscow CIA safe house, an abandoned Soviet military base in eastern Germany, or the Oval Office, especially as Henshaw's cast of Washington old hands deals with a skeptical young President Daniel Rostow. Henshaw's narrative is a high-tension page-turner, and his tough-minded, independent, and deadly Kyra Stryker is ready to run with the likes of Reacher or Bourne.

Second Thoughts?

I have been asked if, in the wake of the San Bernadino shootings, I have had second thoughts about the sentiments I expressed in my previous blog post. The answer is no. In my opinion, compassion for others is the key characteristic that makes us better people than terrorists. Our country's greatest moments have always been those where we came to the rescue of others. If our appreciation for that legacy is so paper-thin that we're willing to abandon it because two evil people committed an atrocity, then America's best days really are behind us. I don't believe that.

As before, I'm not saying that we should just throw the immigration doors open. We need to be smart about our security arrangements and do all we can to turn evil people away at the border. But those efforts must be grounded in the idea that the United States welcomes anyone seeking freedom and liberty, and that Americans are willing to accept some risks to make that dream available to anyone who truly wants it.

Freedom, Bravery, and Syrian Refugees

The Paris attacks have sparked a significant debate in the US about how to handle Syrian refugees seeking to immigrate. Several governors have declared that they will not allow the refugees into their states.

Esquire magazine published author and retired US Marine Phil Klay's thoughts on the subject. This is the part that struck me—

I get that people are scared. But it's only during frightening times that you get to find out if your country deserves to be called the 'home of the brave.' 

I agree with Klay. If fact, I think Klay doesn't take the point far enough. The US national anthem doesn't just call our country the "home of the brave"; it also calls the US the "land of the free." I would suggest that those two titles aren't just interrelated, but interdependent. Bravery is the prerequisite to freedom.

With apologies to the original author, I would like to repurpose an ancient bit of literature to make the point—Jesus Christ's Parable of the Good Samaritan (ignore any religious implications for the moment; the parable is a literary gem). The story, as originally told, illustrates the world's need for compassion that overcomes all barriers; but I think we could rename it the Parable of the Brave Man and the Cowards to teach another point.

In the story, a man traveling the road to Jericho "fell among thieves," gets beaten up, and lays nearly dead in the road. Several people come by, but no one helps the man. Why not? The parable's author doesn't give a reason. Racial or cultural animus? (The Israelites and Samaritans hated each other). Not wanting to get mixed up in someone else's problems? Too busy? All are possible reasons, but I think the author didn't specify any one reason to make a point—whatever justification we might favor, there really aren't any reasons good enough to justify refusing to help another in need when we can.

For the moment, let's assume that at least some of them might have been afraid that, had they stopped to help, they feared that they might also be attacked. (The road to Jericho was notoriously dangerous, which is probably why Jesus chose it as the setting for the parable). Only the hated Samaritan is brave enough to risk an attack by stopping to help and save the victim's life. Those who didn't help let fear dictate their choice, and that fear really only gave them a single choice—to run. Only the Samaritan's courage, fueled by his compassion, opened up options for him the others couldn't enjoy.

Fear is reactive. Fearful people let threats (real or imaginary) dictate their choices, and fear only allows for two responses—fight or flight. In the case of the admitting Syrian refugees into the US, "flight" amounts to throwing up barriers to stop downtrodden people seeking safety. Courage, on the other hand, allows us to consider other selfless, compassionate options. Yes, terrorists could take advantage of that to kill some Americans, but the truth is that the US government can't protect all its citizens everywhere at all times from all forms of attack anyway. It's a logistical impossibility. So I'd rather see us remain a compassionate country, willing to risk pain to help others, than see us selfishly push away desperate people in a mad chase for the unachievable chimera of perfect security.

"The land of the free" won't be free if it doesn't remain the "home of the brave." The fearful really aren't in control of their own choices or destiny. Yes, we should be careful and take wise precautions, but let's not allow fear to dictate our security policies and deny us the chance to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and for people who've been far less fortunate than we've been. 

Of Maps and Sextants

This makes me happy.

Officials reinstated brief lessons in celestial navigation this year, nearly two decades after the full class was determined outdated and cut from the curriculum. That decision, in the late 1990s, made national news and caused a stir among the old guard of navigators.

Maritime nostalgia, however, isn't behind the return. Rather, it's the escalating threat of cyberattacks that has led the Navy to dust off its tools to measure the angles of stars.

After all, you can't hack a sextant.

Some years ago, I had a conversation with a US Army officer in which he opined that West Point should stop teaching map-and-compass navigation to cadets.

"Nobody needs that old stuff anymore," he groused. "We have GPS now. It's faster and more accurate."

"What happens if the GPS system goes down?" I asked.

"Not gonna happen," he assured me. Why he was so confident, I have no idea. My brother is an honest-to-goodness rocket scientist and he's not nearly so confident that the GPS satellites will survive in wartime against an advanced enemy.

"What happens if a soldier trips over a tree root and smashes his GPS receiver on a rock?" I asked.

Uncomfortable silence ensued.

"It'll always work" has got to be the least persuasive reason ever for not having a redundant system backing up your primary, and especially in a system on which people will be staking their lives. And the more fragile parts the primary system has, the stupider the argument becomes. Factor in an advanced enemy with a interest in breaking that primary system and not preparing redundant systems or skills should be considered an unforgivable dereliction of duty.

Maps, compasses, and sextants—all technologies that our ancestors developed when they had no access to computers or radio transmitters, and they worked for centuries under some of the worst conditions imaginable. They explored the globe with them and they won wars with them. They require no electricity (less batteries for a soldier to carry) and can't be hacked. They're the most indestructible navigation systems we have. 

"But what if I trip over a root and smash my compass? What if I drop my sextant overboard?"

With a little MacGyver-ish know-how you can make a basic sextant or compass out of common household materials. With those, a wristwatch, and a bit of astronomical knowledge and you can figure out where you are anywhere on the planet with a pretty reasonable degree of accuracy. They're so cheap and easy to build and learn how to use, I can't figure out why the military ever stopped teaching those skills in the first place. It's sure not rocket science.

Were I in charge of US military education, I wouldn't even begin teaching GPS navigation until soldiers and sailors had proven their mastery of the old skills first.

- - - - -

If you want to read an excellent book on how one of those old navigation methods technologies was developed, I recommend Dava Sobel's Longitude. 

If you want to get really hardcore about learning how to navigate by the stars, you'll want your own copy of the definitive manual on celestial navigation— Bowditch's American Practical Navigator (first published in 1802). I've got a copy on my bookshelf and it's a beast. Bowditch is also available for free online, but I prefer the hardcopy version. After all, the time when I'd be most likely to need celestial navigation by the stars would also be the time when I could least count on my iPad working.


More Thoughts on the Confederate Flag


"The conversation in recent days has been illuminating, as many politicians from the South try to navigate a historic landscape blurred by generations of distortions. With the abruptness of cataract surgery, “Lost Cause” interpretations of a genteel Southern past have fallen away...

As important as this corrective may be, we will do our historical memory a disservice if we fail to recall how citizens of the Union regarded Abraham Lincoln’s War, slavery and even African Americans. To a surprising extent, the way the North remembers the Civil War is also deeply flawed and misleading."

A great editorial from the Washington Post. The Civil War was a far more complex affair that most of these political correctness advocates yelling about the Confederate flag want to admit; and the gulf between Northern and Southern views on race was far more narrow than most people think (or want to believe). Let's keep working to eliminate racism, but let's be careful about how harshly we judge past generations.

Is the F-35 a dogfighter or just a dog?

Those of you who've read Red Cell know that the book ends with an aerial dogfight between US Navy F-35s and the Chinese Air Force over the Taiwan Strait. When I started writing that novel more than 10 years ago, stories about performance issues with the F-35 were already starting to crop up. At the time, I had faith that Lockheed Martin would be able to fix the problems and turn the F-35 into a first-rate fighter.

It looks increasingly like my faith was unjustified.

"Even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement," the F-35 pilot reported. That means the F-35 constantly found itself flying slower and more sluggishly, unable to effectively maneuver to get the F-16 in its sights.

If this report is true, I'm not sure "debacle" is a strong enough word to describe this.

Thoughts on the Confederate Flag

In the wake of white supremacist Dylan Roof's murder of nine parishioners in a historic South Carolina Church, there have been a lot of calls recently to abolish any display or sale of Confederate flags. There is no question that, for many people, the Confederate flag is a symbol of intolerance, slavery, and hatred, which has led to call for the Confederate flag to be abolished from our popular culture.

Let me state up front that I unequivocally condemn Roof's actions. He's a murderer who deserves to have the full weight of the law come down on him.

That said, here are my thoughts on the Confederate flag.

Seventy miles west of Richmond, Virginia on US Rt. 60 sits Buckingham Courthouse, an edifice designed by Thomas Jefferson. Across the street from that building sits a Confederate war memorial, flanked by a pair of Napoleon guns (still pointing north, I must add).


As a young boy growing up, I saw that monument almost daily, as I had to pass by it on the way to church or school; but I never thought much of it. Finally, one day in my mid-teens, I wandered over to it and read the inscription. It reads, in all caps:

"To commemorate the
devotion and heroism
of the
Confederate Soldiers
Buckingham Country
who valued principle
more than life
and fought for a cause
they knew to be just."

That was perplexing. "...a cause they knew to be just"? How, in Heaven's name, I wondered, could anyone think that defending slavery was a just cause? It boggled the mind. It wasn't until I became a military analyst years later that I finally understood and learned that history is always much more complicated than it appears in hindsight.

Most modern Americans would probably be surprised to learn that if you asked a Northerner in 1861 why he was going to war against the South, his answer would not have been any variation of "to eliminate slavery." His answer would have been "to preserve the Union."

For example, in August 1862, newspaper editor Horace Greeley published an open letter to President Abraham Lincoln in the New York Tribune, in which he questioned Lincoln's commitment (in scolding terms) to ending slavery and demanded to know just what policy the president was pursuing. Lincoln replied, saying:

"As to the policy I 'seem to be pursuing' as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt. I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be 'the Union as it was.' If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.

Lincoln had a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation sitting in his desk drawer when he wrote his reply to Greeley. He'd been sitting on that draft for a month and he would sit on it for almost another month before announcing it. Lincoln thought slavery was a moral evil, but he also viewed eliminating it as a political means to the end of preserving the Union. So he waited to release the Proclamation until the opportune moment when it would hurt the Confederate cause the most--after the Union Army had won a significant battlefield victory (Antietam), when he could act from a position of political strength to inexorably intertwine the abolition of slavery with the war and erase all Confederate hopes of European assistance (the European nations had all abolished slavery and weren't going to help save a slave-holding nation win a war to preserve the institution).

But even after Lincoln released the Proclamation, many Northerners didn't consider abolition to be a paramount goal of the war. George McClellan--an insubordinate general who Lincoln fired twice--ran for president in 1864 as a Democrat. The Democrats that year promoted a platform of ending the war immediately and making peace with the South, which would have let both the Confederate States of America and the institution of slavery survive. McClellan undermined his own campaign by calling for the war to continue but not abolishing slavery, putting him at odds with his own party. McClellan lost to Lincoln but he won 45% of the popular vote.

In November 1864, almost half of all voting Northerners effectively cast a ballot that would have let slavery survive. It was the price they were willing to pay to end the war, one way or the other.

Most modern Americans would probably also be surprised to learn that if you asked a Southerner in 1861 why he was going to war against the North, his answer would not have been "to preserve slavery." His answer would have been "to defend my home" or "to defend my state's rights."

For example, before the Civil War began, Robert E. Lee himself was asked by one of his lieutenants whether he would take up arms against the Union. Lee replied, saying, "I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty." Later, when he was offered command of the Union Army by Lincoln adviser Francis P. Blair, Lee replied, "Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves at the South, I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native State?" I've never read a verifiable quote by Lee where he said that he was fighting to preserve the institution of slavery (if anyone knows of one, I'd love to see it).

That slavery was the flashpoint over which the states' rights argument ignited is inarguable; several Southern legislatures made it pretty clear that they considered preserving slavery an existential issue. But it really was the trigger for the larger question--do states have the right to secede from the Union when they believe the US Government isn't being sufficiently deferential to the states? Remember that that was an open question in 1861 and had been since the days of the Founding Fathers. Slavery may have been the burning fuse, but states' rights was the powder keg. The South and the North had grown apart so far economically, politically, culturally, that Southerners really did see themselves as a separate civilization.

Another anecdote to support that point: During the Republican Convention of 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower revealed that he kept a portrait of Robert E. Lee in the Oval Office. Dr. Leon Scott, a New York dentist, wrote to Eisenhower saying, "I do not understand how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated, and why the President of the United States of America should do so is certainly beyond me...Will you please tell me just why you hold him in such high esteem?" Eisenhower's replied with a letter worth reading in its entirety, but I will quote just this section:

Respecting your August 1 inquiry calling attention to my often expressed admiration for General Robert E. Lee, I would say, first, that we need to understand that at the time of the War between the States the issue of secession had remained unresolved for more than 70 years. Men of probity, character, public standing and unquestioned loyalty, both North and South, had disagreed over this issue as a matter of principle from the day our Constitution was adopted. 

General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America...

As Shelby Foote, the great Civil War historian, put it, "Before the war, it was said 'the United States are.' Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always 'the United States is,' as we say to day without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an 'is.'" That was the big question that the war settled. The abolition of slavery--possibly the greatest historical moment of the 19th century--really was a morally righteous byproduct of finally answering that question.

I believe that was the "just cause" to which the Buckingham Courthouse monument refers--not the preservation of slavery, but the defense of one's home from an overly intrusive federal government. At least, that's what the Confederate flag meant to them and it's a cause with which many Americans still sympathize. (Note: what most people call the "Confederate flag" was actually one of the battle flags of the Army of Northern Virginia; the Confederate States of America never settled on a single flag during that country's brief existence.)

But in a sense, what they thought is irrelevant. The relevant question is: what does the Confederate flag mean to us now? Without question, for most Americans it's become equated with the institution of slavery. It shouldn't be that simplistic, but it is (I blame the education system for doing a lousy job teaching history) and seeing it flown offends large swaths of our countrymen.

So what's the right thing to do? Here's my answer--I'm frustrated that the whole debate is taking place in a climate of ignorance. I would much prefer to see all Americans dive into Civil War history and educate themselves on the nuances of the 19th Century debate about states' rights, slavery, and the other causes behind the war--but that's not going to happen. So I think there should be compromise. Let's take what our society perceives as symbols of hatred and use them to educate people about why past generations wrongly believed their "cause to be just" so we can avoid their mistakes. But let's not confuse education and veneration. Individuals are free to believe what they will, but as a society, we should agree to keep those flags in museums, classrooms, and any other educational, governmental, or even commercial setting where they would be useful for teaching that part of our history.

But let's not fly them from flagpoles.

Addendum: Some have asked me whether I think South Carolina should be allowed to fly the Confederate flag over the state capitol, etc since it's "part of their heritage." I say no. Setting aside the cultural and emotional questions about whether it represent slavery, etc, it is, if nothing else, the flag of a foreign power (albeit a dead one). Flying the flag of a foreign power is a demonstration of allegiance to that power. South Carolina's sole allegiance should be to the United State of America, so it has no more business flying a Confederate flag over its capitol than it does a British, French, or Russian flag.