Combat When Not in War

reviewed by Col James A. Lasswell, USMC(Ret)

SHARKMAN SIX. By Owen West. Simon bi Shuster, New York, 2001, 320 pp., $24.00. (Member $21.60)

When 1stLt Kelly’s reconnaissance platoon swims ashore in Mogadishu, he meets no armed resistance. Instead, he finds the glare of the cameras of the international media undoubtedly tipped off by Pentagon public affairs personnel of the time and place of the American military intervention in Somalia. Before he can adjust fully from being center stage in a media circus, he is informed that his best Marine has killed an armed Somali gunman. His platoon sergeant assures him that it was necessary, but there is conflicting evidence. The Marine involved is a hero from DESERT STORM, so does he warrant the benefit of the doubt? The battalion commander is on his way, and it is only a matter of minutes before the press descends. What now, Lieutenant?

So begins a complex morality play about military operations other than war and the practical and ethical dilemmas involved. For example, if a unit is employed for humanitarian reasons-to stop the dying-do orders that prohibit feeding the starving after dark make sense? How do orders to avoid confrontation with the Somali gunmen apply when murder, rape, and wanton lawlessness take place in their immediate presence?

Again and again lstLt Kelly faces leadership and tactical decisions in which his training and orders appear to conflict with what he believes is the “right” thing to do. Increasingly conflicted and compromised by his own actions, he begins to doubt his moral compass. He feels isolated and alone. In his previous tour during DESERT STORM, he earned the dubious distinction of being the only officer in his battalion to have one of his Marines killed in action and, as a result, his own tactical competence challenged. In contrast, his best friend and role model receives a Bronze Star for action during which he is seriously wounded. Later he finds that his friend was not a hero, but instead shot himself in the knee by accident and that his men lied to protect him from embarrassment. But Marine officers never lie-or do they when they compromise their integrity by recommending or accepting an award that is not earned?

What is “right and wrong” in the context of these kinds of conflicted situations? Owen West, leaves this issue essentially unresolved, much like Somalia was left after U.S. forces were withdrawn. Americans like polar classifications: good versus evil, heroes and villains, winners and losers. However, in the context of peace enforcement interventions, these terms have little relevance. West’s book focuses on this lack of clarity. Lt Kelly is as much an antihero as he is a hero. Winning and losing take on wholly new meanings in the context of DESERT STORM and Somalia where avoiding U.S. casualties and following orders can become the measures of effectiveness rather than defeating an enemy or providing humanitarian support to the inhabitants in a lawless country of bandits.

In the end, the reader is faced with a series of interwoven moral and tactical dilemmas that defy application of the simple “school solution.” Instead, the military reader is asked to consider both “what should Lt Kelly have done?” and “how would I have acted in his place?”

The closest thing to a description of what we have come to think of as a hero is found on the back jacket in describing the author. Though only in his early 30s, West has a resume that sounds like a Dirk Pitt-like character from a Clive Cussler adventure novel. A Harvard graduate and former varsity oarsman, he is commissioned a second lieutenant of Marines upon graduation and commands an infantry platoon, company, reconnaissance platoon, and special operations unit. When no longer able to remain in the Operating Forces, he resigned his commission and sought new challenges. At Stanford Business School he was elected class president. He then became a commodities trader for Goldman Sachs on the New York Mercantile Exchange. In his spare time, he is a world-class athlete competing in five EchoChallenge Adventure races-most recently in Borneo teamed with three Playboy Playmates-and a nearly successful attempt to climb Mount Everest.

West has written a complex novel on several levels. It is a commentary on how modern interventions are not our father’s war, and victory has new measures of effectiveness. It is also a virtual compendium of situations that could be used as tactical decision games or as discussion topics for professional military education classes designed to follow training in law of land warfare and rules of engagement in Marine units preparing for deployment. Yet, even with the deeper issues it addresses, it remains a fast-paced adventure novel.

The language may offend some readers. Marines aren’t saints, and West doesn’t pretend to paint them as such. However, those of us who have had to stifle a grin when pretending not to overhear the conversations of their Marines when talking among themselves will likely feel like they have been returned to the foxhole. For many, it doesn’t get much better than that.