THE WARLORD’S SON by Don Fesperman

The Warlord's Son

THE WARLORD’S SON by Don Fesperman is an amalgam of tribal machinations, hidden agendas, and conflicting personalities played out in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Peshawar, Pakistan, and tribal areas of Afghanistan.  The story is about complex relations among tribal families, a budding relationship between a man and a woman that goes against tradition, the interests of a number of warlords, and two shadowy Americans who seem to manipulate many of the main characters.

The three main characters are Najeeb Azam, a Pakistani educated in the United States who has been banned from his tribe by his father.  Najeeb’s life has been limited following 9/11 by US Consular officials and his father’s decree.  To survive he hires himself out as a guide and interpreter to western reporters who crave information about Pakistan, the Taliban, and the course of events inside Afghanistan.  The second major protagonist is Stanford Kelly, better known as Skelly, a burned out journalist from the American Midwest who seeks to rekindle his career in southwest Asia.  He links up with Najeeb as a means of getting back in the “game,” and the course of their relationship and what they experience form the core of the novel.  The third character, Daliya Qadeer goes against her family’s wishes by becoming involved with Najeeb and she will take any risk to be with him.

Fesperman conveys the brutal dichotomy that is Musharraf’s Pakistan following 9/11.  The Pakistani ISI (Interservices Intelligence) that helped create the Taliban is deeply involved in Najeeb’s life, as are two Americans who seem to be working with the ISI, but it is not really clear what they are up to until the novel’s conclusion.  Skelly was part of a wave of American journalists who descended on Pakistan and Afghanistan after 9/11 as the war between the United States and the Taliban exploded.  At first Najeeb and Skelly are wary of each other, but soon develop a comfort level as they both seemed to be looking for somewhere to take root as their lives seemed to converge.

The author does a superb job providing the sights and smells of the region from Peshawar to the many villages of Afghanistan.  In addition, the archine and duplicitous ISI is introduced and integrated accurately into the story as the “midwife” of the Taliban and the ally of the United States.  The author is dead on when he points out that the ISI’s main security concern is India, and that the Taliban is a tool in that strategy no matter how close or how much aid it receives from the United States.

The most interesting aspect of the novel is how Najeeb’s life seems to come full circle.  Fesperman revisits his childhood and his relationship with his warlord father and an uncle who seems to take care of him.  His father sent him to America for his education for his own reasons and when he returned their relationship collapsed.  To control his son, the ISI would keep him in line.  Because of his relationship with Skelly, and the reporter’s obsession to uncover a major newspaper story, Najeeb will revisit his childhood haunts as he deals with the machinations of the ISI, his father, his uncle, and other warlords as he tries to survive.

Fesperman’s writing is sensitive to the “underworld” that exists in Pakistani and Afghan society, particularly in the tribal areas that abuts Afghanistan where many refugees seek shelter from the Taliban.  Najeeb joins Skelly on a caravan into Afghanistan as the American reporter tries to land one last scoop to satisfy the journalistic blood that pulses in his veins.  The result is a series of mishaps, surprises, and shifting alliances that threaten their lives.

Numerous questions arise as the book unfolds.  What role do Sam Hartley, an American businessman and Arlen Pierce, a cultural attaché from the State Department play?  Is there a strategy that is being developed to capture Osama Bin-Laden?  Can Najeeb’s father be trusted?  What is the ISI really after? Among numerous questions.  The end result will surprise the reader and the books conclusion is somewhat disconcerting.

This is my second go at one of Don Fesperman’s novels, and I look forward to reading others in the future.


The Prisoner of Guantanamo

One night along the Cuban coast that adjoins the United States naval base at Guantanamo a body washes ashore.  The body that of an American serviceman is found by a Cuban police officer on patrol.  The officer rushes down the hill to chase away an iguana, recognizes that the body he has located is American and realizes how important his find is.  So begins Dan Fesperman’s THE PRISONER OF GUANTANAMO, a book that will capture the reader’s attention immediately and maintain interest as the plot continues to unfold.

Fesperman’s main character is a former Marine and FBI agent named Revere Falk who was fluent in Arabic and was employed by the Pentagon as an interrogator at Guantanamo.  After introducing the reader to the interrogator’s craft, Fesperman discusses a Yemeni detainee named Adran al-Hamdi, who Falk has worked very hard to establish a working relationship with in order to obtain what he believes to be important intelligence.  Al-Hamdi was captured in Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance and was considered a major “head case.”

Once the American corpse is identified as SGT Earle Ludwig, the Pentagon asks Falk for assistance with the investigation into his death.  Falks’s running commentary throughout the novel provides interesting insights into the American approach at GITMO to obtain intelligence and the relationship between the various US intelligence agencies.  As the story progresses Falk is forced to revisit his past, particularly an error he made as a young Marine dealing with Cuban intelligence in Havana.  As Falk’s investigation into Ludwig’s death develops it appears that he may have been murdered.  At this point a number of new characters are introduced.  Pam Cable, Falk’s girlfriend and fellow interrogator, Tim Bokamper, an old friend and FBI agent, and Gonzales Rubiero, an American who lived in Miami Beach, but spied for the Cubans.  Each of these characters plays an important role in addition to the two representatives that the Department of Homeland Security dispatches to GITMO forcing the story in a different direction.

Fesperman provides a number of important insights as the novel builds.  The reader is taken inside al-Hamdi’s head to experience how detainees reacted to their imprisonment.  In addition, Fesperman examines Cuban-American relations particularly in the post 9/11 world.  “Little Havana,” in Miami Beach is explored in the context of the post-Cold War period and is very accurate.

The key aspect of the novel is how its component parts fit together.  How does Falk’s career as a young Marine fit into the investigation of Ludwig’s death and the reaction of other federal agencies?  How does Ludwig’s death relate to Falk’s interrogation of al-Hamdi?  What role does Cuban intelligence play in the events surrounding Ludwig’s death and what is their interest in al-Hamdi?   Finally, why do people close to Falk’s investigation begin to disappear?  Fesperman weaves his answers very carefully as the reader tries to make sense of certain aspects of the novel that seem to unfold in a world of jihadists, Cubans, and other misshapen secrets.  For example, were there “higher ups” in Washington looking for links between Fidel Castro and al-Qaeda as a pretext for who knows what?  The problem for Falk is that every time he feels he has figured out what was going on the tables are turned and he grows even more confused.

This was my first experience reading one of Fesperman’s novels and as a result he has created a new fan!  I am looking forward to reading THE WARLORD’S SON another of his books as soon as I can.

(GITMO, the home of many individuals, both terrorists and non-terrorists)


(Benedict Arnold and George Washington)

By May of 1780 the Continental Army under the command of George Washington had reached a point of no return.  According to Joseph Plumb Martin, the son of a minister from Milford, CT, and a soldier who seems to appear at most major Revolutionary War battles, “here was the army starved and naked.”  The situation had evolved because of the horrendous winter in Morristown, NJ, the lack of support and funding by the Continental Congress, and the weak infrastructure that plagued Washington’s army.  Most Americans were unaware how poorly the American military was outfitted and how the men were forced to live and fight under intolerable conditions for a good part of the American Revolution.  This theme is one of the many that Nathaniel Philbrick argues in his new book VALIENT AMBITION: GEORGE WASHINGTON, BENEDICT ARNOLD, AND THE FATE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION.  Those who are familiar with Philbrick’s earlier works like the MAYFLOWER AND IN THE HEART OF THE SEA will not be disappointed with his latest effort.  Philbrick continues his narrative works dealing with the American Revolution and has written another evocative and fascinating historical monograph that should be attractive to the general public and professional historians.  Philbrick’s approach rests on the exploration of the personalities, military capabilities, and the “valiant ambitions” of George Washington and Benedict Arnold.  In addition, Philbrick weaves into the narrative the economic hardships, societal relationships, and battlefield experiences of the lower classes who fought the war.

(The young Benedict Arnold)

The book builds up to a situation where one of Washington’s greatest generals came to decide that the cause to which he had given almost everything no longer deserved his loyalty.”  Of course that general is Benedict Arnold, a brilliant military tactician on land and sea, but also a person who possessed an ego that surpassed most people of his age.  His sense of entitlement knew no bounds and after his leg was shattered in battle and many of his investments did not bear fruit he contemplated how he could recoup much of his wealth that he claimed was lost in support of the revolution.  Further exacerbating his psyche was his infatuation and love for Peggy Shippen, whose father Edward was a wealthy loyalist and to win her hand in marriage he had to create the wealth that she had grown accustomed to.  Politics also played into Arnold’s bitterness toward the colonial government in that Joseph Reed, the President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council and the most powerful man in the state launched an investigation into Arnold’s conduct as military governor of Philadelphia.  This would lead to Arnold’s trial which on top of previous episodes of fighting for his proper rank made Arnold ripe for treason.  Philbrick does a masterful job following Arnold’s path to becoming a spy and integrated many primary documents to highlight all aspects of Arnold’s overblown sense of his own importance and the resulting trial and court-martial.

(Peggy Shippen, the love of Benedict Arnold’s life!)

Philbrick effectively contrasts General Arnold with George Washington a man who did not measure up to Arnold as a military tactician, but was the type of individual who eventually would learn from his mistakes.  The Washington that Philbrick presents is a man who must fight his “inner demons” which were his naturally aggressive tendencies.  By the spring of 1777 Washington argued for a “War of Posts,” a defensive strategy that made perfect sense against the British.  However, he would repeatedly violate this strategy by assuming the offensive at Brandywine and Germantown which resulted in the British occupying Philadelphia for eight months.  As a result Washington finally learned to control his offensive instincts and do what was best for his army and country.  Washington had been placed in the untenable position by the Continental Congress that put him in command of the army to prosecute the war, but would not allow him to choose his own officers, on which he had to depend on most.  To his credit Washington realized the limitations that were placed on him were due to the politicization of the war and decided to deal with the situation as best he could.  On the hand Arnold was emotional and impulsive at times, but was a sound military thinker who, unlike his commander, had the ability to outthink his opposition and take advantage of the topography available to him.  I agree with Philbrick that Arnold’s “narcissistic arrogance that enabled him to face the gravest danger on the battlefield without a trace of fear had equipped him to be a first-rate traitor.”  It is interesting to note that had the Continental Congress headed Washington’s advice concerning Arnold’s promotion and seniority he might have gone down in history as one of the immortals, not someone who has been labeled a traitor.

Joseph Reed by Pierre Eugène du Simitière.jpg

(Joseph Reed, whose evaluation of Arnold was dead on!)

Philbrick’s narrative is not a complete history of the American Revolution, but he assimilates the most important battles into the narrative, the strategies employed by Generals Burgoyne, Howe, and others for the British, in addition to Generals Horatio Gates, Philip Schuyler and others for the Americans.  The book is enriched by the competition between these men, in particular Gates’ attempt to seize command of the army from Washington.  Further, the reader is exposed to sectional political machinations between the New England, Atlantic, and southern states that fostered much of the domestic and internal military hostility that existed during the fighting.  Philbrick is a meticulous researcher and this is reflected in his unique story telling ability and novelistic detail.  However, if there is an area that Philbrick could have developed further, it is the lack of interactions between Washington and Arnold, particularly during the first half of the book.   The author could have spent less time describing battle details, though highlighted with excellent maps, and devoted greater emphasis on the two main characters in the narrative, how they interacted with each other, and the ramifications of those interactions.

Philbrick reaches an interesting conclusion in that Arnold did the young nation a tremendous service through his treason.  During almost five years of fighting the Continental Congress was rather disjointed, rivalries between regions detracted from any hope of unity, and the military situation was poor.  Arnold’s treason galvanized the American people against him and created a sense of common purpose.  Though the people had come to revere George Washington as a hero, it was not sufficient to bring the people together, but now they had a despised villain to accomplish that goal.  The real enemy for the young nation was not Great Britain but those Americans who sought to undercut their fellow citizens’ commitment to one another.  Philbrick’s argument is rather interesting and a bit overstated, but he argues it quite well.  VALIENT AMBITION is a fascinating study and will make a wonderful addition to any library of the American Revolution.

(George Washington and Benedict Arnold)