By Order of the President
by W E B Griffin
A review by Sacha Zimmerman
Glancing at the inside cover of W.E.B. Griffin's latest entry onto the best-seller
list, you might be surprised to see that it involves a plot to destroy the Liberty
Bell. After all, as one of the novel's characters admits, it's nothing more than
a "third-rate tourist attraction." Yet, By Order of the President actually
dovetails rather nicely with last week's inauguration, in which President Bush
closed his speech thusly: "When the Declaration of Independence was first read
in public and the Liberty Bell was sounded in celebration, a witness said, 'It
rang as if it meant something.'"
No, this is not an opportunity for Griffin to expound upon the inextricable link between freedom and this small, cracked symbol of U.S. history or to meditate on the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. Rather, he is entirely of the moment, using the Liberty Bell as both a metaphor for our nation's newly realized fragility in a post-September 11 world and as a reminder that we Americans even now -- especially now -- still take that liberty for granted.
Called the "poet laureate of the American military" (despite the fact that he does not write poetry) by the Los Angeles Times, Griffin has apparently decided that, after a staggering 35 successful books, it was high time to create his own Jack Ryan; that is, a hero who will save the day in his own series of novels. Luckily, Griffin is neither as clunky nor as mired in technological one-upmanship as Tom Clancy. It also means that Griffin has realized, like so many of us, that the modern battleground has changed. Eschewing the band-of-brothers-style profiles of Marines, Special Ops, and Green Berets for which he has become so famous and so revered, Griffin depicts a hero who can fluidly cross not just military boundaries but also civilian bureaucracies, criminal syndicates, and foreign cultures. His name is Carlos Guillermo "Charley" Castillo -- a.k.a. Karl Wilhelm von und zu Gossinger.
The state of the world in Griffin's novel reads something like this: After a 727 goes missing from an Angolan airport, the president of the United States, frustrated by the lack of cooperation between intelligence agencies, decides to embark on a little fact-finding mission of his own. We are then introduced to the CIA director, a man more concerned with protecting his reputation than with illuminating any great truths or threats; an FBI establishment steadfastly unwilling to give out an ounce of information to any another agency; a new Homeland Security chief utterly flummoxed by the lack of transparency throughout the government; a CENTCOM that's extremely effective as long as there is time to double check every bit of information from other organizations and then file a dozen permission slips to act; and, of course, Muslim extremists with a plan to crash an airplane into the, um, Liberty Bell. Sound familiar? Frustrated by the tortoise-like speed of the 9/11 Commission and the utter lack of reaction to its report, the president calls in our hero, Charley Castillo, to sort things out. And, acting without the trappings of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy and with the magic power of being able to say things like "Because the president said so," Castillo is enormously effective.
The son of an Alamo-descendant, a Tex-Mex Medal of Honor winner, and a wealthy German publishing heiress, Castillo is -- wonderfully -- a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Latino. With seven languages under his belt, family wealth, a distinguished military career, and contacts in just about every corner of government -- not to mention the world -- Castillo is ideally suited to stop Somali-born mullahs (remember Mogadishu?) from taking a nosedive into Center City, Philadelphia. He is aided in this mission by Alex Pevsner, a wealthy and irresistibly mischievous Russian arms-trafficker; Pevsner's right-hand man, a renegade FBI agent; Major H. Richard Miller, an excommunicated spook who was stationed in Angola and whose life Castillo saved in Afghanistan; Castillo's cousin, Fernando Lopez, a businessman, pilot, and comic relief; a lilliputian Special Ops coordinator, General McNab, who seems to view military missions as extreme sport; CENTCOM big-shots Generals McFadden and Naylor; Jack Britton, posing as a Muslim convert or, as Griffin's Philadelphia Police Department puts it, an "AAL" (African American lunatic); and ultimately a Philadelphia counterterrorism-unit detective, Betty Schneider, the only woman in the novel who does not go to bed with Castillo, despite his keen interest in doing so.
Griffin weaves rich histories for even the most minor characters -- from Schneider's oddly possessive brother to Britton's Pennsylvania Dutch heritage -- that are nearly as engaging as the plot itself. The dialogue, too, is sharp, crass, lively, and often funny as hell. There are heavy doses of that frisky man-on-man flirting of which macho men are so fond. Here the commanding officer at Fort Bragg (who is also, of course, an old friend of Castillo's) Vic D'Alessandro meets Fernando:
"Charley and I go back a long way," D'Alessandro said.
"I know," Fernando said. "He told me that if you even looked as if you might give me trouble I was to shoot you -- twice -- in the nuts."
D'Alessandro smiled broadly.
"I like him, Charley," he said. "But I'll probably kill him anyway."
There's also a lot of great angry dialogue -- especially when Castillo becomes frustrated with the FBI:
"Fuck you, you candy-ass bureaucratic sonofabitch. I'm going to do whatever I can to burn your ass, his ass, and the ass of the special agent in charge over this. You would be wise to deliver the message and dig out the information that I need, because someone who can get you people off your candy asses will be calling shortly."
It really makes you wish for the blessing of the commander-in-chief, doesn't it? "Did you say you're out of mocha-skim-latte-frap?! I don't think so, bitch!"
The military is also, it seems, in universal agreement on its Arab slurs:
"What these rag-heads are really trying to do is get all the other rag-heads united against us, right?" asked General McFadden. "... So what would really piss off the world's rag-heads? An American airplane crashing into that black thing -- whatever it is -- in Mecca."
In addition to being a great explanation of why the Arab world may not look kindly upon us, the term "rag-head" (often "Abdullah bin Rag-head") is one of the most common nouns in a novel that otherwise seems almost self-consciously tolerant of multiculturalism. Luckily, Griffin is well aware of the complex dynamics of the war on terrorism, the perceptions of the United States abroad, and the seeds of extremism that are sown here at home: "If you were a born again Christian, it might help you understand something about how some guy raised in north Philadelphia, who converted to Muslim from, say, the Holy Ghost First Church of Christ African, feels about Islam," explains Britton.
When a military novel arrives on the scene at a time of war, it has a certain poignancy. When it does so with Griffin's utter realism, there is an urgency to the message. By Order of the President handily exposes dozens of ways intelligence organizations could easily allow another September 11 to happen just by making their chief objective covering their own asses. No wonder the novel is so popular. With Special Agent, Secret Serviceman, Aide to the Secretary of Homeland Security Major Charley Castillo, with special authority from the president, on the job, I feel better already.
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