Dan Fesperman is an author who ventures into situations and territories that most crime and thriller writers tend to ignore as either too dangerous or politically inconvenient.
Tell me, for instance, any other author who dared to cover the Balkans war with all it gory complexity? Tell me one who has dared to broach the issue of Guantanano and what goes on there in the name of democracy and the fight against terrorism?
With Unmanned, Fesperman takes us into yet more murky territory. This is a thriller which has much to say about how the Western (not exclusively US) Neoliberal political and economic dictatorship is making powerless eunuchs of most of their citizens through the capacity of its military-economic complex to watch and monitor almost every move we make. Edward Snowden valiantly spilt the beans on how the US and UK governments were not just hacking into all our telephonic communications but were also bugging the conversations of other government leaders, even their supposedly friendly ones. But what do we know about the other means by which the western powers keep us under surveillance? What do you know about drones – other than the recent use of a drone to create mayhem on the football pitch during the international between Serbia and Albania? I suspect most of us at best have only a passing knowledge and are content to leave it at that.
But if you want to delve further I do urge you to get hold of Unmanned. And while you are at it pick up a copy of Patrick Lee’s Runner, a thriller I reviewed for Shots earlier this year. Now I am not sure either author intended their titles to encourage us to find out more about how our governments are keeping their beady little eyes on us and to determine whether we really warrant this close observation. Maybe, both just surmised that they had good stories to tell. And I won’t deny for one moment that they are good stories. Don’t let my political observations lead you to think that Unmanned and Runner are not excellent thrillers. However, my point is that they are so much more than that.
Unmanned takes off in one of the more out of the way parts of America where Captain Darwin Cole, a former USAF fighter pilot, is pursuing his government’s war against terror by navigating unmanned drones against targets thousands of miles away, in this case Afghanistan. Cole navigates the drones, but his orders are dictated by other faceless minions also tucked away in US backwaters. Cole has no reason to question his role in piloting the drones or using them against the targets that are identified for him. Why should he? He’s as patriotic as the next USAF jock. But then his missions start to go pear shaped. In one Cole fires on an a cluster of houses containing a person or persons the US military wishes to liquidate. As Cole zooms in on the target area he sees three children emerging from a building. It is too late to call back the missiles and Cole is left to watch in horror as the rockets hit the building, killing the two young boys and leaving a young girl injured on the floor, one of her arms a foot away.
While Cole doesn’t immediately question the orders he had been given, one of his occupational hazards is that … “he has now begun to wonder what is it like to lead a life in which every action was observed from on high for hours at a time. How would he function under those conditions? What must it be like to become an image lodged in the memory of some secret database, your digital signature retrievable by anyone with the proper clearance?”
Cole becomes obsessed with the image of the young Afghan girl so much so that he believes he is at fault when the nest mission is botched, endangering the lives of a US army platoon. The day after that he goes AWOL, stealing a Cesna and taking his kids off to Death Valley where he sets up camp and drinks himself senseless. To make matters worsethe next night he is discovered in his Colonel’s office in a military base rifling the filing cabinets, trying to find out who had given him the orders. Dishonourably discharged from the USAF, his wife and children leave him. Cole finds refuge in a beat up trailer in the middle of fucking nowhere surrounded by bottles of Jeremiah Weed. And that is where he is found months later by two journalists from Baltimore who are intent on exposing the CIA operative known as For1, who was responsible for the orders Cole had received, and the operative's links with IntelPro, a favoured US defence contractor.
Patently, there is much mutual suspicion between Cole and the reporters. Despite that, Cole agrees to clean up his act and make tracks with the journos back to the Eastern Seaboard to work together on exposing just what lies behind the increasingly suspicious drone programme. While the two reporters head home directly to dig up more dirt on the governmental agencies, Cole zigzags eastwards to throw off any tails, and to call on former colleagues who share his concerns about what went wrong with the drone missions. The emerging context is laid out in a conversation between Cole and Sharpe, another disenchanted and disgruntled security insider, who has been dismissed for asking too many questions about For1, otherwise known as Wade Castle:
“I (Sharpe) will become a party to this only if I can hit those bastards where it hurt. Only if I can create a little anarchy in their ranks. Inside that whole public-private nexus….What Ike used to call the military-industrial complex……he’s their creation, don’t you see? Wade wasn’t just the Agency point man on drones, or technology. He was at the centre of the frame…for all the sharing and distribution of data…he was involved with…everybody’s stuff, from the absolute shit to the absolute gold…running in one great big pipeline to all the customers. Or at least to every customer with enough juice to tap in.”
“In Afghanistan, Iraq. Those aren’t just theatres of war for these people. They’re glorified test labs, proving grounds, marketplaces for the barter of influence and, most important of all, for state-of-the art technology. Those women and children at Sandor Khosh were guinea pigs in somebody’s ill-advised experiment….”
After Sharpe has climbed on board with the awkward mob he completes the rest of the background:
“All that tech that’s out there on the cutting edge..- all of it – has been handed to IntelPro and a handful of other firms like pieces of candy…..they’ve quietly began to resell…to their new friends in aerospace….at the other end of the food chain, they’re preparing to employ every possible application for domestic surveillance and security…..Why do you think they’ve tied themselves so closely to all the people flying predators and Reapers overseas? Because they’d like to use the same shit here.”
OK so that’s all the background. Out on the East coast the expanding cadre of malcontents devise their own plans for finding out what is going on in the Intelpro complex. In a wonderfully ironic twist Sharpe offers them a range of drones he has developed which will allow them to oversee just what the defence corporation is hatching up. Ultimately, there are happy endings all round with the indiscretions of the military and its friends in the security industry all exposed, and presumably brought to an end. Cole is left preparing to travel back to repair the bridges to his family, and presumably the journalists are preparing to receive their Pullitzer prizes for investigative journalism. And that is only the only point of criticism I have for Unmanned. In the real world, of course, the military-industrial complex continues its unfettered war games not only on supposed enemies overseas, but also on its own populations. To paraphrase the immortal quote from Catch 22: “what is good for America is good for the corporations!”