Sunday, April 12, 2020

Book review: The American Crusade by Mark Spivak

One of the benefits of self-isolation is that one has more time to read than usual. I hope to make use of this time to read as many books as I can. Having said that, I have only just started getting accustomed to the new routine of working from home and so my reading pace has slackened since the past few weeks. I have temporarily paused my reading of the Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series to devote time to this invited review. 

Mark Spivak is a writer and editor in the areas of wine, food, and culinary travel. He also identifies as a political junkie who likes to explores the seamy underbelly of the American political system through his writing. The American Crusade, was published in April, 2019.

Political thrillers are normally not the kind of books I covet but since I had never read any book by this author before and am fairly well-acquainted with major events in American history and highlights of the current events, I agreed to this review. 

On May 1st 2001, a hijacked 757 jetliner crashes into the iconic Mall of America in Minnesota sending a fireball into the sky, visible for miles. Later in the day, suicide bombers walk into selected targets around the country and blow themselves up. A second hijacked airliner bound for Washington never makes it to its intended destination and crashes in a field south of Delaware instead owing to the heroism of the passengers who successfully manage to foil the plot. A Middle-Eastern Islamic terrorist organization called Husam-al-Din masterminded by Salman al-Akbar (a wealthy Saudi construction business heir) claims responsibility for the attack that results in over three thousand American civilian casualties. Naturally, pressure mounts on the Republican President George Kane’s administration to retaliate. The American public want nothing more than the perpetrators brought to justice and hence, a military response is unavoidable.  What the public do not know however is that there had been advance warning of the May day attacks and that the administration including the Vice-President had known about Husam-al-Din all along. 

Sound familiar?

Anyone who has been actively following or even for that matter, paying the slightest bit of attention to American politics and the national news during the past decade will recognize the main storyline in The American Crusade. The story is clearly based on the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, the US government's handling of the crisis and the aftermath. Most of the characters are mirrored on real life people (George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein etc). Not having American ancestry nor having ever lived in America (a holiday doesn't count!), I was pleasantly surprised that I was easily able to match every single character to their real life counterpart. But then again, the literary camouflage is pretty thin so that doesn't say much! Names of characters have been changed, places have been fictionalized, circumstances have been tweaked and timelines have been accelerated but otherwise the premise feels eerily familiar. This novel offers a grim insight into American politics where power-hungry people at the top of the administration put their own interests above those of the American public.

The author has altered the names of places in the novel through a fictional event involving a controversial decision made by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the end of World War II of carving up the Middle East into three massive superstates of Kabulistan (fictional Afghanistan), Sumeristan (fictional Iraq) and Persepostan (fictional Iran). 

After the May attacks unfold, the initial statement given by the American President to the public is to take the aid of Dua Khamail, the repressive regime of Kabulistan to help isolate and wipe out the terrorist cells and training camps of Husam-al-Din. But in an unexpected turn of events, the President subsequently announces that the government of Sumeristan led by Hussein Ghazi is a far greater long-term threat to the US than the Dua Khamail and Husam al-Din put together and would be the target of military focus. His statement, based on American intelligence reports alleges that the Sumeristan government has been producing and storing chemical and biological weapons on an unprecedented scale. In reality, this runs in parallel with the US military invasion of Iraq instead of tracking down al-Qaeda, the real terrorists who had managed to strike fear and panic in the heart of America during 9/11.

The US coalition forces invade Sumeristan without invitation, deposes Hussein Ghazi in the effort to bring self-government to a country that needs it but in the process, ends up creating an environment of violence and chaos, totally unforeseen by them. During the course of the protracted armed conflict, the media increasingly challenges the sketchy pre-war evidence and unearths embarrassing mistakes made by the administration which culminates in widespread criticism. With this, the author draws an analogy with the Bush administration receiving national and global condemnation for the military intervention in Iraq that resulted not only in casualties on both sides and countless human rights abuses but also needless financial losses. 

The author provides historical parallel to the modern day story by strategically interspersing italicized narratives about thirteenth century's doomed Fourth Crusade. The Fourth Crusade was originally intended to conquer Muslim-controlled Jerusalem by means of an invasion through Egypt. Instead, the Crusaders of Western Europe invaded and sacked the Christian city of Constantinople. The similarities between the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are uncanny. By juxtaposing two real events that occurred hundreds of years apart, the reader can reflect on the thinking and choices made by mankind. An astute reminder by the author that - "Those that don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it". 

The subplots add depth and intrigue to the narrative especially that of Abdul, the young boy from Baghdad and the events leading to his radicalization. Some of the other subplots involving scandalous affairs, blackmail and manipulation within the US Capitol, the Oval Office and Langley struck me as quite realistic and highly plausible. 

Coming to the characters - most of the book is told through the eyes of Robert Hornsby, the Vice President and former CIA director. He is ruthless, cunning, manipulative and takes any opportunity to advance his agenda, even in the face of tragedy. There is the personable but inexperienced and dim-witted George Kane, the current President of the United States of America who also features as a major character. Then there is Herbert Cane, George’s “uncle” and ex-president, William Hampton, Cane’s enigmatic but womanising predecessor in the Oval office, straight-talking Secretary of State Jennifer Caldwell, her perceptive assistant Mandy Parisi and enterprising biracial senator Khaleem Atalas among others. 

The plot of The American Crusade plays out in a predictable way. There aren't many exciting twists and turns that leave the reader holding their breath. The novel is a fictional rehash of 9/11, the Bush administration and the Iraq War so it wouldn't be completely unfair to brand it as 'old wine in a new bottle'. The narrative is fast-paced but I took longer than usual to finish the book because I found some bits (especially the Fourth Crusade) a little tedious. That being said, it is an intelligent, well-written and a thought-provoking thriller. I particularly enjoyed the clear descriptive prose, the characterization, the clever dialogues and most of all, the informal banter between people we normally view as polished and articulate high-ranking government officials. 

Keep your political inclinations at bay and try to read the novel objectively. Chances are, you will enjoy it.

My rating for this book is


P.S. - This is not a paid review. All opinions are my own 

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