Michael Kearns and Ronald Solomon have written one of the most important books of the year, and one of the most entertaining. Drawing on Kearns' experience in the military, especially his years training military personnel, intelligence agents, and other government employees in the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, or SERE, program for the Pentagon's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, Kearns and Solomon have constructed a thriller about a high-tech, drone-enabled takeover of America that seems all too real, chiseled out of the headlines we read every day. And just as scary!
Kearns' extensive knowledge is on display, whether it's a low-approach parachute jump, reading satellite maps, or teaching others how to withstand torture. The book provides a close-up look at how the SERE school psychologists and trainers interacted and worked with CIA and Special Ops as integral parts of their operations. It is easier to see after reading this book how SERE psychologists became embroiled with the government's torture plans. And it is with torture that the book is largely concerned (although you could make an argument that the growing reliance by the U.S. on drone surveillance and killing is just as important thematically). The book's primary villain, Breskin, seems to be based on real-life CIA contractor James Mitchell, identified as one of the primary architects of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation program."
"Broken" posits more research on high-tech torture than we've been told exists, but its vision of mechanized torture is not far off from the kinds of research done on torture by the CIA and the Pentagon. The book is, via its hero Chauncey, unashamedly anti-torture, and it's refreshing to see that in a culture whose mainstream news sources find the existence of "torture" itself to be reducible to a hypothesis, even when the torture is waterboarding.
Kearns, whose alter-ego is Chauncey, has contributed in the past to the anti-torture discussion in this country, and he released notes from Mitchell's associate Bruce Jessen that were later published in a 2011 article at Truthout by myself and journalist Jason Leopold. Those notes were the basis for the SERE class SV-93, which is mentioned in "Broken." So while you may consider this review slightly biased, I can tesitfy that Kearns is someone who, like Chauncey, though perhaps not as dramatically, puts his anti-torture beliefs to the test of public exposure of government wrongs.
But "Broken" is not merely political. Its characters are well-drawn and interesting. Unlike other action heroes and villains, they suffer. They get PTSD. They break. They drink to forget traumatic memories forged in the service of their country, or blasted into them at the tip of an inhumane drone campaign to find "terrorists" and assassinate them. Indeed, there were some portions of the book that were so intense I had to put it down for a bit, to catch my breath, look around and normalize my surroundings.
Kearns and Solomon want you to feel the emotional reality of what their characters suffer, and they do an excellent job! In many ways the characters are broken in the way the nation's soul has been "broken" by its turn to undemocratic and inhumane policies like torture and burgeoning Panopticon-style surveillance and assassination. In such a world, Kearns and Solomon seem to be saying, no one is immune from being broken like this.
Finally, on the level of a pure "read," the book is full of twists and turns, and as entertaining as a Ludlum yarn. There's a reason it's getting lots of great reviews. I'm hoping for a sequel!
[Postscript: Since I've mentioned that I've had some professional and personal contact with Kearns in the past, I want to state for the record this review was not written for any compensation, and my review was based on my own personally purchased Kindle copy of the book.]