Sooner or Later It All Gets Real


by J.D. Rhoades

I have to confess, I’ve been riveted by and keep coming back to the photograph above. In case you’re not familiar with the photo, this is the Presdent of the US and his advisers watching, in real time, the operation that took down Osama bin Ladin.  A larger, hi-res version is here.

I don’t intend to get into the politics of this, but rather into the human element. Look at that photo for a moment. Look at the  tension in those faces as they watch the whole thing go down, as it happens, knowing that the dice have been rolled and knowing that if the whole thing goes to pieces, there’s not going to be a whole hell of a lot they can do about it.

Now imagine trying to put that scene down as words on a page.

There are excellent reasons why we most likely will never see the faces of the Navy SEALS who carried out the operation. We’d basically be putting a target on their backs and the backs of their families if we did that. But damn, I sure would like to. Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you like to know? Would they be calm? Determined? Grim? Furious? Nervous? Scared shitless? I’d love to be able to get into their heads, then write it all down.

It’s rather ironic that I became so transfixed by these thoughts on the same day I made my flippant comment on Tess’ post that “Reality’s boring, that’s why I read.” Because right there, in that picture, is some reality that could come right out one of the very thrillers we read and write.

Problem is, far too many thrillers–some of them extremely popular–feature heroes I can never quite accept as human. Instead of realistic people who feel fear, doubt, tension, you get Bolt Studly, the mavericky, two-fisted, fearless ex-Navy Seal/CIA Agent whose only flaw is that he rushes headlong into the action. I much prefer my action heroes with some vulnerabilties: Charlie Fox, Jonathan Quinn, John Rain, to name just a few. Even Jack Reacher got a lot more interesting when he began to face the possibility he could lose.

Living where I do (right next to Fort Bragg, headquarters of JSOC) and doing what I do as a day job, I’ve met quite a few Special Ops soldiers. No SEALS, but plenty of Rangers and Green Berets, and a few guys I’m pretty sure were Deltas (the haircuts are the giveaway. You meet a guy around here who says he’s in the Army and he’s got hair down over his ears, you’re most likely talking to someone from Delta). They pretty much run the gamut you’d expect of any group of young men: some are great guys, some are blustering assholes. Some are quiet, unassuming family men, some have, shall we say, messy personal lives. A very few, quite frankly, I’m concerned to have walking around loose. And, I imagine, you get the same spectrum in SEAL Team Six, the people who took down OBL.

Which, to me, makes the real life story even more amazing. Because these guys aren’t perfect Bolt Studly (even though some of them may swear to you  that they are, especially if you’re female). They’re not Superman. They’re real. They’re three dimensional. They’re human. Admittedly, humans who can shoot the pips off a playing card at 100 yards, but still, they worry, they fear, they get the shakes. Then they do the job anyway.

For that, we thank them.

24 thoughts on “Sooner or Later It All Gets Real

  1. Colette

    I so agree. The first time I saw that picture it took my breath away. Imagining what they were thinking. Imagining what they were feeling. So much riding on it. Wow. Makes me very happy we have strong leaders of this country.

  2. Mark Terry

    I've been thinking a lot about that helicopter basically crashing and getting blown up. I imagine every single person in the room was thinking about President Jimmy Carter aborting the mission to rescue the hostages in Iran because of helicopter problems and what the repercussions were.

  3. Thomas Pluck

    All except General Fruit Salad who looks like he's checking Facebook 🙂

    In a thriller, it would go down and then the whammy would come after. But you're right, all the good SEAL and Special Ops memoirs like Chuck Pfarrer's involve doubt, flaws… these men are not genetic lottery winners but those who struggled and fought to become the best, falling face down in shit a dozen times before they succeeded. They aren't perfect they just never gave up in training, so their leaders know they would never give up in combat.
    Blackhawk Down- a soldier with his thumb shot off, crying, as he keeps plugging away at the enemy. Real.
    I love Bob Crais and Joe Pike, but when I read The First Rule, I kept wanting Pike to fail. To f**k up. To have to struggle for anything… and it wasn't there. I hope the Sentry shows him a little more human. I know we have Elvis Cole for that, but when Pike's alone he needs to be human.
    Thanks for mentioning that Jack Reacher gets to this point- that's likely where I'll start reading! When I heard people gushing about the character, I couldn't get into him. Even comic book heroes have flaws and doubts now. It's time some of the badasses caught up.

    The SEALs, and everyone up to the President and his cabinet did a great job. Even signing off on the hit took guts. Carter was destroyed when the Special Ops rescue of the Iran hostages failed- due to a snadstorm and equipment failure. You can see that in the President's eyes in this photo. Not fear, that slump in the shoulders after you throw the punch, knowing it is justified, and hoping it lands on the jaw and takes the bastard down.

  4. Rae

    Great post, Dusty.

    The thing that's been fascinating me is the timing of the raid, and the WH Correspondents' Dinner. If I understand it correctly, Obama was yucking it up at Seth Meyers' joke about OBL's "talk show on CSPAN", and making some pretty good jokes of his own, having pulled the trigger on the raid.

    Must have been sorta surreal for him. Also gotta say, it took some stones.

  5. John McFetridge

    Yes, JD, I keep coming back to that photo, too and like Rae I keep thinking about the Correspondents' Dinner and the jokes and the casualness of it all. The whole schedule from Friday to Sunday while it was all going down. That's something else I'd like to see in a thriller, the switching gears and emotional ups and downs and sticking to the routine and how none of what's really going on can show.

  6. pari noskin taichert

    Thank you for this post. Like you, I've looked at this photo again and again. It's incredibly powerful in the depth of emotion there . . . the intensity of it.

    Your last paragraph of the blog was especially true, Dusty. And all I can add right after the word "shakes" is that "they bleed. And they die."

  7. Dana King

    Thanks for this, Dusty. This country too often regards any demographic group by a single characteristic that is then accepted as good or bad. People aren't like that. Teachers aren't like that, cops aren't like that, military personnel aren't like that. Any group drawn from the general population will reflect that population. Some will seem too good to be true, yet they really are. Some will have emotional trouble. Some will drink. Some will sleep around. Some will like killing people. Some will be assholes. Some will be readers. And on and on. We do them all a disservice to assume too much about them–good or bad– because of the group they belong to.

  8. tess gerritsen

    Magnificent post, Dusty. I too have problems with thrillers that have perfect heroes who never make mistakes or never get scared. Instead, give me the ordinary guy stuck in an extraordinary situation, someone who finds the hero deep inside himself.

    As for that photo — what a riveting image. I'm sure they were all thinking "This could be the end of this presidency." I'm just glad I didn't have to make the decision to go in.

  9. Karen in Ohio

    Powerful photo; powerful essay. And in this case, a picture truly tells more than 1,000 words would convey, doesn't it? You could write that much from each person in the photo's perspective, and still not plumb the depths of possibility.

    I had no idea, until yesterday, that SEAL was an acronym for SEa, Air, Land. Shoulda known; the military doesn't run on its stomach, it runs on its ability to abbreviate every. freakin'. thing.

  10. Gerald So

    One aspect that almost never appears in superheroic "Bolt Studly" fiction is the teamwork particularly taught to SEALs. As capable as each man is, he has built unshakable trust in his teammates and counts on them to help accomplish any mission.

  11. David Corbett

    I gave a class this weekend on The Protagonist Problem, i.e., Why is the hero so often the blandest person in the book? The first reason I posed to the class was:

    Unlike secondary characters and villains, who are allowed to act foolishly or badly, the hero is perceived as the representative of virtue.
    Solution: Find a way to let a flawed or imperfect person serve this role.

    I then noted how in medieval mystery plays Everyman was little more than a silhouette, whereas the Vices were incredibly interesting– and stole the show (great lesson in virtue there).

    And Galahad and his brethren, the Jesus figures of chivalric romance, got to be so boring the Spaniards came up with the picaresque novel so rogues, scoundrels and ne'er-do-wells could shove him off the page.

    But those rogues had a heroic ancestor who had all but disappeared from western culture: Odysseus. He was not just a great soldier, he lied, he cheated, he connived, he betrayed. And that's why the Romans — Virgil in particular — threw him under the bus. They hated him. He defied their notion of honor.

    So we get Galahad and his ilk for centuries until Richard III comes along, but even he's still a villain.

    The anti-hero of the 20th century is a return, I believe, to the Odyssean hero. And as SJ Rozan wrote in a brilliant essay a few years back, the PI protagonist after WW2 bore himself with the taint of non-heroic survival that so many GIs came back with from that war. Marlowe considers himself stained. He travels the mean streets so his clients don't have to. He's Galahad with the mark of Cain.

    Great post, Dusty. I'll have to pop up to Fort Bragg some day, say how-do. Lovely drive through the Redwoods. Same one Steinbeck took with Charley . . . Maybe.

  12. David Corbett

    BTW: President Obama declined to use bombers to take out the compound in March, when it slocation was first confirmed, for fear verification of OBL's death would be compromised, and there was great risk of collateral damage, as they say.

    So this SEAL operation was approved, and one of the first things agreed upon was that it would have to take place at "low loom," the time when the moon is at its lowest luminosity. This would prevent easy detection of the approaching helicopters.

    LOW LOOM. Does anyone else suspect we'll see this title on a thriller in the very very very near future?

    (Of course, it also somehow conjures a low hang on someone's Fruit of the Looms, which compromises just a tad the romance of the phrase, I suppose.)

  13. Eve

    Let protagonists be human, by all means, but save me from the writers who give them a whack of nasty characteristics, unrelated to the story, and expect me to be okay with that as long as he/she kills a serious bad dude. Perhaps I'm old fashioned, but I do want my protagonist to have some morals I can look up too.

  14. Reine

    Wonderful post, Dusty. I've been absorbed by that photo – and the video. Wait. Was there a video, or has my mind created it? I think my brain has gone to LOW LOOM factor.

  15. Reine

    Ah, David, there you go tempting my flaws, yet again. I am only just so strong.

  16. KDJames

    Great post, JD. First time I saw that pic, I didn't realize they were watching events take place in real time. I think I was too caught up in the tension of it to read the caption. The technology of that boggles the mind, doesn't it? And I agree with you about the need to write this kind of hero as someone who is emotionally three dimensional. Yeah, I'd love to sit down and talk with one of those guys, even though I know they'd have nothing to say.

    (Bolt Studly? *snort* Really?)

    I have to wonder about the photographer, though. Was this a still frame taken from a video of the meeting? Was there an actual photographer taking pics? And are these officials so used to that going on it isn't a distraction? How focused must s/he have been on the job of documenting history rather than turning away from those intent faces and watching it too? That would take willpower I just don't have.

  17. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Dusty – I can't stop looking at that photo. It speaks volumes. Thank you for providing the high-definition version.
    And I agree–our heroes must be human, they must have faults, fears, regrets.

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