I’ve been traveling to South America on business nearly every year since 1984, and over time I became more and more fascinated by the revolutionary impulse. It intrigued me how a bunch of students, lawyers, and young professionals could develop the will and the skills to challenge the state. The same applies to organizers who are able to boot out repressive governments such as the Philippines, Czechoslovakia and Serbia. I was curious why some people grumble about politics while others pick up arms, and about how civil organizers can overturn a state with no violence at all.
I started to wonder what similar movements would look like here in the United States. Also, as the new century progressed, I started seeing more and more similarities to Argentina, Mexico and other Latin countries.
Mexico and Argentina are both renowned for their systemic injustices. Can you give specific examples of what similarities you see in the US now?
The same cronyism at the highest levels of government. The same inability of any scandal to have a real impact on the people who perpetrate it, other than to make them richer. That’s very Argentine, and we see it here in things like Dick Cheney’s Pentagon awarding huge contracts to Halliburton while Cheney’s sitting on hundreds of thousands of Halliburton stock options. It’s right out there in the open: Cheney’s made tens of millions of dollars off the war he helped create, but he’s untouchable.
Privatization is another one. The privatizing of the public assets and functions was imposed on South America in the 70’s and 80’s, and that’s gone on here, starting with Bush Sr, continuing with Clinton, and going into hyperdrive with Bush Jr. I’d say the whole country is being sold off to the highest bidder, except that much of the time they’re no-bid contracts arranged from the inside, so it’s not even the highest bidder. Again, Halliburton is the gold-star example of that kind of profiteering, and very Latin American in that Halliburton wrote the specs for privatizing the military under Bush Sr. and then happened to get the contract under Junior. Most Americans don’t realize how deeply penetrated our government is by Corporations, right down to the most sensitive aspects of Intelligence and Law Enforcement.
At the same time, there’s a growing sense of unease here, both on the Left and the Right. Cruise either Left Wing or Right Wing websites and you’ll see a strong sense of anger and confusion. Combine that with a severe economic downturn, as I’ve portrayed in the book, and you have the ingredients for the kind of political violence present in The Army of the Republic.
There have been some angry reactions to this book. What’s that all about?
Well, the word “treasonous” has popped up, and I’ve been accused of advocating violent revolution. I think one aspect is that some of the heroes are doing some very bad things, like assassinating Corporate figures and blowing up buildings. Critics may assume that since I’m portraying them as real human beings who aren’t necessarily evil, then I’m condoning their actions, which I’m not. And when I sympathetically portray characters who are hiring death squads as real human beings, I’m not condoning their actions either.
Guerrillas, death squads--Is there anyone I can root for in this book?
I always feel you have to love your characters, even the evil ones. I think people root for all the main characters, even the ones that are essentially enemies of democracy.
James Sands is this brilliant entrepreneur that built a billion dollar company from scratch. He donates money to charitable causes, has a wife who teaches underprivileged children in Washington DC, and he is generally a good man. He’s also a government crony who’s hated by a lot of people. The book finds him as his empire is beginning to teeter. He’s got all these civic groups and armed militants attacking his business from the front, and at his back he’s got people who are even worse predators than him trying to engineer a hostile takeover of his business. So, even if you don’t agree with what he does, you can understand him and sympathize with him.
Another character is Lando, one of the young leaders of the Army of the Republic. Lando is driven to save the country from itself in an almost religious way. He’s smart, funny, charismatic, and fully aware that what he’s doing is very dubious on a moral level. He’s not a trained killer. He’s a great talker, and very adept at linking very different people together with the power of an idea and a sense of shared goals. He’s the closest to MacFarland, a former Special Forces guy who’s formed his own militia in the failed logging and farming towns outside Seattle. McFarland comes across as this very sympathetic, hardworking mechanic who doesn’t have an extremely sophisticated analysis but who has a strong, grounded sense of what’s wrong with the country. He’s the one who provides the firepower and the know-how to pull off the AOR’s first assassination. Lando and McFarland may hate the government in different ways, but they both have a strong sense that We, the People need to take control again, and they’re both willing to pull the trigger to do it.
The third important character is Emily, a political organizer in Seattle. She’s in her late twenties, living on almost nothing and totally consumed with trying to reform the government through democratic means. She’s a workaholic that her colleagues have nicknamed “The Nun,” and as her friends progress in their careers and start families, she’s wondering where her life is going. She’s a peaceful person who’s forced to confront a not-so-peaceful regime, and she has to persuade thousands of other people to confront it, too. On top of that, she’s in over her head as a liaison to the guerrillas, who she is both impressed and horrified by. Like all the characters, she’s confronted with a set of choices that get worse and worse, and these are the choices that define her.
You said in an earlier interview that all your novels “have sex in hotel rooms.” This novel also has some passages of humor – where in this novel did you have the most fun?
Lando was definitely the most fun: he has the sharpest sense of humor, one of those people who gets along with everyone, from a bible-thumping Fundamentalist ex-con to the ex-Secretary of Commerce. And yes, I do always enjoy writing the hotel room scenes, not that they’re easy. They’re an opportunity to get something across about this very vital moment that’s very fleeting and just rushes through the characters’ lives the way they rush through the hotel room. A lot of my first novel, Invisible World, was set in hotel rooms, and, actually, a lot of it was written in them.
How did you research this book?
I talked to a wide variety of people, including former revolutionaries in Argentina, Buenos Aires police who were active in the 70’s, CIA people, former 60’s radicals and present day student activists. I also read a lot, including lots of big thick biographies and memoirs in Spanish, as well as books on surveillance, bodyguarding and how to create a false identity. I wanted to understand the whole process of how and why an insurgency forms, the course it can take, and the effects on the individuals within them.
People accuse you of romanticizing terrorism.
Terrorism is a big scary word that stops all thought, but the political violence in the book is far more complicated than simply “terrorism.” Contemporary governments always call their armed opponents terrorists. In the last century, they always called them Communists, and before that they were called bandits, or brigands. Prior to the American Revolution, The Sons of Liberty were an underground organization that conducted anti-Corporate, anti-Government acts of vandalism (the Boston Tea Party) and violence, such as tarring and feathering, that would have probably gotten them classified as “terrorists” by our present American standards.
Is this about Left Wing versus Right Wing?
No. The Army of the Republic is composed of both Right and Left wing militants. And I think that’s a plausible portrayal. If you talk to many gun owners about the government taking their guns away, they immediately start talking about violent resistance, paraphrased by “They can take my gun away when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” Charlton Heston said this to great applause at the NRA convention some years ago, which is pretty mainstream. For the Left, I think violent resistance is more of a fringe idea, but it’s there.
In this book, I wanted people to play out the fantasy and see what it would really look like. If there is one thing I would like people to take away from this book, it’s that despite the polarization that’s been consciously engineered in this country by people like Karl Rove, Rupert Murdoch, Newt Gingrich and hate-speakers like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, we all still have too much in common as citizens to stop working together.
Is this a “political” book intended to affect the outcome of the upcoming Presidential election in the US?
It would be nice to think that a novel could influence an election, but, realistically, fiction just isn’t important enough anymore for one book to have an immediate impact.
However, the judicial, legislative and propaganda infrastructure that’s been constructed to facilitate the kind of Corporate takeover depicted in the book will still be in place after January 20th and it will still have billions of dollars behind it. So, I’m hoping that all people, Left or Right, will stay tuned in to these issues no matter who wins, and that my book will help them do that.