The Army of the Republic
by Stuart Archer Cohen
Reviewed by Bob Sojka
Dean Wesley Smith advises authors not to write book reviews; it risks ticking someone off that you may some day want as a friend, editor, etc. By now you’ve probably noticed that I only review books I like. Maybe they’re more like recommendations, and maybe that gives me some Kevlar. When I picked up Stuart Cohen’s “Army of the Republic,” my modest expectation was a week of passable bedtime reading. Wrong.
I’m a slow reader, so it still took two nights, but I forced the puppy off the bed, fried my eyes, grumped out my sleepy wife, and stepped a dozen or so months into an angry hypothetical future, hanging on for dear life, and suffering paper cuts from frenzied page flipping. I watched a master weave a tapestry depicting a plausible descent into anarchy.
“The Army of the Republic” came to me just as the Tea Party got up a head of steam and I finished it just as BP turned the Gulf of Mexico into an oil slick with barely an “Oops, I’m sorry” about the eleven killed. Last night I watched Gulf coast shrimpers, chambers of commerce, tourism businessmen, local elected officials and coastal residents rage as near-insouciant oil industry apologists, apparently impotent bureaucrats, and legalistically hamstrung Federal agencies talked past them. The possibility of Cohen’s fiction blazed in their eyes.
“Army” is a story of when folks who often bicker over their beliefs unite in ferocious outrage against mega-industries treating them like ants. When sugar ants become fire ants. When they decide to swarm and mete out death by a thousand stings. When justice is sluggish or blocked by bureaucracy or corruption, and vigilantism is embraced by the disenfranchised. When apathy is transformed into an outcry for restitution and the execution of wrongdoers. When terrorists become freedom fighters and their executions and bombings become a 21st century Concord Bridge.
“Army” is about a populist uprising in an America where corporations are not just treated as too important to fail, but too important to be burdened by the same mundane laws and mores that govern the rest of society. Where privilege translates to complete legal immunity and total power. Where the Government’s bottom line is so desperate that it’s every function is outsourced to a string of enterprises run by “Barrington,” a corporation reminiscent of Halliburton. The off-reservation strong arm tactics of “Whitehall,” a private security corporation, unfettered by governmental constraints, is rationalized as protecting the “legitimate” albeit incestuous interests of the corporatized government. In Cohen’s scenario, water is the natural resource that corporate America decides to privatize into an all powerful monopoly.
The big picture story unfolds across a web of tangled relationships among the principle characters. There is Lando, the lead conspirator, a yuppy who has burrowed into the Seattle activist community, the founder of A R (the crosshairs logo for Army of the Republic), a people person with a knack for bringing diverse groups together in a common cause. There is Emily Cortright, emissary of the mainstream activist community to the underground A R, and Lando’s love interest. There is James Sands, a principled and wildly successful Steve Jobs-like titan of entrepreneurialism, who solves water shortages across the U.S. via ever larger commercialization of public water resources. There is Anne Sands, the yoga-practicing, Buddhism loving, environmentalist teacher wife of James Sands. And there are all the right- and left-leaning “compañeros” that Lando brings together in the A R cause, and all the government and industry toadies that draw James Sands slowly toward the dark side when his tour-de-force project in the Pacific Northwest is attacked.
As events unfold, however, we learn that all is not as it seems. Lando has a secret that initially gives the A R a keen advantage as they initiate their uprising. But the secret eventually leads to their downfall. James Sands’ seduction by this story’s “Sith” is thwarted when Anne abandons him in disgust and is subsequently injured at a demonstration in Seattle, a victim of the Whitehall troops James’ company has funded. Lando’s all-in commitment eventually compromises the principles that initially gave his cause the moral high ground. In the final pages, the full cast of characters meet in a maelstrom of miscalculations that defines the startling, if not entirely surprising, ending.
This story, set largely in Seattle, site of the massive 1999 World Trade Organization protests, has so many similarities to recent political and societal events and concerns that it feels often like a waking dream. At times it is hard to distinguish fiction from reality, exaggeration from cautionary outcry, right from left, and right from wrong. Cohen tells us his book draws from events witnessed and researched in South America. But the story feels no more third world or banana republic than the confrontation of Lousiana shrimpers and Petroleum titans flashing across the evening news as I type these words. Maybe the accents are a little different. Stay tuned. Even that might change by the time you finish reading your copy of “Army of the Republic.”
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