Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Left of Boom by Douglas Laux

Left of Boom by Douglas Laux original cover
Original cover on Amazon
says "John Smith" but actual
cover has "Douglas Laux"

Left of Boom:
How a Young CIA Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al-Qaeda

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Press ()
ISBN-13: 978-1250081360
Kindle: 13215 KB
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (April 5, 2016)

Available on Amazon

A Must Read

I mentioned this last month and I just finished reading it. Wow. Left of Boom is the really frank, tell it like it is, memoir of Douglas Laux's time in the CIA. It is both fascinating and infuriating, as I will explain.

The fascinating part is the look into how the CIA recruits, and operates. Laux spends most of the book on his time in Afghanistan, and it is really intense stuff. He does offer some background about how he got there, which becomes important in understanding his trajectory.

Douglas Laux was a working class kid from rural Indiana who was planning to be an opthalmologist. While he was at the University of Indiana, September 11 happened, and he switched to political science. "Doug, you need to amp up your shit and learn about the world," he told himself.

Senior year a guy from the CIA goes to their university and gives a lecture about working as an operative/analyst. It sounds like pretty boring stuff, but Laux applies online, gets one phone interview and never hears back. He goes on to apply to a bunch of places and ends up with a pretty good job at DHL. He's working there and they call him out of the blue and he starts on what I can only describe as the CIA merry-go-round. You have to read it, but basically the CIA starts playing mind games even during the recruitment process. I suppose it's a way to weed people out.

All that is just background that's covered in chapter two. Chapter one and all the rest of the book is right in the action. A LOT, and I mean entire paragraphs, are redacted (black ink bars where words should be), so reading it can be challenging. My kid saw one of the pages with redactions and dubbed it "the secret book."

It took me awhile to finish this book. It was interesting and exciting and the story flowed, but I kept getting so infuriated and frustrated with what Laux was going through that I was constantly taking little breaks from reading it to keep my blood pressure down.

The frustrating part was learning how bureaucratic and risk-averse the CIA is today. It reads like the DMV of security agencies. A lot of people are in there for their careers, while Laux wanted to be in the action. His whole time in the agency is like that - where he does his work despite the bureaucratic drag. And he does incredibly good work infiltrating the Taliban.

What also makes this memoir riveting is that it is so character-driven. From the start I am appalled at the how much lying Laux has to do everyday, to everyone, even before he gets sent to the field. You can see it isolating and eating at him. The infuriating part is how little support he and other agents get even from within the CIA. Include the stress and the life and death stakes and it's a wonder they function at all.

But how do you even begin to reform an agency that has to be in the shadows? But unless it does improve, we as a country are in even more dire straits than I feared.

Left of Boom is an important book, and an engrossing one. I highly recommend you read it, preferably before November this year.

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