Many long-time SOFREP readers may not be aware of Nate, but he is one of our little gremlins behind the scenes. He has the painstaking task of copy-editing and proofreading an unending stream of articles written by professional knuckle-draggers with room-temperature IQs. That’s right, the military doesn’t really teach Rangers, Green Berets, SEALs, PJs, and MARSOC Marines the difference between than and then. That’s where Nate comes in. But he is also an accomplished writer in his own right, and I recently read his most recent novel “Cogar’s Crusade” on a long train ride. I highly recommend you guys take a look and tell us what you think!
Note: The following is an excerpt from SOFREP Editor Nate Granzow’s newest novel, “Cogar’s Crusade.” Until September 1st, all proceeds from the book’s sale go to the Red Circle Foundation, helping the families of fallen and wounded U.S. Special Operations heroes.
Synopsis: July 2013. Foreign correspondent Grant Cogar has gone missing and is presumed dead. His last known whereabouts: Aleppo, Syria. Another casualty lost to a brutal civil war already responsible for claiming over 100,000 lives. But when an anonymous message reaches Cogar’s editor with news of the reporter’s survival, his old friend and mentor decides to retrieve him. Only, Cogar doesn’t want to be saved.
Like a pile of decaying viscera, I sat, feet up, in my underwear, doing my best to fuse with the couch cushions as I watched the second cycle of the day’s news—or the third, I don’t remember. The news ticker scrolled past at a leisurely pace, teasing a story about a typhoon in Taiwan. The shades were drawn, the apartment silent apart from the whir of a neighbor’s vacuum on the floor beneath mine. Wherever my pants were, inside the back right pocket was a lonely, twice-folded twenty-dollar bill and a stack of credit cards sticky with debt.
In the fridge rested two cans of cheap beer and a half-eaten slice of pork roast my elderly neighbor had insisted I take two days before. It had a smell I didn’t trust. The geriatric, not the pork. I was ten pounds overweight, muscles and mind atrophied, coming down from a brief and unsatisfying caffeine high, feeling the sweat trickle down my bare chest and wondering if the air-conditioning unit duct taped to the window frame would run if I could afford to plug it in.
My apartment, that one familiar anchor in my otherwise chaotic life, had begun to close in on me. It had developed a dustiness without being dirty, a solitude without being uninhabited. It gave off the same sort of feeling one might get upon entering a derelict log cabin, a cast iron pan still suspended over a fire gone cold, a book left open on the table, boots by the door. All the inviting warmth of a stage set wheeled behind the curtain and left in the dark. Maybe I should get a cat.
Two prosaic, local government-watchdog-type articles I had no ambition to finish sat half-written on my laptop: One, on hold until my FOIA request got fulfilled, was an investigation into a privacy breach at the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The other, a wandering piece with an uninspired lede and a dearth of credible sources, was about railway transportation of hazardous waste. Better prospects had failed to materialize, and it didn’t look like any worthwhile assignments were on the horizon.
I finally convinced myself to go to the kitchen to reheat another cup of coffee in the microwave. I would have preferred whiskey. Today was the perfect sort of day to drink oneself into a state of drooling, passed-out-on-a-park-bench narcosis, but the kitchen cabinets were as empty as my wallet. Haphazardly flipping through the pile of mail on my kitchen table, I searched for an invite to some press event or grand opening that might have an open bar. I’d dust off a tux if it meant access to someone else’s liquor cabinet. Those invites usually ended up pinned to the refrigerator and forgotten about. But the fridge was bare, the stack of mail empty of anything but solicitations and overdue bills.
I glanced at the television. They’d begun interviewing a Syrian refugee, a young boy. He looked right through me, panicked, bloodied, and mud-spattered, wearing that same lost, exhausted expression I’d seen a thousand times before in my travels to countries seized by the barbed jaws of strife and disaster. But this felt different. There was something accusing in his eyes, something that drove a stake of guilt through my gut just by looking at him.
Then it occurred to me: I’d always been the one behind the camera, the one delivering the story to the people back home, doing my part to bring attention to those who needed a voice. But now, I’d become my audience. And I’d already watched this newscast twice. And I hadn’t noticed. I hadn’t cared.
And that sickened me. I turned off the TV, got dressed, and went for a walk.
I spent the following day calling up old sources and my most dependable street urchins, entreating the news gods for some kind of story that would vanquish my boredom. Nothing. At the least convenient time, Chicago had become quiet and peaceful. But as I continued to hunt for a story, in the back of my mind, I kept envisioning that Syrian boy’s eyes. They gnawed at me.
That afternoon, at a coffee shop where the barista kept giving me annoyed looks for not buying more than one small, seventy-cent cup of black coffee as I obstinately parked myself in a corner with my laptop, I felt a spark rising deep in my chest. The subtlest flicker, but it grew until, for the first time in months, I decided I needed to do something. Not as a journalist, but as a man. At that moment, I decided to get off my ass and go to Syria.
Even before I began doing my homework, I knew Syria was one of those holes in the world that journalists spoke to one another about in hushed tones. It was a dark place, a quagmire that drew men in and swallowed them whole. The civil war that had engulfed the country was one giant Gordian knot, the likes of which had left even seasoned intelligence operatives and international relations gurus scratching their heads in search of a good solution. Naturally, such a mare’s nest was dangerous. And complex situations where bullets were involved usually meant hard work. No one likes hard work, least of all me. That said, I’d made up my mind. I was going, even if it killed me. Which, the more I read about the place, I believed it might. Still, it had to be better than languishing here.
With a few hours of research under my belt and a few inquisitive calls made to connections familiar with the country, I rang my editor. After I pitched the story idea, Kailas grudgingly agreed to give me an advance of about half of what I actually needed to fly to Turkey and bribe my way into Syria. So I caught the bus to the Herald’s offices, got my check, and checked out one of the paper’s SLR cameras. I marched straight down to my local pawn shop with it and left clutching a wad of cash and an empty camera bag. They wouldn’t miss it for months, by which time I would have forgotten I’d taken it in the first place. I bought my plane ticket that night.
At home, I stuffed my clothes and gear into my old leather duffel bag. The zipper never stayed closed, so I had to weave a twist-tie through the eyelet of the sliders to keep my clothes from ending up scattered throughout the plane’s cargo bay. The bag itself had weathered the years about as well as I had—poorly, and bearing a patchwork of scuffs and scars to prove it. It was an unsightly thing, but it was like an old traveling companion. A lucky one.
I looked around my bedroom. The sheets, wrinkled and untucked, still smelled faintly of women’s perfume. Tiffany? Tanya? Something like that. We hadn’t spoken since she’d come over a week before, which was just as well. She was perpetually adjusting her underwear, which, though it turned me on at first, soon proved just an irritating compulsion.
The walls were empty except for one stretch of drywall where, after a bottle of tequila, I’d decided I needed to hone my knife-throwing skills with a set of steak knives. Dirty clothes I meant to wash a week before covered the floor. A quintessential bachelor’s pad.
I’d always felt a sense of melancholy when leaving this place. It had been the only home I’d known. Every time I left it to travel abroad, I knew I might not return. One day, I’d face a marksman who knew how to lead his target, or a mortar crew who had mastered the art of bracketing, and I’d be sent home in a body bag. Now, staring at this barren place, I felt nothing. No attachment, no sense of ownership.
I might not make it back, and I wasn’t sure that bothered me anymore.
William Tecumseh Sherman once said there is no use trying to reform war, as the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over. Sherman had obviously never visited the Middle East.
If he had, he would have known that there is no limit to the depth of human depravity, and wars in this part of the world don’t come with expiration dates. The Middle East is an island buoyed by corpses, rocking unsteadily atop a bottomless lake of blood—a lake that Sherman only briefly canoed over during his stint as general. Here, every drop of red spilled in the sand fuels the strife like gasoline on flame. Increases its duration, its heat. The place is thirsty for it. Even in those rare moments where the fire appears to have gone out, the embers beneath the ash are glowing red hot, ready to erupt at the first taste of an accelerant. It’s always been that way. The weaponry has changed, but the brutality has, at best, remained the same. The threshold for suffering in this place is so much higher than Sherman could have imagined; cruelty doesn’t discourage the warmongers here, it incites them.
Why? Because after millennia of genocide and barbarism, violence is no longer shocking. It’s just business.
“T’hamil bnadq. Ayzeen rasas kaman.” A gaunt Free Syrian Army soldier, bearing a jagged cut on his cheek from a shrapnel wound he’d acquired the day before, moved down the line handing out ammunition. He stumbled as our ponderous troop carrier rolled over a mortar crater. Regaining his footing, he shoved an AK-47 magazine under my nose and shouted, “Where are your magazines? You need more ammunition, American.”
I bumped the plywood stock of my Chinese Type-56 rifle with my fist and replied, “I’ve got plenty here, thanks. I’m very selective about when I shoot. Besides, I’ve got a sensitive shoulder and I’m pretty sure I’m allergic to gunpowder. Makes my throat tight and my ass break out in boils. It’s pretty painful.”
Looking away with disgust, the soldier continued down the line.
“Try to keep that bit about the boils between the two of us though, eh?” I shouted after him.
For ten months, I hadn’t fired a single round of ammunition. I’d only begun carrying an empty rifle to keep the others from asking questions about what I was doing there. Such inquiries made me uncomfortable, since I still wasn’t quite sure what I was doing in Syria. I’d given up on the notion of reporting months before, had stopped checking in with my editor altogether—Kailas had probably written me off for dead by now anyway—and spent my days following around an eclectic gallimaufry of rebel forces from all over the Middle East.
One thing I was sure of: I wasn’t there to fight, even if I looked the part. Sporting the longest, most unruly beard I’d grown in my life, I wore a pair of blue jeans so dirty they looked brown and an old camouflage jacket that had doubled as my pillow since the day I’d arrived. The relentless Syrian sun had darkened my skin so much, if it weren’t for my grain-colored hair and blue eyes, I might have passed for someone of Middle-Eastern descent without much scrutiny. To those outside my platoon, I usually just lied and said I was a Chechen, anyway. Nobody seemed to care enough to challenge me. I was here, they were here, and since we weren’t shooting at each other, we must be on the same side. Today.
My stomach grumbled. Either the nervous anticipation of another rough day or indigestion. Probably both. Scraping my rifle’s buttplate against the truck’s steel bed as we jostled along the artillery-pocked road, I looked out over the desolate landscape surrounding the city of Aleppo. The smoldering carcasses of cars and livestock stippled the ground. The distant city chattered with subdued gunfire, punctuated by the muted concussions of falling artillery.
Dust. If I could choose only one word to describe what the country had become, it was dust. The subdued, unvarying color of the crumbling buildings—like sand and decaying leaves—the thick, polluted haze that obscured the distance and made the air hard to breathe, the piles of rubble scattered errantly in the middle of streets or where buildings once stood; the word was fitting. It was as though the essence of life had been drained from the city, and all that remained was a shriveled, mummified corpse.
Syria never really stood a chance. Conquered by the Byzantines, Ottomans, English, and French before transitioning to a couple of nepotistic authoritarian dictatorships, the country was just one of those cursed with ill luck from the moment it was conceived. In a nation the size of Spain, only a tenth of its land was arable. The rest was just desert and looming mountains. Leading up to the civil war, the country had suffered a five-year-long drought comparable in severity to the American Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Sweltering temperatures, no rainfall, what little topsoil there once was swept away. There was no work to be had and no natural resources to export. It left Syria overpopulated, underemployed, and with a nasty reputation for violence known throughout the world.
“What do you think, Mr. Cogar? Seems like a good day to die, doesn’t it?” My friend, a Syrian doctor named Shukri Faizel, meek and slight of build, peeked at me over the rims of his glasses. Sniffing the air thoughtfully, a mousy smile swept across his face and he continued, “You and me, we’ll go see Allah today, what do you say?”
I winced and shook my head. “I actually had plans for today. Got to pick up my dry cleaning and do some grocery shopping. Tomorrow would work better, if you’re free.”
This had become our daily routine. We joked about death as though it were nothing, because if we didn’t, its presence would consume us like an acid—nibbling away at the edges until there was nothing recognizable left. It was a desperate attempt to cling to sanity by embracing the insanity of it all. We both knew one day the jokes would come true.
A sudden cacophony of heavy machine gun fire and the boom-wish of a rocket-propelled grenade triggered close by interrupted our truck’s diesel drone. Instinctively pitching over our vehicle’s side and rolling to the ground, I slid into cover inside a deep hole still smoldering from the payload of a Skorpion anti-tank missile. From the road, Shukri peeked into my hiding place and extended his hand toward me.
“Come, Mr. Cogar, we’ve work to do.”
“But, the gunfire….”
“Ours. Rebel ambush up ahead. We’ve got injured to tend to.”
That was Shukri’s way of politely saying we’d be spending the next hour wading through dead bodies to get to the few injured enemy soldiers still intact enough to save, only to have to drag them through a crowd of bloodthirsty onlookers standing around the scene like voyeurs at a ’70s sex party, palms sweaty, pupils the size of golf balls.
What happened to those prisoners after we saved them was up to speculation. Any time I asked about it, I was told they went away to rebel-held prison camps, but no one could ever seem to recollect seeing one or could tell me where they were located. Something told me those prison camps were probably in the same imaginary place as the farm everyone’s childhood pet gets taken to when they get old. Why would the rebels bother keeping them alive? It was common knowledge that Assad didn’t negotiate for prisoners. Soldiers on both sides of the fight knew that being taken alive meant far worse than being killed in a firefight.
Following the medic to where the skirmish had occurred, I watched helplessly as a bearded rebel wearing all black stripped the shirt from a captured regime soldier. Shouting the Takbir and raising a knife in the air defiantly, he plunged the blade into the man’s belly. The dull smack of the blade as it struck flesh, and the screams that followed as the executioner forced the knife further into the screaming man’s chest cavity, made me heave. I bit down on my fisted hand and pinched my eyes shut, willing the vomit back down. The jihadist cut free the soldier’s still-pulsing heart. Stuffing the organ into his mouth and chewing it like a dog would a fresh bone, the Islamist grinned at his companion, who pointed a small video camera at the spectacle. Another low-budget propaganda film in the works. It was that kind of barbaric conduct that kept the world from empathizing with the Syrian rebels, seeing even the moderates in the FSA as insane by association. The jihadists fought against Assad—the common enemy—but it was just another case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
And these guys didn’t make good friends.
“ISIS?” I asked Shukri.
“I overheard them talking,” he replied, trying hard to keep his eyes locked straight ahead, away from the scene of the soldier’s execution. “They’re with Nusra. Best if you avoid them, Mr. Cogar. I doubt very much that they would find you as endearing as I do.”
I stuffed a fresh ya-dom stick inhalant—one of a large supply I’d purchased from a street vendor in Turkey for use as bribes at checkpoints—up my nose and breathed deep the sharp, medicinal scent of camphor and menthol. It shut out the smell of putrefaction and settled my stomach.
“Wait, please. I’m not with the Syrian army, I’m an American!”
My blood ran cold. Tilting my head toward the familiar voice, I spotted him. A stocky, middle-aged Indian man had been driven to his knees, hands in the air, with half a dozen rebel soldiers pointing their weapons at him. He had the looks of a man who’d been sent on an unexpected business trip to a region he’d never even read about, and certainly didn’t pack for.
I whispered, “Kailas?”
Cogar’s Crusade is available in Kindle eBook or paperback formats, and can be purchased here.