The Characters of Steel Fear, Part 5
John David Mann
This seven-part series takes a behind-the-scenes look at the cast of characters in the military thriller Steel Fear, co-authored by John David Mann and SOFREP founder Brandon Webb, and explores the process of conceiving them and bringing them to life on the page. You can find the first part of this series here.
In The Red Circle, Brandon and I wrote about two six-month Western Pacific tours he did back in the 90s as a helicopter sonar operator and rescue swimmer. The first was on the USS Abraham Lincoln, a modern, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Hot stuff. It promised to be pretty damn exciting. It was miserable. It was six months of terrible morale, unkempt conditions, and people getting sick. Brandon came within a whisker of dying when a helo he was crewing almost went down. Pilot error. On that WestPac, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
The second tour, a year later, was booked on the USS Kitty Hawk, the oldest carrier in the navy. Pre-nuclear, an oil burner, kind of falling apart. Sailors called it “the Shitty Kitty.” Brandon figured if life on the Lincoln were bad, this would be worse. It wasn’t. It was incredible—an inspiring six months.
Two experiences, like night and day. Why? What made the difference? Just one thing. The captain. On the Shitty Kitty, the captain got on the 1MC every morning and talked to the crew. Brought everyone up to date on where they were heading next and why. Addressed complaints and issues. Inspired everyone on board, all 5,000-plus of them. We borrowed the reality for our fiction and described it this way in Steel Fear:
“Captain Tom’s leadership sent ripples of pride and quality flowing throughout the ship. He created an esprit de corps that expressed itself on the flight deck, at the mess, in the polish and gleam of every passageway. That turned even something as routine and burdensome as their daily FOD walk down into something to look forward to.”-Steel Fear
On the Lincoln, the captain never showed up. They never heard his voice, not once, and the place fell apart. It was a complete failure of leadership.
A Tale of Two Leaders
That contrast, between great leadership and terrible leadership, inspired the story of Steel Fear every bit as much as the serial killer idea. We could have subtitled it, A Tale of Two Leaders.
As Finn, our central character, observes in the book’s opening chapters:
“Finn had encountered two types of leaders in the military. There were those who grew to fill the high positions they were given. Who became bigger versions of themselves and used their elevated standing to protect the weak. And there were those who used the position to arrogate power to themselves. Who became smaller versions of themselves. Small men in high places.”-Steel Fear
In Steel Fear, these two types are embodied in the ship’s two top leaders, its captain, Eagleberg, and its command master chief, Robbie Jackson. In the first part of the book, you get to see how these two men respond to the same crisis. Just as they’ve received long-awaited permission to exit the Persian Gulf and begin their homeward journey, an officer goes missing, leaving a suicide note behind.
We first meet CMC Jackson in his office, drinking his nasty black coffee as he thinks about the interview he’s just conducted with a pilot who was close to the missing officer.
“He took a sip. The brew tasted like scorched chicory cut with mud. Perfect, to his way of thinking. He set the mug down, its ceramic base making almost no sound as it touched the desk’s steel surface, and thought about the man who had just left his office.
It hadn’t been an easy interview. Lieutenant Bennett had been having an illicit relationship with another officer, now missing and presumed dead. All of which meant this guy was torn up emotionally, which was understandable, and at the same time terrified that his career was about to slide into the ship’s trash incinerator. Also understandable. Jackson had probed gently, asking the kinds of short, open-ended questions that lead to very long answers. Mostly he listened.”-Steel Fear
Pause for a moment and think about what it takes to place a thick ceramic mug down on the surface of a steel-top desk—without it making a sound. And what it says about the person who does the placing. This is a guy who loves his coffee, not just black but downright burnt and bitter. He is the highest-ranking noncom on the ship who is second only to the captain in terms of power and authority.
Yet, he sets his cup down so that it makes no sound.
To me, that says: Here is great power under great control. A person who is acutely aware of the impact of his own actions and who considers every sentence he speaks, every action he takes, with great care.
By contrast, I give you the ship’s captain, who has just been informed about the missing officer.
“Captain William James Eagleberg didn’t like making hasty decisions, nor did he respect those who did. Cautious by nature and made more so by training, he had not arrived at his station in life by acting on impulse. Right now, however, he was exhausted, his patience worn thin as a sheet of goddamn onionskin stationery.
Eagleberg had been up all night getting updates on the Iran situation. Then this morning, just as he had retired to his sea cabin in hopes of a stolen hour of shut-eye, they woke him to tell him some chucklehead had gone missing … The pressures of his life and station (and lifestyle, no doubt) had evidently got to the man, and he came to the moronic conclusion that he could resolve his issues by going over the rail and gulping down a few quarts of Gulf water. And he’d had neither the respect nor the consideration to hold off on that decision till they’d gotten through the choke point at Hormuz and out into the open sea. No, he just had to execute his drama right then and there, as they all sat at the Gulf’s mouth, twiddling their goddamn thumbs. No impulse control. An officer.”-Steel Fear
Eagleberg thinks in utterly self-referential terms. He only cares about how this affects him, not his crew or the poor guy who’s gone missing.
The contrast between these two approaches to leadership creates an inevitable conflict that simmers throughout the pages of the story.
When Jackson begins to suspect there’s more to this string of “suicides” than meets the eye, and brings his concerns to the captain—who resists, deflects, and denies. He puts on a show of being open-minded but is, in fact, anything but open.
” ‘Robbie’, the captain began, ‘I’m sensing hesitation. Let’s put rank aside for a moment. Please, express yourself freely.’ He extended an open palm.
Dieu, what a patronizing prick he could be.-Steel Fear
Jackson wants to investigate. Eagleberg wants to avoid the appearance of trouble on his watch. As Finn observes:
“The master chief wanted to protect his people. The captain wanted to protect his record, which made him dangerous. Small men in high places.”-Steel Fear
The captain’s refusal to take the possible crime spree seriously forces Jackson into a position where he has to make a kind of Sophie’s choice: obey the captain and ignore his gut instinct, or ignore the captain and quietly investigate on his own, which could spell the end of his career.
Scott hesitated, then looked at Jackson and said, ‘Robbie, you sure we’re not on a wild-goose chase here?’
Jackson sighed. Of course, he wasn’t sure. Not even close. And by running this little unauthorized operation, he was risking four good careers. If he was wrong, and they acted, there could be courts-martial in it for all of them. And if he was right, and they didn’t? Chances were, more people would die.-Steel Fear
The killer’s actions push both men into a crisis of conscience and character. The ways they each respond says everything about who they are—and about what happens as a result.
A Weakened Immune System
Steel Fear is a whodunit, so naturally, the central question is, who’s making the killing? Who is responsible for this ship-bound reign of terror? But to me, there’s a deeper question, and one sense it’s a more important question: What allows such a thing to happen?
To me, the answer is found in the leadership.
You’ve seen this yourself, not only in the military but everywhere. What causes morale at one business to suffer while everyone is enthusiastic and full of energy at a similar business? What causes one community, one congregation, one classroom, one nonprofit to thrive and spread positivity to everything and everyone it touches while another similar organization descends into unhappy chaos?
The leader sets the tone. The inspiration of Captain Tom, the conscience and careful attention of CMC Jackson, the indifference and ego-bound nature of Captain Eagleberg … as goes the leader, so goes the ship.
In Steel Fear, the serial killer exists and is allowed to flourish because of a terrible captain who generates a terrible on-board culture. Think of it as a weakened immune system. On Captain Tom’s ship, the Shitty Kitty, the immune system was strong. On the Lincoln, it becomes compromised. People get sick. The AC system goes on the blink. The lights stop working properly, and people start dying in terrible ways. And yes, there are specific causative factors in each bit of misery and breakdown—but I think there’s a larger cause they all share. It’s a breakdown in leadership.
There are really two villains here. There’s the actual killer. And the small-minded captain with a fragile ego whose failed leadership creates a context for evil to take root. The killer is a twisted, malevolent creature, an incarnation of evil. Not so the captain. Eagleberg isn’t evil; he’s not sadistic, cruel, or inhuman. He’s simply weak. It’s a failure of leadership not by tyranny but by abdication.
But the results are evil indeed, as bad as they could be. That’s what happens in the absence of good leadership.
Special Holiday Offer!
Purchase STEEL FEAR as a gift and John or Brandon will send a short personalized cameo-style video to your gift recipient if purchased before December 18th. Just send us a screenshot of your purchase on the SOFREP contact page here, include the gift recipient’s name, and a good email for us to send out your custom video.
John David Mann is the award-winning co-author of more than 30 books, including 4 New York Times bestsellers and 5 national bestsellers. His bestselling classic The Go-Giver (with Bob Burg) won the Living Now Book Award’s Evergreen Medal for its “contribution to positive global change.” Seven of his books are coauthored with SOFREP founder Brandon Webb, including their first thriller, Steel Fear, which Jack Reacher author Lee Child hailed as “an instant classic, maybe an instant legend.” You can order Steel Fear, and find links to interviews with Brandon and John, at SteelFear.com.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting our Veteran Editorial by becoming a SOFREP subscriber. Click here to join SOFREP now for just $0.50/week.