When Alex was arrested, he insisted the robbery was simply an elaborate Ranger training exercise. He was deploying in two weeks, and in Iraq he’d be expected to carry out operations of similar corkscrew impudence: Raid dangerous spaces, flush out “high value” targets from their homes. Sommer, he explained, would never lead him on such an audacious mission without an Army-sanctioned strategic intent — and he, Alex, would never challenge the wisdom of his superiors.
It took Alex many months into his stay in prison to realize that he’d been duped by Sommer, a nut job and a pirate first class. Or so Alex claimed.
If only Ben Blum, a gloriously good writer and former computer scientist, were so easily convinced. But there were holes in his cousin’s story, small but consequential, and they rendered his defense a tattered thing. After listening to various members of the Blum family explain away Alex’s sins, the author realized that they’d all found ways to darn these holes, often with a pretty weak yarn.
Getting to the bottom of his cousin’s role in the crime became Blum’s personal mission. It meant alternately relying on and subduing his inner Spock. “Back when I was a scientist,” he explains, “subjectivity had been a manageable irritant, mere grease on the microscope lens that you wiped off as best you could before getting on with your measurements.”
But an explanation of Alex’s behavior couldn’t be rendered with the elegance of a geometric proof. There was nothing in Alex’s personal history to suggest he’d commit a crime. (Quite the opposite: Growing up, he was known for his decency, patriotism, sensitivity to those who’d been bullied.) “Ranger Games” raises bedeviling questions about the nature of human agency, and reminds us that we send everyday, messy people with everyday, messy hearts to fight our wars.
The Army Rangers had an almost mystical grip on Alex’s imagination. Yet Ben, the Blum clan’s misfit math-minded whiz kid, still feels a strange kinship with his cousin. “Like me, he perplexed those closest to him,” Blum writes of Alex. “Like me, he sustained himself with fantasies of a world that would celebrate his idiosyncrasies.” “Ranger Games” is in part a family story, about the unlikely bond between two very different cousins.
It is also a fascinating tutorial on the psychology of modern warfare and social coercion. Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the fabled Stanford prison experiment (it revealed just how cruel ordinary people could be, given the right alignment of circumstances) even comes to Alex’s defense, going so far as to appear on “Dr. Phil” with him.
The tragicomic chapters about this episode alone are worth the price of the book. I spun through them, the pages whipping by like an old-school Rolodex. If you already detest Dr. Phil, they will shore up your conviction that he is indeed worth detesting.
Alex’s motives may be of personal interest to Blum, but the richest case study on display here — it would fit snugly into any psychological textbook — is of Sommer. He’s brilliant, seductive and dangerous, a Hannibal Lecter without the taste for human liver over fava beans. “He operated under a separate physics, madcap and consequence-free,” Blum writes. “With him you could become Donkey Kong or Cobra Commander or Wile E. Coyote, swallowing a pound of TNT and exploding and reconstituting again.”
There’s a problem with the otherwise excellent stretch of the book devoted to analyzing Sommer. Blum frames his visits to Sommer and the soldier’s mother as fact-finding expeditions. To keep the mystery going, Blum even periodically wonders whether he should believe Sommer. It feels like a narrative feint. That Sommer is a malignant lunatic is spectacularly obvious quite early on.
Blum’s book suffers, too, from a slight engineering problem. He sometimes repeats parts of Alex’s story, ostensibly to layer them with more perspectives and information each time, but the information he adds is often insufficient to warrant the retellings. I felt like I was driving on loop-de-loops where a superhighway should be.
And I chafed at times at Blum’s depiction of the Rangers. The Ranger Indoctrination Program is undoubtedly brutal, desensitizing infantrymen to the realities of violence. But Blum also suggests, through extensive quotes from Alex, that it drains its graduates of their individuality and moral reasoning, and he never directly investigates the worst of Alex’s claims — that it would be fairly typical, say, for a returning Ranger to boast about killing a young girl and then urinating in her bullet wounds. Should such assertions just hang in the air like a bad stench?
But by the book’s end — it’s both surprising and moving — readers are likely to overlook these objections. At one point, Blum speaks to a journalist from Sommer’s hometown. “I have a stack of notes two feet high, but I don’t know how to write about it,” he told Blum. “It almost works better as a novel.”
And a memorable, novelistic account is what Blum has written.
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