Bragg in August is so hellish, you can smell the sulfur in the air.
Actually, though, it's not sulfur, it's 98 percent humidity, mixed
with North Carolina dust, mixed with the raunchy bouquet of about
thirty thousand men and women who spend half their lives scurrying
about in the woods. Without showers. The moment I stepped off the
plane, I had this fierce urge to call my bosses back in the
Pentagon and beg them to reconsider. Wouldn't work though.
"Sympathy," the Army likes to say, is found in the dictionary
between "shit" and "syphilis," and regarded accordingly.
So I hefted up my duffel bag and oversize legal briefcase and
headed for the taxi stand. Of course, this was Pope Air Force Base,
which adjoins Fort Bragg, which makes it all one big, happy
military installation. No taxi stand, and shame on me for not
knowing that. I therefore marched straight to a payphone and called
the duty sergeant at the headquarters of the 82nd Airborne
Division. These are the same men and women who make their living
flinging themselves out of airplanes and praying their
government-issued parachutes open before their fragile bodies go
splat. Mostly their prayers work. Sometimes not.
"Headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division, Sergeant Mercor," a
stern voice answered.
"Major Sean Drummond, here," I barked, doing my finest
impersonation of a bitchy, obnoxious bully, which, by the by, I
always do pretty well.
"How can I help you, sir?"
"How can you help me?" I demanded.
"Sorry, sir, I don't get it."
"That's pretty damned obvious, isn't it? Why wasn't the duty jeep
waiting for me at the airport? Why am I standing here with my thumb
up my ass?"
"We don't send jeeps out to the airport to pick up personnel. Not
even officers, sir."
"Hey, Sergeant, think I'm stupid?"
I let that question linger a moment, and you could almost hear him
grinding his teeth to keep from answering. Then, much friendlier, I
said, "Look, I don't know if you weren't properly instructed, or
just plain forgot. All I know is, the general who works upstairs in
that building of yours promised a jeep would be waiting when I
arrived. Now if it were to get here inside twenty minutes, then
we'll just write this off as an inconvenience. Otherwise . .
There was this fairly long pause on the other end. The thing with
Army sergeants is that they have incredible survival instincts.
They have to. They spend their careers working under officers, some
of whom happen to be pretty good, but plenty of whom aren't, and a
man must be pretty damned artful to treat both with perfect
"Sir, I ...well, uh, this is really irregular. No one told me to
have a jeep there to meet you. I swear." Of course nobody told him.
I knew that. And he knew that. But there was a world of daylight
between those two facts.
"Listen, Sergeant.... Sergeant Mercor, right? It's ten-thirty at
night and my patience wanes with each passing minute. What will it
"All right, Major. The duty driver will be there in about twenty
minutes. Don't be screwing me around, though. I'm gonna put this in
the duty log. The colonel will see it in the morning," he said,
making that last statement sound profoundly ominous.
"Twenty minutes," I said before hanging up. I sat on my duffel bag
and waited. I should've felt bad about fibbing, but my conscience
just wasn't up to it. I was tired, for one thing, and royally
pissed off for another. Besides, I had a set of orders in my pocket
that assigned me to perform a special investigation. In my book, at
least, that entitled me to a special privilege or two.
Private Rodriguez and the duty jeep showed up exactly twenty
minutes later. I was pretty damned sure Sergeant Mercor had
instructed Rodriguez to get lost, or drive around in circles, or do
about any damned thing except arrive one second earlier than twenty
minutes. That's another thing about Army sergeants. They're
woefully vengeful little creatures. I threw my duffel into the back
of the humvee and climbed in the front.
"Where to?" Private Rodriguez asked, staring straight ahead.
"Visiting Officers' Quarters. Know where they are?"
A moment passed before Rodriguez sort of coughed, then said, "You
assigned here, sir?"
"You're getting warmer."
"You're a lawyer, right?" he asked, glancing at the brass on my
uniform that identified me as a member of the Judge Advocate
General's Corps, or JAG for short.
"Rodriguez, it's late and I'm tired. I appreciate your need to make
conversation, but I'm not in the mood. Just drive."
"Hey, no problem, sir."
Rodriguez whistled for two minutes, then,"Ever been to Bragg
"Yes, I've been to Bragg before. I've been to every Army post you
can name. I'm still not in the mood to talk."
"Hey, sure. No problem, really." Then, only a few moments later,
"Y'know, personally, I really like it here." Poor Private Rodriguez
either had short-term amnesia or he'd been ordered by Sergeant
Mercor to find out everything he could about me and report back.
That's another thing about Army sergeants. When they're curious,
they get fiendishly clever.
"So why do you like it here?" I wearily asked, not wanting his ass
to get gnawed into little pieces on my account.
"My family comes from Mexico, right? And we settled in Texas, so I
like the warm weather. Only they got trees up here, and it rains
more. And I love jumpin' outta airplanes. You know that feeling,
right? I see you got wings."
"Wrong. I went to jump school and did the five mandatory jumps
required to graduate. But I'm not Airborne. I hated it. I was
scared as hell and couldn't wait for it to be over. I'll never jump
"You're a Ranger. Not many lawyers are Rangers."
"I'm the most reluctant Ranger you ever saw. I cried and whimpered
the whole way through the course. They gave me the tab only because
they feared that if they failed me, I might have come back and
tried again. They hated me."
"You got a Combat Infantryman's Badge," he said. Private Rodriguez,
annoyingly clever fellow that he was, kept adjusting the rearview
mirror to study the various items on my uniform. In civilian life,
nobody wears nametags or badges or patches, or any other kind of
silly accoutrement that advertises anything about you. In the Army,
the longer you're in, the more your uniform resembles a diary. It's
a wonder the old-timers can even walk under all that weight.
"I used to be infantry," I admitted.
"And you went to combat."
"Only because they shipped me off before I could figure out how to
go AWOL. I spent the whole time huddled in deep fox-holes, praying
nobody noticed me."
"No offense, sir, but why would a guy wanta stop being an infantry
officer just to become a lawyer?" That's another thing with the
Army. What's important on the inside can be quite a bit different
from what's important on the outside.
"Someone gave me a test and, wouldn't you know it, turned out my IQ
was over twenty. Bastards said I was too smart to be an infantry
"No shit?" he asked, quite sincerely, too, which tells you miles
about infantry officers.
"Yeah. Not a lot above twenty, just a little. You know the Army,
though. Rules are rules."
"You go to law school and all that?"
"Yeah, I went to law school and all that. You done asking
"No, sir, only a few more. Why you here?"
"Passing through, Private. I thought we already covered
"Passing through to where?"
"Would that be... uh, Bosnia?"
"That's where it would be."
"Then what you doing here?"
"I'm supposed to catch a C-130 that leaves Pope Field at seven
o'clock in the morning, and military air bases don't exactly run
like civilian airports, with connecting flights and all that stuff.
As a result, I have to sleep here."
A more truthful reply would have included the fact that I had an
appointment in the morning with a general named Partridge, and only
after he was through with me was I allowed to head for Bosnia. But
Private Rodriguez, and thereby Sergeant Mercor, did not need to
know all that. In fact, nobody but the general, myself, and a few
very select people back in Washington needed to know all
"VOQ just ahead," Private Rodriguez announced, pointing out the
windshield at a bunch of long blockhouses.
"Thanks," I said as we pulled into the parking lot, and I retrieved
my duffel from the rear.
"No problem. Hey, one thing, sir. That Sergeant Mercor you spoke
with, well, he really is a prick. If I were you, and I didn't
really have permission from the general, I'd get my butt on that
airplane as early as I could."
"Thanks for the ride," I muttered.
That's how business is done in the Army. I scratched his ass, so he
scratched mine. Sounds simple, but it can be very protean in
practice. I left him there and walked into the VOQ, checked in, and
found my room. In less than a minute I was undressed, in bed, and
It didn't seem like a full five hours later when the phone beside
my bed rang and the desk clerk informed me that General Partridge's
military sedan was waiting in the parking lot. I showered and
shaved with dazzling speed, then rummaged through my duffel for my
battle dress and combat boots. This was the only appropriate attire
when meeting with Clive Partridge, who truly was one of the meanest
sons of bitches in an institution not known for producing shrinking
violets. The drive out to the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare
Center, which is, among other things, the headquarters for the
United States Army Special Forces Command, took slightly shy of
thirty minutes. General Partridge's driver, unlike Private
Rodriguez the night before, said not a word. I chalked that up to
his being grumped up about having to chauffeur a lowly major,
instead of the four-star general he worked for. Headquarters guys
get real fussy airs that way.
A sour-faced major named Jackson met me outside Partridge's office
and coldly told me to sit and wait. I reminded him that I had to be
on a seven o'clock flight to Bosnia, and he reminded me that
four-star generals outrank majors. I gave him a fishy-eyed look and
instantly decided that maybe General Partridge deliberately
surrounded himself with nasty people. Twenty minutes later, Major
Jackson stood up and led me to the hand-carved door that served as
the final line of defense into General Partridge's office. The door
opened, I passed through, and marched briskly to the general's
desk. I stopped, saluted crisply, and introduced myself in that
strange way Army guys do.
"Major Drummond reporting as ordered, sir."
The general looked up from some papers, nodded slightly, popped a
cigarette between his lips, and calmly lit it. My right hand was
still foolishly stuck to my forehead.
"Put down that hand," he grunted, and I did. He sucked in a roomful
of smoke, then leaned back into his chair. "You happy about this
"You studied the case already?"
"A bit, sir."
"Any preliminary thoughts?"
"None I would care to expose at this point."
He sucked hard on the cigarette again, so hard that nearly half of
it turned into ash. He had thin lips, a thin face, and a thin body,
all of which looked nicely weathered, very taut, and almost
impossibly devoid of both body fat and compassion.
"Drummond, every now and again there's a military court case that
captures the attention of the great American public. Back when I
was a lieutenant, the big one was the My Lai court-martial, named
after that village in Vietnam where Lieutenant Calley and his guys
butchered a few hundred defenseless civilians.
Then came Tailhook, which the Navy botched past the point of
redemption. Then the Air Force had that Kelly Flynn thing they
dicked up in spades."
The general surely knew that all military lawyers had these cases
tattooed on their brains. He obviously was taking no small delight
in bringing them up.
"It's your turn, Drummond.You screw this one up, and generations of
future JAG officers are gonna be sitting around in classrooms,
scratching their heads and wondering just how this guy Drummond
managed to mangle things so bad. You thought of that?"
"It has crossed my mind, General."
"I imagine it has," he said with a nasty grin. "You decide there's
not enough grounds for a court-martial and you'll be accused of
shoving the Army's dirt under a rug. You decide there is sufficient
grounds, then we'll have us a nice little brawl in a courtroom with
the whole world watching."
He stopped and studied my face, and I was not the least bit sure
which of those two options he wanted. I had a pretty good idea, I
just wasn't sure. He had that kind of face.
"You got any idea why we picked you?"
"Only a few vague suspicions," I cautiously admitted.
This, actually, was my sly way of saying that I wanted to hear his
opinion, since his was based on the fact that he helped select me.
Mine, on the other hand, was the bitter rumination of a guy who
thought he was being tossed into an alligator pond. He lifted three
fingers and began ticking off points. "First, we figured that since
you used to be an infantry officer and you actually saw a few shots
fired, you might have a little better understanding of what these
men went through than your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, snot-nosed
attorney in uniform. Second, your boss assured me that you come
equipped with a brilliant legal mind and are independent by nature.
Finally, because I knew your father, served under him, hated his
guts, but he just happened to be the best I ever saw. If you got
even a fraction of his gene pool, then there's an outside chance of
your being pretty damned good, too."
"That's very kind, sir. Thank you very much, and the next time I
see my father, I'll be sure to pass on the general's
"Don't blow smoke up my ass, Drummond. It's not a good idea."
"No, sir," I said, watching him suck another mighty drag through
those thin, bloodless lips.
"I'm treading on quicksand here. I'm the commander of the Special
Operations Command, and am therefore responsible for those men, and
for what they did."
"That's right, sir."
"And when you're done with your investigation, your recommendation
on whether to proceed with a court-martial will come to me. Then
I'll have to decide which way to go."
"That is the correct protocol, sir."
"And you and I both know that if I say anything to you, even a
whisper, that indicates anything but a neutral predisposition on my
part, I can be accused of exerting command influence into a legal
proceeding. That, we both know, would get all our butts in a
"That is a proper reading of military law, sir."
"I know that, Drummond. And I'd be damned appreciative if you'd
withhold the commentary," he barked.
"Of course, sir."
"So the reason I had you fly down here," he said, pointing toward a
tiny tape recorder on the corner of his desk,"is to ask you two
"Fire away, sir."
"Do you believe that I, or anyone in your chain of command, has a
predisposition, or have any of us, in any way, tried to influence
you, prior to the start of your investigation?"
"No and no, sir."
"Do you believe you are being given adequate resources to perform
"I have ample resources, sir."
"Then this interview is hereby terminated," he said, reaching down
and turning off the tape recorder.
My right hand was just coming back up to my forehead when those
thin lips bristled with another nasty little smile.
"Now, Drummond, since we have all that recorded for posterity, it's
time for some real guidance."
"I am all ears, sir."
"This case is an embarrassment for the Army, and it will only get
worse. But there are several types of embarrassment. There's the
kind where some soldiers did a bad thing and the public wonders
just what this barbaric Army did to these fine young boys to
transform them into such awful monsters. Then there's the kind
where the Army gets accused of covering up, and that is the worst
kind, since it brings in lots of hungry politicians who are eager
to help us sort fact from fiction. Finally, there's the kind where
everyone believes that the Army is just too damned ignorant and
heavy-handed to handle such delicate situations."
"Sounds accurate to me, sir. From my limited experience, of
His eyes fixed my eyes with an uncompromising stare."This time it's
gonna be up to you to decide which of those embarrassments we have
on our hands. Don't be naive and think there's any way you can win.
Got my drift?"
I certainly did get his drift, although I was just naive and
arrogant enough to believe I could pull this out and walk off into
the sunset looking good. That wasn't something I was going to admit
to him, but that's what was on my mind. Shows how stupid some guys
can be. Him, that is, not me.
"I believe I have a firm grasp of the situation, General."
"Well, you're wrong, Drummond. You think you do, but you really
"Begging the general's pardon, but is there a point to this?"
The general's eyes blinked a few times, and I was instantly
reminded of a lizard contemplating a fly and considering whether to
lash out with his long tongue and have himself a happy meal with
wings. Then he smiled, and I'd be lying if I said it was a friendly
"All right, Drummond, you're on your own."
Now, the general might've thought he was making some kind of
theatrical point here, but the truth is, he was the fifth
high-ranking official in three days to use one of those damned tape
recorders as he offered me a little on-and off-the-record
I was actually getting pretty used to watching these guys cover
their asses and prod me along my way.
In the old Army, a man who was about to be executed was marched
down a line of his peers and a slow drumroll was sounded to
accompany him to the gallows. The modern version of this death
march, I was learning, was to stand in front of a bunch of powerful
desks listening to lots of windy lectures, all timed to the beat of
tape recorders being flicked on and off.
Excerpted from SECRET SANCTION © Copyright 2002 by Brian
Haig. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books. All rights