04 September 2007
Forbes Book Review
A Private War
Michael Maiello, 09.01.07, 6:00 AM ET
Outsourced by R.J. Hillhouse ($26, Forge, 2007).
The 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, spend 70% of their budgets on private contractors. The contracts are classified so there's almost no civilian oversight. At a recent marketing presentation, an intelligence-procurement official used a PowerPoint presentation about intelligence contractors that featured the pithy slide, "We can't spy if we can't buy!"
The military has contractors as well. Private companies, mostly made up of ex- or retired military types, perform security functions in Iraq. That's what we're told, anyway. Again, the contracts are classified and the oversight isn't perfect or even possible, Iraq being a war zone and all.
Enter author R.J. Hillhouse with a fictional account of military and intelligence mercenaries in Iraq called Outsourced. This debut novel introduces Hillhouse as the Tom Clancy of the corporate military and intelligence age. In Outsourced, Hillhouse presents the contractors mostly as well-meaning patriots, though they are corruptible. Most of the companies she names are fictional, but on her blog, www.thespywhobilledme.com, Hillhouse points to some of her inspirations: SAIC, Lockheed Martin and of course, Halliburton.
Like Clancy did with the military, Hillhouse has researched her subject well. Anonymous sources within the intelligence field have helped her along the way. Her nonfiction work about the CIA and the Pentagon has appeared in The Washington Post and The New York Times. There's some implication that what Hillhouse has revealed in Outsourced are truths that she couldn't talk about in plain nonfiction.
The story is key here, though. Any lover of thrillers and suspense novels will enjoy Outsourced. Camille Black is a former CIA counterterrorism officer who has gone into private practice as the CEO of Black Management. She's in Iraq, taking covert assignments for the U.S. government. Hillhouse finds plenty of comic moments as Black flexes her (ample) muscles in the man's world of covert operations and mercenaries. With a sharp tongue, a sharper knife and some obvious martial talents, Black is like a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Jack Ryan.
Black finds herself with a CIA contract to eliminate her ex-fiancé, Hunter Stone. Stone is working undercover for the Pentagon, and it's unclear at the beginning of the book if he betrayed Black because of his job or to protect his own nefarious, potentially anti-American activities, including selling captured weapons to Iraqi insurgents and Al-Qaeda terrorists. Another military contractor, called Rubicon, is Black's competition. What follows is a romp through the Iraq war along with several turns and revelations that shouldn't be detailed in a review.
Hillhouse finds her subjects in the headlines out of Iraq. She imagines insurgents building car bombs and kidnapped Americans who nobody seems to be looking for. Hillhouse's prose is unadorned to say the least, but anything more fanciful would detract from the action. The book moves quickly from point to point and there's an action-film sensibility throughout. It's also fun, and perhaps illustrative, to wonder how much of this is from Hillhouse's imagination and how much is the result of stories that we haven't been told yet.
Outsourced is the first novel of its kind, because the military and intelligence agencies of the United States have, for the first time in history, given in entirely to the corporate-outsourcing trend. Hillhouse has given us the first word in a conversation that will surely outlast both the Iraq war and the War on Terror.