A vigorous, empathetic chronicle of a crime foretold—or at least engendered, possibly, on a boot camp drill field.
Though the mostly peace-minded citizens of Tacoma, Washington, may not know it, the military-industrial complex looms large there, with a joint Air Force and Army base constituting the area’s largest employer by far. Blum tells the story of a group of four soldiers, including the author’s cousin, Alex, who donned blue jeans and ski masks and tried to boost a bank. The news of the subsequent arrest shocked the respectable, intellectually competitive Blum family. “Alex was the most squeaky-clean, patriotic, rule-respecting kid we knew,” writes the author, who digs into the case to tease out why an Army Ranger, part of a unit already under the spotlight for having tortured prisoners in Iraq, did something so transgressive. Among the theories the legal defense tested, he finds the notion that the heist was the result of a kind of brainwashing to be somewhat compelling, while the thought that the robbery was a training exercise isn’t as absurd as it might appear on the face: “As far as Alex was concerned,” one of his fellow soldiers says, “it wasn’t real.” In time, Blum looks closely at a charismatic leader who cooked up the scheme as an exercise in sociopathy and convinced his comrades to take part because it was cool and fun. “With him,” writes the author, memorably, “you could become Donkey Kong or Cobra Commander or Wile E. Coyote, swallowing a pound of TNT and exploding and reconstituting again in time to pant so hard at a passing pretty girl that your tongue spilled out onto the floor.” In the end, Blum writes, judge and jury did not accept any such Looney Tunes scenario, and how they arrived at their verdict affords the author some fine courtroom back and forth.
A lighthearted romp à la Ocean’s Eleven it’s not, but Blum’s well-wrought account suggests that any crime is possible so long as it’s made out to be a game.