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“When I talked to high-ranking people on the record, they were bland,” says journalist Thomas E. Ricks of his research for A Soldier’s Duty: A Novel. “Then I’d turn off the tape recorder and, man, the boiling anger that came out! One guy said to me, ‘Do you want to know what my job is? Every day I go to the Pentagon and they put three bowls of shit in front of me and ask me, “Which flavor do you want to eat today?”‘ My jaw just dropped. So I came away thinking that these guys are like clutch plates—getting ground up between the military and the executive branch.”

Ricks had written his first book, 1997’s Making the Corps, as a reasonably straightforward nonfiction chronicle of how a new group of recruits was forged into Marines. But by the time he sat down to write A Soldier’s Duty—an account of the changes shaping today’s military—he had decided that he needed to do it as a novel. “There’s been very little fiction written about the all-volunteer force,” the Washington Post Pentagon correspondent says. “There’s an orgy of stuff on World War II, because people like Norman Mailer got drafted. There’s some about Vietnam. But the closer you get to today, the less visible the military gets in pop culture. The post-Gulf War military is basically unknown. It’s alien territory.”

Writing fiction, Ricks emphasizes, allowed him to shape a story around the picture that began to emerge from his research and interviews—without having to worry about what quotes were OK to use on the record. (It also allowed him to pen a sex scene between two senior officers.) “A lot of truths in Washington are not reachable through nonfiction,” he says. “To get to the emotional inner life of a senior officer is extraordinarily difficult.”

One day, while sitting at a congressional hearing, he listened to senior military officials respond to pesky questions from spotlight-grabbing members of Congress. The formalistic pattern of aggressive inquisitions and annoyed answers gave Ricks the idea of creating a fictional scene in which the officers’ dialogue shifts back and forth from their public utterances to their actual—but unspoken—feelings. This brainstorm, Ricks says, helped ease the monotony of the reporting grind.

Ricks, 45, never served in the military, but he has been writing about military affairs for the Post since late 1999. Before that, he spent 17 years covering such topics as the drug economy and the military for the Wall Street Journal. But it was his Yale education that primed him for a literary perspective on military life. For A Soldier’s Duty, he says, he was inspired “more by Graham Greene than Tom Clancy.” For fun, Ricks named one of the characters in his novel Sam Cumberbatch—the pseudonym used by 19th-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge when he enlisted in the British military.

A major theme of the novel is the increasing significance of the Internet in military life; grunts on different bases are able to compare notes and surf the Web for bits of independent information. The result is a rank and file that’s more skeptical of its superiors than ever before. Indeed, some of Ricks’ best information comes from e-mail dispatches sent to him by soldiers from all around the globe. “I’ve gotten whole PowerPoint briefings leaked to me,” he says. “The connectedness is astonishing.” —Louis Jacobson