WE’RE TALKING WITH . . .
Ben Blum, Author of Ranger Games: A Story of Soldiers, Family and an Inexplicable Crime
Dr Forman is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Director of the Addiction Consultation Service at Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, New York.
With the exception of his last name, Alex Blum was as all-American a kid as one could conjure up for any afterschool special. Growing up in Colorado his only dream was to be an Army soldier and to serve his country as a member of its most elite infantry formation, the Rangers. Before his enlistment he coached youth hockey teams; he didn’t drink alcohol or use drugs because he worried they would ultimately make him a weaker soldier.
After completing basic training and the Ranger Indoctrination Program, Alex was days away from being deployed to Iraq to fulfill his dream of fighting for the US. He never made it. On August 7, 2006, he robbed a bank.
Ranger Games (Penguin Random House), written by his first cousin Ben Blum, is the 400-page account of the life leading up to August 7, 2006, and the psychiatric considerations of what led to this seemingly inexplicable crime and its aftermath. While non-fiction, the psychiatrist reader will recognize the many fictions accumulated when a single event is visited over and over again, by patients and by ourselves. The reader of Ranger Games will become familiar with many psychiatric explanations for aberrant behavior and see each held up to light to determine if they are “authentic.” Moreover, at a time when there are more living veterans of the Armed Forces than at any other time, the book gives an inside account of what many of our service men and women endure in order to serve their country. The book is a roller-coaster ride that you won’t want to end, but is over much too quickly.
Howard Forman (HF): What other titles did you consider for the book and how did you settle on Ranger Games?
Ben Blum (BB): The original working title was Bad Apples, referring to the typical military characterization of errant soldiers as independent bad actors rather than manifestations of systemic problems. After that I considered, Of Their Own Accord, the English translation of the official Ranger motto, Sua Sponte, which addresses the extremely complicated question of how freely the various participants in the robbery acted. Eventually my editor and I settled on Ranger Games, which points to the way our behavior, beliefs, and moral norms can be incrementally redirected through seemingly unreal situations, “games,” that appear to have no real stakes.
Modern military training operates on this principle—as does, increasingly, modern military practice, in which drone killings can be effected on a video screen from thousands of miles away. Specialist Luke Elliott Sommer managed to ensnare half a dozen elite soldiers in a ludicrous bank robbery scheme which they all thought at first was just a game.
HF: In addition to being “about” Alex, the book also considers family mythology. Mythology often replaces ugly fact with beautiful fantasy. What types of mythology do you think are helpful or were helpful to the Blums? Which were or are hurtful? Do you miss your family’s mythology?
BB: Good mythology preserves the heroic essence of history, uniting us in a vision of our best selves. Much of Blum family mythology centered around our grandfather, Albert Likes Blum Senior, who landed in Normandy shortly after D-Day. Alex and I grew up thinking of him as a maverick war hero. The stories about Al Senior conveyed core Blum family values: toughness, self-sufficiency, questioning of arbitrary rules and authority. On digging further into his story, though, I discovered that the mythology obscured some pretty ugly misconduct. Learning about my grandfather’s faults shed enormous light on certain unhealthy strains in our family culture. I’m not at all sad to see those myths go.
I’ve come to view mythology as a necessary container for truths we either don’t yet know or are not yet ready to face. Some mythology is explicitly for children: complex human stories boiled down into simple tales that can fill out with nuance the more children learn about human nature. Other mythology, for instance nationalist mythology, is addressed to those unexamined parts in all of us that haven’t grown into full enough understanding to process the uncomfortable historical truths that myths ignore.
HF: How do you feel about the Ranger Indoctrination Program? Am I wrong to have thought at one point that this is the worst thing I have ever read about and then later to question whether Alex accurately reported it?
BB: You’re right to question whether Alex was an accurate reporter of the extent to which the training influenced his participation in the robbery. Some of the rhetoric about the way it turned him into a mindless automaton is way overblown. But as a record of what recruits are made to endure, and of the emotional experience of enduring it, I’ve found no reason to doubt Alex’s account—other Rangers have read it and confirmed the basic facts. Whether for a fraternity or an elite military organization, initiation rites are meant to be agonizing. That’s what gives them their power. If they don’t break you, they induce tremendous loyalty and deep fraternal bonds. As long as we have war, I believe we’re going to have training of that kind.
HF: Do you have any thoughts on what you believe a therapist needs to know or should know about veterans of our elite forces who may seek help from a mental health professional?
BB: It was very hard for Alex to accept any pushback on his own deeply entrenched narratives about the Rangers and the crime before I learned enough about the Rangers to express what he viewed as the proper level of respect. The culture of elitism makes for a radical distrust of outsiders. Mental health professional should be open to what these individuals have to tell you. Much of what elite forces do is incredibly impressive and embodies values that we all hold dear.
Ranger Games is a book that will leave the reader with lots of questions answered but also a desire to ask many more. One may ask where Alex Blum is today, and I can assure you that the book answers that questions. But telling you would be a spoiler and would cheat you of finding out for yourself by reading about the highs and lows that led Alex to his current state of being. If you cannot take the suspense but don’t have the time to (or don’t want to) read the book, you can email me and I will let you know ([email protected]).