Sword of the Covenant

a novel by Mark Andrews

© 2011

Prologue

Lieutenant Asher Ben-Gideon tasted sand as he lay face-down near the top of a rocky mountain in southern Lebanon. He remained still in the predawn dark as a Syrian sentry passed within two meters of his concealed position just outside the town of Bint Jubayl. He and his partner in Israeli military intelligence, Lieutenant Ephraim Cohen, were on a clandestine recon mission to verify the presence of Syrian armored cavalry, which Israel suspected was massing near its border only five kilometers away.

Ben-Gideon watched as the sentry turned to Cohen’s more exposed position, then he crept up silently behind the Syrian and, with moonlight glinting off his knife blade, quickly slit the soldier’s throat. The junior officer clamped his hand tightly over the man’s mouth to muffle his cry. A second slash severed the carotid artery on the other side of the sentry’s neck as he crumpled to the ground and lay still.

“We have to make that ridge, Ash,” Cohen whispered, motioning for his partner to stay behind him off his left flank.

The pair kept low as they trotted stealthily across the rocky soil. Approaching the summit, they could hear considerable noise, including engine sounds, from the other side. Both men donned their night-vision goggles and crawled to the crest on their hands and knees. Reaching it, the sight below took their breath away. Vast columns of tanks, armored personnel carriers, mobile anti-aircraft missile batteries, jeeps and thousands of troops stretched across more than a hundred acres in the valley below.


“Look!” Ben-Gideon said as he pulled out an infrared camera to snap some images. “They’re laying camouflage netting over the whole area. No wonder we couldn’t get any satellite images of this convoy. They move at night and hunker down under camo during the day.”

“There are at least five hundred tanks down there,” Cohen said, adding binocular lenses to his night scope. “A lot of them look to be Russian T-80s. This is a surprise invasion force if there ever was one! We gotta phone this in to headquarters pronto. Our air force needs to take them out now! I don’t want to think about what could happen if that much armored cav gets across our border.”

“You’re right, Eph,” his partner answered. “The enemy could reach Tel Aviv in two or three days with this much armor if we don’t hammer them ASAP.”

The two intel officers crept back down the south side of the ridge a few meters while Ben-Gideon pulled out his Thuraya satellite phone. He hit speed-dial for the headquarters of Aman, as the military’s intelligence service was known.

“Section Thirty-two HQ,” a corporal answered vaguely after the encrypted device had completed its electronic handshake.

“I need Colonel Mortimer now!” Ben-Gideon barked.

 

Just then, monitors at two high-frequency radio-detection stations positioned short distances north and west of the IDF officers’ position lit up to reveal the presence of RF signals in a place there should have been none. The Syrian soldiers manning both posts immediately fed their vector data to division headquarters in the valley.


 

“Colonel Mortimer is not in, sir,” the Aman corporal answered. “It’s only zero-four-forty-five. He’ll be — ”

“Fine. Get me the Officer of the Watch. And make it fast! This is a Level Four call.” Ben-Gideon felt his heart pounding in his chest, and his palms grew sweaty.

“One moment, sir. I’ll put you through right away.”

 

A Syrian noncom at division HQ read off a set of numbers from his screen, marking the point where two lines intersected. Standing over his shoulder, an officer relayed those coordinates to the pilot of a MiG-25 Foxbat who was flying at twenty-five hundred feet just a klick-and-a-half away.

The Syrian pilot banked hard to port and pushed his stick forward to put the Russian-built fighter into a shallow dive as he throttled up in the direction of his target. He armed a pair of GPS-guided high-fragmentation/incendiary cluster bombs, one under each wing, and fed the coordinates he had been given into the targeting mechanism of the weapons. An instant later the pilot fired as his tactical screen confirmed a target lock.

 

“Captain, this is unit Echo-Bravo One-Niner,” Ben-Gideon began as the Officer of the Watch, Captain Joshua Lentz, came on the line. “We are two klicks west-southwest of Bint Jubayl. Sir, there are hundreds of — ”

His call was abruptly cut off as dozens of bomblets from the MiG’s two weapons shredded the earth in a fifty-meter-square killing zone of shrapnel and fire. Ben-Gideon and Cohen were killed instantly. Mercifully, their deaths came from flying chunks of jagged metal rather than the carpet of flame that immediately blanketed the windward side of that lonely ridge.

The first casualties of the fifth major Arab-Israeli war had fallen.

 

PART ONE – UNDERSTANDING

Chapter 1 — Hidden Agenda

 

“I gotta tell you, Mac: If this works, it’ll be a miracle.”

General Adam Hunter, the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, set down his coffee cup with a heavy sigh, waving off the steward who wanted to pour him some more. Since waking up two hours ago on the last leg of an overnight flight from Washington, he had thrown down five cups.

“There’s no question about that. It’s hard not to have misgivings about a mission where the best-case scenario means I resign my commission and get thrown into the brig,” Admiral Mitchell McCready answered, his shoulders slumping.

McCready, one of the four Deputy Chiefs of Naval Operations, leaned forward, his elbows on the table. It was difficult for this pair to keep a low profile because they were, after all, two of the highest-ranking officers in the Pentagon. And wasn’t it odd for them, four-star flag officers from different branches of the armed services, to be together in  the VIP lounge at Aviano Air Base in northern Italy without an entourage? They had to keep their voices down. The two had just flown over on an Air Force VC-20, the military version of the elite Gulfstream business jet. But they would be taking separate flights out to different destinations in less than an hour.

“I’m sure it won’t come to that, Mac. I was talking about getting our boys to buy into the deal. I mean — ” Hunter paused to look around to be sure no one was within earshot — “for heaven’s sakes, asking officers of the United States military to violate their orders and undertake unauthorized air strikes! That’s the sort of thing we train our people not to do!”

McCready could only nod.

Something inside Hunter craved a belt of scotch just then, so he waved the steward back over and ordered two fingers of a husky, sixteen-year-old Islay single malt. Although Hunter’s internal clock said it was only ten a.m., the clock on the lounge wall announced it was approaching cocktail hour. Hunter wouldn’t argue with that!

“Have you read those Bible passages I showed you?” the admiral asked after a moment.

“Yes, toward the end of the flight over, while you were still snoozing. And I’ll read them again on the way in to Incirlik. But I have trouble seeing how this is going to help us build our case.”

“I know how these guys think, Adam. Israel isn’t just another country to them, and the Jews aren’t like anybody else in their worldview. That place really is a holy land to these fired-up evangelicals, and those people are God’s chosen. If they believe Israel is in mortal peril and if we can convince them they represent its best chance for survival, then I think there’s a good chance they’ll go along.

“And if they do,” McCready continued slowly, “we’re left with a rather messy situation — one that has our fingerprints all over it.”

“‘Plausible deniability.’ Remember that lovely phrase from the Iran-contra investigation?” Hunter asked with a sly grin as he lifted his drink. “We’re not giving any orders, not even making suggestions really. We’re just having a chat about the world situation with some fine, young officers. If they decide to do something about it that’s outside the chain of command, well, they’re on their own.”

“I don’t like the idea of hanging them out to dry,” McCready answered flatly.

“They won’t see it that way, Mac. They’ll expect a ‘reward,’ according to what you’ve told me about their beliefs. To some, they’ll even be heroes. Besides, they have their agenda, and we have ours. The fact that the two work together is — what did Ed call it? — serendipitous.”

 

Although the nation was not yet at war, the mood in an Israel Defense Forces command bunker in Tel Aviv was grim. Major General David Eliezer, commander in chief of the IDF’s air force, burst from his office, his eyes blazing and full of rage.

“The only course that makes sense for our nation is to strike now – before the enemy can cross our borders!” he thundered at no one in particular as every eye in the dimly lit and ice-cold Command Center turned in his direction. “That’s what I told the Chief of the General Staff, and that’s what he and the Defense Minister told the Prime Minister. But I’ve just learned the Cabinet is unwilling to take this step. They are afraid that assorted allies of our Arab adversaries might join to attack us in even greater numbers if we strike without provocation.”

“I’ve also heard the argument that we used up the last measure of international goodwill with our raids into southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006 to emasculate Hezbollah and our invasion of Gaza in late ’08,” another officer in the room said.

“I say ‘international goodwill’ be damned!” the two-star general retorted. “If we don’t strike now, it may be too late. Never before in our history have armies this large threatened us from so many directions at once. I don’t think the Cabinet even pretends to buy the excuse that these are ‘defensive mobilization maneuvers and exercises.’ In Syria, Jordan and Egypt simultaneously, with Iran lurking in the background? Ha! And our government puts too much faith in diplomats and the good graces of the United States; the Americans will not be here for us when the chips are down.”

Eliezer’s fury began to throttle back just a notch as he posed a question. “Ari, do your airborne eyes tell you anything?”

Colonel Ari Zrahiya was commander of the air force’s Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, known by its acronym J-STARS. Its job was to assess data from sophisticated airborne radar that told him where the enemy was, how much firepower it had and where it was headed. Surveillance from the American-made E-8C, which was a converted Boeing 707 with a torpedo-shaped radar pod beneath its fuselage, was fed to analysts on the ground, who interpreted it for Zrahiya’s staff.

“Nothing new, sir,” Zrahiya told his commanding officer. “Enemy ground assets remain stationary in Syria, Jordan and Egypt. And there is no aerial activity within five klicks of our borders.”

“But General, we don’t really expect the initial assault from the air, do we?” Colonel Pavel Klitotskiy, Eliezer’s intelligence chief, spoke up. “Our best intel suggests a high probability that the attack will begin from within our borders, with Palestinian militants and terrorist groups rising up first in a coordinated assault on our infrastructure and military assets. Much of the increasing unrest in Gaza and the West Bank is showing signs of being coordinated to that end.”

“All the more reason we should attack now,” the general replied sourly. “But our political leadership is paralyzed by fear.”

 

The situation in Israel was very much on the mind of U.S. Navy Commander Mike Schram as he led his squadron of F/A-18E Super Hornet pilots on the final leg of today's patrol over southern Iraq. The open-ended peacekeeping mission that followed the 2003 liberation of Iraq was usually quiet enough — at least from the air — to permit a thoughtful indulgence. Squadron VFA-316, known since the Korean War as the “Avenging Thunderbirds,” flew at its normal cruising altitude of forty-one thousand feet some twenty miles west of Al Basrah, Iraq’s most important port city, just up the Shatt-al-Arab River from the Persian Gulf. All Schram could hear was the powerful drone of his twin turbofan engines pushing out forty-four thousand pounds of thrust and a slight hiss over his radio headset.

Schram sighed as he felt a twinge of guilt. If his wife had her way, he wouldn’t even be here. Becky Schram had pleaded with her husband to transfer to a flight instructor’s job — or even leave the Navy — anything that would have kept him at home. Mike’s refusal to even consider that in favor of making what could be his last six-month deployment overseas was causing considerable strain in their marriage. After all, their two children were entering their sensitive teen years — a time when a father’s loving but firm guidance was needed most. So, Becky was faced with running the household by herself, and she resented it. To make matters worse, Mike couldn’t explain to Becky’s satisfaction why it was so necessary for him to be here. The fact that this was his first deployment as a squadron commander made her think Mike was motivated by fleshly pride. He knew there was more to it than that. But he didn’t really understand it himself, so how could he explain this to his wife?

But Schram’s more immediate concern this November morning lay eight hundred fifty miles to the west-northwest. The discovery of rich oil and natural gas fields near the Mediterranean coast south of Haifa promised to one day make the Jewish nation an economic powerhouse. But Arab and Russian oil producers resented the possibility that their dominance of the world’s petroleum market might now be threatened. Adding to tension in the region, saber-rattling by Iran had grown to ear-splitting levels in July after an Israeli air strike all but destroyed a suspected uranium-enrichment plant near Hamadan. And years of terrorist attacks by Palestinian militants, followed by harsh Israeli reprisals and the ’06 incursion into Lebanon, had pushed conditions in the Jewish nation to a flashpoint. Talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to try to stanch the bloodshed had fallen apart in August after the Palestinian National Council, dominated for the last few years by Hamas militants, unilaterally declared that the “sovereign nation of Palestine” now existed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the ultimate, if unspoken goal, of it one day including what most of the world thought of as Israel.

Suddenly, Schram’s rueful thoughts were interrupted by a repeating bleep from his Radar Threat Receiver and a flashing icon on his tactical Multi-Function Display screen. These told him that his supersonic fighter/attack jet had been “painted” by the search and fire-control radars of an Iraqi surface-to-air missile battery. Pilots had been warned in mission briefings for several months that rogue elements of Iraq’s shattered army and straggling remnants of the Fedayeen Saddam militia — no doubt aided by foreign insurgents pumped up by the increase in regional tension — might gain access to SAM batteries. No missile had been launched, but the threat was real. Under the rules of engagement, Schram needed to consult no one before targeting an air-to-ground missile on the source of the radar — whether or not the Iraqis actually fired at him.

“Squadron. Leader,” Schram barked tersely into the radio mike mounted inside his oxygen mask. “I’ve been painted. Check your screens and watch for bogeys.”

The rest of the squadron reported all green on their tactical screens and clear radar.

“Ace, I’m headed down to Angels two-five for a HARM strike. Throttle up to six hundred knots and follow, but stay five hundred yards off my six,” Schram told his wing man, Lieutenant (j.g.) Pamela “Ace” Singleton, a “nugget,” or rookie aviator on her first carrier deployment. She was the only woman in the Thunderbirds squadron and the best combat flier among the seven female aviators in the air wing deployed on their carrier, the USS Eisenhower. It was customary in the Navy for the least experienced pilot in a squadron to fly with the most experienced. Both pilots pushed their throttles forward but stopped short of going to afterburners; higher speed would make them more difficult to hit if the Iraqis decided to fire.

Schram radioed word of the hostile action to the Combat Information Center on the Ike, which cruised with its Battle Group forty-five miles off the coast of Kuwait in the Persian Gulf. He armed a High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile under his starboard wing. The AGM-88 was designed to seek out air-defense systems with the radar-homing antenna inside its bright red nose then aim itself at the target with a proportional guidance system. Traveling at supersonic speed, the HARM would strike the missile battery with one hundred fifty pounds of blast-fragmentation high explosive. The radar targeting of Schram’s F/A-18 had lasted only a few seconds, but in that time the Iraqis could have fired a surface-to-air missile at him. Even if they didn’t fire, the radar “painting” of an aircraft that was part of the coalition peacekeeping force was a violation of restrictions the United Nations had placed on Iraq’s government going back to the “no-fly zones” that were imposed in the early 1990s after the First Gulf War. It was considered a hostile act, and response with deadly force was called for.

Schram and Singleton leveled off at twenty-five thousand feet. Electronic sensors in the Super Hornet's nose had needed only a brief taste of the Iraqi radar for the HARM to locate its source. Schram wanted to fire quickly before personnel manning the battery might realize they were doomed and fire in desperation. Schram shook his head at the thought this was so unnecessary. More than twenty years under the thumb of a ruthless dictator and now their allegiance to the stubborn insurgency had sentenced these feckless men on the ground to death. This isn’t combat, Schram thought. This isn’t what I signed on for. Still, orders were orders.

As soon as Schram confirmed that the radar-targeting mechanism of the HARM was engaged, he fired without hesitation, calling out “Magnum, Magnum” — a pilot’s warning to friendlies that a missile hunting radar waves was being launched. He felt a solid jolt when the eight hundred-pound missile dropped from a hard point under his wing and saw it arc downward as its rocket motor ignited. A sense of sadness that several men staffing the missile battery would surely die came over Schram despite his concentration on the task at hand. He began to wonder if they had families then pushed that thought out of his mind. No sense in punishing himself. Data on one of his MFD screens confirmed that the lock on his target was maintained. Nine seconds after firing, he saw the missile detonate against the Iraqi installation. He throttled back and radioed confirmation of the strike to the Eisenhower. The Officer of the Day offered congratulations, but Schram didn’t answer.

 

The autumn sun blazed warmer than usual over the ancient West Bank city of Hebron, where enraged Palestinian Arabs grew bolder everyday in their opposition to the reinforced Israeli occupation. Yahiz Jurat, just one week shy of turning twenty, walked slightly stooped under a heavy load over both shoulders as he tried to conceal the hate in his eyes. He kept his head low, hoping to attract no attention, as he walked past a cordon of Israeli troops with their assault rifles, helmets, bulletproof vests and Plexiglas shields. Perhaps the soldiers thought he was carrying produce or building materials. In fact, he had almost forty kilograms of Semtex stuffed into two duffel bags, one slung over each shoulder. Only a half-kilometer to go and he would have the plastic explosive safely in the hands of his older brother Sameer, leader of a cell of Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. With Allah’s blessing, the attack they were about to execute on a local army post would wipe out a good many of the soldiers he now cursed under his breath.

A slender bundle of nervous energy with curly dark hair, Jurat had been born during the first intifadah, a six-year-long Palestinian uprising to protest Jewish occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that had broken out in late 1987. Hating Israel was all he had ever known. And now, there were some two hundred thousand Jews living in one hundred forty-five settlements scattered among the more than three million Palestinians on the West Bank. Forcing them off his people’s land was all Jurat cared about. Trudging forward, he watched the younger men and boys act tough in front of the Israeli soldiers. Their rifles were loaded with rubber-coated bullets, though Jurat knew the spare clips on their belts held the real thing. He noticed that for every step the soldiers advanced, most of the youths backed up two. Children, he scoffed.

“Halt right there!” a voice of authority barked behind him. Jurat froze. He heard footsteps running toward him as he turned slowly. How he wished he had a detonator wired to the Semtex right now! Rather than surrender it, he would gladly blow himself up if it meant he could take out at least a few of these Zionist pigs.

Jurat grasped the straps of his duffel bags tighter and threw his shoulders back in defiance as he turned to face the soldiers who ran toward him. There were only two, but the barrels of their rifles were parallel to the ground as they raced up the street. He slowly let one of the duffel bags drop forward off his shoulder and across his chest. He hoped that if he could provoke one of the soldiers to shoot that the bullet might detonate the plastic explosives and he would be spared the humiliation of having it taken from him and becoming an Israeli prisoner. Then, his brother and their comrades in the Hamas cell would hail him as a martyr. Could a rifle bullet set off the Semtex? If so, Paradise awaited! Jurat held his breath as the soldiers sprinted toward him, one on either side. A part of him didn’t really want to die. He hoped the soldiers couldn’t see his knees shaking.

Then, to his amazement, the two soldiers ran past him and chased down a teenager who had been throwing rocks at the Israelis. One pushed the boy to the ground with the butt of his rifle then both picked him up and lashed his wrists with plastic handcuffs. All the fight had gone out of him. Jurat breathed a prayer of thanks to Allah, who he was sure had spared him to complete his holy mission.

As he resumed his short journey, the young man's thoughts turned to anticipation of the excitement and certain glory of the days ahead. An agent of Mukhabarat, the Syrian intelligence service, had briefed the cell two nights ago. Something big was brewing, the man had told them. He could not be more specific, but “get ready for major operations against the Zionist enemy,” he had said to rousing cheers from the eight cell members. Would there be an invasion by their Arab brothers from Syria? several members wanted to know. The Syrian, who used the code name “Mahmoud,” had only smiled and reminded the warriors that they knew enough about security precautions not to ask such questions. The Mukhabarat agent had endorsed the cell’s plan to bomb the army post. But he wanted them to wait an extra day to carry it out. Mahmoud didn’t say why. And he said he had additional, and even more important, assignments he wanted them to undertake next: to place bombs he would supply at two intersections and under a bridge on the main road between Hebron and Beersheba — one of many routes the Israeli army likely would use to move troops and armor during a crisis — and then to fight alongside Palestinian police and militias as well as other Hamas brothers, possibly inside Jerusalem.

 

Back in Virginia Beach that evening, at a meeting of one of the cell groups of Covenant Love Fellowship, the Schrams’ home church, a plump fifty-ish woman who had her hair done with Becky Schram’s prayer-walking partner shared with the group more than she should have about Becky’s loneliness.

“She really needs our prayers,” Andrea Newsom said in a soft, whiny voice dripping with pity. “The poor thing is raising those kids practically by herself because Mike’s at sea for six months at a stretch. Then he still has to train and do other stuff away from home when he’s stateside. That squadron of his, from what I hear, it sounds like he thinks of them more as family than he does his own wife and kids.”

Andrea’s “sharing” was little more than gossip masquerading as a request for intercessory prayer. But the group did pray — for strength and peace for Becky and for Mike to be a more responsible husband and father. One member of the group, Glenn Barkes, a divorced, forty-three-year-old human resources manager for a local business, paid special attention to Andrea’s information because he already hoped to find a way to get close to Becky. Barkes had felt attracted to her from the first time he saw the petite, auburn-haired beauty come to church without her husband, but lately he began to think it wasn’t right for her to be alone so much. What kind of man leaves his wife and kids behind and goes halfway around the world for six months at a time? These kids need a father around everyday. And what about the needs of this lovely, young woman? It’s not fair to her!

 

Back onboard the Eisenhower, Schram rushed amidships to take what he had been told was an urgent call for him over a secure line in the Ike’s comm center. Who could possibly be calling him over a secure line? Family emergencies weren’t handled like that.

“Commander Schram,” Mike spoke firmly into the handset after a petty officer second-class pointed him toward a small room in the comm center with a phone on the table and closed the door behind him.

“Oh!! ... Yes, sir. Of course I remember you. What can I — ”

A few moments of silence and a couple more “yessirs.”

“You want me to what? Fly to the — ” he said, getting interrupted again by the caller. “Don’t tell the — . Sir, that’s kind of — . No, sir. I don’t have a problem with that. ... No, sir. ... Yes, sir. I’ll find a way. ... I’ll see you in the morning. 1000 hours. ... Yes, sir. I understand.”

Schram hung up the phone slowly, missing the cradle on the first try because he wasn’t looking at it, his eyes wide and unfocused, his mouth half open, his mind far more puzzled now than it had been before he knew who was calling. This was very strange business indeed.

 

Chapter 2 — Secrets at Sea

 

It was a typically bright, clear morning in the northern Persian Gulf when a helicopter from the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet Headquarters in Manama, Bahrain, landed on the flight deck of the USS Rochefort, a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser attached to the Eisenhower Battle Group. Word of the helo’s approach had come in only minutes before in the form of a scrambled radio message from Fleet HQ. Captain Martin Colquist, commanding officer of the Rochefort, was astonished to see a four-star admiral stepping off the SH-60 Sea Hawk. And not just any four-star! The skipper had not been told that Admiral Mitchell McCready, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Plans, Policy and Operations, would be paying a visit to his ship.

That was highly unusual, to say the least, in the rigidly structured atmosphere of the Navy. Had one of his officers dropped the ball? he wondered, his teeth clenched as he clambered down the steps from the bridge two at a time. You don’t, you just don’t, fail to inform the captain that a flag officer is going to visit your ship! Especially when it was the legendary Mitch McCready, a former SEAL commando who had earned his wings to become a triple-ace fighter pilot in Vietnam. After ’Nam, he had risen quickly through the officer corps to command a Carrier Battle Group and taught at the Naval War College before stints as Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet and head of U.S. European Command, the latter one of several joint-services commands that exercised operational control over U.S. military forces worldwide. He was also a twice-published author on military history and strategy and a respected lecturer. Now, he was rumored to be in line to become CNO or maybe even the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This was absolutely the last man in front of whom Martin Colquist wanted to look bad.

“Good morning, Admiral.” Colquist said, snapping a crisp salute after jogging across the flight deck. “Welcome to the Rochefort, sir. I was not informed of your visit. What can I do for you?”

“Not out here, Marty. Got a cup of coffee for an old airedale?”

“Fresh pot in my cabin, sir.”

The two men exchanged small talk as they walked briskly downstairs to the captain’s quarters. Yes, they agreed, the Naval Academy would have its hands full against Notre Dame in Saturday’s football game. But what else was new when the Middies took the field?

Reaching his office, Colquist gestured toward his own stuffed leather chair for the admiral and poured cups for both of them before pulling out desk chair for himself. Anxious to know the reason for this high-level visit, Colquist was glad he remembered how McCready took his joe: light splash of half-n-half, no sugar.

“The situation in the Middle East is past the point of no return, Marty,” McCready began with a heavy sigh. “Intel says an invasion of Israel could come any day. Syria for sure with major help from Iran. Of course, we’re wondering if Tehran finally has a nuclear hand to play now. Probably Jordan will join in and maybe Egypt. The Palestinians will stir things up internally. Our Saudi friends and the emirates promise to stay out of it, but Pakistan is a wild card because some of their leadership sees a need to reassert their credentials in the Islamic world after going along with us against the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

“What will we do, Admiral?”

“Too little, too late, if recent history gives any indication,” McCready answered too quickly, failing to disguise his sarcasm and instantly regretting he had revealed some measure of his true feelings to a subordinate. “I’m sorry for that, Marty. Foreign policy isn’t my business, and it’s not my job to second-guess the politicians. To answer your question: Certainly we’ll stay out of the fight. Israel is our ally, of course. But the United States is on friendly terms with Egypt and Jordan too, and our role as a credible mediator in whatever peace talks take place in the region is on the line. From a diplomatic standpoint, I suppose our position will be to condemn the aggressors and try to mediate a solution while we work to keep the conflict from growing any wider. To do all that effectively, we have to maintain some semblance of neutrality.”

“This thing has been building for a long time. The Arabs aren’t going to want to go back to the status quo,” Colquist said, stating the obvious. “At the minimum, they’re going to want to take back the Golan Heights, all of the West Bank and enough of Jerusalem to let the Palestinians have their capital there. Worst-case scenario, they may try to wipe Israel right off the map.”

“Yes,” the admiral said wearily. “They didn’t have enough firepower to do that in ’48, ’56, ’67 or ’73. But things are different now. Syria and the others have had nearly forty years since the last war to modernize and build up their weaponry. This one will be really ugly. We think Israel might very well be outclassed this time.”

“But Admiral, Israel has nuclear missiles, and they can load fission bombs onto their fighter/bombers. Their nuclear capability is the worst-kept secret in the world. Would anyone attack them knowing they face that kind of retaliation?”

“Their nukes were never meant to repel an Arab invasion. As you know, Marty, Israel achieved a nuclear deterrent in the mid- to late 1960s primarily to keep the Soviets at bay. And for now, their hands are pretty much tied: If the IDF were to make a pre-emptive strike with its nukes before an invasion, Israel would be condemned around the world as the worst of all mass-murdering rogue nations; even support from the United States would vanish. And if they wait to use them after an invasion, they’d be launching weapons of mass destruction onto their own soil. A no-win situation there too.”

Both men were quiet for a moment, the hum of the ship’s engines filling the void as their minds pondered any number of grim scenarios. The skipper spoke next.

“So, Admiral, your trip here — . What can we do for you on the Rochefort?”

“Actually, Marty, I just need a quiet place to have a low-key meeting – with only one guy, as a matter of fact. I’d rather not say who it is. Rather a sensitive thing. I know you understand. Security is a priority. He should be here any minute. Helo coming over from the Ike.”

“Of course, Admiral. Anything I can do,” Colquist answered in the only way he could, his ego deflated as he understood he was not to be a part of whatever plans the admiral had.

So, that was it. This Deputy Chief of Naval Operations had flown in under a cloak of secrecy not to see Captain Martin P. Colquist, USN, or to talk to him about anything of substance. There would be no special mission for Colquist, his men or his ship. The admiral had flown over from Bahrain to spend an hour or two on the vessel only because it happened to be in a convenient place at this particular time to talk with someone else. The coffee and conversation with Colquist were nothing more than a gracious formality on McCready’s part, paying respects to the master of the house as it were.

Moments later, Colquist got a call from upstairs that a helicopter from the Eisenhower was on its way in.

“Please use my office, Admiral. I’ll escort the gentleman downstairs and leave you two alone,” Colquist said, standing to walk up to the flight deck to greet his ship’s second unexpected visitor of the day. Deep in thought, McCready nodded without making eye contact.

 

Up on the Rochefort’s flight deck, a lone figure hopped off another Sea Hawk that sat next to McCready’s helo.

Walking briskly toward the man, who seemed unsure what to do next, Colquist extended his hand.

“Captain Martin Colquist, CO of the Rochefort. And you are ... ?”

“Here to see Admiral McCready, sir,” the visitor answered with an uneasy smile, slightly embarrassed to have spoken with such impertinence to a senior officer but knowing it was necessary. The stranger’s grip was firm, the skipper noticed.

“Of course. Right this way,” Colquist replied evenly, taking no offense.

The first thing Colquist had noticed was that the man, presumably an officer, wore no rank insignia. He could see pinholes near the points of the man’s shirt collar and over the left breast pocket where insignia had been removed. The man, maybe eight or ten years younger than he, had the wiry build, edginess in his step and squinty, piercing eyes typical of an aviator. But he wore nothing to indicate who he was or where he came from — though obviously the helo had come from the Eisenhower. Of course, the Ike housed no fewer than fifty-five hundred people, including scores of aviators. The man stood a shade over six feet, with broad shoulders and narrow hips, had short, wavy blonde hair and wore a plain olive drab windbreaker over his standard khakis. No cap. No insignia of any kind. McCready had apparently gone to some lengths to put a cloak of secrecy around this small conference. Colquist reasoned that he could probably find out the man’s identity by making a quick call to the Ike to see who had requisitioned a chopper, but that might be seen as going behind the admiral’s back, so the ambitious but respectful captain would not do that.

Walking silently to his office, leading the mysterious visitor, Colquist opened the door and held it for the other man to enter.

“Admiral McCready, your guest is here.”

“Thank you, Marty,” he answered with a nod as he rose to his feet. “Please see that we’re not disturbed. We’ll be out of your hair in ninety minutes, give or take.”

“Of course, Admiral. Anything you need, just have me paged,” Colquist said, closing the door behind him, without waiting for an acknowledgment.

Neither McCready nor the other man spoke or saluted until after the skipper had left.

Commander Michael Joseph Schram stood to attention and snapped a respectful salute as the older man walked toward him with a beaming grin, his hand outstretched, which he raised to half-return the salute before extending it again to shake Schram’s hand.

“Mike, it’s awfully good to see you again. How’ve you been?” McCready asked politely.

“Fine, sir,” Schram answered, letting out a deep breath but keeping his many questions to himself as he wisely decided to let the admiral take the lead in their conversation.

“Good. You’re looking well. I’m hearing impressive reports about your service on the Eisenhower.”

“That’s good to know, sir,” Schram said, finding something else to be puzzled about. Why would a Deputy Chief of Naval Operations pay any attention to the performance evaluations of a squadron commander deployed halfway around the world? The Deputy CNO was quite a hike up the chain of command from Schram’s billet.

McCready remembered Schram as a bright and inquisitive pupil when the younger man had taken the admiral’s class on world military history three summers ago at the Naval War College while Schram was on shore rotation and earning credits toward his master’s degree.

Schram took a seat and waited to find out why a four-star admiral had gone way outside normal channels to summon him for a private and secret conversation, and — most curious of all — why he had insisted that Schram not tell his own CO about the visit. (Schram had commandeered the helicopter by making up a story about needing to fly to another ship to help make plans for a surprise birthday party for Rear Admiral Joaquin Salazar; commander of the Ike’s Battle Group; fortunately, that date was early next month.) McCready handed Schram a cup of coffee and breezily began what seemed like dinner-table conversation about world events. Schram was eager for McCready to cut to the chase but was confident the admiral would make his point when he was ready.

“Mike, you watch the news, and you get intelligence briefings. You know what’s going on in the Middle East. The peace process looks finished. Syria won’t sign off on a deal without getting the Golan Heights back, and Israel wants a buffer zone, compensation for settlers and guarantees for its water sources before it’ll give up the Heights. Little room for movement on either side. The Palestinians want Israel to pull out of more of the West Bank, but our Jewish friends won’t leave until the P.A. can make security guarantees, which we all know it is powerless to deliver. And the fact that the Palestinians have declared themselves a sovereign nation just seems to set everyone’s feet in concrete. On top of all that is the question of Iran. There’s a lot of speculation they’ve finally built nuclear warheads, and the intel community suspects they also have the means to deliver them. Now, we’re all holding our breath waiting for the Arabs and Persians to invade Israel. Our intel says it could happen any day; it may be just a matter of hours.”

Who am I? The Secretary of State?! Schram said to himself. A four-star is briefing me on the situation in the Mideast. Why? He wants my advice?! I’m just a Hornet driver, for heaven’s sake! What’s he want with me?

McCready settled back into his chair, took a sip of coffee and continued: “I remember a paper you wrote in my class back at the War College, Mike. The assignment was to show how a field general had used unorthodox tactics to overcome a superior force. You gave three examples — all from biblical times. One was the story of Judah’s King Jehoshaphat, where he faced a vast army of Moabites, the Ammonites and some from Mount Seir. You wrote about how Jehoshaphat had worshipers march out in front of the army to sing and praise the Lord. And the army didn’t have to lift a finger against the enemy. The Moabites and Ammonites ganged up to slaughter the people from Mount Seir, then the two of them turned on each other. And when Judah’s army came along, they saw only dead bodies where a vast army once had been.”

Where’s he going with this? Schram wondered.

“You also described Gideon — how, when he was about to face the Midianites back in the times of the Judges, God directed him to whittle his army down from thirty-two thousand men to just three hundred so that Israel could not boast of its own strength when God had given the victory. And these three hundred went up against a vastly superior army — more than a hundred thousand swordsmen. To top it off, they left their weapons at home. Gideon had each of man carry only a trumpet in one hand and a jar containing a torch in the other. At the edge of the Midianite camp, they broke the jars and blew their trumpets. God caused the Midianites to turn on each other with their swords. Most were killed, and the rest fled into the hills. Then you gave the account of Hezekiah. Something like one hundred eighty-five thousand Assyrian soldiers had surrounded Jerusalem, and they were gonna take the city the next day. The night before the battle, the king got down on his face and cried out to God, asking for deliverance, pleading with Him to intervene. And the next morning, there were one hundred eighty-five thousand dead bodies outside the city. An angel of the Lord had wiped out the Assyrian army during the night.

“My first thought when I read that was: ‘Get real, son! What kind of commander would send unarmed forces into battle, and where in all this is a lesson that can be applied today?’ I nearly flunked you on the paper, Mike,” McCready continued. “But then I read it a second time. And I saw your reasoning that Israel had a covenant relationship with her God. That relationship was unique, and its terms went both ways. So, these commanders used the infinite resources at their disposal: the might of God, to which their faith and obedience allowed them access. I looked beyond whether this offered a lesson modern-day commanders could apply and saw that, in the examples you cited, resourceful leaders indeed found unorthodox ways to defeat more powerful enemies. That they did so without firing a shot, if you will, made it so much the better. And, as you may remember, I gave you an ‘A’ on the paper.”

“I do indeed, sir, and I appreciated that,” Schram said, still having no idea where all this was leading.

“Well, here’s the thing, Commander. Once again, the people of Israel face overwhelming odds. They’re still a tiny speck of a nation surrounded by larger and more powerful enemies. Syria and the others have had decades to rearm since the last war. In fairness to the Arabs, maybe they gave the peace process an honest try. I don’t know; that’s a political issue. But it hasn’t worked out. As I said before, an invasion of Israel is imminent. We don’t know how they’ll come through it, but we fear the worst.”

“It’s the devil’s work, sir.”

“I know about your faith, Mike. I remember what you once said about the importance of the Jewish people, specifically the nation Israel, in God’s end-time plan. How the nation Israel must remain in Jewish hands as one of the conditions for the return of Christ. Am I right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“OK, then. What we’re facing here is a situation in which, well, Israel as we know it might cease to exist.”

“But, Admiral, Israel has whipped the Arabs four times already – not even counting those incursions into Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, plus the episode in Gaza right after Christmas ’08. And everyone knows they have nukes, maybe as many as three hundred warheads, if what I’ve read is true. How could three or four non-nuclear countries pose the kind of threat you’re talking about? I mean, I know that Arab extremists have called for the destruction of Israel right from her modern-day birth in ’48 and the Palestinians and Iran have kept up that kind of talk since, but isn’t it quite a stretch to think that’s really possible today?”

 

At that moment, on a steaming asphalt apron next to a runway at the joint U.S.-Turkish air base at Incirlik, Air Force Chief of Staff General Adam Hunter sat aboard the VC-20 with a single guest in the forward conference room. Hunter’s jet had landed with less than an hour’s notice to the Air Force wing commander, Brigadier General Donald Lamonde. Hunter had summoned Lamonde aboard the luxurious fourteen-seat jet for a brief courtesy chat then told him he wanted to spend some time with the operations officer of his fighter/attack wing. Hunter had said he was making a tour of overseas outposts and just wanted to chew the fat with men in the field, get a feel for how things were going, show them the brass back home cared, that sort of thing. After General Lamonde disembarked, Lieutenant Colonel Eric Blake came aboard and settled into one of the plush leather conference chairs before Hunter gave him much the same background briefing on the deteriorating situation in the Middle East that Admiral McCready was giving Mike Schram at that moment almost two thousand miles away.

“Colonel, what I’m about to tell you is known by no more than thirty people in the Owens Administration and the most senior members of our military command structure and intelligence agencies. Even the leaders of Congress haven’t been briefed yet. Therefore, I have to ask that you treat this information with the utmost discretion.”

“Of course, General.” Hmm. Curious. He didn’t specifically tell me to keep it to myself.

“We have recently learned that Syria has built a missile-launching facility in the southwestern part of that country — eight or nine miles northeast of the Golan Heights. Satellite photos show it has four launching platforms for medium-range ballistic missiles. Birds from there could drop warheads anywhere in Israel. Iran is building missiles like this, or they could have been obtained from North Korea or another rogue nation. Intel from inside Syria is pretty sketchy, but our best information is that Syria or Iran has acquired nuclear or biological weapons. Where did they get them? Our intel suggests Iran has finally completed construction of several nuclear devices despite the loss of some HEU” – highly enriched uranium – “in that Israeli strike. Or, they could have come from Pakistan or the Russian or Ukraine black market. Nuclear inventory control in former Soviet central Asia isn’t what it used to be, to say the least. The fact that there are only four launchers tells us the warheads must be especially deadly. A normal missile base would have many more launchers if it were meant for conventional weapons. Anyway, the CIA and NSA, and of course the Mossad, are working to piece all of this together.”

Hunter, a corpulent man with wispy white hair that he combed over to cover barely half his scalp, paused to light a Dominican Cohiba without asking Blake if he minded. The general took several puffs on the long cigar before resuming his discourse.

“Obviously, Colonel, this development by itself raises ample cause for concern,” Hunter continued as he took a sip of rich Turkish coffee and smacked his lips in sybaritic indulgence. “But taken along with the recent troop and armor movements by several Arab nations, along with Iran, this means the offensive threat against Israel has gone up exponentially. If we assume Israel will not unleash its nuclear arsenal either before an invasion or once the enemy has crossed its borders, a conventional invasion by multiple countries today stands a far better chance of success than it did back in 1973. And when you add possible nukes to the mix — my God, I hate to think what might happen.

“There’s real concern in Washington, Colonel, that Israel might not come out of this in one piece. If that happens – if Israel is defeated, there would be devastating repercussions for our national interests in this region and for world peace in general. I mean, think about it: We could be looking at a solid bloc of mostly radical Islamic states from the western corner of North Africa, all the way across the Middle East, through much of the southern tier of Asia – except India, of course, but including some of the former Soviet republics – all the way to Indonesia. Now, I’m not saying we have a problem with Muslims, per se. Most of them are fine, law-abiding people, as you know. But if the invasion succeeds, the militant fundamentalists among them will be emboldened in every country where moderates now hold power: Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states, for example. You remember that a new Islamic party kicked out the secular incumbents here in Turkey a while back. They keep saying they’re pro-Western, and they’ve done a fine job of keeping a lid on the fundamentalist hotheads. But who says that can’t change? If it does, our lease at this base you’re on expires pronto. And the Air Force would lose the ability to project force in this part of the world.

“So, the clout of moderates in some of these countries could be reversed at anytime: We've already seen the fundamentalist backlash in Iran; intel says it also could happen in some of the former Soviet republics and a few other places. Just imagine, Colonel, if militants were to overthrow the royal family in Saudi Arabia. Ten dollars a gallon at the pump the very next week, my friend, and the economic repercussions cascade downhill from there. In addition, if we were to lose the Gulf states, the Navy’s Fifth Fleet HQ gets kicked out of Bahrain, and whatever Carrier Battle Group that’s on rotation down there has a lot more to worry about than losing its comfy ports of call in the Gulf and dealing with a defanged Iraq. And if the Sunnis and Shi’ites should happen to reconcile — well, would you like to see Iran and Iraq as allies?

"You know that the greatest threat in this part of the world today is Iran since that hothead Ahmadinejad came to power. Iran already is cozy with Syria and has made no secret of its desire to wipe Israel off the map. A lot of us in the Pentagon feel we need to stop Iran soon – no matter what happens with Israel.

"Here’s something else to keep in mind: We all saw what a few nut cases who hijacked airliners did to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Well, just imagine if that kind of terrorism were sponsored by the deep pockets of Iran and other radical Islamic governments. The potential for peril here, for new threats to our national security, is almost endless.”

Hunter paused again, taking another sip of coffee, to let Blake absorb everything he had been saying. This was quite a lot to lay on a forty-one-year-old air wing ops commander who had never even been to the E-Ring of the Pentagon, where the Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top brass worked. And yet General Hunter hadn’t even begun to make his pitch.

“Yes, sir. I agree the situation is worrisome, maybe even dire,” Blake said. “But why are you telling me all this. I mean, I just run flight ops for an air wing out here in the desert, General. You said when I came aboard that you couldn’t tell General Lamonde about some of this. So, why tell me?”

Hunter leaned forward in his chair, stubbed his cigar out in the ashtray and looked the aviator straight in the eyes. “Colonel, I’ll lay my cards on the table, face up. I wish I were here to tell you that the President has authorized a pre-emptive strike on this new Syrian missile site. Or that he had decided we would back up Israel in case of an invasion. But the fact is he’s already overruled the Joint Chiefs on both counts. If the worst happens, it looks like we’re just gonna sit back and watch it unfold. Oh, we’ll turn the diplomats loose. The Secretary of State will get on an airplane and try to get the sides to talk peace. We’ll make some angry speeches at the United Nations. But, the truth is, by that time, it’ll be too late. And I’m just ... ” Hunter, visibly seething, struggled to suppress the urge to curse. “ ... A lot of us are just — sick about it. We’re absolutely appalled by our government’s confused and disengaged foreign policy. I mean, we’re the only superpower left in the world, right? How many more times are we gonna wimp out or shoot ourselves in the foot?! We let Saddam off the hook in the First Gulf War, and that meant there had to be a second one. And what a train wreck that’s turned into! It’s the first time in our nation’s history that the military has lost more people while occupying a country than it took to conquer it.

“Losing Israel, losing the Middle East — Colonel, that would be more than ... I mean, it isn’t just a matter of our image in the world. As I said, there would be major strategic implications if the radical militants prevail and Israel is defeated. And it’s not just about oil. As you know, this Air Force and in fact all the armed services are stretched thin just taking care of the brush fires. If extremists are calling the shots across North Africa, the Mideast and South Asia, it could create a whole lot more trouble than we’re prepared to deal with.”

 

Chapter 3 — A Call from God?

 

As if following a script, Admiral McCready had just outlined the same scary scenario to Mike Schram that General Hunter had given Eric Blake.

“I see,” Schram said, leaning forward in his chair in the cabin of the Rochefort’s skipper. “But again, Admiral, what does all this have to do with me?”

“Over the course of history, Mike, God has done some incredible things for Israel when she was on the ropes militarily, as you reminded me with those examples in your War College paper. You know, for most of my fifty-eight years, I had never been what you’d call an on-fire believer, even though I’ve trusted Christ nearly all my life. But your paper prompted me to do some serious study in the last couple of years about the promises of God and the role He plays — or wants to play, at least — in our lives. And my faith is deeper today because of that.

“Now, you don’t think for a minute that the Lord God of this universe is finished taking care of His chosen people, do you?”

“No, sir. I don’t.”

“And if this invasion happens as we expect, it might be time for another miracle to save Israel, don’t you think?”

“I would certainly pray for one, sir,” Schram answered.

“Well, you might have the opportunity to do more than that.”

Here it comes.

“As I said, Mike, the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs — no one — has authorized a military strike on targets in the Middle East, other than what the allied coalition already is doing in Iraq. And the United States will not intervene to help defend Israel if it is attacked. That’s official policy. I don’t like it, but I can’t change it.

“All I can say is, Mike — .” McCready paused, took a deep breath as his eyes fell briefly to the floor, then he looked up again. “What I mean is — let’s say that a Super Hornet squadron commander with a group of hand-picked aviators, were to take off from a carrier, ostensibly on one of those routine patrol missions over Iraq. Then, unbeknownst to their CAG or the ship’s skipper, what if these pilots were to drop down under radar and turn west toward Israel? The Super Hornets could get refueled over Saudi Arabia — that can be arranged, no problem — then proceed on to targets in Israel and Syria. And what if, let’s say, a squadron of F-15s and A-10s out of Incirlik were to come in from the other direction and take out some Arab armored columns advancing in Israel? Couldn’t that possibly help the Israelis out of a tight spot? Both missions would come as a complete surprise to the Arab and Persian forces. They wouldn’t be expecting Israel to get outside help. If Israel’s military were on the ropes, something like this might turn it around for them.”

Schram’s mouth hung half-open in shock, his eyes wide. When he began to speak, the words came slowly.

“Are you asking — ? I mean, I know you’re not ordering me, Admiral. But are you asking me to put together a squadron and fly a mission like this? Something unauthorized by my captain or the civilian authorities? Something like — well, it would in fact, be an act of war by United States forces against those of other countries, wouldn’t it? Are you serious?"

“Wait a minute, Mike. You’re right: I am not ordering you to do anything. Let’s be clear about that. I don’t have that authority. I am offering the opportunity for you to consider doing something on your own initiative. And you’d have support. Lieutenant Colonel Blake — you two know each other — is getting a similar briefing right now in Turkey from General Hunter, the Air Force Chief of Staff. If Blake is on board, you have a much stronger team with his -15s flying high cover and the tank-busters he would bring into play. I already mentioned refueling planes; the Air Force has ’em too. The Israelis will know you’re coming and could help direct you to targets since the situation on the ground is sure to be fluid.

“Mike, it’s important that this war be stopped before it gets any wider — before, say, the Saudis, Pakistan or some of the Gulf states get bold and decide to join the fight after they see which way the wind is blowing. The Saudis and the Emirates, you know, have even more modern warplanes than do Egypt or Jordan — fighters we sold them, I might add — that have source codes and master keys for the latest F-15 and -16 weapons systems. And the Pakistanis, of course, have nuclear warheads and the missiles to launch them.

“Here’s what I want you to think about: What if a mission like this made the difference between life and death for Israel? What you have to decide is how much that matters to you.” McCready paused a moment to let that thought sink in.

“I know you’d put your life on the line for your own country, the land of your birth. But would you sacrifice your career, just your career, Mike, for Israel, the land of your spiritual birth — if, in fact, its survival is as important as you say it is — a prerequisite for the return of Christ?”

“But, Admiral, why would God need my help? He is certainly able to take care of Israel by Himself.”

“I’m not as much of a Bible scholar as you are, Mike. But it only takes a cursory reading of the Old Testament to see a clear pattern: When Israel is obedient to God’s commands, she is protected and the nation thrives. But when she turns away from God, whether it is to idols or her own secular pursuits, God withdraws His hand of protection and blessing. And if she persists in sin, He allows the nation to be invaded and even conquered. That’s happened repeatedly in her history. Right now, as you know, Israel as a nation — and, for the most part, the Jews as a people — are away from God. Not only have most Jews rejected the Messiah, but the vast majority does not even follow the Law of Moses, which the rabbis still think brings salvation. Now, correct me if I’m missing something here, but the way I see it, Israel is not in line for a blessing — it cannot be when so many of her people are in rebellion against God.”

“I don’t dispute that part of it, Admiral. But wouldn’t we be getting in God’s way, hindering His purpose if we intervene? I mean, who are we to say, ‘God, if You won’t come through for Israel, I guess I’ll have to.’? That’s awfully presumptuous.”

“You’ve hit upon the key question, Mike. Frankly, I don't have the answer to that. Obviously, you’ll have to commit this to prayer before you give me an answer. But here’s how I see it: You remember how Paul wrote in Romans 11 that God was going to use the Gentiles to make the Jews envious of God’s blessing so they would eventually come to Christ? Well, I think — I mean, this could be — this mission I’ve proposed, Mike, could be God’s way of showing Israel not only that she cannot get by just on her wits anymore but also how much Christians love her people. Maybe that is part of God’s purpose here.

“Commander, remember this: It only took one David to slay Goliath. It only took one Esther to save her people from Haman. Gideon we’ve just talked about. It only took one obedient man of God, Moses, to lead the Hebrew nation out of Egypt. Elijah stood up to Ahab and Jezebel with no earthly support. Nehemiah was practically a one-man show when it came to rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Then there were the Maccabees, a small band that took on the Greeks. Over and over, Israel has a history of looking for a ‘savior’ — and I don’t just mean the Messiah — but someone to pull their keisters out of the fire when they’re backed into a corner. A heroic display of leadership could have a profound effect on the Jewish psyche. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the war goes badly for them, and you and your guys help turn it around. Not only will they be grateful, but they’ll want to know why you did it. And that opens the door for your testimony.”

“My testimony? Yeah, if I can smuggle it out of the brig, you mean.” Schram said ruefully.

“Mike, I’m well aware of what I’m asking you to give up. Your career for sure, your reputation — at least in a worldly sense, years with your family — I don’t know how many – and possibly even your life. But you know what Jesus told His disciples on the Mount of Olives shortly before He was arrested: ‘Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.’ I really don’t think you’d be laying down your life in terms of getting killed. I think it would be more in the sense of giving the use of your life for someone else’s cause and at the same time putting your life in God’s hands. A heroic act of love and sacrifice to help save Israel — Mike, God is not gonna fail to notice that. And neither will the Jewish people. I know you care about them. You could be God’s instrument to help save Israel. That’s what you have to discern when you go to Him in prayer. Ask Him to show you. I realize that whether you decide to lead this mission depends on whether you perceive this to be His will.

“I believe with all my heart, Mike, that your squadron will be supernaturally protected — not just from missiles and bullets, but also from the worst of the legal repercussions that are sure to follow. I can’t say for sure what will happen. Courts-martial for certain. Prison time, I imagine. I will stand up for you when this is over, Mike. I promise you that. But remember, by then I’ll be every bit as discredited as you — probably more so because of these four stars — so I may not be of much help. But let’s believe that God will be in control of those proceedings and not the Judge Advocate General Corps.”

“I understand what you’re saying, sir. You’ve given me a lot to think about — and pray about, of course – before I can say yes. But, let’s get back to the practical side: What can we really accomplish with so few planes? I mean we’re only talking about a couple of squadrons, right? Whatever I can put together from the Ike and whatever Blake comes up with at our base in Turkey. Two squadrons can’t win a war.” Unless God’s hand is upon them, Schram didn’t have to say.

“We think it could slow the invasion enough to give Israel a chance to regroup. We’ve run computer models on what might happen — looking at Israel’s military assets and gauging the strength of what the Arabs and Iran are likely to throw at them. Despite its history of air superiority, our best estimate is that sixty percent of the Israeli air force could be neutralized within the first forty-eight hours because of the enemy's overwhelming firepower this time coming in from multiple directions. After that, Arab tank columns will be rolling in with minimal air cover, making them sitting ducks for Blake’s A-10s and the air-to-ground missiles his Strike Eagles and your Super Hornets would carry. That’s the optimum time for us to make an air strike. The third or fourth day is when we’d like you to go in. And, you know, maybe this wouldn’t turn the war around all by itself. But American involvement, even the unofficial kind I’m talking about, could prompt the Arabs to do something rash that would force the U.S. to officially intervene militarily – which is what we’d both like to see. A terrorist strike against our embassy, or threatening to cut off the oil supply, something like that. We have contingency plans to respond to anything along those lines. The Teddy Roosevelt Battle Group steamed out of Naples last night on its way to the eastern Med.”

“There’s another concern I have, Admiral. God’s Word tells us to submit to the civil authorities He has placed in charge over us. If I were to violate the Navy’s chain of command and fly off to fulfill some personal agenda, wouldn’t I be disobeying Him too?”

“If this were some ‘personal’ agenda, yes, that would be disobedience. That’s why it’s so important for you to discern if this is God’s will, as I think it is. Mike, I know what the Bible says about how civil authority flows from God’s authority. I know the importance of submitting to authority; I’ve done it all my life. The great Chinese Bible teacher Watchman Nee said, ‘The will of God is the absolute thing ...’ That has to take precedence over the whims of delegated authorities. Nee also said, ‘All we can do is execute God’s authority; we cannot create authority for ourselves.’ God’s authority is paramount, Commander. If our nation’s authorities are violating God’s commands, then there may be instances where we would be entitled to defy them in order to follow the revealed will of God to set things right. Read the last part of Matthew 25, Mike. The sheep and the goats. Which do we want to be?”

McCready wrapped up his pitch. “The national security concerns are sufficient here that I’m prepared to throw my career away to support this mission. So is General Hunter. And we have a few other friends in very high places. All of us are disgusted that the Administration will not intervene to stop a radical Muslim destruction of Israel. It’s hard to blame them, really. The public is wary of another military engagement right now after the losses we’ve taken in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Owens and most of his people refuse to see what’s at stake here. And we don’t like the direction our country is going with regard to command and control of military forces. Mike, I’ve laid it all out for you. Israel’s survival is on the line. I’m convinced of that. As I said, you have to ask yourself how much that means to you, and whether God is calling you to make a difference. An awful lot, maybe more than you can imagine, depends on your answers to those two questions.”

“Sir, I appreciate your candor. I’ll take this before the Lord. I’ll talk to Eric Blake. And if we both agree it’s a go, I’ll see if I can round up some people who see things our way. Where God guides, He provides, right?” Schram managed a weak smile, though his gut was churning.

“This top number is a direct line to me. The second number is for a phone Blake is being given today. And here is the sat phone I want you to have. It comes with a digital scrambler and also can use cell towers,” McCready said, handing Schram a slip of paper and a sleek, lightweight Thuraya satellite phone, the same model the CIA gives its agents and some of its key informants in the field. “I need to hear from you within forty-eight hours. And if you’re onboard with us, we’ll use this system to coordinate things.”

As the two of them stood to leave, McCready gave Schram a hearty embrace, surprising the pilot once more. Flag officers never did that.

 

“And, by the way, Colonel,” General Hunter said, clasping Blake firmly on the shoulder as he ushered the younger man to the cabin door of the VC-20. “If you decide you’re on the team, I’ll be sending a little helper that you’ll want to take along on the mission.”

“A ‘little helper,’ sir?” Blake asked, slipping the sat phone into his pocket.

“You’ll like it a lot,” the four-star said with a broad grin. “Trust me.”

 

Well past sunset on a Tuesday night, Ed Schram, Mike’s older brother, stewed in heavy traffic on the Capital Beltway as he hurried to get home, just south of McLean, Va. — late again for his son’s high school basketball game after a long day at the office. He had a lot to stew about these days, something that came naturally to a man with his sour disposition. As head of the Central/Eastern European Desk in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, formerly the Directorate of Operations, he supervised a dozen overseas station chiefs and more than one hundred seventy-five field agents and informants. Ed had learned long ago that being a nice guy didn’t count for much in his line of work.

Ed and Mike were the only children of the late Parker Schram, who had been a tire company executive in Akron, Ohio, and his widow, Lenora.

Ed had earned the promotion to his present position and the coveted Intelligence Star, the CIA’s highest decoration for performance in the field, for a daring escapade almost twenty years earlier in which he had engineered the capture of a Balkan dictator wanted by the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. Vonislav Kerkjavic, known in the West as “the butcher of Biltkova,” had been defeated in popular elections in his country but struggled to hold onto power. When reformists rose up soon after, Kerkjavic had flown to the easternmost province of his country with a loyal battalion of army troops to plan a coup that he hoped would engineer his comeback. But Schram, who at the time was station chief in Prague, was sent in by the CIA’s Deputy Director for Operations to try to stop the dictator. Intending to cut a deal with junior officers, Schram had approached a captain and two lieutenants, all men without families, with an audacious offer: “Deliver your president to me and I’ll pay each of you fifty thousand euros and arrange to have your unit absolved of any war crimes.” After brief hesitation, they had agreed. The three officers went to Kerkjavic without the knowledge of their superiors and told him they had been instructed to move him to a safer hideout because some of his bodyguards could not be trusted. Once in the jeep, they had easily overpowered the older man and sped over the border to Hungary, where they defected. Schram had been waiting with a U.S. State Department official, a bureaucrat from the European Union and a prosecutor for the War Crimes Tribunal. They had bundled Kerkjavic onto a British Royal Air Force plane, and he was paraded before cameras in handcuffs in The Hague the next morning.

As far as the public knew, Kerkjavic had been betrayed by a group of officers who wanted to restore democracy to their country, which was partly true. Only a few select people, including members of a congressional oversight committee, knew of the CIA’s involvement. And even they did not hear the name Ed Schram. But he was a hero within the intelligence community nonetheless. The vice president had personally presented him the Intelligence Star. Ed’s only regret was that his father had not been there to see it. Maybe that would have made his dad proud of him — finally.

Growing up, Ed had been the serious, studious son while Mike had been the popular athlete. Their parents had been careful not to show favoritism toward either, but Mike had gotten most of the attention from others. Outgoing, tall for his age and handsome with a ready smile and wavy blonde hair, Mike was the favorite of his aunts and even of some of the teachers at school — despite the fact that Ed had been the better student. Although they were just two years apart, back home they had been in different worlds: Mike had been the jock with plenty of friends and popular with girls, while Ed was the geek, something of a loner who had trouble getting dates.

He didn’t think it was fair that personality could get you further in life than smarts. But all the time Ed and Mike had been growing up, that’s how it seemed to work. Ed’s grades had earned him a scholarship to Princeton, but Mike’s athletic prowess and leadership abilities had brought him one as well, albeit to a less prestigious state university.

Ed and Mike had accompanied their parents to church regularly while growing up. But unlike Mike, Ed had not investigated spiritual matters further after leaving home. It wasn’t that he doubted the existence of God; it was just that those kinds of issues didn’t really matter to him. He trusted what he could see with his eyes or prove with his mind. As a teenager, Ed had found especially annoying the Old Testament stories in which a younger brother had assumed a position of dominance over the elder, as with Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his ten older brothers, or David and his siblings. Such tales reinforced the quiet message he got at home — that the younger Mike was somehow better, just because people liked him, even though the older brother was more intelligent and had accomplished more things that really mattered. To this day, he carried this deep resentment and was bitter that he had never had the chance to prove to his father what he could do before Parker Schram died. Even as adults, Mike was still the one who got all the recognition back home as the glamorous fighter pilot. Ed still seemed the studious geek, even though he held an important government position. It didn’t even matter that he had personally briefed the President as a National Intelligence Officer. Most of the time, he couldn’t tell people exactly what he did for a living.

But now, Ed would have the chance to set the record straight. He finally found something to smile about in this traffic jam as a sly grin twisted its way onto his dour countenance: Mike would look like the fool Ed knew he was if his younger brother were gullible enough to go on the mission Admiral McCready had pitched to him this morning. The fact that his career would be wrecked and he’d face prison would be his own fault. Ed didn’t actually hate his brother, but his years of jealousy and seething resentment finally were finding a means to express themselves.

A colleague of Ed’s in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence had come up with the biblical scenario that McCready and Hunter pitched to the pilots. With the possible exception of McCready, no one on this end of the operation really believed in it. All that mattered was that people with cunning minds had analyzed what it would take to persuade born-again pilots to violate orders and fly an illegal mission and then had tailored a set of Bible-based arguments that was designed to stimulate the passions Ed knew his religious nut of a brother held.

The whole thing had begun about five weeks ago with Ed’s rambling monologue of what-ifs over drinks one evening after work with Dave Stingall, a civilian member of the National Security Council staff, one of the Deputy Assistants to the President for National Security Affairs. Schram hadn’t been proposing a mission really, just trying to impress one of his peers with spy-talk about various ways to manipulate people. But that conversation had led three days later to an unexpected meeting with General Hunter. Hunter thought that a back-channel operation like this might actually work. And Hunter felt that Ed’s intimate knowledge of his brother’s religious beliefs was a useful tool. If it did work, it would serve the ends of those in government and the military who were convinced the United States was becoming dangerously gun-shy on the world stage. And if it didn’t work, the principals had been careful to keep their involvement deniable. Hunter and McCready had been the only ones to approach the pilots. And, if questioned, they could argue convincingly that they had given no orders. Ed Schram and his NSC friend felt safe because they were even more removed from the operation. In reality, none of them thought it had better than a fifty-fifty chance of going forward if Israel were invaded. But they felt there was little to lose by trying — at least for the four of them. Other covert operations certainly had been launched on far longer odds.

Only this time, there would be no Intelligence Star for Ed if the mission succeeded because his boss, director of the NCS, was out of the loop. And so was the Director of Central Intelligence. Hunter had assured Schram that none of his superiors on the seventh floor at CIA headquarters, with one exception, would learn of his involvement. Stingall at NSC was running the mission, along with Hunter and McCready. And whether Dave answered to someone higher up at the White House about this, Ed Schram did not know and dared not ask.

 

The Air Force Chief of Staff had counted on his ability to punch the buttons that activated Admiral McCready’s soft spots, and in that respect he had succeeded. He had heard the professorial admiral make basically the same speech about the United States’ responsibility as a world leader a half-dozen different ways. And versions of it, in varying degrees of candor, were well known from the E-Ring to the Fleet and back to the Naval War College in Providence, R.I. As the two men sat alone in the VC-20's forward conference room on the long flight back to Andrews Air Force Base from Aviano, General Hunter knocked back a couple of scotches and puffed on a cigar as he tolerated yet another of McCready’s monologues. The admiral clearly had conflicting feelings about the scheme to which Hunter had introduced him. But now that he was committed to seeing it through, he seemed almost to be talking to himself, as if trying to justify the outlandish, career-ending proposal he had made just hours before to an innocent squadron commander who had never asked to go swimming in water way over his head.

“A great power has the responsibility to draw the line — to quell aggression while it is still able to be stopped,” McCready said, as Hunter pretended to pay attention. “History is full of examples of the consequences of a great power’s failure to do so.”

Oh, no! Here comes another history lesson. It’s gonna be a long ride home, Hunter thought, pouring again from a bottle of his favorite eighteen-year-old Highlands single malt, grateful that McCready had declined his half-hearted offer to share it. After all, this was his really good stuff — aged in Spanish white oak barrels that previously held sherry, a distiller’s technique that gave the well-aged scotch a rusty hue.

McCready thought Hunter drank too much. The whites of his eyes were beginning to look like those peppermint candies with red and white swirls. But the admiral held his tongue on that issue. He had another lecture to deliver.

“The Civil War might have ended in the autumn of 1861 —spring 1862 at the latest — if General George McClellan had the backbone to attack the Rebels when Lincoln was begging him to. Instead, he waited for the fight to come to him. Think of the carnage that could have been avoided if Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and all the rest had never happened. Tens of thousands of American lives on both sides could have been spared.

“Same for the French in World War II. Oh, how that episode of French cowardice disgusts me to this day! There’s no question they and the Brits could have stopped the Nazis before Christmas 1939 if only they had attacked from the west while the Wehrmacht was tied up in Poland that fall. Hitler wasn’t equipped to fight a two-front war in 1939. His own generals had told him that. He only had twenty-three divisions on the western front, and those were his least-trained and poorest-equipped troops. The French, on the other hand, had eighty-five heavily armed divisions combat-ready. They had the largest army in Europe at the time. Did you know that, Adam? Larger than Germany’s! But France mounted no more than a token attack in the Saar region that fall and even withdrew from positions it had gained after the Germans retreated. And they wouldn’t let the Brits bomb the Ruhr valley when Churchill begged them for clearance; he knew it was the right thing to do. That’s the classic example of a missed opportunity. Think of the tens of millions of lives that could have been spared if Britain and France had ended the European war in 1939.

“That’s how I see the United States today, Adam. We’re General McClellan in 1861. We’re France in 1939. We have the opportunity to prevent a small-scale problem from becoming a huge problem. It pains me like nothing ever has that the White House can’t see it. But you and I do. That’s why I’m so glad you and Ed briefed me on this plan. I’m in this with you all the way. I know my career will be finished in another week, maybe less, if Schram and Blake go along with the plan. Yours too, you understand. But I believe history will vindicate what we’re doing. God help us if these boys don’t go along with us. They just have to. If Israel falls, America is in for a rougher ride than the stuffed shirts in Washington can imagine.”

Hunter’s eyes had narrowed and his fist gripped the scotch glass tightly when McCready suggested the general’s career would be finished. There was no way Adam Hunter would let that happen. No way! Besides, he had friends in Israel too. Rich friends. But he didn’t look at them the same way those religious-nut fly-boys viewed the Jews. Not by a long shot. Besides, it was all right if McCready had his own reasons for taking part in this gambit. Hunter certainly had his.

 

Chapter 4Dilemma

 

Mike Schram was bone tired. He could barely pay attention to the TV news in his tiny cabin, when he was disturbed by a knock on the door.

“Hey, Spaz. What’s up?” Schram asked wearily as the executive officer of his squadron and fellow believer, Commander Vinny Spaziano, stepped inside. Spaziano’s Italian heritage and hearty appetite had earned him the tag “Meatball,” but his peers mostly called him “Spaz.”

“Howdy, Commander. Couldn’t find you earlier, and I just wanted to check in on you. Are you OK about that HARM strike this morning?”

“OK as I can be. Our people on the ground are still facing a lot more hazards from those loons than we are. I wish we could help more.”

“So do I. Say, you been catching any news on TV?” Spaziano asked.

“Oh, yeah. Israel looks like a powder keg. The world is just waiting for someone to light the fuse. The media almost seems to be lusting for war. You know how they love all that great video.”

“I know the church around the world is praying its heart out for the preservation of Israel. I get at least half a dozen email alerts everyday from various ministries. They’re all focused on one thing right now — the 'peace of Jerusalem' and the safety of her people. I’m glad you’ve made that a priority in our recent prayer meetings here, Commander.”

Schram shook his head sadly. “Knowing the Bible as we do, we shouldn’t be surprised it’s come to this. But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch. Especially when we’re sitting so close by — yet impotent, thanks to the politicians.”

Spaz smiled. “I see you’re thinking as I’ve been. With our planes and weapons systems, wouldn’t it be great if we could make a difference in a war that really meant something? Not to mention the chance to fly against a real air force for a change. Hey, wouldn’t you love to take on some MiG-29s and Sukhoi-35s? — and make sure the righteous underdog carries the day!”

“Washington is too full of weenies, especially these days with the Owens Administration in power,” Schram said, shaking his head in resignation. “You and I see the big picture biblically. But our bosses are downloading another set of mission parameters — one that leaves God’s people hung out to dry.

“Although,” Schram continued warily after a pause as he looked his XO straight in the eye. “I’ve just had an interesting conversation with someone who thinks we might be able to make a difference.”

 

“It is not as if this warning from your Secretary were really necessary, my friend,” Moshe Weizmann, second secretary in the Political Section of the Israeli Embassy, politely told his dinner companion at a tony Georgetown bistro. Peter Blanchard was a top aide to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. “My country learned a long time ago that we must fight our own fights. We could never count on the Americans to intervene on our behalf. Let’s be candid, Peter. Oil is far too precious to your comfort-loving countrymen. Your government would never risk the economic disruption another OPEC embargo would bring simply to stand up for the principles of democracy and the right of a freedom-loving nation to live within secure borders. But your government does not seem to recognize the potential our new oilfields carry — both for us and for your country as a preferred customer.”

Blanchard, growing weary of his friend’s frequent lectures, looked up from his salad.

“We do recognize it as just that, Moshe, ‘potential,’” he replied. “Your first wells south of Haifa look promising, but they are not even producing five hundred thousand barrels a day. Your oilfields and gas fields are years away from full production, while my government has to worry about supplying the goods our people need next week.”

Weizmann, barely forty but looking more like the north side of fifty due to job-related stress, waved off that objection and continued with his main point: “In Bosnia, Kosovo or Afghanistan — even Iraq at first, anywhere the downside risks for your country — politically, economically and militarily — were minimal, American presidents, diplomats and congressmen could preach with impunity about the importance of standing up to totalitarian thugs who butchered their enemies for reasons of race or religion.

“But in the Middle East, your government — both Democratic and Republican administrations going back to Eisenhower — has always insisted on being ‘evenhanded,’ as the politicians like to say. As you well know, Peter, Israel — the lone democracy in the region, a country that has asked for nothing more than the right to survive within secure borders — is given little favor by the United States vis-à-vis our adversaries. Countries that sponsor terrorism and for more than sixty years have refused to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist have been given official handshakes, kisses on both cheeks, state visits and deferential treatment in diplomatic matters. Three generations of Israel’s leaders have known that realpolitik has always governed the United States’ treatment of my country — not its eagerness to promote democracy nor to help right the past wrongs we Jews have suffered. The United States has acted like Israel’s friend mainly to placate the powerful Jewish lobby in this country.”

“Moshe, we are your friend. You know that,” Blanchard said, feeling a little indignant and wagging an up-raised salad fork in his left hand. “As you know, your country is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid — more than three billion dollars this year in combined military and economic assistance — ”

“Yes, and my government appreciates that,” Weizmann interrupted in his animated, rat-a-tat-tat speaking style with flamboyant hand gestures. “However, your government has permitted Lockheed Martin to sell the very latest upgrade of its F-16 to several of the Persian Gulf states. Some of these emirates could potentially join in an attack on my country.”

“Theoretically, that is true, Moshe, though highly unlikely. And keep in mind that your people fly the F-15E Strike Eagle, the latest edition of the U.S. Air Force’s best plane until the F-22 is in wider use. None of your potential adversaries even has the first-generation F-15.”

“Peter, the Saudis have the F-15 and the -15E — lots of them — and the Kuwaitis have your Hornet. Just because they are your friends does not mean they are our friends,” Weizmann almost shouted that last sentence before lowering his voice again to a diplomatic monotone. “Meanwhile, Egypt and Jordan fly the F-16, a superior dogfighter. Yes, our F-15s are superb for attacking ground forces. But why should our pilots have to contend with American-built planes that are their equal or better in air-to-air combat? This is not right, Peter. This is not how friends treat their supposed allies. Your country’s ‘evenhandedness’ has gone too far!”

Blanchard, still “on the clock” after a full day at Foggy Bottom and growing mentally weary, chose this moment to stuff a fork-full of salad greens into his mouth rather than answer this last diatribe from the Israeli diplomat. Political officer at the embassy. Ha! He had long suspected that Weizmann was really a Mossad agent or at least pulled double duty with Israel’s espionage service.

Seizing the silence, Weizmann continued to make his case that American treatment of the beleaguered Jewish nation had been blatantly unfair.

“Look at your history, Peter. One American administration after another has always cozied up to the Arabs out of its need for oil. This tension, this need to balance your political and economic interests, has governed America’s relations with Middle Eastern countries for more than half a century. We know that is not about to change. When push comes to shove, my government knows that America’s thirst for oil will overshadow the influence of the Jewish lobby —  just as it did back in 1973 when my country was the victim of a surprise attack by Syria, Egypt and Jordan on Yom Kippur, our sacred Day of Atonement. And if that day comes again, we know we will stand alone.”

“Moshe, you know that is why the Secretary and many on our staff are working so hard to see to it that day does not come. Events in Syria and Iran are beyond our control, of course, but President Owens and his administration are working with your government to create a political climate of trust in the Middle East so all sides realize that negotiation is the only way for these issues of land and statehood to be resolved.”

“Peter, are you really that naive?” Weizmann asked rhetorically, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes, almost in despair. “These negotiations that your Secretary of State wants us to continue — what has it all gotten us? We’ve given so much and received nothing in return. In ’78, we surrendered the Sinai, and now Egypt prepares for war once again. We signed the Oslo Accords in ’93 and agreed to turn over most of the West Bank in piecemeal fashion to the Palestinians. Former Prime Minister Sharon practically committed political suicide by using the army to force our settlers out of Gaza. Yes, the PA’s cardboard parliament once voted to recognize Israel’s right to exist, but that was before Hamas joined the government. And as you know, the Palestinian National Covenant, which calls for — and I quote — ‘the liquidation of the Zionist presence,’ has never been formally amended, though the late and unlamented Yasser Arafat promised to do so. Look at the rest of our track record, Peter: In May 2000, we pulled our armed forces out of southern Lebanon without asking for anything in return. Instead of withdrawing its own forces from that hapless country, Syria sent in more. Only a few months later, my government was so very close to resuming negotiations that the Prime Minister pledged could lead to the recognition of a Palestinian state when their mobs launched yet another uprising, their so-called al-Aqsa intifadah. And what did it accomplish? More than a thousand of their own people killed. And then in the summer of ’06, Hezbollah kidnaps two of our soldiers and forces us to embark on costly measures to emasculate their presence in southern Lebanon. Honestly, Peter, there is no reasoning with these people. They are like animals in their vehement, unreasoning hatred of us!

“And now the world is surprised that we no longer wish to negotiate!? As your countrymen are so fond of saying, Peter, ‘Give me a break!’ We have given all we can give without getting something in return. And yet, there are still some in my country who would do just that — as though we could ever appease terrorists. Syria, Iran, many Palestinians and others want nothing less than the destruction of my country. And if they can’t achieve that through negotiation, I am convinced they will try to do it through military means. As you know, like yourself, I am not an especially religious man. But I have heard from an Orthodox friend back home that some of our citizens have taken to prolonged times of fasting and prayer, seeking the face of God, during these perilous times.”

Despite his diplomatic counterpunching, Blanchard knew that Weizmann was essentially right about his nation’s standing alone. Oil issues aside, the U.S. government would never intervene in a shooting war where both sides were so well armed. There were too many ways to lose both people and prestige. Americans, after all, were leery of open-ended military commitments — especially in light of the continuing occupation of Iraq, which had cost more American lives than the 2003 war itself, and the decade-long guerrilla war in Afghanistan. The ongoing campaign to root out international terrorists enjoyed broad public support, of course, because that was intended to stop people who wanted to hurt Americans. But, in the Administration’s view, there was no overt threat to U.S. interests in Israel. It was one thing to lob a few dozen cruise missiles into some puny Balkan state or send heavily armed warplanes to bomb a Third World nation like Afghanistan or Iraq. But the Arab-Israeli conflict was quite another matter. To put U.S. troops between such fierce rivals was unthinkable to the dovish Owens Administration.

 

Pastor John Taylor awoke abruptly and was immediately aware of a heightened sense of alertness. What was wrong? He turned to look at his wife, Melissa, who slept soundly next to him. He propped himself up on one elbow and listened for some sound in the house that might have startled him out of a peaceful slumber. No hint of distress from the children’s rooms. No noises outside except the autumn wind through mostly leafless trees. He glanced at the digital clock on his night stand. It read 3:27 a.m. The instant he let his muscles relax to start to lie back down, he felt it. That familiar stirring that could only mean one thing: A peaceful joy that approached giddiness, mixed with anticipation told him he was being called to prayer.

Eagerly, Taylor scurried out of bed, moving so abruptly that Melissa stirred briefly. He got still until she settled back down then draped his robe around his shoulders, shuffled into his slippers and padded quietly down the hall to his study, after closing the bedroom door behind him. As he got down onto the floor, lying face down with a small sofa pillow under his ribs, the image of a man’s face came into his mind. That of a man who hadn’t been to church in almost four months, though not of his own choosing: Mike Schram. How odd, Taylor recalled, that a burden for Schram had been intruding into his prayer time so often lately. And it wasn’t just his own prayer time. Only last Sunday, one of his church’s most faithful and passionate prayer warriors — a small, quiet, elderly lady whom people called Miss Lottie — had pulled him aside after service and told him the Lord had quickened her to pray for Schram time after time over the last few weeks. Spiritual warfare mostly, she said. Protection from demonic deception, strength to bear a mantle of leadership, ears to hear the Lord’s voice, that sort of thing. Did he bear witness to that? Miss Lottie had asked him. Why yes, he did, as a matter of fact, Pastor John had answered her. Did he know what was going on in Mike’s life or why this seemed to be a matter of some urgency? “No,” he had told her. “All we can do is to pray as the Lord directs and leave the results up to Him.”

Taylor knew the man fairly well and liked him, but they weren’t exactly close. Schram had spoken at a men’s breakfast one Saturday last spring, boldly challenging the fellows to a life of purity before the Lord, and he had helped chaperone a youth trip a year earlier. Taylor was well aware of Becky’s concerns about her husband’s long absences. Just prior to Mike’s current deployment, Pastor John had gone to their house at Becky’s invitation — to pray for Mike’s safety on this cruise but also to try to counsel him on his plans for the future and his family’s needs. Taylor remembered coming home that night feeling that he hadn’t gotten through to Mike. Sessions like that were touchy. A pastor wanted to let a man know he was valued and appreciated, yet at the same time communicate what the Bible teaches about a husband’s responsibilities. Come across too strong and you risk alienating the fellow; then you might not see him again until Christmas Eve. Make the point too lightly and it would leave no impression at all. If he had a dollar for every time a wife in his church had asked him to pray for a man’s husbanding and parenting skills, he thought he could retire the building fund.

Taylor settled onto the floor. But before he could begin to pray, he suddenly sensed the Lord did not need to hear from him. It was time to listen, not to speak. A subtle prompting told him to get pen and paper. He scrambled back onto his feet and into his desk chair, flipped on the small lamp as he grabbed a pen and hurriedly turned over an unopened fund-raising appeal letter that would serve as his impromptu notepad. A prophetic word from the senior pastor would be taken seriously by anyone in his congregation; he had to get it right. No sooner had he picked up the pen than the words came all at once in a flood. And when he waited for more, he somehow knew there would be no more. Taylor looked at the paper, puzzled. He had written only three sentences. He didn’t understand what the word from the Lord meant. But that was OK, because the message wasn’t for him. He or Melissa would get Mike’s email address from Becky in the morning, dash out a proper note to accompany this word and send it to him right away, already whispering a prayer that Mike would have discernment and wisdom to understand whatever the Lord was saying to him through the word. Prayer warriors interceding for the naval aviator and now this. Something big must be getting ready to happen in Mike Schram’s life, Pastor John thought, and the Lord wanted him to be ready.

 

Khaki-colored sand blew everywhere at the joint U.S.-Turkish air base at Incirlik, eight miles east of the ancient city of Adana in southern Turkey. The slightest breeze whipped it off the ground into a man’s hair and eyes and all over his clothes. It even got into the air-conditioned mess hall and sometimes into the food. But this morning, Eric Blake barely noticed the wind-blown sand as he walked into the temporary headquarters of the 73rd Air Combat Wing. His private tête-à-tête with General Hunter had left his mind reeling. And he had no idea what, if anything, to do about it. Ask God for a green or red light, or report Hunter’s bizarre overture to his CO, General Lamonde, and let him take it up with the Pentagon. Blake decided to talk to the man he trusted most at Incirlik, his deputy ops commander, Major Chuck “Guns” Hollis, a fellow believer.

“Guns, we need to talk. You free for lunch?” Blake inquired, sticking his head into the major’s tiny office.

“Sure, Colonel. What’s up?”

“Something unusual. My quarters. Ten minutes?”

“Yes, sir. See you there.” said Hollis, who had earned his call sign because of his superior marksmanship skills.

Blake’s own call sign was “Train,” which was short for “Night Train,” a moniker the black aviator/athlete had earned for his bulldozing moves through the paint on the basketball court. But only someone of equal or higher rank was allowed to call him that. Although he was the air wing's operations commander, with seven squadron commanders and several support-division heads with more than four hundred personnel reporting to him, Blake still flew an F-15E on whatever missions he chose. When he did, Hollis, an Air Force Academy grad and native of New Jersey, flew as his wing man.

Blake’s wing was approaching the end of an eighteen-week rotation to Incirlik as the crisis in Israel appeared to be coming to a head. The three squadrons of F-15s and -15Es in his wing patrolled northern Iraq with the help of the Brits. Also under his command were two squadrons of A-10 Thunderbolt II’s, called the Warthog for its durability and homely looks, and a squadron of electronic-warfare aircraft plus some KC-135R refuelers. The A-10 “tank-busters” were ideal for attacking armored columns and other targets on the ground. But because they flew low and slow, they were vulnerable to attack by enemy fighter jets and from the ground. So, F-15E Strike Eagles typically flew cover for the Thunderbolts. The two planes, working in tandem, accomplished roughly the same mission as the Navy’s F/A-18E. But the A-10 had the advantage of being able to loiter over a target zone for a longer period, and the Strike Eagle on its own was every bit as effective a weapons platform as the Super Hornet. Although a naval aviator might start a fight over such a claim.

Hollis, age thirty-three, a stocky man of five-feet-eight with thinning dark hair combed straight back and a full mustache, knocked on the door of Blake’s quarters exactly ten minutes after they had spoken in the major’s office, just as Blake pulled two bowls of his homemade chili out of the microwave. “Have a seat, Guns. Like a soda with my Famous Killer Chili?”

“Sure, Colonel. Maybe more than one if it’s really lethal. Thanks.”

“Chuck, this is gonna blow you away. And this has to stay between us for now,” Blake began after they said grace, setting a chilled can of soda on the kitchen table in front of his subordinate, along with the soup bowls, a plastic carton of sour cream, some scallions and saltines. “That meeting I had this morning in the VC-20 out on the tarmac — you know who that was?”

“I was hoping you were gonna tell me, Colonel. You were aboard the fancy jet longer than the old man,” Hollis said smiling, as he stirred a spoonful of sour cream and a sprinkling of chopped green onions into the thick chili, made with shredded beef rather than ground. “We all wondered about it in the office. There was nothing on the wing calendar.”

“Yeah, well, there was nothing about it on my calendar, either. But when you’re the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, you can pretty much drop in on any base in the field anytime you like.”

“That was General Hunter’s plane?” Hollis asked, his eyes growing wide, putting his spoon down. “What’s it all about, Colonel?”

“This is the part that’s really gonna knock your socks off. General Hunter — and apparently all the top brass back home — is convinced that the Arabs and Iran are gonna invade Israel any day now,” Blake said, pausing just a moment before continuing. “And, even though the United States will not intervene officially, the general is suggesting that we take a squadron or two into the fight to help Israel.”

“You can’t be serious!” Hollis blurted. “Is this black ops or what?”

“No. He’s talking totally unofficial. As in having no connection with U.S. policy or official tie with any government agency whatsoever. More like a rogue operation, really.”

“But why?”

“He knows — I don’t know how, but he knows — that I’m a born-again believer who supports Jewish evangelism. He says the very survival of Israel is at stake this time, and he thought I might want to help do something about it.”

“And he didn’t give you an order?”

“No. It really was just a suggestion.”

“Colonel, come on. Four-star generals do not make suggestions. You know that. If they want something done, they give the word and it gets done. That’s that. ... What’s going on here, sir?”

“He made it very clear, Chuck, that this is totally out of the loop of official U.S. policy. Most of the brass back home doesn’t even know about his mission proposal. He said I was perfectly free to turn it down; there would be no repercussions on my career. Even said he’s putting his own career on the line just for approaching me about this. Hunter said that Admiral Mitch McCready, one of the deputy CNO’s, was making the same pitch to a Super Hornet squadron commander in the Eisenhower Battle Group out in the Persian Gulf at the same time he was here. The Navy guy is a fellow believer who happens to be a buddy of mine. This is intended to be a coordinated operation between us from the north and the Navy guys coming in from the southeast if, that is, — I repeat: big IF — we decide to go along with it.”

“So ... he’s talking about ... ” Hollis queried slowly.

“Going AWOL, unauthorized use of government property, conspiracy, disobeying orders, and I don’t know what the Uniform Code of Military Justice calls the offense that covers making a military strike against forces of a country with which the United States is not at war. But there has to be one. And those are just the felonies.”

“Court-martial offenses.”

“Of course.”

“Colonel, why would the Chief of Staff ask you to do this, and why does he think you might? And, if I may ask, sir, do you plan to go along with it?”

Blake put down his spoon and looked his deputy straight in the eye. “Guns, it’s beyond inconceivable that I would ever go along with such a wild and blatantly illegal scheme without a direct go-signal from the Lord. I only know General Hunter by reputation. On a personal level, I didn’t know him from Captain Kangaroo before this morning. He could be playing me to serve some other agenda for all I know. It’s my responsibility to take this before the Lord and try to determine if it might be His plan.”

“Heck of a time not to be Pentecostal, Colonel! You sure a Baptist can hear the Holy Spirit?” Hollis said with a wide grin, needling his superior and, he thought unwisely, breaking the tension.

“Don’t give me that charismatic-superiority nonsense,” Blake chided his subordinate with a stern look. “Believers of all stripes have always been able to hear from the Lord if they press in close enough.”

“I know, Colonel. I’m sorry I said that.”

Blake brushed off Hollis’ lame attempt at humor and went on to outline the gist of his conversation with General Hunter: What he believed was at stake for U.S. national security interests in the Middle East if Israel should fall, his concerns about the possible consequences of the United States’ failure to stand up to aggression, the biblical basis for Israel’s frequently finding itself in trouble throughout history and its resulting need for a savior-type to pull the nation out of the fire. It was apparent to Blake that Hunter had been coached on the Bible passages he discussed. His knowledge of the Word didn’t seem too deep, and he had been able to answer few of Blake’s follow-up questions. That had made Blake wonder who else was behind this. Maybe McCready was the one providing the biblical insights, he had thought after disembarking from the Gulfstream.

The colonel looked forward to discussing everything with Mike Schram, whom he had met during a joint inter-services training exercise a few years ago when both pilots were stateside. They had hit it off because of their shared faith and kept in touch ever since — frequently emailing each other. Their families had even vacationed together once — a whitewater-rafting trip on the Nantahala River in western North Carolina.

“So, Colonel, where do we go from here?” Hollis asked softly, unable to finish his chili, his stomach tightening as he pulled a second soda out of Blake’s fridge.

“We pray about it, Chuck. We ask the Lord to give us a clear sign whether this is from Him. My gut tells me it’s not; the whole thing is just too outrageous. But ... you never know. If Israel might really be facing extinction, God could use some incredible means to give them a hand, quite possibly something that’s outside their own control — something that would display His sovereignty, His authority and His power to the Jews and to the world. I firmly believe that little nation is supposed to be in Jewish hands when Christ returns. At least, that’s my understanding of Bible prophecy. And there’s every indication that we’re living in the last days of the end times. I’m sure God has a plan to protect His chosen people. I’m just not sure it includes us.”

“Yes, sir. I’m with you there," Hollis replied. "Especially if it involves our breaking the chain of command to fly an illegal mission. Everything I understand about governmental authorities being delegated by God tells me that we honor Him by obeying orders. And it’s hard to see why God would want — or need — us to help save Israel when to do so would violate an oath we’ve sworn. On the other hand, the sheep-and-goat-nations argument is pretty powerful. If the United States is headed down the goat path, would sacrificing our careers be enough to nudge the country back onto the sheep path? I don’t know. And how do you determine if your government is no longer worthy of your loyalty? I’m not sure I can answer that, Colonel. I mean, it’s not like the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, you know, the German Lutheran pastor who joined the resistance movement against Hitler. Of course, he was right to do that, even though it cost him his life. But nobody would argue that the United States has gone that far over the edge.”

“I think it comes down to this, Guns: If the mission pitch is God’s — regardless of who brought it to us or whatever motives they might have — it’s up to the Lord to make that clear to us. As you pointed out, I’m not from a charismatic-church background like you, so I’m not accustomed to dealing with the prophetic, words of knowledge and that sort of thing. But God certainly is able to speak to each of us in a way that we can hear and understand. I trust Him to do that if He wants us to fly this mission. If we hear nothing, I can’t see how He expects us to dishonor ourselves as officers of the U.S. military. We just have to trust Him, Chuck — both to speak to us or not, and to save Israel by whatever means He chooses.”

 

Becky Schram tossed her handbag onto the kitchen counter with a heavy sigh as she returned home after a disappointing afternoon of real estate work. She had been sure she’d found the right house for this young family. The last time they’d met, the couple seemed ready to make an offer. Now, all of a sudden, there were too many things wrong with the property: It was too close to the noisy airport, too far from shopping, not enough closet space, and the husband’s research had determined that a better school district lay across the county line just three miles away. Those points had overwhelmed all the good features about the house that Becky had been so careful to point out. After all that, it was a lost sale, and she would have to start over to find something else to show them — if they didn’t find a house on their own or go to another Realtor. Becky didn’t blame the couple; they were right to look for a home that better suited their needs. Becky blamed herself for not being more in tune with their desires and for not digging hard enough to see whether the house in fact matched them. This was a rare slip for her, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. With Mike gone and their kids acting up, she needed some positive reinforcement from some aspect of her life. And the family relied on her to pull in a certain amount of income, as well.

Just then the phone rang. Great. As if she needed another annoyance.

“Becky, hi! It’s Missy Taylor. How are you?”

This brought a smile to Becky’s face. Pastor John’s wife was one of her best friends, and talking with her always cheered her up.

“Hi, Missy. It’s great to hear from you. ... Oh, you know. Things are fine, I guess. How about you?”

“Now, stop right there,” Melissa began in a firm but gentle voice. “We’ve been friends too long not to be straight with each other. What’s wrong?”

“Oh, it’s just ... ” Becky paused to let out a heavy sigh. “A sale that I thought was a sure thing fell through today, I had to ground Rachel for calling a boy in her class after I’d told her not to, and ... well, I guess I’m just missing Mike.”

“The truth is, you really resent his not being here right now, don’t you, sweetie? I mean, I know he loves you, but it really bothered you that he chose to go on this cruise rather than move you all down to Pensacola where he could have taken that flight instructor’s job, didn’t it?”

“‘Bothered me’ is an understatement, Missy. I was devastated. I know he wants to get his twenty years in with the Navy, and I’m fine with that. He has less than eighteen months to go. But to go halfway around the world for six months so he could play squadron commander when an equally important job could have kept us all together — well, it just told me there is something very wrong with his priorities.”

Melissa Taylor remained silent as Becky paused, because she knew her friend needed to get this burden off her chest.

“I mean, he’s been a great husband and father — when he’s here. But the fact is, Missy, he can be quite self-centered at times. Always talking about how he needs to be part of some big, important mission in life. I mean, how narcissistic is that? Who needs you to save the world, Mike Schram?”

And Becky recalled that she had asked herself, What was really important to him? When am I going to see some evidence of his laying his life down for me, as the Bible commanded husbands, in the way Christ laid His life down for the church? It hadn’t happened yet, and Becky wondered if it ever would.

“Well, speaking of Mike, John asked me to get his email address from you. Said he had a word from the Lord he needed to share with him.”

That put Becky Schram’s eyebrows into an arch.

 

A moment after she hung up the call from Missy Taylor, Becky’s phone rang again. This was from Glenn Barkes, a single dad whom Becky knew casually from church. She remembered him as someone who was always quick to hug her when they met, something that was quite common in charismatic congregations. But his eagerness to embrace Becky sometimes made her a bit uncomfortable.

“Becky, hi. This is Glenn Barkes. The guys in my men’s group were talking about how we should do more to help the people in our church who have needs. Now, I know you’re not really in a needy situation in the usual sense. But without a man around the house right now, I know the outdoor chores can pile up. So, I wondered if it would be OK if I dropped by after work today to rake your leaves. I’m sure you have your hands full with your own job and the responsibility of maintaining that house by yourself with the kids at home.”

“Well, um ... OK. Sure, Glenn. That would be nice, I guess. Thanks for thinking of me,” Becky said innocently, relieved that she wouldn’t have to badger her son, Josh, again into doing a task he hated.

Oh, you have no idea how much I’ve been thinking about you! Barkes thought. “It's my pleasure, Becky. I’ll see you about five-thirty,” he said, smiling and hoping she would hang around to fix him a cold drink and maybe chat a little while he worked.