- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007


By Chuck Pfarrer

Random House, $26.95, 474 Pages


“Killing Che,” Navy SEAL-turned-screenwriter Chuck Pfarrer’s first fiction book, is a hugely ambitious historical novel. Its goal: to build a convincing alternative universe incorporating the events surrounding the October 1967 death of one of the great icons of the left, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Guevara was wounded by Bolivian Army Rangers on October 8 and brought to the tiny village of La Higuera. There, in the schoolhouse, he was executed on orders from the Bolivian high command, just after 1 p.m. local time on the ninth.

Although the events surrounding the real-life hunt for Che and his guerrillas are pretty straightforward, Mr. Pfarrer engages in some high-concept geopolitics to make things more dramatic. He fictionalizes Guevara’s demise as the result of a backchannel deal between the CIA and the KGB, both of whom want Che dead for their own reasons. To Mr. Pfarrer, Che’s death is not an authorized execution but a murder, the result of a nefarious conspiracy.

Setting the politics of his questionable interpretation aside, in attempting this literary trompe l’oeil, Mr. Pfarrer has chosen a difficult path. Trying to interweave fiction into an existing real-world tapestry is a high-risk operation for any writer, especially a first-time novelist. In the best examples (Charles McCarry’s “The Tears of Autumn” and Frederick Forsythe’s “Day of the Jackal” come to mind) the weaving is indeed invisible, and the illusion is successful. This is not the case with “Killing Che.”

Still, Mr. Pfarrer’s willingness to take risks is perhaps to be expected. He is, after all, not new to challenges. He is one of 34 candidates who survived Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training as a member of BUD/S Class 114 back in 1981. He saw service in the Middle East and spent part of his career at the Navy’s elite counterterror unit, SEAL Team Six.

And so Mr. Pfarrer threw himself into the research for “Killing Che” with the same enthusiasm SEALs and other Special Warfare operators throw themselves out of perfectly good aircraft. He writes authoritatively about jungle warfare, and about the dynamics of insurgency and counterinsurgency. He has a visceral dislike for the corrupt officer class of Third and Fourth World countries.

When he describes an ambush, you smell the cordite. Indeed, whenever he describes warrior tradecraft, you get the idea that Mr. Pfarrer has been there and done that. He is proud of his research. “If this book seems realistic in historical detail,” Mr. Pfarrer writes on the acknowledgements pages of “Killing Che,” it’s “because of the scholarship of biographers of Che Guevara… . My work,” he continues almost breathlessly, “was informed by hundreds of other sources including Che Guevara’s own writing, and those of his comrades in the Nancahuazu, the survivors and those who sacrificed all.”

Well … maybe. But maybe not. The recently retired U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, once said that the most important lesson he learned from the debacle of Desert One in 1980 was that ever since that black day, he vowed he would never confuse enthusiasm with competence. This, one hopes, is the lesson that Mr. Pfarrer will ultimately take away from his experience of “Killing Che.”

Because despite his claims, Mr. Pfarrer still has what might be called a Hollywood screenwriter’s lackadaisical approach to nuts-and-bolts journalistic-type research. “In a corner, a fifteen-piece orchestra crooned Benny Goodman’s ‘Moonlight Serenade.’” No, Chuck, that would be Glenn Miller, not Goodman. One page later: “The band played another song from the 1940s, ‘I’m getting Sentimental Over You’ by Tommy Dorsey.” Oh, Chuck, “Sentimental” was Tommy Dorsey’s theme song. But it was written by Ned Washington and George Bassman.

In another gaffe, Mr. Pfarrer has his protagonist, a CIA paramilitary contract agent named Paul Hoyle — the symbolism of that surname is not lost — being paid $1,000 a week for his work in Bolivia. Hmmm. In October 1967, the month Che died, cabinet officers made $35,000 a year and the chief of naval operations was paid $2,807.10 a month.

My friend Felix Rodriguez, the CIA paramilitary agent who actually did track down Che and was the only person to interview him the day he was executed, was working on a GS scale in Bolivia. GS-9s — the rank at which Felix finally retired — made between $5,440 and $6,655 annually in those days. These sorts of errors, while they may seem piddling individually, gnaw at a novel’s verisimilitude when taken in aggregate.

But enough nit-picking. The major flaw of “Killing Che” is that Mr. Pfarrer has chosen to swallow whole the Hollywood version of Che — the asthmatic, charismatic antihero whose languid-eyed portrait still sells thousands of T-shirts. Mr. Pfarrer’s Che is tough, yes. But also driven and principled, so his doom is sealed by corrupt governments — including Cuba’s — that fear Guevara’s ideological purity and rock-star popularity among the young.

It’s all legend of course. The real Che was a Maoist, a cold-blooded murderer who had no problem killing hundreds of innocents in pursuit of his hard-edged political goals. And equally significant, the real Che was a failure as an exporter of Communist revolution. From April through November, 1965, Guevara led a disastrous attempt at rebellion in the Congo.

In November of 1966, he arrived in Bolivia. His 11-month campaign there was a disaster, start to finish. The only picture of Che alive on the day he died shows a ragged, defeated man in a dirty jacket and soiled shirt, his hair matted, his beard unkempt. Caught in the harsh, midday Bolivian sunlight, Che’s face displays the resigned expression of a man who knows he is doomed.

In real life, there was a hero in the hunt for Che. It was Felix Rodriguez, whose dogged persistence and insight as well as his considerable skills as an interrogator elicited the information critical to tracking Che down and cornering him. On October ninth, as Felix rode back from La Higuera to Vallegrande, Che’s body strapped to the chopper’s skid and Che’s steel Rolex GMT Master on his wrist, he didn’t spend any time debating the morality of what had taken place.

Instead, he thought about his parents and his family; he flashed on his childhood in Cuba and then on his first experiences in the anti-Castro training camps in Guatemala, “remembering the directions we were given to get there by joking veterans: ‘Go as far as the third cloud and take a right.’”

“I thought,” Felix says in “Shadow Warrior,” the autobiography I wrote with him in 1989, “about how Che had died with courage, and second-guessed myself about whether or not I could have succeeded in keeping him alive, as the CIA had instructed, although it would have meant taking on a responsibility that I might later have come to regret.”

There are no such thoughts in “Killing Che.” Like the self-doubting assassin Avner Kaufmann of Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” Mr. Pfarrer’s Paul Hoyle looks at himself with revulsion after Che’s execution. “A flicker of self-loathing clutched at him; it took hold like a flame creeping over dried kindling. A cold, bitter light was put out by this flame of judgment. Hoyle imagined the serial failures of his life, his childhood, his marriage, his career in the agency. A succession of small and large calamities loomed behind his eyes; his life seemed to be a train of self-inflicted disasters instead of accomplishment. For his sins, he’d been sent to the end of the world and made an accomplice to shameful murder.”

But while such guilt trips may be endemic to Hollywood’s version of life, it’s not the way it happens in the real world. The Mossad team that struck at Black September after Munich had no second thoughts about what they did, and why, just as Felix Rodriguez has always understood that Che Guevara’s death in La Higuera on Oct. 9, 1967, nudged both his world and ours a tiny bit more toward democracy and freedom.

John Weisman’s latest novel, “Direct Action,” was released in paperback last year by Avon. He can be reached at [email protected]

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