The Big Idea: Michael Mammay

Trust in your friend, colleagues and superiors is a good thing… mostly. In Planetside, author Michael Mammay considers the price of loyalty and the cost of trust, and how both can end up being different than one might expect.


The big idea that became Planetside started with a conversation I had with another officer while deployed to Afghanistan. It was early in 2014 and we’d been there six or eight months on that particular tour, and for whatever reason we were sitting in his office one morning and talking about people we’d worked for before, and our list of generals who we’d work for again if they called, no questions asked, no matter the job.

I feel like I need to explain that.

As a relatively senior officer (I had 24 years experience at the time) I’d had the chance to work for some amazing people. Forget the television stereotypes of the uptight or inflexible leader. I’m talking about generals who are so smart, so charismatic, and so driven that you’d literally do anything for them. Leaders who know people, and how they tick. They give an order, and you want to follow. They get the most out of everybody around them, and get everybody moving toward the same goal.

That might sound like a problem, that kind of personal loyalty, but it’s not. The reason that these particular leaders are so good is that you trust them. If they were the type of person who would abuse that trust, then they wouldn’t be on the list in the first place. You trust that they’ll put you in situations where you’re going to be successful, because they know you, your strengths, and your limitations. You trust that they would never ask you to do something that went outside the morals or standards of the organization.

But what if they did?

That was the idea that came to me later that day. It’s not based on any real situation where I saw it happen, but rather the idea that it could happen. What if somebody that you trusted, that you’d do anything for, asked you to do something messed up?

That’s the big idea at the center of Planetside. In the first chapter, Colonel Carl Butler answers a summons from General Serata, one of the generals on his list of people he’d follow anywhere. They’re more than leader/subordinate. They’re friends. So even though he doesn’t understand the details of the mission at the time, when Serata tells him that he’s the right guy to handle it, Butler trusts that. It’s not a job he wants, but he signs on because it’s Serata asking. And he is asking. He could have simply ordered it, but he’s got too much respect for Butler to do that. Butler, while subordinate, is a senior officer who has earned that kind of deference. At the same time, Serata knows him well enough to know that he’ll say yes.

Of course there’s more to the mission than initially meets the eye. I mean, it wouldn’t be much of a book if there wasn’t. As he gets deeper into his investigation and the difficulties present themselves, Butler starts to understand more clearly why Serata chose him for the job. To get to the bottom of things, he needs to be able to maneuver in both the political landscape of the base and in the war-ravaged landscape of the planet itself. He has both skill sets, which is rare. Most people have one or the other. Both locations hold secrets. It’s debatable which is more dangerous.


Planetside: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Listen to an audio excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

8 Comments on “The Big Idea: Michael Mammay”

  1. “What if somebody that you trusted, that you’d do anything for, asked you to do something messed up?”

    History seems little more than a series of such events:

    Abu Ghraib
    Iran flight 655
    NSSM 4-82
    Operation Ajax

  2. @Greg: or, from the opposite point of view, 9/11. I think Michael’s defense of personal loyalty rests on an unspoken premise that people won’t give their loyalty to someone who isn’t worthy of it, when history shows this to be naive. Trust can be misplaced. Followers can be mistaken about their leader’s character. And on top of that, people can change.

    Of course, to reveal whether or not any of that applies to this book would presumably be a major spoiler.

  3. Going to add this on my watch list. (That usually means within a couple of years I’ll read it; yes, I can be that slow.)

    Interesting premise.

  4. For comment #’1 by Greg, I will add to what Chris said. We don’t know if the followers had more than the normal amount of trust. Maybe they were merely like servicemen during wartime. (See various memoirs) My dad had no use for officers in WWII, nor later during peacetime. (When I was a teen pondering a career, he said that I would do fine in the forces because they are all stupid: He meant in common sense, not I.Q.)

    Thanks to the allied judgments at Nuremberg, (My dad was back home by then) we now have permission to go beyond legal orders to be loyal to higher principles such as war crimes or crimes against humanity.

    In our everyday civilian life, business writer and philosopher Scott Berkun has said that as regards written missions, ethics, vision statements and so forth, the test for whether they are valid is whether executives and employees can question instructions or discussions that violate them.

    I’m sure Enron had a written list of principles. I’m equally sure there are businesses with high standards, such as my own agency, where such policies are indeed binding on everyone. (In fact, every few years I have to re-take a one day course on the protocol for becoming aware of actual or suspected abuse)

  5. So, basically, “Paths of Glory” with COL “Dax” Butler finding out the hard way that your definition of “accomplishing the mission” and your superior’s may differ in some (ahem) critical ways…

    I was lucky; as a sergeant, I could live with the everpresent realization that my officers’ job was to make things happen that would involve getting me killed to do that, and that while I might have faith in their intelligence, judgement, and probity that I knew that flesh is weak and power is difficult to oppose. That simply because an order came from someone who had done right by my soldiers in the past did not mean that that officer could not make bad, or foolish, or over-optimistic…or evil and immoral…choices at that moment.

    One nasty side-effect of the massive tongue-bathing We the People have given our armed forces is the bizarre presumption that donning the same colored clothes as everyone around you somehow makes you stronger, braver, and more honorable. We have come to reflexively attribute unlikely virtues to our soldiers and shy away from questioning their actions. As a matter of morality that is foolish; as a matter of civil governance it is madness.

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