On August 7, 2006, a group of elite U.S. Army Rangers, including Alex Blum, who was preparing to deploy to Iraq, participated in a bank heist that was organized by Specialist Luke Elliott Sommer. In the incredibly gripping Ranger Games, Ben Blum attempts to understand how his clean-cut cousin Alex, who had dreamed of being an Army Ranger for his entire life, could be involved in this disastrous crime. What he discovers is a web of lies, alleged brainwashing and disturbing truths about the military, his family and himself.
We asked Ben Blum a few questions about the Army Ranger program, masculinity and how writing this fascinating book ultimately affected his family.
How do you think you would have reported this story if Alex Blum was not your cousin?
The short answer is that I wouldn’t have. I was a computer science graduate student with zero journalistic experience at the time I started corresponding with Alex back in 2007, and Army Rangers scared the crap out of me—let alone Army Rangers who had robbed a bank. Everything I learned about reporting I learned from my early mistakes with Alex: getting too close to a subject, taking a single perspective on an event as definitive, seeking evidence to fit a narrative rather than a narrative to fit the evidence. After the first couple of years, I managed to graduate from Alex’s friend and confidante to something a little closer to a true journalist, but toward the end, I found that even that role was insufficient to the project. Instead of just reporting what I had come to see as entrenched distortions in his perspective, I wanted to change his perspective, to be a kind of a therapist to him. That goes beyond the bounds of what a journalist is supposed to do. But for better or for worse, it makes the book what it is—a lot more intense than a piece of pure reportage could have been.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about the U.S. Army Rangers program?
That it is possible to become an elite Special Operations soldier in the American military, available for assignment to our most sensitive missions, without even a shred of combat experience.
How has this book affected your relationship with Alex Blum?
It put an enormous amount of strain on our relationship for a very long time, but we are now closer than we ever dreamed we’d be. As he put it in a toast at my wedding last year, we’ve laughed together, we’ve cried together, we’ve said “f— you” to each other, and we each consider the other one of our best friends.
Do you feel that America’s cultural beliefs about masculinity and war was a partner in this crime?
Absolutely. It reminds me of the parable that David Foster Wallace told at his famous graduation speech at Kenyon College. An old fish swims by two young fish and says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on, and eventually one leans over to the other and whispers, “What the hell is ‘water’?” For Americans of Alex’s and my generation, the water is war. We breathed it in through our morning cartoons, our toy cowboys and toy guns, the explosion effects on sports shows, the movies we grew up watching, the videogames we played with our friends. Every branch of the military—Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard—has its own Hollywood liaison office dedicated to ensuring that screenplays fit the image they want to convey to the young guys like Alex who watch action movies. If directors don’t play ball, they lose access to military equipment and locations.
Alex Blum held his superiors in the Army in high regard and respect. What do you think was different and so powerful about his relationship with Specialist Luke Elliott Sommer?
Fraternization with underlings is generally frowned upon among Rangers, but Sommer broke this taboo. He was more than a superior to Alex; he was a mentor, a role model. He made Alex feel chosen, deemed worthy of special attention by a member of a higher caste. It spoke to Alex’s ambition to excel.
Luke Elliott Sommer is a strange and complex character. Despite his many flaws and poor decisions, it’s difficult not to see the charismatic and ambitious—if not delusional—Sommer as some sort of genius. After completing this book, what are your feelings about Sommer?
I fear for him. I have come to think of his brain as something like a Lamborghini that lacks first, second, third and reverse. It looks amazing and sounds like a lot of fun to drive, but in practice you’re going to have a hell of a time getting to the grocery store and back. I think Sommer is in fact profoundly disabled, and the great tragedy of it is how hard it is for people to tell—sometimes even for himself. Nobody likes pain, but people who are born without the ability to feel it end up losing fingers and limbs. Sommer seems to lack the ability to feel a certain more abstract but equally life-saving species of pain, the kind that tells you that what you are doing is going to cause harm to yourself and others down the line.
Did your feelings toward the military evolve while writing this book?
Surprisingly enough, I ended the book far more sympathetic to the military than when I began it. Educated, middle-class Americans have grown so insulated from military culture that it tends to look a little strange and scary to them. Ever since Vietnam and the abolition of the draft, our wars have been fought by the rural poor, which makes it particularly easy for urban elites to attach their political queasiness about our recent, ever-more-unjustified wars to the men and women who fight them. But the soldiers I’ve met are amazing people—kind, reflective and unusually well-informed. As in all arenas of life, there is a right and a wrong way to conduct oneself as a soldier, and the majority strive to conduct themselves in the right way.
How has writing this book about your family affected your life?
It has completely transformed it. I used to feel pretty alienated from my family. The men were all big, tough jocks and I was this scrawny math nerd who had no idea how to keep up with their banter. I couldn’t wait to leave home for college. Writing about Alex and the army connected me back to my family culture in a way that I never dreamed possible as a kid. I discovered that there was more love and joy available in these classically male modes of interaction than I had ever understood from outside them, but also a tremendous amount of elided pain. Learning about our family history, particularly the foundational influence of my grandfather’s horrific experiences as a soldier in World War II, taught me a lot about my relatives and myself.
What do you hope for Alex Blum’s future?
I hope he is brave enough to show people his vulnerability, confusion and pain. I hope they see the goodness of his heart and give him the opportunity to show the strength of his character. I hope he starts a family and teaches his own kids how to skate. I hope this book doesn’t upend the impressive life he has managed to build for himself as a convicted felon (no easy feat in America).
You’re a former mathematical prodigy and have just completed a wide-ranging, engrossing book about the military, the nature of loyalty and truth, the complex dynamics of male relationships, bank heists and morality. What’s next for you?
I’m still interested in science, but seven years of thinking about Alex and morality have shattered so many of my old scientific beliefs—most notably, my commitment to materialist determinism. I now find the great and pressing mysteries to be the human ones. I am going to keep trying to make a living as a writer as long as they let me get away with it. My next project will address the psychology of morality, religion and trauma.
You dedicate this book to your grandmother, Oma. Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with her?
Oma is a tough Texan belle who taught me manners, pride and that ineffable quality called grace. So much of Ranger Games is about men, and so much of my childhood was about men, but Oma was, looking back, just as much an influence on our family culture as my grandfather. Alex and I both love her dearly.
Author photo by Ned & Aya Rosen