Perfect Soldiers is a chilling narrative of how nineteen men transformed themselves from fairly ordinary individuals into terrorists who changed America forever. It is striking, actually, how ordinary they were. They all came from fairly average families; none of them grew up in particularly religious households, and none of them were exceptional in any way until the day they died. McDermott’s text documents that, as many of us would like to believe, none of these men would seem to have any kind of mental imbalance; they willingly chose to accept their mission of death and embraced the events they set in motion that beautiful September morning.
All of the hijackers left their homes in the Middle East, mostly for Germany where they were to continue their educations. While in Europe, they experienced Western-world culture shock and searched for friends of their own background. McDermott notes that this vulnerability led them to be easily influenced by members of the radical Islamic community, which slowly but surely led each of them to September 11.
In order to understand “how” and “why” these nineteen men became terrorists, McDermott carefully researched Middle Eastern history and links two events that were pivotal in influencing the thinking of these men: the Russian invasion and retreat from Afghanistan, and Western troops coming into Saudi Arabia after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. His examination of these events helps us not only see the mindset of the radical Islamists, it also makes clear that there are many more willing volunteers across the globe ready to sacrifice their lives for their cause. It is a warning we would all do well to heed.
McDermott delves into as much of the family life of these men as he can find, as well as their educational background and religious upbringings, and has done thorough research. There are gaps in the story, but only because the friends and family members of the hijackers were not willing to talk, or were just as baffled as the rest of us by the choices these nineteen men made.
The title of the book, Perfect Soldiers, was taken from Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse: “He was the perfect soldier: he went where you sent him, stayed where you put him, and had no idea of his own to keep him from doing exactly what you told him.” The hijackers may have been puppets on a string, but they willingly, and knowingly, went where they were told.