An Interview with Damien Lewis

Damien Lewis’s thriller Cobra Gold has just come out in paperback as Cobra 405. The following interview appears on the Random House website.

1. Two of your previous novels, Operation Certain Death and Bloody Heroes both concern real life military operations in intense detail. Cobra 405 on the other hand is a fictional account. What inspired you to write fiction?

Cobra Gold could only have been written as a fiction. It concerns the story of the world’s biggest bank robbery – which remains unsolved until this day - and who might have carried out that raid. Those who spoke to me about the robbery did so on the basis that I might write the story, but as a fiction based upon fact. So, as a blend of fact and fiction – a faction – Cobra 405 was born.

2. In the novel there is great detail of emphasis on the historical and military context within which the Beirut robbery took place, with frequent references to the Crusades, Militant Christian and Islamic Militias and international politics. Was it your intention to make the novel about much more than a daring robbery?

Well, they are inseparable, in reality. Nothing much took place during the bloody and bitter civil war in Beirut in the 1970-80s that wasn’t in some way or another bound up in the rival warring faction’s greater aims – bank robberies included. We’re talking about a period when banks in the Lebanon were robbed of incredible sums of money - $500 million plus at today’s values – in order to fund terrorist activities, at a time when Lebanon was at the centre of world terrorism. It was – and still is on some levels – a hub of militant Islamic jihadism, and a fault line of such butting up against militant Christian factions. Add in a sprinkling of derring-do by a groups of maverick special forces soldiers, and there’s a great story line – and Cobra 405 is the end result.

3. Major Bank heists have been in the news a lot in recent years with widely reported robberies such as the £26 million robbery of the Northern Bank in Belfast in 2004 and the £53 million robbery of the Securitas depot in 2006. Were these robberies in the back of your mind whilst writing Cobra 405?

Yes and no. Yes, because it is fascinating the fascination levels that bank robberies hold for the public in general. There is a sense perhaps that every one of us might like to have pulled one off, if it would have made us fabulously wealthy and no one had got hurt. No, because the Beirut robbery in 1976 that forms the basis of Cobra 405 makes all other bank robberies pale into insignificance in terms of the sheer scale of the thing. It dwarfs the £53 million Securitas robbery some ten fold – especially when you consider how much of that loot has already been recovered. In the Lebanon Job, not a penny, not a bank note, nor a gold bar has ever been recovered. Add in the factor that no one has ever been arrested for the robbery and to this day no one even knows who did it – there’s your basis for a compelling story.

4. The novel is of course based on the world’s greatest real life bank robbery. Though as you mention in the authors note there are many theories about who may have committed the robbery, what attracted you to the theory that it was committed by the SAS?

The fact that many of the ex-soldiers and special forces types I spoke to about it said to me: “well, you would, wouldn’t you – especially if you could get away with it.” It seems to me that their attitude reflects the general sense that many of the public have, that bank robbers are in some sense more honorable than other criminals – see the mythical status the Great Train Robbers still seem to have. The big difference is that elite soldiers have the training, the skills and the mental capacity to go ahead with such a raid, whereas most of us perhaps would not.

5. Throughout Cobra 405 the members of SAS Q Squadron, fictional perpetrators of the robbery, are described as ‘Mavericks’. What’s your definition of a Maverick?

A maverick is defined in the Oxford English as: ‘An unorthodox or independent-minded person.’ I’d pretty much go along with that. I see much of the maverick nature in the special forces soldiers that I know well and count as friends. It’s something I respect in people generally, and I can understand why maverick nature is conducive to good Special Forces soldiering, and the valuing of merit above rank.

6. There is a great contrast between the combat scenes set in the present day and the combat scenes set in the late 70s. Are the men of Q Squadron of a bygone era?

It’s almost thirty years since the bank raid scenes in Beirut took place. Back then soldiers – even our elite forces – were using radio direction finders, as opposed to GPS-based systems, and cumbersome night-vision scopes the size of telescopes. So yes, the technological side of things has moved on enormously: the battle field today is a digital one, in which soldiers on the ground call in fast air attack aircraft to drop laser guided bombs onto GPS coordinates that they have emailed to the aircraft via a laptop. However, the basic essential elements of good soldiering remain the same today as they always have done – and the gritty determination, heroics and lateral thinking demonstrated by the men in the battle scenes set in the present day are the same as those that won them the day thirty years ago in the Beirut bank robbery.

7. There is huge attention to realistic detail concerning the military operations of the SAS, despite the novel being fiction. How would you describe the balance between fact and fiction in Cobra 405?

The balance is two-fold. First, the scenes set in the Lebanon in 1976, of the bank robbery and the civil war, are as true to the situation on the ground as extensive research can make them. In the wider story, the scenes are true to life and reality in that all of the actions depicted, the technologies used, and the unorthodox weaponry employed, are in use today and could have been used in the way described. I even had a white South African bush pilot friend of mine advising me on the scenes involving the Buffalo aircraft being used as an improvised ground attack aircraft deploying Vietnam-era ‘foo gas’ – a DIY derivative of napalm. No one should read Cobra and feel for one instant that a scene as depicted is unrealistic – and all the reader feedback to date suggests the opposite, that realism is paramount.

8. Q Squadron are quite a mixed bunch, hailing from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities. What motivated you to create such a gang of misfits?

Real life. There are increasing numbers of non-British soldiers serving in all arms of the British military – not just our elite forces. Many hail from the Commonwealth, as do many of the operatives in Q Squadron. Many of the characters in Cobra are based upon real people that I know who are ex-special forces – haling from the USA, South Africa, and elsewhere. Indeed, the Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, Americans and Canadian have a policy of seconding soldiers from their special forces units between each other, so that they can cross-train and learn from the way their allies operate. Q Squadron is a case in point.

9. There is a great deal of moral ambiguity amongst the characters in the novel. Would you say this is a natural consequence of living in a war zone?

I think we live in an increasingly morally ambiguous world. I wanted the characters in Cobra to grapple with the complex moral dilemmas depicted, and see how greed, honour, betrayal and loyalty could be dealt with by a bunch of maverick special forces operators. But the key protagonists in Cobra share I think a common quality – that they are all warrior-philosophers who on some level transcend the basic instincts that so often rule war, and articulate on a higher level. Many of my soldier mates are similar – they joined the armed forces for wider, higher goals that simply to go to war and fight.

10. Kilbride and his men have seen all the horrors of war again and again and yet they are constantly disturbed by what they encounter on the streets of Beirut. Were you consciously trying to humanize these men that consider themselves the toughest of the tough?

However tough, few men are above being effected by the horror that they see in warfare, particularly when the victims are the innocent, caught in the crossfire. I was having dinner the other night with an ex-special forces commander and he told me that the only time he ever sees red and has a blind desire to kill is when he encounters an enemy that have perpetrated violence or brutality against women and children – at which stage none of the bastards are left alive, if he has his way. The men in Cobra are no more and no less than normal human beings – and when death touches those it should not they don’t walk away.

11. The Searcher is a fascinating and cryptic character introduced very early in the modern day chapters of the novel. Was it your intention to lure the reader into a guessing game to discover his real identity among Kilbride’s cohorts?

The Searcher is a character based upon real sets of events. Soldiers from our own and allied forces have gone over to the other side – from the time war began this was so and it will probably always be so. My sense of the reader’s relationship to the way his identity unfolds was that I wanted him or her to really see the path that led this troubled individual into unspeakable betrayal and blind terrorism, so that when it becomes clear who the Searcher is it is wholly credible. As a by product I think there is a sense of a guessing game as to who he is – an added bonus perhaps that keeps pages turning.

12. The novel features both a Blondie song and Rubik’s Cube in its plot. Are these of any special significance to you?

I’m from the generation who listened to Blondie at local village discos, and I hated the Rubik’s cube because I was quite simply crap at it. For me they’re kind of icons of the ‘naffness’ and bizarre allure of the 1970s.

13. Your work has a very cinematic feel - do you think that Cobra 405 would translate well onto the silver screen?

Most novels tend to sag and lag at the end, as if the author runs out of steam. Readers of Cobra tell me it doesn’t miss a breath until the last page has been turned – which is as I wanted it. One bloke emailed me and told me the book had kept him awake all night long, as he had to read it in one sitting. There’s movie companies taking a look at optioning the rights to the book, and as I was once a war cameraman I think I do see and write things with an intense visual clarity. I want a reader to hear the voices, see and smell the scenes, and know the characters intimately by the book’s end. I think Cobra does that.