The Advantages of Boxing Fiction

Boxing (or MMA, or any other individual combat sport) offers a few advantages when it comes to literature. The first is logistical. A boxing match can theoretically happen in any place big enough to fit a ring. Thus they can be, and have been staged in areas from small rooms to gigantic stadiums. Other sports require a specialized field, but officially sanctioned boxing matches have been held everywhere from mansion lawns to prisons.

The second is personal. While there are important trainers/promoters/managers/cut specialists, boxing is a clash between individuals in a way that any team sport is not. The character implications of this are obvious. Finally, the inherent shadiness of boxing makes it a perfect setting for a thriller or mystery story.

Review: Silent Assassin

Silent Assassin

The second Dan Morgan thriller (albeit the third I’ve actually read), Silent Assassin is an awkward novel. By itself, it’s a decent enough cheap thriller that does decent enough cheap thriller things. The action is never worse than passable, and some of the set pieces, like an ultra-secret facility on Long Island of all places, made me smile. Yes, it’s cheesy and ridiculous, but that’s what cheap thrillers are for.

However, having read two other books in the series, it felt like it was a step up from the first book, but not as good as the third. Reading it gives the impression of an author trying to find a footing that he would get in the next installment. So I would recommend, unless you found you really liked this series, to just start with Black Skies.

The Uses of Big Pistols

Giant pistols have very, very limited applications, especially with the development of first submachine guns and later short carbines. The only semi-practical use I can think of for the giant Dirty Harry-style monster is hunting/defense against large angry animals.

Otherwise, well, even before the advent of widespread body armor, pistols were very limited to the point where many troops have unhesitatingly just taken extra rifle ammunition to fill the space and weight that would have been taken by them instead. The only other niche role is as a backup/close weapon for someone who carries around something bulky (ie, a big launcher/machine gun or piece of heavy equipment). Except even there there have been better options. Especially since a big pistol would almost certainly require an exotic caliber that would be harder to resupply.

Of course, cheap thriller writers are infamous for just giving their characters the biggest guns possible. Before the Desert Eagle, Mack Bolan wielded an Automag and a .460 Weatherby rifle, something that Jerry “Detonics .45” Ahern took issue with.

Review: Air Battle Central Europe

Air Battle Central Europe

Alfred Price’s Air Battle Central Europe is a magisterial study of aviation plans for a hypothetical conventional World War III. What makes it different from other technical studies? The answer is simple-it looks at the whole and not just the sum of the parts.

In the interviews and discussions, every piece of the NATO air power puzzle is studied, and each role of each aircraft is talked about. The result is a lot of detail, and an important look at how combined arms works in the air. It’s both accessible and comprehensive.

There are a few sour parts. Some aren’t it’s fault, like the book being dated compared to a post-Gulf War understanding. The biggest issue I thought that was its fault was a willingness to talk more about the ideals of what air power would do than a stress-tested analysis that involved a worse case. But the book is still excellent and a must-read for anyone studying a conventional Fuldapocalypse.

Review: Mobile Strike Forces in Vietnam

Mobile Strike Forces in Vietnam: 1966-1970

Gordon Rottman’s Mobile Strike Forces in Vietnam: 1966-1970 is about a frequently understudied and overlooked force in the war-the MIKE (or Mobile StrIKE) forces of the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group). Comprised mostly of non-Vietnamese minorities (the famous “Montagnards”), they served as essentially a parallel army under US Special Forces command.

The MIKE forces arose from a pair of facts on the ground. The first was that the CIDG needed a mobile action force, especially as nearly all of its rank and file formations were only suitable for local defense around their home villages. The second was that it couldn’t count on the support of the southern government or mainline American/allied forces. So an in-house force had to be created, and it was.

Rottman’s book is, without exaggeration, a masterpiece. First, it’s careful not to exceed its grasp or opine on the war as a whole. Sticking to its subject matter closely, it delivers. And does it deliver. The book succeeds in being both extremely detailed (going into both paper organizations and how the formations inevitably diverged from those organizations in practice) and very readable. There’s only a few big blocky info sections, and those are more than offset by the rest of the book. Even though it’s short, you can get a very clear picture of how these forces trained and fought. This includes everything from the WWII/Korean hand-me down equipment they used to their occasional use of parachutes because of the advantages they offered over helicopters in certain situations (capacity, range, ability to deploy a lot of people quickly).

It’s also very evenhanded. After seeing so many authors whose advocacy for light infantry operations has reached the level of outright fetishism, it was a delight to see the drawbacks of such forces respectfully laid out by a knowledgeable Vietnam veteran with personal experience. The MIKE forces are given both credit and criticism when deserved. This is an excellent book and an excellent study of Vietnam War operations.

A Thousand Words: Valkyrie

Valkyrie

2008’s Valkyrie stars Tom Cruise and depicts the July 20 Plot that tried and failed to kill Hitler. An unusual historical movie for Hollywood, it has both the strengths and weaknesses of a lavish production aimed at a big audience. The strengths are obvious-great production values. The visual style is excellent, and the John Ottman score is nothing short of amazing.

However, it also, in the interest of audience morality, sugar-coats and oversimplifies the plotters. The movie does do a decent job in showing how unlikely it was for the Valkyrie conspirators to actually gain control of the government even if Hitler and his inner circle were killed off. However, it does not dwell on how the actual plotters ranged from “ok, at least a little better than Hitler, but that’s definitely not saying much” to “Really bad, including Einsatzgruppen commanders and mass POW-killers”. It also does not bring up that the Allies would never have accepted the terms the plotters wanted to offer, and would have just viewed it as infighting among thugs. While understandable, this is still a missed opportunity for complexity in addition to an inaccuracy.

Leaving factual issues aside, the acting is a mixed bag. Cruise himself is quite wooden, but a lot of the supporting cast does well. Tom Wilkinson does a great job as the weaselly General Fromm in my favorite role. An underrated performance is David Bamber as Hitler. Not only does he come across as appropriately menacing, but he’s menacing in a soft-spoken way that’s quite different from the usual (including Downfall) bombastic Hitler.

For all its issues, Valkyrie is still worth a watch, especially if you don’t mind historical inaccuracy.

Flipping The Ranks

Words are weird. English words are weirder, thanks to that language’s status as an unashamed word thief. Military rank words, coming from even more different backgrounds, are arguably the weirdest yet. After some brainstorming, I’ve thought of a way where the rank structure we know could be flipped on its head. Even more so than, for lack of a better word, the “radical” rank system used by the SS and 1930s USSR, which involved variants of plain “unit leader”.

The lowest tier of personnel could be called “generals”, because they would make up the general population of the military. The highest tier could be called “privates”, because it would be a holdover from the time when leaders (openly) had private armies. May not be the most plausible, but it’s still an interesting worldbuilding exercise.

Large Special Forces Units

The term “special forces” can have many different meanings. The western definition of “special operations forces” implies the ultimate operators. The Soviet definition of “special purpose forces” just means those trained for a certain role. Thus engineers and chemical personnel technically count as “special troops”, and many “SPF” are mainly recon personnel.

Training Circular 7-100.2 differentiates “SPF” and “commandos”, the former capable of things comparable to western-style SOF like training/leading allied irregulars and the latter capable of more “muscular” missions that require a bigger conventional force (commandos are listed as being able to operate at up to battalion level, something SPF never would even during direction action missions). There is a large amount of overlap, and they are more similar than different.

Then there are the “special forces” that would be considered just larger light infantry formations by the standards of other countries. Or not even that, with Stryker/BTR formations viable for (and sometimes expected to be used in) air assault operations due to their larger dismount size and some “SF” riding in APCs when operating with mechanized forces and/or facing threats that require appropriate protection.

Thus the clearest definition boils down to a vague “units with personnel trained to at least theoretically higher standards and intended to conduct tasks above and beyond those assigned to run of the mill formations”. Interestingly, I’m seeing (with the precedent of Syrian commandos in Lebanon and the proposed TRICAP Ranger/Helicopter formations) certain “special forces” being used an antitank reserve with their increased skill, more and better AT weapons than comparable line infantry formations, and the ability to be deployed quickly.

Review: Postwar AANW

The Anglo American Nazi War: Part 2

The first installment of The Anglo American Nazi War, published as Festung Europa, has been reviewed on this blog before. Because the postwar part is A: different, B: worse, and C: deliberately not included in the published version, I figured it deserved a separate review.

The wartime portion can fit, slightly awkwardly, into a certain form of pseudo-historical fiction. For fans of conventional World War IIIs, it can be compared somewhat to Hackett and The War That Never Was. It’s a description of a conflict that didn’t happen written in the style of recounting one that did. There is thus a tiny connection to fiction in general, albeit with the thread leading to another very small niche. It also fits into “AH as a genre.”

The postwar installment lacks even that connection. It’s a pure example of internet alternate history, and one of the big problems I’ve had when trying to review is that internet AH is an extremely insulated subculture that lacks almost any tie to normal literary storytelling. How can you critique the characters if there are none? I’ve had to strain to explain it, with the best I can give being “The outline of a de facto fanfic that uses ‘history’ as its setting”. If that sounds unusual and bizarre, it is.

Internet AH has a reputation for its installments being extremely short, something that actually sets it apart from other serialized web-fics that have a deserved reputation for often leaving War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged in their dust where length is concerned. The more substantive wartime portion takes up over 86% of the words written in the story. What’s left is a series of short infodumps.

Here’s what happens. In an utterly ruined Eurasia, everything from the Channel-bordering regions of France returning to British semi-rule as crown dependencies to the US annexing the Russian Far East as “Western Alaska”, with it later becoming a state, occurs. There’s both a “Russia” and a “Soviet Union.” The remnants of Germany are divided into many Morgenthau Plan-style restricted microstates. All this is told in blocks of exposition that somehow feel even flatter than the wartime ones. Which is a shame because there’s both comparison to another alternate history (in this specific case) and a huge amount of lost potential.

The world that develops is one where the US builds lots of superweapons the author clearly likes, adopts a full-on might makes right policy, has the path cleared for cakewalks despite its historical postwar advantages and lack of historical rivals, and uses them frequently against totally ineffectual opponents who exist purely to serve as live-fire targets. This is very much like The Big One, except it lacks the utter audacity and, in something you’d never have hear me say earlier, literary skill of that series.

Instead of using the power of Mary Sue project management to get the superweapons into service without breaking the bank, postwar AANW just has the US continue to run what amounts to a total war economy, falling victim to the “nine women can have a baby in a month” fallacy of funding always equaling results. Instead of having immortal manipulators with catlike eyes provide unrealistic policy continuity, postwar AANW just has a lazy unshakeable consensus emerge. Even after the US destroys several German cities with space weapons after their uprising had been conventionally suppressed, the result is not a “you kicked them when they were down” backlash similar to the real one (however fair or not) over the atomic bombings of Japan, but rather the even more hawkish party gaining support.

What should be an audacious, massive divergence that could easily serve as the foundation for a distinctive work instead is summarized in only around two dozen pages worth of actual text. This is a shame because the premise of a superweapon-obsessed US that never truly left the wartime era (and its ugliness and excesses) behind could make for a great “AH as a setting” story. It could be a highbrow book about generational change, with the upheaval making the historical 1960s look tame. It could be a thriller as the nation with a bazooka suddenly faces problems requiring daggers.

Instead it’s just the outline of an even more biased late Tom Clancy novel mixed with map trinkets. Instead of being made into a potentially tasty meal, the ingredients were just placed in a bowl and left there, next to other bowls full of uncooked flour, eggs, and spices.