Chieftains is an early WWIII novel (published in 1982, likely written before that) starring the titular tanks. I figured it’d be good for an initial review, as it falls nicely in the middle. It’s well-known but isn’t quite on the same level as some of the “classics” like Red Storm Rising itself. It’s also more in the middle literature-wise.
Chieftains actually avoids many of the tropes that would make up the Iceland scale. It stays concentrated on the ground and ends in a nuclear blast. However, I believe this to more the result of its early publication, before the genre really gelled, than any degree of brilliance on Forrest-Webb’s part. It does have a lot of hopping viewpoints, mostly for the worse.
The rivet-counting doesn’t (mostly) go into too much detail about which battalion went where, but it does go into heavy technical detail with unit designations and gun barrel sizes. Here’s where the sloppy, uneven quality of the book comes into being. The descriptions of British equipment are mostly accurate, but the American and Soviet equipment descriptions-aren’t. Especially with hindsight.
An East German Su-15 (an interceptor that served only in the specialized Soviet Air Defense Force, and which would never flown over foreign soil), fires an AA-8 missile (in reality a light air to air missile), at a ground target, to give one particularly egregious example. All sorts of prototypes and prototype names get to the front, and there’s even occasionally something like pure sloppiness, with a reference to a “T-60” tank. Including a lot of the detail and getting it wrong just seems pretty dubious-either do the research or be less “specific”.
The zombie sorceresses are mostly in the background here. The war starting is glossed over, and the final nuclear blast is vague enough to not fall into my pet peeve of “plot-nukes”. To its credit, the explanation for the war starting is vague and contrived, (NATO will soon climb out of its pit and the Soviets must strike when they can) but still handwaved past quickly to get to the action. This is well-handled, and the low-level focus of the book keeps their hands from showing.
Like with the technical details, Chieftains is wildly inconsistent in literary terms. The same trend holds. British scenes and characters are mostly good, while the Americans are less so, to put it mildly. Given how Forrest-Webb portrays the Americans, I shudder to think at how he would have handled Soviet viewpoint characters. Thankfully, he doesn’t have them. The characters are serviceable by tank novel standards, and the disruptions are never that immense-the story still flows, and flows very well in spite of them. It does end too quickly even given the circumstances-its ending is like if Dr. Strangelove stopped right after the guy rode the bomb down.
The entire American segment could be cut without hurting anything. The occasional cut away from the British tank unit could be cut without hurting anything. And, finally, the “capture scene” could definitely be cut.
The action is gritting, bloody, and effective-except for the “capture scene” where the tank regiment’s commander is captured, has a flashback to sleeping with a colleague’s wife after being told of it by his interrogators, gets shot, gets up, and then shoots up the camp like an action hero, killing his torturer in a cinematic way with grenades. It’s out of place. Very out of place.
A small issue is the tone. A lot of the time it has an implicit anti-war tone simply by showing the brutality and gore first-hand, but it has a clashing explicit “this is why we need more money for the Army the politicians starved” message sometimes that also gets in the way. Bigger than that by far is the prose. Forrest-Webb’s writing is kind of clunky and he loves his exclamation points a little too much.
The Only Score That Really Matters
I liked this book. It’s a good tale of tanks exploding, and it’s got a degree of real grit to it that a lot of otherwise well-written books don’t have. I would have loved it if it wasn’t for the unevenness and sloppiness. But the sloppiness is there, and while some of the unevenness is forgivable, more of it is not.
This is a good tale, but it could have been a great one with some polish that it simply doesn’t have.