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.

Review: How To Make War

How To Make War

Written by acclaimed and prolific wargame designer James Dunnigan, How To Make War is an impressive one-volume entry on both the basics of military operations and wargaming them. It’s not an easy feat to stuff so much into one book, but he manages it. Every facet of post-WW2 warfare is covered inside, along with simple but generally effective formulas for determining a unit’s “combat power” and stuff like average attrition in personnel and equipment.

Some of the “flaws” are clearly not his fault. For instance, it’s not his fault that (like most aficionados, to say nothing of actual veterans) I already knew most of what he was saying in his basic description of various unit types. It’s also not his fault that some of the book is dated (the latest edition was made in 2003). I’ll even excuse its frequent yet understandable bias, which is exactly what you’d expect from an old western Cold Warrior.

The biggest drawback that I’m not so willing to let slide is how its two central parts don’t really gel. It’s trying to both teach someone to walk (ie, the intro to all parts of the military) and run a marathon (do calculations for exact combat power). It just feels a little awkward to have “here’s the basic differences between infantry-heavy and tank-heavy formations” and “here’s how to calculate the combat power of a Syrian armored division” close to each other in the same book.

Still, this is a very good and very convenient resource for people wanting to learn more about missile-age warfare and/or wargaming. For fictional country simulations/story concepts, I’m already finding his formulas very useful for translating an order of battle into a general feel of its relative strength (which is the most important part). While some specialists may already know its material, you still can’t go wrong with getting this book.

A Thousand Words: Title Bout Championship Boxing

Title Bout Championship Boxing

The Title Bout Championship Boxing computer game, released first in the early 2000s, is very strange. It’s had development stop (and start, and stop), had the rights change hands, and yet the initial, stable version can still be legally bought and updated. Even in gameplay terms, it’s the kind of game that I like but I can see why many others wouldn’t.

It really can be summed up as like an MCOAT for boxing instead of military equipment. All you can do is set up the parameters and watch the simulation go forth, with a combination of characteristics and luck simulating the outcome of the matches. This leads to a very deep but very narrow type of game.

So yes, you can simulate Tyson vs. Ali, but save for giving vague and not necessarily follow-able instructions, you really can’t do much except watch. For “normal” players I can see the limitations. But for someone like me who likes seeing different outcomes for their own sake, it’s a very fun and enjoyable game.

Review: The Bodyguard Manual

The Bodyguard Manual

For those wondering why I seem to be reviewing so much about bodyguards/security contraptions, the answer is a combination of general curiosity and writing research. The first needs no explanation. The second is because I have a character in my WIPs who’s both extremely wealthy and extremely paranoid (beyond the totally justified concerns someone of wealth would have about security). I wanted to look at the excesses to see what they looked like. And Leroy Thompson’s The Bodyguard Manual is nothing if not excessive.

I can forgive some sensationalism. After all, a genuine manual on executive protection would have to be as long and detailed as a military field manual-and about as exciting to read. This does go into detail on the basics and the tactical templates. But there’s an impression that Thompson is just getting past the boring, realistic, “if it comes to force at all, you’ve already catastrophically failed” details before he goes to the good stuff. And boy is it good.

The general theme of much of the book is that if you are a bodyguard, you will have near-unlimited resources, and you will need them, because the principal [client] is being threatened by a Predator and an entire clan of techno-ninjas. Thompson talks about helicopters, tons of agents there, and exotic weapons that I’ll get to in a bit. If I was to give him the benefit of the doubt, I’d say that his stated experience in protecting military officers means that he’s used to dealing with military-grade threats where you do have lots of assets but also face much more capable threats. However, I have a hunch that the target audience for this book isn’t really aspiring protection officers.

There was an obsession with submachine guns. The biggest red flag I saw was a constant positive reference to drum magazines. Not only do they have a justified reputation for being clunky and jam-prone (see how the Thompson and PPSH both phased them out), but they go completely against the (accurate) stated info that bodyguards should be as low profile as possible. My favorite weird superweapon is his recommendation that, if you can’t get a Barrett .50 caliber rifle or equivalent for legal reasons, an elephant gun should be used to deter vehicles from attacking the principal’s estate.

After reading this, I can see where the “these guys aren’t like the people in action movies-they’re better” annoyance I’ve read in countless cheap thrillers comes from. One of the gun sections is basically “a badass bodyguard with a submachine gun scything down the villains-in controlled single-digit shot bursts”. It’s the definition of having ones cake and eating it too.

Is this a book I would recommend if I or anyone I knew sincerely wanted to be a bodyguard? No, definitely not. But is this a very fun book that can be very inspiring for cheap thriller authors? You bet it is. I had a lot of entertainment reading this book, and the review is the most fun I’ve had writing one in a while.

A Thousand Words: Wario Land 4

Wario Land 4

When I was a kid, I got a Game Boy Advance, and one of the available games that early in the product’s life cycle was Wario Land 4. It’s still one of my favorite platformers ever, and learning about it and the character’s history has made it even better.

Wario’s origin apparently came from the Game Boy team loathing having to make a Mario game, viewing him as this ugly mustached intruder. So for Super Mario Land 2, they made an ugly mustached intruder. By a good coincidence, flipping the letter “M” in Mario led to a viable pun in both Japanese (Warui) and English (War) for a villain. Wario became popular enough to get his own games.

The excuse plot is Wario finding about an ancient pyramid and then heading off to plunder it. He travels through paintings into various dimensions (it just dawned on me now that this is a parody of Mario 64), and goes on weird escapades. This is a well-done game. The platforming is very good, and the colorful setup manages to work around the GBA’s infamous dark screen without being too obnoxious. It also ditches the outdated arcade holdover “life” system completely-if you die, you just get pushed back to the hub and have to restart the level.

What’s made me extra-fond of this game is that it’s the first that I mastered. I remember how fun it was to be able to effortlessly beat bosses that used to give me trouble, and recall being able to constantly stunlock one boss as a moment of pride. (Also, it was actually hard to accidentally get the worst ending, but I remember being “bad” on purpose to do so as yet another challenge). The GBA had a lot of clunkers, but this was not one of them.

Review: Tupolev Tu-22

Tupolev Tu-22

The Tu-22 “Blinder” is one of those “overshadowed by more famous successor” aircraft, the Backfire, which was doing the “let’s keep the same nominal designation for a new aircraft to pretend its more similar than it actually is” long before the Super Hornet. Sergey Burdin and Alan Dawes’ history of the Blinder is one that does it justice.

Though this is a very dry and very technical book overall, it does have some humorous anecdotes, such as how the Libyans used their Tu-22s (spoiler alert: Not very well). It also defends the bomber, with evidence, from the charge that it was a deathtrap. The authors make the good, backed-up case that it was no more dangerous than any other 1950s design, a period known for its high attrition. I’m reminded of the tale of it being unusual when the flagpole at Nellis wasn’t at half staff.

As for why a 1950s design stayed in service so long, the combination of the Soviet packrat attitude and its ability to carry monster ASMs a decent distance meant it was still viable. This “redemption of the ugly duckling” makes me eager for a similar book on another Soviet aircraft with a poor reputation, the MiG-23.

Really, this is a great book for aviation enthusiasts. I didn’t mind the reams of charts, and it goes into detail on lots of things. And the “use oddball tactics” side of me loved the passage where they trained/experimented with using the tail gun against ground targets. This is a solid work and I recommend it.

A Thousand Words: Pokemon Silver

Pokemon Silver Version

It’s the 25th anniversary of Pokemon, the series of my childhood. And one generation stands out in particular for me-Generation II, more specifically the Silver Version. However, I also feel like this particular generation happened at exactly the right time, when I was young enough to be in total awe but old enough to appreciate it.

I’d say Gen II felt alive in ways that neither Gen I or III did. There’s a clock, and visible day-night progression. Certain events only happen on certain days of the week. There are two regions, both of which look and sound distinct. It feels impressive.

Of course, two regions also lead to something I did notice even at the time-its horrible difficulty progression. Most of the early game is an absolute cakewalk, to the point where I think Whitney’s infamous Miltank gets its memetic status purely because it’s the only even slight challenge in an otherwise effortless journey. Then the difficulty jumps big and stays there.

If I was to replay Gen II now, I’d say it almost certainly wouldn’t impress me nearly as much. But it will always have a place in my heart that none of the other (worthy and enjoyable) games did.

A Thousand Words: Two For The Money

Two For The Money

2005’s Two For The Money stars Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey. It is one of the few movies about sports betting, and perhaps the only movie in recent history about sports betting “handicappers” who sell pick advice, or, as they’re known more derogatorily, “touts”. As someone writing my own fiction about touts, I knew I had to watch this film. What did I think about it?

First the plot. McConaughey is an injured college quarterback who goes from playing football games to predicting them. Pacino is a super-tout who values in his skill. The movie chronicles their rise and fall. It’s a classic, predictable narrative. Al Pacino does the stereotypical “Al Pacino Hamfisted Role”, but he does it well. His co-star is more erratic, and not in a good way.

Beyond that, the biggest issue I had was how it misrepresented touts. Now, I was fully expecting and prepared for sports-movie exaggeration (for instance, the way the main character’s picks zoom from great to poor so quickly and consistently). But this goes beyond that, treating the handicappers as sincerely trying to get the right pick and sincerely caring about the outcomes of the games. In reality, nearly all touts don’t.

They make referral deals with sportsbooks, meaning they have a vested interest in their customers losing. They will either cherry-pick or outright lie about their records to make them seem more impressive. And, most notably, they will pull the infamous “give half the callers one team and half the other” trick so that 50% will be ‘winners’. You get the idea. Honestly admitting to the inevitable losing periods doesn’t attract business. Neither does advertising the highest realistic win rate, which less knowledgeable people (ie, the people who’d fall for touts at all) would not consider impressive compared with “79% WIN RATE IN THIS CFB SEASON!”

The thing is, this movie could be equally dramatic, equally exaggerated, and equally able to pull off the “man’s descent into sleaze” plot if it treated its “handicapping” service in this way. There are a few times when it does get the image right, like its spot-on reenactment of over the top sports betting shows/infomercials. But far more often, Two For The Money misses when it didn’t have to. Which is a shame.

Review: Persuader

Persuader

Lee Child’s Persuader was the first Jack Reacher novel I read. It was also one of the first real “action novels” that I read. This wasn’t an adventure novel, or a science fiction novel. No, this was contemporary red blooded action! Because of this, the book has a special place in my heart.

The actual book is still kind of “51%” in the full context-it doesn’t really stand out with hindsight after reading countless other books (including those following a similar formula). But I still think the success of it and the whole series is deserved. It promises action, and it delivers. Who knows how many people got into cheap thrillers after reading a Jack Reacher?