Review: The ISIS Solution

Released at the height of the 2010s anti-ISIS campaign, The ISIS Solution is a short book by several SOFRep authors, which include such familiar names as Jack Murphy and Peter Nealen. It offers critique and recommendations, and since I knew their books well, I wondered how their nonfiction commentary would go. As commentators, they’re pretty good novelists.

As the saga of “Mean” Joe Greene’s transformation from the best defensive lineman to the worst football commentator ever attests, being good in one field doesn’t translate to being successful in another. Granted, some of this is due to the book being short and aimed at a much broader audience than actual security analysts. But more of it is due to a phenomenon I’ve seen sadly too often.

I call this Fire Joe Morgan-ism (not surprisingly, Morgan was another athlete who went from brilliant player to dubious commentator). There a group of spicy screenwriters (seriously) who dabbled in baseball analytics took pride in dogpiling on all the old crusty baseball hacks who didn’t know any stat beyond batting average. It basically amounts to going ahead of the absolute worst baseline (sportswriters in that case, network talking heads in this one) by showing that you do have genuine knowledge of it (military operations/baseball stats), and then doing a little dance and a victory lap because you’ve overcome such an easy target.

Granted, this probably wasn’t as surprising as I’d thought. Murphy’s books ranged from “blatantly political even when good” to “unironic Metal Gear Solid plotline”, while Nealen’s commentary attempts in Maelstrom Rising sank it a lot compared to the far more apolitical Blackhearts series. But it’s still disappointing, and there are a lot better sources out there.

Review: A Killing Truth

A Killing Truth

Author DV Berkom, a self-proclaimed lover of thriller novels, begins her Leine Basso series with A Killing Truth. Short and sweet, the love of its author for the genre shows obviously. The negative side of this love is that this tale of a female assassin doesn’t exactly break much new ground or push any authorial limits. It’s firmly in the 51% middle of books of this nature.

But it’s also positively in the 51% middle. If you want a good cheap thriller, this is the book for you. Everything about this that needs to work does, and I had a great time reading. I look forward to reading more of Berkom’s work, as it’s clear that she knows what makes a thriller good.

And that’s two positives of loving the genre to one negative. I’ll take that.

Review: US Army Doctrine

US Army Doctrine: From The American Revolution to the War on Terror

In his study of published doctrine, Walter Kretchik embarks on the herculean task of reading multiple centuries worth of field-manualese. He looks at the very first to the then latest manuals (the book was published in 2011) and how they were applied in practice. The result is an excellent nonfiction study for field manual nerds like me.

The book is very readable and understandable. I would advise reading the actual manuals themselves if you wanted to know more (they’re all public domain by their very nature and the age of many of them), but as a starting point for both doctrine and warfare, this book is excellent. It’s expensive and niche, but it’s good in addition to being those two.

Review: The Han Solo Adventures

The Han Solo Adventures

Originally published in three installments from 1979 to 1980, the Han Solo Adventures by Brian Daley were the first books in what would become the Star Wars expanded universe. Star Wars fans tend to love them, and I’m one of them. Without restrictions or a desire to one-up the movies (I’m looking at you, Kevin J. Anderson), the books are a fresh fun romp through the Corporate Sector.

Daley can write everything from prison breaks to starfighter bouts to duelists well, and he does in these books. Every Star Wars fan, science fiction fan, or just fiction fan should read these.

Review: The Death of Russia

The Death of Russia

It’s uncommon but not unheard of for a book to have its premise done better by something else in more or less every single way possible. So is the case with The Death of Russia, an alternate history story told through exposition and snippets about Yeltsin dying in the early 1990s and the world sinking into chaos. AH enthusiasts will also know that Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire was another alternate history story told through exposition and snippets about Yeltsin dying in the early 1990s and the world sinking into chaos. Both started off as forum timelines and then were commercialized.

The first issue one notices is the writing style. Namely, giant breathless blocks of text. The timeline tries to do the “snippets from in-universe books and the like”, but this falls flat because all the “sources” read exactly the same. The second issue is the relentless grimdarkness. While based on stuff that sadly did happen, this just feels gratuitous. There being no real characters or anything but pure exposition makes both problems all the worse.

Eventually things spiral into a nuclear World War III. However, it’s worth noting that a fake interview with Evangelion’s producer starts off the chapter in question. Since pop culture is an obsession of the online AH fandom, this is not exactly a good start. The strike itself is no Arc Light or Red Hammer 1994. I actually fell annoyed at how a (mostly) survivable nuclear war, a topic that fascinates me, was handled so badly. It’s handled with all the grace of a minor league sportsball game report. Namely, a minor league game report written by an basic computer program that saw the box score.

In fact, what’s honestly interesting about the final nuclear exchange, besides the teeth-gritting “it doesn’t work like that” inaccuracies, is how it demonstrates a critique I’ve had for a while now. In the footnotes, the author doesn’t cite those two novels, or any real study on a limited/counterforce-heavy big nuclear strike that would leave society survivable. No, it’s another timeline, an earlier one called Able Archer 83.

But for any normal reading, I’d just say “read Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire instead”.

Review: Carrying the Fire

Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys

Long considered one of the two best astronaut memoirs (the other being Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets), Carrying the Fire is the autobiography of Apollo 1 command module pilot Michael Collins. He got to go to the moon but not walk on it. Collins insisted on writing the book all by himself without assistance, and it paid off. Not only was he a capable pilot and astronaut, but he turned out to be an excellent author as well.

With both humor and majesty, Collins tells the story of flight and the moon program. Anyone interested in outer space should get this. It’s an excellent book and even greater autobiography. While it’s not nearly as fresh as it was in 1974, that’s a small and inevitable “problem” to have. This is a great book.

Review: The Reckoning

The Reckoning

David Halberstam was one of the most legendary historical writers. In The Reckoning, written at the height of the 1980s auto crunch, he turned his eyes on Ford and Nissan, trying to find what made carmakers on both sides of the Pacific go. Halberstam has a talent for writing. Unfortunately, that very skill makes it uneven.

It does a good job describing formative events like Henry Ford’s family drama and the 1953 labor dispute at Nissan that shaped not only it but the entire Japanese auto industry. It also does well when looking at individual workers caught up in the mess. Although I have to say that it’s very hard to write about the auto industry and not make it interesting. The field is just so inherently complex and full of colorful stories.

So what are the problems? Well, it’s dated for one. This isn’t as bad as it could have been. Yes, it’s a more than a little “JAPAN GOOD”, but certainly not to the excess of some other bubble era publications. After all, this shows the Japanese industry warts and all. It also aptly points out in its study of the South Koreans how the rest of Asia was cracking its knuckles and preparing to charge-which came to pass.

No, the biggest obvious problem is that it’s too “Bruce Springsteen”. Which is to say it has the tone of a wealthy suburbanite who idealizes the blue collar worker’s struggle too much. Its slobberingly positive portrayal of UAW head Walter Reuther is the most obvious part of it, with even sympathetic history works on that man being far more critical and full than Halberstam’s hagiography. This also leads Halberstam to idolize the “Manufacturing Men” over the supposed “bean counters” who nickel and dimed every car to pieces. (Not surprisingly, Robert McNamara in his pre SecDef days is there and scorned).

This leads to the next problem that someone with any kind of interest in the auto industry can see: It’s too centered around the capital-N Narrative of the Good Manufacturing Man being brought down by the Evil White Collar Consultant. The “Manufacturing Men” in both continents could get away with running hog wild simply because their industry was in a boom. Once it busted, they simply had to start penny pinching. After all, the first Japanese car company to close a plant and downsize was… Nissan. All this is combined with something that, for all his research, Halberstam didn’t actually have much familiarity with, and it showed. It’s also catnip for the mostly well-off target audience of the book.

Still, for all its problems this is something I’d definitely recommend.

Review: Invisible Armies

Invisible Armies

Author, historian, and (sadly) political commentator Max Boot takes the reader through thousands of years in Invisible Armies, his chronicle of irregular and asymmetric war throughout history. Let’s just say that I’m no fan of either his past or current viewpoints on contemporary politics and leave it at that. Not just because I don’t want to get political here, but because it’s basically irrelevant to the actual book. (Which is a huge point in its favor, I might add.)

Said book is a masterwork of popular history. It has the weaknesses of its format in that by design it can’t go into too much detail, and no doubt there are some inaccuracies that I couldn’t tell but which someone more invested in the subject matter could. But it also has the strengths of it in that the facts are presented in an extremely engaging way.

There’s one central point made throughout the book, which is that contrary to both recent high-profile examples with small sample sizes and “fourth-generation war” thunderers, the default outcome for an insurgency is loss. Most of the time, it either fails completely or can’t progress past its initial strongholds. There’s also the less novel reminder of almost all successful ones having the support of an outside state.

As something that both explains and demystifies unconventional war, I highly recommend this book.

Review: Louisiana Firestorm

Black Berets: Louisiana Firestorm

The Black Berets series was a range of now obscure 1980s men’s adventure novels. My first exposure to it was in Louisiana Firestorm, the fifth installment. I found it a sad disappointment. For an action novel series, there really wasn’t that much action, and what there was wasn’t that well written.

These are the perils of a quantity based series that has every book being short. It should come as no surprise that the listed author, “Mike McCray”, was actually two separate people sharing the pen name. One of those people, Michael McDowell, was also someone whose work included screenwriting for the movie Beetlejuice (!). Ultra-cheap thrillers seem to attract the weirdest array of people.

Unfortunately, McDowell’s presence in this series is far more interesting than anything in Louisiana Firestorm itself. You make as many shots as a quickie, throwaway mens adventure series does, and you’re bound to have a lot more misses than hits.

Review: Tomorrow’s Soldier

Tomorrow’s Soldier

David Alexander’s Tomorrow’s Soldier is a book that you’d expected to be dated based on its subject matter. It’s a 1999 popular account of the WARS AND WARRIORS OF THE FUTURE. And it is dated. It’s also somewhat shallow even by the standards of the time.

It’s still interesting, but isn’t really a rigorous study. The descriptions basically consist of trends that were obvious even at the time (ie, more digitization/etc…) and the obligatory description of wunderwaffe like power armor. This is a little less triumphalist than some other books of its nature, but it isn’t really more substantive.

This felt like a throwaway book even when it was written. And now it’s an older throwaway book. So I’m not really recommending it except as a curiosity. I do wonder if the same “David Alexander” who wrote this was the same “David Alexander” who wrote the ultra-middling Marine Force One. If so, it would be fitting.