Review: The Modern Bodyguard

The Modern Bodyguard

Peter Costerdine’s The Modern Bodyguard is an excellent research resource for realistic “executive protection”. Written in a typically sharp, slightly sneery British style, it delivers the blunt realities of the job, especially for civilians who lack both financial and legal resources compared to government personnel. For instance, it points out that private security, especially traveling private security, will almost always be unarmed for legal/political reasons (at least as of the time of writing).

It’s not perfect, and it says something about the type of genre that even Costerdine goes into tirades about various types of firearms. But its positives outweigh the negatives substantially. If you’re curious about realistic, limited-resource protection, I cannot recommend this book enough.

Review: Nonstate Warfare

Stephen Biddle’s Nonstate Warfare aims to debunk the myths around warfare featuring nonstate actors and point out that there really isn’t as clear a line as thought between “conventional” and “unconventional” warfare. As I’ve been annoyed by the use of the terms “Hybrid War” and especially “4th Generation War”, I was eagerly awaiting this book. However, I found the execution significantly flawed.

Now, the premise is sound and well supported, which makes the flaws in outcome all the more severe. Basically, even the most mass-mobilized total wars with the clearest defined front lines have an irregular and/or deep element (he uses the excellent example of partisans on the Eastern Front in World War II). Likewise, even non-state elements can and have fought battles with large forces, heavy weapons, and the aim to hold territory. Very few people would dispute this. Biddle also points out that the progress of industrial-age technology means that ill-equipped irregulars can have weapons that the most advanced world powers didn’t have a few decades prior.

None of this is really controversial, and simply stating that would make for a very short book. What would be useful would an example of middle-level armies that don’t fit categories very well. Biddle does do this, with his descriptions of the Sadrist militias in the Iraq War and Adid’s forces in Somalia fitting well. He also has an interesting analogy with a spectrum from “Fabian” operations (a reference to the Roman strategy of avoiding defeat) to “Napoleonic” ones (a reference to seeking decisive battlefield victory). To be snarky, Fabian operations to excess are Kalib Starnes spending the entire MMA fight running away from Nate Quarry, while Napoleonic ones are the bandit in a Bethesda game charging the player in super-armor.

Unfortunately, this is written in clunky academese. Biddle uses a rigid scale to rank various forces from “Fabian” to “Napoleonic”, one that I found to be too rigid for an inherently arbitrary judgement. His writing is full of hair-splitting and nitpicking of what honestly feels like a strawman that everything is either phalanxes on a field or nothing but backstabbing. There’s weird hangups like a fixation on force density for its own sake, obsession on individual technical examples (so Adid had TOWs? So what? Even in 1993 it wasn’t like they were stealth fighters), and not enough focus on non-state forces supplied by state ones.

I wanted to like this book. And I don’t disagree with the overall point. But it could have been made just so much better. This feels like an academic squabble in academic language, when a plain-text history of case studies with “conventional irregular armies” would have been far more suitable in promoting the argument.

A Thousand Words: The Blue Max

The Blue Max

A classic World War I aircraft film, 1966’s The Blue Max is the story of Bruno Stachel, a self-absorbed, vainglorious fighter pilot in the German military. How does it hold up today? Well, I think it suffers from being a product of its time, although not in the way one might think.

For its time, the aerial flying sequences and acting are very good. For its time, it’s an edgy and hard-hitting movie compared to the stereotypical John Wayne fluff of war movies past. Yet by modern standards, it pales in comparison to what post-Vietnam war films have to offer. Still, that’s through no fault of its own and it’s still a very good historical fiction film.

As an aside, I’ve heard it’s one of the few movies to depict largely realistic air combat maneuvering. Later movies have gone for more visually impressive but less practical aerobatics. This goes for wider, bigger turns. It may be a virtue made out of necessity with the lower-performance planes involved in production, but it’s still interesting to see.

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.

Review: Third World War: The Untold Story

Third World War: The Untold Story

It’s very hard for lightning to strike twice. And in Third World War: The Untold Story, John Hackett tried. He did not really succeed. The problem was that much of the appeal of the original came from being the first out of the gate, whereas by 1982 the zeitgeist had clearly shifted. (An obscure and amusing example comes from the line “World War III is drawing near” in the XTC song Generals and Majors, released in 1980).

While possibly unfair to list the earliest instance of a genre as not having held up well over time, I do believe that Hackett’s work has aged the worst of all the few “big-name” conventional WW3 books. It’s earliest, and it’s clearly meant as an explicit lobbying document in a way that the (still-slanted) other works of that nature did not. And this applies far more to a modestly repackaged version released four years after the original. Because that’s what it is.

This is the book equivalent of one of those “remastered special edition” movie DVD releases. There’s a reason why those, even if the underlying film is sound, do not generate nearly as much enthusiasm as the first, novel release.

Review: Operation Siberia

Operation: Siberia

William Meikle’s Operation Siberia is not deep fiction. But it is very fun fiction. With a recommendation from The Sci-Fi Fantasy Reviewer and a love of prehistoric megafauna that stretches back to David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work, I knew I had to read this book. And I was not disappointed.

The plot is basically a Jurassic Park knockoff that descends into what’s essentially “Scotsmen vs. Yetis”. Done with solid execution, it’s a great cheap thriller to pass the time. While not deep even by genre fiction standards, I enjoyed it a lot. Meikle takes a great premise and applies it well.

Review: The Rules of The Game

The Rules of The Game: Jutland And British Naval Command

In the seventh game of the 2001 World Series, Mariano Rivera faced Tony Womack, giving up a game-tying hit and setting the stage for Luis Gonzalez to win the series for the Diamondbacks. In that plate appearance, Womack triumphed. In the rest of their careers, it was quite potentially the greatest relief pitcher ever (Rivera) against a poor hitter whose sole virtue was speed in baserunning (Womack). A sample size of one doesn’t lead to good results.

Unfortunately, this is what Andrew Gordon tries to do in The Rules Of The Game: Jutland and British Naval Command, a history epic that is equal parts awe-inspiring and frustrating. When younger, I hung on this book’s every word. Now, it comes across highly erratic. See, the writing quality is still amazing. The research and attention to detail is excellent as well. In terms of historiography, Gordon stands out.

It’s just a shame that in terms of slant, he stands out as well.

Gordon is one of the few historians who stands with David Beatty over John Jellicoe, and his defense is weird. In the actual book, Gordon points out Beatty’s flaws -he put the slower but most-armored Queen Elizabeth battleships in the back of his formation, he didn’t coordinate more, he was a ‘difficult’, arrogant person that nobody liked, and so on. And yet he still supports the BCF commander on “his heart was in the right place” grounds. You know, he was scrappy, and he had that clutch spirit.

With a bias towards a decisive victory that never truly needed to happen, the book comes across as not what it could have been. Gordon takes that sample size of one (hey, remember the time a relief pitcher with only two career plate appearances managed a double off of Randy Johnson? The time Muggsy Bogues blocked a shot from Patrick Ewing?) and seems to just miss the forest for the trees-or if he doesn’t, he barely dwells on it.

This book is still a huge accomplishment and one very much worth reading. It just needs to be understood that it’s not exactly the most neutral in tone.

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?

Review: Sins of the Fathers

Sins of the Fathers

My love of books of all kinds has led me to Susan Howatch’s Sins of the Fathers. This tale of intrigue in a Wall Street tycoon family puts the “block” in “blockbuster”, both in terms of the whole book and individual paragraphs. It’s not an easy book to get through. Characters talk and monologue in giant, close to unreadable segments. And nearly every one of the characters is unlikable. I get that you’re not supposed to truly “like” them, but they’re unpleasant in a bad rather than a good way.

It’s just a chore to get through yet another man with more money than morals complaining about the “plastic society”, or yet another pregnancy drama. Howatch doesn’t even succeed in making the stakes seem that high. You could take away nearly all of everyone’s assets and make it about store owners in a small town plaza and it wouldn’t feel any different. There’s never the impression, beyond a few luxuries, that these are people who hold the financial world in their hands.

It’s a shame because I love the concept of a giant family saga, an internal struggle of the titans that mixes the personal with the societal. It’s just this is not it. In fact, this might be one of the worst books I’ve read in some time.

Review: Manhounds of Antares

Manhounds of Antares

Having read the first arc of the Dray Prescot series, I had anticipated what I was in for when I started Manhounds of Antares. I expected horrendously purple prose, a first-person narrative of constant action, and a plot driven by cosmic contrivances. How accurate were my predictions?

For the first, the prose is a teeny-tiny bit better than in the Delian Cycle, but it’s still very, very, purple and overly blocky. For the second, it was pretty much exactly what I’d expected. For the third, it was somehow slightly worse than before, as Prescot is teleported around multiple times by the Plot Star Lords in ways that feel especially forced and jarring. Another returning element is Bulmer’s broad but shallow worldbuilding. consisting entirely of creating pseudo-wondrous names and species.

And yet I’ll readily admit this book served its purpose for me as a light read with a tone and prose style considerably different than the “contemporary action” books I’ve been reading. I’m just not sure I’d recommend it to others.