Review: Strategy

Strategy

B. H. Liddell Hart’s Strategy will always be a book I remember, although not necessarily for good reasons. It was one of the first history books where I’d become well-read enough to reasonably question its thesis. While Liddell Hart’s life and career has no shortage of controversy around it, I want to focus this review purely on this specific book.

Liddell Hart talks up the “indirect approach” big time, listing a huge number of historical examples. Unfortunately, the history is a cherry-picked list of questionable ones. Even when much younger, I remembered Liddell Hart skipping over several attempted indirect approaches in the American Civil War that failed and brushing off the battle of Guadalcanal (while falsely saying it was a project of MacArthur. It wasn’t.)

As for the theory, well, this kind of “maneuver warfare” talk is the kind of thing that’s uncontroversial in general principles yet doesn’t always translate to specific goals. Sometimes a “direct” approach is desireable. Many more times it’s necessary, for better or worse. What one can see Liddell Hart going for is wishful thinking, where fancy footwork alone can break an enemy without the need for any kind of attritional phase. This is utopian.

Is this book totally bad? No. I’d say it’s useful if you know the context. With that in mind, it’s useful for looking at how one school of thought approaches history and doctrine. But it shouldn’t be anyone’s first book on the subject.

Review: British Battleships

British Battleships

Oscar Parkes’ 1957 British Battleships: Warrior to Vanguard is exactly what it says: A gigantic encyclopedia on every large armored warship the Royal Navy operated from 1860 to the then-present. This has been one of the oldest, rarest, biggest, and most expensive books I’ve owned, and it’s amazing. This is a big, comprehensive look at British capital ships, from the famous ones of the World Wars to weird 19th Century contraptions.

The mid/late 1800s are the most interesting time period as battleship design zigzagged around, but every part of the book is effective. There are numerous cutaway drawings, and they’re well done. The writing is descriptive and engaging as well.

Yes, being made in the 1950s means a lot of it is dated now. Yes, it’s a little more broad than it is deep, a consequence of having to cover so much ground. But it is still an amazing, incredible history book. When published, the age of the battleship had just ended, making this book a fitting tribute.

Review: Magestic Book 1

Magestic Book 1

Geoff Wolack’s Magestic (the spelling is deliberate-it’s a code phrase in universe) is a gargantuan work about a time traveler going back to hopefully change his own apocalyptic time. The first entry is split into 18 volumes, which is still enormous by normal standards, but looks a little less so to someone who’s read a 27 and 54 (and counting) volume series.

Anyway, this is extremely ambitious in concept but less effective in execution, at least as of now. The actual writing is a little crude and jumpy, but I’m willing to let it slide for the time being. The bigger problem is how it handles time travel. The main character keeps predicting events and benefiting from them without any butterflies as of yet. Thus it comes across as bland.

The concept-which reminds me a lot of Asimov’s Foundation- is good enough and the core writing adequate enough for me to continue with the series. If disruptions and challenges do emerge, it’ll look much better. But as of now, the series doesn’t feel like it started on a good note.

Review: Trigger Point

Trigger Point

The first book in the Gabriel Wolfe series of thrillers, Trigger Point is a novel saved from “51%” mush by its bizarre plot. The title character is a conventional cheap thriller protagonist to a fault. Of course he’s an SAS veteran. Of course he’s haunted by the man he had to leave behind. Thankfully, this is the genre where it isn’t that much of an issue.

That being said, the bigger problem is the execution, with the action scenes and prose coming across as subpar. Another huge problem is that the plot takes a weird turn, with the antagonist being an ultra-connected billionaire plotting to take over Britain in a coup-and yet he has to rely on pathetic American hicks for the weapons-and mundane weapons at that in the form of heavy machine guns in use for a very long time. It’s this weird zigzagging between too big and too small.

Still, in an incredibly crowded genre, there’s just better books out there.

Review: The Bear Marches West

The Bear Marches West

A short, small, and simple compilation, Russell Phillips’ The Bear Marches West is a list of prospective wargame scenarios made out of the three most iconic 1980s conventional World War III novels: Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, and Red Army.

The book itself is basic: You get a listing of forces, a listing of the situation, and that’s essentially it. This is so that it doesn’t get tied to any one rules system. For enabling reenactments of scenes in the classics, this book works well enough, although anyone who knows 198X WWIII wargaming (not exactly an underused or underexplored area) should likely be able to do something similar with just a bit of knowledge. Still, it’s an inexpensive novelty, and it would be interesting to see what ruleset generates results closest to what actually transpired in the original novels.

Review: The Eleventh Commandment

The Eleventh Commandment

It’s time for Fuldapocalypse to turn to another author of high sales but low reputation, British writer, politician, and convicted criminal Jeffrey Archer. Even though a lot of Archer’s books, from their descriptions, come across as the type of work I call the “pop epic” (ie, Sidney Sheldon), CIA thriller The Eleventh Commandment looked like a grocery store cheap thriller. In fact, it looked so much like a grocery store cheap thriller that I felt a bit of trepidation-would this be nothing but a Marine Force One with a more well-known author’s name on the cover, forgettable mush?

The answer is “kind of.” Its realism, or lack thereof, comes from simply adopting a different baseline. It wants to be a serious cloak and dagger story, which makes every inaccuracy and contrivance more glaring. Furthermore, the prose is very blocky, the pacing slow, and despite seemingly high stakes on paper, it doesn’t feel that way in practice. At least it’s not too long, but it’s just dry and clunky.

The result is something that feels like it has all the weaknesses of a cliche cheap thriller, but few to none of the strengths. Whatever Archer could write, this kind of novel is not it.

Review: Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces

Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces

So now it’s time to do a formal review of an OPFOR document. While an unusual choice, this one I believe is the most interesting, as it’s both a description and a sort of prediction. A 1990s British document made available via their version of the FOIA law fairly recently, the Mobile Forces is my favorite OPFOR publication, and not just due to its massive size.

First, I have to say the obvious thing quickly: This is a field manual written in field-manualese, not anything that’s meant to be any kind of literary work. That being said, its comprehensiveness is something.

Like most OPFORs, it’s an idealized Soviet-style opponent. Unlike most OPFORs, especially the American Heavy OPFOR, it doesn’t just present that (even with post-1991 hindsight/sources) but also tries to look ahead, in this case towards a “hybrid” model that Russia at the time tried and, for obvious reasons, largely failed to actually adopt until decades later. A two-tier force exists, the “Basic” and “Mobile” forces.

The Basic Forces are arranged in traditional Soviet style, only with some differences-special premade forward detachments, a few other organizational changes, and, most importantly, many divisions having only three rather than four regiments at paper strength. The Mobile Forces, meant to be the cream of the crop, use the same “Brigade-Corps” organization that the Soviet tank forces in World War II used.

The Mobile Forces have permanent combined-arms battalions (while still eager to make ad hoc task forces if need be). Their brigades have a large number of battalions under their command. The document goes into massive detail as to how these two types of forces are meant to fight and work together.

There’s also a few changes.

  • The intended rate of advance slows down. Whether this is because of better artillery/enemy mobility/etc… or because the original rates were too optimistic is a good question, but it’s there.
  • Tactical use of nuclear and chemical weapons, while obviously not removed, is de-emphasized, simply because “conventional” weapons have gotten better.

As one of the best OPFOR pieces, this is well worth a read to enthusiasts, wargamers, and the like as a study of a “futuristic” yet still recognizably Soviet force. I’ll admit I’ve taken more than a little inspiration from it for my own writing, simply because of the effective, distinctive, two-tier military it portrays.

Weird Wargaming: Independent Scotland

The subject of what military an independent Scotland might have has gathered a lot of attention. One of the most serious and definitive reports on the matter comes from the respected Royal United Services Institute, a piece entitled “A’ the Blue Bonnets.

The RUSI piece in short depicts a small and light land force not too dissimilar from Ireland’s, unsurprising in light of their similar geography. However it does assume a more capable air/naval element. The report shows a comparably strong navy and an air force with hand-me-down BAE Hawks as its fixed-wing fighters.

Assuming no political issues, something like the KAI Golden Eagle might also work as a basic air defense fighter, an heir to the F-5 of the past. That’s the only real quibble I have with the report, which is otherwise well worth a read.

As for the possible opponents of this Scottish military, far and away the most realistic is, like Ireland, whoever they’d face on foreign peacekeeping operations. For more out-there ones, you have Russia (especially at sea), and if you want to be really out there, you could do a “Kobayashi Maru” situation where the Scots have to inflict as much damage on the invading English/British invaders as possible.

And of course, this assumes a commitment to plausibility-if you strip-mined Scotland’s entire military age population and had an outsider equip and train it, then you could end up with something completely gigantic. But the “Ireland on land and another North Sea state on sea and air” option is the most logical.

Review: HMS Ulysses

HMS Ulysses

A rightful classic, HMS Ulysses is, in my opinion, the greatest naval action novel of all time. Author Alistair MacLean, a veteran of the Royal Navy in World War II, could draw on a lot of personal experience, and it shows in this masterpiece. People who know their naval history can look at the obvious parallels between the actions of the book and the ill-fated Convoy PQ-17 (which MacLean served on), but that doesn’t change its effectiveness.

The way MacLean sets a tone is hard to describe, but he succeeds brilliantly. The travails of the convoy, in no small part thanks to the PQ-17 historical experience, are both dramatic and plausible-seeming. The feat of squaring the circle cannot be applauded enough. Historical military fiction, at least to me, has had the issue of “it’s going to be either realistically dull and un-dramatic, in which case I’ll read a history book that makes no pretense at narrative, or it’s going to be exaggerated, in which case I’ll read a cheap thriller that doesn’t have to be bound to an existing war.”

This avoids both of them by throwing one (plausible) German threat after another at the convoy and emphasizing the wear and tear the climate and stress imposes on the sailors. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Review: Opening Moves

Opening Moves

At the start of this blog, I thought that William Stroock’s World War 1990 was the worst World War III work of fiction I’d read. That is no longer the case. Colin Gee’s The Red Gambit: Opening Moves now holds, as of this post, that dubious “honor”.

Why have I made such a bold claim?

First, the prose is very poor and the book incredibly long and clunky. (And it’s just the beginning of a series!). This alone would have been enough for me to not recommend it. However, there’s more. Like Dragon’s Fury, it manages to stumble into seemingly all of the worst parts of the “big war thriller” (overdescription, characters that are too flat and too many at the same time, etc…) all at once. I mean, it has two conference room scenes in a row just at the beginning.

It also has the issue of being very close to World War II. This is one of the trickiest time periods to write a World War III in (for reasons of both military logic and storytelling) and it’s safe to say, especially given just how early Stalin attacks in-universe and how Japan allies with the Soviets (!), that Gee doesn’t do it right.

Although the biggest problem is how horrendously stereotyped everyone is. After reviewing Gee’s Atlantisch Crusaders, I kind of expected this, but that doesn’t make it any better. While terrible stereotypes don’t break a cheap thriller by themselves (if they did I’d have never read a single Casca book), this doesn’t present itself as a cheap thriller.

It presents itself as both a “crunchy” tale of military detail and as a sweeping war epic. For the former, the stereotypes, contrivances, and extreme premise counter whatever technically accurate rivet-counting details appeared. For the latter, the storytelling is just far too clunky for it to work.

Thus the stage is set for a truly gigantic mess. There’s stereotypical pulp, there’s overly rote “lines on a map” fiction, there are overlong big-picture doorstoopers, and then there’s this, which somehow manages to be all of the above.