Review: Armies of Sand

Armies of Sand

This is the first Fuldapocalypse nonfiction book review. Kenneth Pollack’s Armies of Sand is a semi-adaptation of his thesis, The Influence of Arab Culture on Arab Military Perfomance, and a semi-sequel to his book, Arabs at War. That looked at how Arab armies underperformed in the 20th century and examined the “how”. This looks more at the “why”.

Pollack uses bits and pieces from both Arab states at war and the non-Arab “control groups” to look at the four explanations-Soviet doctrine, over-politicization, underdevelopment, and culture. The first is a total red herring, with Pollack concluding that if anything, it was at least a little helpful. The middle two have had obvious influence, but can’t explain all of it. The final one is what he feels is the most satisfactory answer.

My biggest problem is his methodology, even though I think his conclusions are mostly sound. A lot of his sources are dated, some of the more lurid anecdotes are thinly-sourced, and a few times the implications go from the more reasonable “New York Knicks” (undeniably underperforming, sometimes significantly so) to the exaggerated “Washington Generals” (completely hopeless from start to finish at everything). This is the kind of argument where you need a lot of rigor, so seeing him pass on examples,  even those that would support his case like looking at the North Vietnamese air force when he used the Vietnam War in another control group, has made me raise an eyebrow.

Still, Pollack handles the cultural argument well, by pointing out education and particularly military training as how it took root. He stresses the dangers of stereotyping and, most importantly, shows both how culture and warfare can change and how workarounds were developed. All of the workarounds involved, in some form or another, a smaller army with a more selective choice of personnel.

Armies Of Sand is not and should not be the last word on the Middle East or military history, and should not be unhesitatingly accepted. But I still highly recommend it, and not just for information on Arab armies. Its study of politicization and underdevelopment in general is fascinating, and it’s well-written.


Soviet Planned Rates Of Advance

This covers a variety of ideal/aimed for Soviet advance rates, citing translated primary sources when possible. The actual ability to meet these rates in practice would depend greatly on circumstances. All figures are in kilometers per day.

_ _ _ _ _ _

Late 1940-mid 1950s (conventional): 25-35 infantry, 40-50 tank armies [Front Offensive Operation, 1974]

Late 1950s (nuclear): 45-60 [Front Offensive Operation, 1974]

1960s (nuclear) 60-70 [Front Offensive Operation, 1974]

Late 1960s (conventional): 35-40 [Front Offensive Operation With Conventional Weapons, 1969]

1970s-80s (Europe): 40-60, 30 (Southwest Theater, Mountainous) [Voroshilov Lectures, Front Offensive Operation, 1977 ,  Heavy OPFOR Operational]

1970s-80s (China, other weaker opponent): 70-100 [Voroshilov Lectures]

1990s-2000s (conventional, GENFORCE-Mobile): 30-40 (optimistic), 20-30 (optimistic, poor terrain) 15-20 (modest) [Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces]

The Military Techno-Thriller: A History

The Military Techno-Thriller: A History

I absolutely loved Nader Elhefnawy’s “The Rise And Fall Of The Military Techno-Thriller.” So when I found that he’d written a recent big-picture overview of the genre , I was delighted and eagerly snapped it up. Rather than starting with the classic ‘invasion novels’ of the late 1800s, Elhefnaway moved even further, beginning in the 1600s.

Thus begins a multi-century tour de force, deftly pointing out not only the books themselves but also the cultural context behind them. This book is both long enough to be comprehensive (mostly) and short enough to be easily readable, making it the best of both worlds.

The picture it paints of the “techno-thriller” per se is of a genre that could only really thrive at one very specific sort of time. It has to exist in a period of heightened military tension that can’t spill over into any sort of massive backlash and a period of novel technology at the same. Such a period existed around the turn of the 20th Century and in the 1980s. At least in the latter case, it was not sustainable even without “events”, and with the “events” (ironically consisting of a war in the first period and a peace in the second), both were doomed.

There are a lot of fascinating insights that made me go “a-ha”, for lack of a better term. Elhefnawy’s statement that “Full-scale great power war scenarios like Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, Coyle’s Team Yankee or Ralph Peters’ Red Army (1989) were in the minority” matches what I found after starting this blog-my “blind man touching the elephant” background in wargaming and alternate speculation made me think the ‘big-war’ subgenre of that sort was considerably larger than it actually was. Another insight I found intriguing was the notion that Red Army was as successful as it was because it was novel in large part compared to other Fuldapocalyptic tales. And the tone of the writing, being frequently critical but never sneeringly dismissive, works very well too.

I think my biggest substantive disagreement with Elhefnawy’s conclusions is his depiction of the technothriller now. He mentions the “rise-of-China/return-of-Russia” change in geopolitics, but argues that “Nonetheless, the cultural trends evident in the 1990s proved quite robust”. I think that shift gave the the technothriller a bigger bump in popularity than he gives it credit for, especially given the headwinds it’s had to work against (the fragmentation of publishing and pop culture).

And while I don’t want to nitpick the omission of certain areas in something that’s meant to be a general overview, there’s a few I where thought more detail could have been warranted. In particular are what he calls the “vigilante novels” (ie, Mack Bolan). These are interesting in that they provide a parallel track of pop culture that both stood apart from and moved closer to the technothriller across the length of time. That phenomenon gets a segment but deserved more. There’s also the long-term “squeezing” of the mainstream publishing industry, and a deeper look at how that and the push for big, higher-margin books both helped and hurt the technothriller would have been nice. (It’s mentioned several times, but never in too much depth).

Still, these are just very small critiques for an excellent book that examines an overlooked genre through a variety of interesting perspectives in a highly readable way. I cannot recommend The Military Techno-Thriller: A History enough for fans of the genre.

The Fuldapocalypse 100 Post Special

So Fuldapocalypse has reached a hundred posts. What a ride.

As I’ve said many times before, I went in to Fuldapocalypse expecting a very narrow spectrum where Red Army was on one end and Hackett’s The Third World War was on the other. The formal scale was in part to get me to be more rigorous in my reviewing and in part because I thought the works would be so inherently similar that I needed to highlight their differences.

Almost immediately, though, I became burned out. As I branched out, my scale gradually faded away. “Zombie Sorceresses” aren’t really relevant in outright supernatural stories, and don’t work when the story is implausible and ridiculous from the get-go. Eventually, I just resorted to an inherently “unstructured” review system-and it’s worked out very well. If I want to mention a story is “rivet-countery” or has a huge “zombie sorceress” contrivance, I can just say so in the review without having a formal section.

So, what I have learned from Fuldapocalypse? A lot, but the biggest is…

There’s a lot fewer “World War III” stories than I thought.

Blame my weird tendency to read the imitators first. Take my wargaming background and looking on only a few places at first, and a narrow tendency emerges. After all, if all I see is infodumpy Hackett xeroxed fifty-times stories, it’s like someone only reading fanfics and concluding that Pokemon is about betrayal. Understandable given the narrow perspective, but not really accurate.

Even at the height of the 1980s boom, there were still were a lot more books about stopping World War III than fighting it. And frankly, to me it’s a lot more fun to see the different, the strange, and the classic-but-unread. If I have to choose between either:

  1. zigzagging between feminist superpower stories, basketball mysteries, conventional thrillers, and classic vigilante adventure stories (all of which I’ve reviewed here), with World War III novels when I feel like it…
  2. Reading the entire collected works of William Stroock for the sake of reading something concerning World War III.

I’m definitely going with Option 1.

Even “cheap thrillers” can vary to the point where depending on the era, the prevalent cliches are going to be almost the exact opposite of an earlier/later time. Or there’s an individual work that stands out from that time period.

Reviewing good books is more fun than reviewing bad books.

I’ll review bad books on Fuldapocalypse. But I’ll be honest, I feel a lot better about going “this is an obscure book almost no one has read, and it’s really good” vs. “this is an obscure book almost no one has read, and it’s really bad.”

Part of it is that if I had more fun reading a book, I’ll have more fun reviewing it. Part of it is a feeling that I’m (consciously or not) just selecting easy targets to smash, especially more obscure authors, and an increasing feeling that it sometimes isn’t really fair to do something like that. Well-established authors are another story-I had zero hangups about ripping Executive Orders to pieces.

But part of it is that I think I’ve outgrown my old “deliberately look at something I know is bad to see just how bad” (to a degree), and have come to love sharing hidden gems. I think it may be me being more of a writer (or Command LIVE scenario creator) myself and thus being on the other side of the critic/author divide, so I’m no longer the fire-breather I’ve been in the past.

That being said, as a writer/content creator, you will get criticism. You will get unfair criticism. You will get unreasonable criticism. That’s just how it goes.

The worst titles to review are the uninteresting ones

Uninteresting does not necessarily mean “bad”. In fact, many books I personally enjoyed I struggled to review. Thus the paradox emerges. A solid title in a series I’ve reviewed a past installment in leaves me having to work hard to write something other than “Like Book X in Series Y, Book Z in Series Y is good to read”.

Meanwhile, a book I didn’t like and could think of a very solid, distinct reason why I didn’t like it can easily get a review.

The most and least-reviewed decades are…

At least according to the tags, and as of this post, the number of books reviewed by decade are…

  • 1970s and earlier: 5
  • 1980s: 19
  • 1990s: 20
  • 2000s: 16
  • 2010s: 31

So the “technothriller heyday” of the 1980s is actually the middle of the road.

Reading obscure books is more fun.

I’ve noticed obscure [e]books come a lot more easily to me than big-name thrillers. It obviously depends on the individual book, but I’d think the biggest reason is they’re too long for their own good. I’d rather, all other things being equal, read two 300-page books than one 600-page one. Or three 200-page books. If only because it gives me a chance to review and ever so slightly widen the exposure of an author if that 200-300 page book happened to be good. This isn’t to say there aren’t good long books or bad short books, but it’s a matter of overall taste.

The second biggest reason is there are only so many real big time authors, and I don’t want to read too many books by the same wri-wait a second….

Somehow I read Jerry Ahern’s entire Survivalist series. I might be crazy.

Yeah, I don’t really know how this happened. Maybe blame the season and the fact that the books acted as a valuable time-filler. Maybe blame Ahern writing it as a serial and me going “ok, what’s happening next?” Maybe blame Ahern being surprisingly good with the literary fundamentals, so that even the worse books didn’t feel bad to read and I could always get through them quickly.

I also think reading the entire ‘epic’ has made me less judgemental. Let me put it this way- reading and enjoying dozens of ridiculous pulp tales is a pretty glass-filled house to be throwing stones from.

I’m torn on when to try and read more Jerry Ahern books. On one hand, he could write and some of the premises look good. On the other, well, aren’t two dozen books by one author more than enough. I mean, the Casca series has around the same number, and I’ve liked many-but not enough to want to go “Yep, I want to read every last one of them”.

And finally…

Fuldapocalypse has been a fun experience.

I’ve really loved how Fuldapocalypse has turned out. It’s legitimately broadened my scope of literature I’ve read, given me the chance to write lots of reviews, and given me a lot of fun.

If I had to list the best author I’ve discovered after I started Fuldapocalypse, it’d be Mack Maloney. Maloney has managed two things. The first is providing a scope that’s (for the most part) between the small-unit thrillers and the giant worldwide technothrillers/army books. The second is having a sense of fun and imagination.

But I’ve found many more good writers after starting this blog. And I’ve had many fun experiences with writing about what I’ve reviewed here, good and bad books alike.

Tank Losses

The Soviet calculations for tank losses in a World War III were incredibly high by the standards of “smaller” wars, around the level of each front losing 6-15% of its tanks every day (and even more when facing either nuclear or advanced smart weapons)[1]. Interestingly, their theorized APC/BMP loss rates were substantially lower despite thinner armor. This probably has to do with tanks leading the attack and thus being more likely to hit minefields and the like, as well as being the first targets.

“Loss” does not necessarily mean “permanently destroyed”, and one of the crucial determinants is who holds the battlefield, since that can turn a knocked-out but repairable tank into a permanent loss.

Still, even the best-case scenario still involved more than a division worth of tanks being knocked out each day, and this in a period where the Soviet advantage over NATO was arguably never greater.


[1]See “Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces Part 1, Operational Art And Tactical Doctrine”, pg. 11-18, par. 1141, “The Front Offensive Operation, CIA/DO Intelligence Information Special Report, 15 June 1979“, pg. 316, and “Front Offensive Operations“, pg. 369”.