Review: Holding Action

Holding Action

Peter Nealen’s second installment in the Maelstorm Rising series, Holding Action is an attempt at a bigger-scope war than the small-unit ones that make up a lot of his other books. Here it’s a clash in Poland in a campaign very clearly inspired by Larry Bond’s Cauldron (which was reviewed by the author and read for inspiration). And I’m sad to say I found it somewhat lacking.

The first and biggest problem is that the book is both written in first person perspective and clearly wants to be a big-scope tale. This square peg and round hole do not exactly align properly. And it’s not like the reader gets an excellent character study from it: The biggest trait I remembered in the main character was him being Catholic.

The second is that the Triarii, the “military NGO” that the protagonists serve in, feel like Mary Sues in ways that Brannigan’s Blackhearts never did. The Blackhearts are a bunch of expendable, disposable people doing underground dirty work. These are propped up as the centerpiece of fighting, more so than the bumbling regular American army. And listening to the narrator extol their awesomeness and the regular army’s weakness doesn’t exactly help matters either. The third and least important is that the setting tries to walk a tightrope between “plausible” and “distinct” and doesn’t really stay balanced.

That being said, the actual nuts and bolts action is as good as always, and I don’t fault Nealen at all for trying something very ambitious. It’s just that when you aim high, there’s a greater risk of falling short. This is a definite “uneven 51%” book. And there are worse things I could have called it. Besides, it’s fun to review an actual conventional World War III novel and go back to the blog’s roots.

Cold War Kitona

The Fuldapocalypse has traditionally been opened with a vast set of Soviet special operations that involve varying degrees of risk, realism, and audacity. Red Storm Rising famously had one such jury-rigged gamble resulting in the capture of Iceland. I’ve found another possibility that would involve my two obsessions of past and present: Conventional World War IIIs and commercial airplanes.

While the Second Congo War is about as far in terms of tone and nature from a Fuldapocalypse as it’s possible to get, its opening act nonetheless could have been lifted from the pages of a technothriller. In Operation Kitona, Rwandan and Ugandan troops seized four airliners and flew west to sever the DRC’s links to the outside world. The initial landing worked, but external support for the Congolese government doomed the offensive, plunging central and southern Africa into a long, bloody, and horrific war.

So it’s not too terribly farfetched to imagine planes being filled with “unruly passengers” happening to land at important dual-purpose airports at the worst possible prewar time…

Review: Confrontation

Confrontation: The War With Indonesia 1962-1966

Peter van der Bijl’s Confrontation is a military history of the four-year small war known as the Konfrontasi. It goes into extremely military detail. What’s not to like? The answer is, surprisingly, a lot. This isn’t really a bad book, but it is a flawed one.

The first flaw comes from the nature of the war: It really wasn’t much of one. It was more a political stunt by Sukarno than anything else, and the actual service chiefs did the bare minimum to support it. This isn’t the author’s fault, but his priorities are. There’s less of the politics (though they’re still present) and more of firefights in the jungle that blend together (almost always ending with “better-trained Commonwealth troops get the better of worse Indonesians”).

The second comes from the author’s biases. There are a lot of rants about journalists, especially journalists covering the Troubles, which feel kind of out of place. Worse is the absolute fawning hagiography of the British and Commonwealth armies. This is accurate in terms of specifics vis a vis the Indonesians, but still gets annoying, as does the very British slant of “unlike you knuckle-dragging Yanks, we won our jungle war” without noticing the very different context of Malaya. Finally, there’s no real attempt to explore escalation counterfactuals beyond just “The Indonesian air force and navy wasn’t very good”.

This ultimately comes across as just a series of jungle warfare vignettes. It’s not the worst book about its conflict, but it’s not the best and could be much more.

Review: The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog

The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog

David Putnam’s The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog is one of the weirdest alternate history novels I’ve read. And yes, I have read every single Kirov novel. None comes close to this… thing. Really, to talk about it in conventional literary terms is almost beside the point. It’s middling in terms of quality and is a little too bloated, but why talk about that when you have such a befuddling premise?

See, in the 1890s, protagonist David Banner (no relation to the Hulk) has the Judeo-Christian God appear in a dream from His home in the black hole in the center of the Milky Way. A nightmare scenario (aka actual history) awaits if the last of the classic English Bulldogs (always capitalized in the book) goes extinct. There’s exposition where World War I, II, and even III is shown, with animal cruelty activists being portrayed as the equals of history’s worst monsters.

Also, apparently the divine value of a nation comes from the kind of dog that it has. Yes, it’s a weird book. Anyway, man and dog alike uplift the world, fight a very different Boer War, and continue to battle in an ahead-of-its-time World War I. We get loving depictions of bulldogs ripping men and animals to pieces. In fact, most of it is basically just bulldogs in “action”. The question remains: How do you even judge this book? My answer is simple. You can’t. It is not a novel so much as a very bizarre artifact.

Review: The Burma Wars

The Burma Wars

Because Myanmar/Burma features so prominently in my current novel draft, I figure I’d look at George Bruce’s The Burma Wars , a history of the British conquest. There were three large Anglo-Burmese wars, but Bruce mostly concentrates on the first. This is understandable, as the latter two were uninteresting squashes.

Bruce is every bit the Empire fan you’d expect a British pop-historian of the 1970s to be, but he still gives the Burmese credit when due. They were comparably armed, had a knack for building fortifications quickly, and the Anglo-Indian force that went against them was logistically troubled and questionably led. And yet, the British still eventually won, and it only got better/worse from there.

I wouldn’t make an old piece of popular history the sole source on any big historical event, but this at least made for a good starting point. I’m glad I read it.

Review: K Company

K Company

For the first in literal years, I deliberately sought out and read a western, Robert Broomall’s K Company. A story of army life on a hardscrabble post on the Kansas frontier and the inevitable conflict with Native Americans, it combines two genres that have never really gelled with me: The western and the historical war novel. How is it? Ok.

The old west is, of course, a setting more than anything else. Westerns can range from the cheapest cheap thrillers to the most staid literary epics. This book is more on the ‘realistic’ end, and I like that it’s vastly more evenhanded about the native/settler conflict than I feared it would be. Still, if I had to sum up the book in one sentence, it’d be “good, but not good enough”.

The writing is good, but not good enough for me to really get into it. The action is good, but not good enough for me to get into it. The characters-you get the idea. Still, I would recommend it if you do like westerns and/or more grounded historical war novels.

People Playground Peoples

People Playground Peoples

My favorite go-to relaxing game now, especially after I’ve discovered the massive and excellent mod scene, is People Playground. I of course act out a lot of scenarios-ok, a few types of scenarios, involving the mysterious mad science facility. And here are the “roles”.

Subjects

Represented usually by the default “humans”, subjects are the test subjects who are either being killed in terrible ways (don’t feel too bad for them, they struggle to walk several steps) or rebelling in some form (and usually ending up getting killed in terrible ways).

Technicians

Dressed in work-esque outfits, technicians usually sport some kind of chemical mask. They’re often placed by pieces of machinery, where they operate them and oversee experiments (very, very frequently becoming collateral damage). Unlike troopers, technicians mostly use a min-max arsenal-either finicky destructive contraptions or simple/improvised-type weapons that they built themselves.

Troopers

Troopers are the enforcement arm of the facility, being dressed in various kinds of military uniform and carrying a large variety of conventional weapons. Don’t worry, they always get killed in quantity too.

Commanders

Clad in various types of ornate and/or formal clothing, commanders wield sidearms and direct the “experiments”. However, a field commander is just as vulnerable as anyone else on the playground.

Review: Coup D’Etat

Coup D’Etat

Chris Nuttall’s Coup D’Etat is a book I knew I had to get when I saw the premise. A princess of a Middle Eastern country wrangles western mercenaries to overthrow it in a modern Dogs of War (explicitly cited as an influence, and obvious enough even without the citation)? Sounds good enough. The possibility of a thriller that can be more than just a small group of commandos? You betcha!

The premise is thus very good. The problem is that the execution is not. First, the main character comes across as an uncomfortable Mary Sue, and his opinions along with a more important portrayal cross the line from “hardened realist” to “creep”. But the bigger problem is the setting.

Taking place in a petrostate is a good, and arguably great setting. Having a fictional one so you don’t need to step on real toes and can make it to your needs is another good literary tool this book uses. The problem is that, well…

Say you had a fictional US state in the Old South for your story, and it was portrayed as being composed entirely of corrupt redneck bosses, uneducated and bigoted rural poor, Klansmen, and oppressed African-American sharecroppers who are used entirely as a mentioned prop to show how bad things are without actually being elaborated on. Replace that with the contemporary Middle Eastern equivalents and you have “Kabat”, the oil kingdom the novel takes place in. Compounding the worst true elements of an environment for the sake of fiction isn’t necessarily bad, but here it is. It takes away the stakes by making it look like an irredeemable and worse, dull wasteland. Pretty much any character who isn’t a power broker, trigger puller, or supervillain is used as nothing but a pop-up attraction in the freak show obstacle course.

Granted, you could reasonably argue that I’m overthinking the backdrop for an action thriller. Except this isn’t a very good action thriller. Not just because the prose is only decent at best, but because so much is devoted to the setup and exploring this dubious setting. So this book fails at being a suspense thriller and it fails at being an action thriller. It aims very high and falls very, very short.

Inputs

The analysts who swung and missed regarding the (initial phase of the) Ukraine War and the Russian performance in it still made reasonable assumptions.

  • It was reasonable to assume that Russia’s modernization was deep and genuine.
  • It was reasonable to assume that, having spent a year moving the forces, that Russia would also spend a year planning.
  • It was reasonable to assume that modern weapons on the Ukrainian side (like the few Georgia had in 2008) and/or any degree of qualitative superiority would just increase Russian casualties slightly without changing the outcome.
  • Finally, it was reasonable to assume that Russia would follow its paper doctrine, like it did in Chechnya, Georgia, and in 2014.

Of course, it was also reasonable to assume that even a smashed-by-the-fire-strike Ukraine would still fight ferociously, and that a conventional “victory” would just mean occupying a large country that loathed them. Yet few expected something that would have a Voroshilov instructor saying this:

Yet the most baffling part is how the Russians struggled with the very areas where they had a reputation for being good: Operational planning, concentration of force, and air defense. It would be like the U.S. going to war, and not just struggling, but struggling with logistics and air power. Goes to show that even the best model or most well-thought out analysis is only as good as its inputs.

And one of those inputs, and one of the hardest to actually measure, is personnel quality. It came to me as an armchair theory that “professionalizing” the military without creating more incentives for the middle class to join meant that its recruit base, centered around the rural poor, would actually be of lower quality. Then I saw a piece from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project that seemed to reinforce this, containing the explicit quote “‘Contract soldiers are getting worse and worse‘” amidst describing training woes. This would seemingly lead to the worst of both worlds-personnel who are more expensive but not more capable than the previous mass-mobilization system.

Review: The Russian Way of War

The Russian Way of War

One of the biggest surprises of the initial part of the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian War was that the former did not fight according to its paper doctrine. At all. Lester Grau and Charles Bartles The Russian Way of War is an excellent attempt at explaining said doctrine for a western audience. As anyone who’s studied them knows, they’ve left quite the paper trail. While sources like the VDV Textbooks Collection can provide them online in Russian fairly handily, this translates them to English.

And it translates them to English well. I have a few quibbles. The biggest is the authors taking an overly optimistic view of vehicle adoption, perhaps taking propaganda sources a little too much at face value. But the rest of it is well-done and evenhanded. The only real “problem” I’ve noticed is that I’ve read so many OPFOR documents that much of what they’re saying is already familiar.

But that’s a good “problem” to have, and I was still enlightened by this book. Every wargamer wanting to do missile-age combat involving the Soviets/Russians should read this.