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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Code to Zero by Ken Follett

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Last year I began collecting Ian Fleming's James Bond novels in the Audible format for my Kindle. I've seen all the film adaptations, so I figured it was time to look at the source material. And I'm "reading" (listening to) them in the order Fleming wrote them. I finished Moonraker last summer.

There is very little resemblance to the movie of the same title. Of course that can probably be said of most of the Bond movies--the most recent Casino Royale being one notable exception.

The reason I mention Fleming's Moonraker is because Code to Zero has a very similar milleu and nearly identical subject matter. And I hate to admit this, but I enjoyed Follett's novel more.

The book takes off from a familiar lunching pad: Our protagonist, "Luke" (Dr. Claude Lucas, we later find out), awakens one morning with no knowledge of who he is, where he came from or what he's doing in a restroom in Union Station dressed like a bum. His story begins as a quest to find out who he is, but develops into much more, taking us into the post-Sputnik space race, Cold War espionage, murder, betrayal, intrigue, and draconian brain-tampering.

It's been a while since anything spewed out by traditional publishing has grabbed me so effectively as this book did. I actually got angry when distracted or I had to put it down to deal with work, family, etc. I found it that good. Follett's use of flashbacks was deft, if not masterful. And by that I don't mean they were all part of some gimmick or contrivance to trick the reader. He used them to develop the characters, and it worked well. I cared about Luke and Billie because of those.

There were surprises, to be sure. And though Follett's view of history has been colored by revisionism (as has most everyone's educated in government schools), there was no huge political sucker-punch waiting for me at the climax. Quite the opposite.

There are flaws. The most bothersome to me are the conventional plot devices which depend on the hero's gullibility. But those are few and mostly plowed to the end of the plot line.

This Cold-War thriller gets an enthusiastic recommendation from me.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Murphy and Webb Rattling the Cages


Friend and fellow military fiction author Jack Murphy has been researching the Benghazi story for a while, and has finally published his findings along with co-author Brandon Webb.

I chatted (IM'd) with him once or twice as he was working on it, and Jack figured he was going to piss some people off by letting the chips fall where they may. He was right, of course.

I have yet to read it but I appreciate his investigative journalism and trust him more than I trust anyone in the mainstream media. Read his own blog about it here.

Here's the product description:

On September 12th, 2012, Brandon Webb learned Glen Doherty, one of his closest friends and his former Navy SEAL teammate, was killed alongside Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and two other Americans when the U.S. State Department and CIA headquarters in Benghazi, Libya, were sieged in a shocking terrorist attack. For the next four months, Webb and his team at, the world’s premier Special Ops website, embarked on a relentless investigation to understand exactly what happened to their countrymen, as well as the roles played by the Obama administration, State Department, and CIA. Drawing on unmatched sources, they spoke to individuals who would talk to no one else, including fellow Special Operations team members familiar with the African theatre, and to well-placed contacts in the Washington intelligence community. This is their report—an unforgettably gripping minute-by-minute narrative of the events and their aftermath as they really unfolded on that terrible day in Libya.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Aim Big, Miss Big: The Shot by Phillip Kerr

Welcome back to Audio Book Theater. (Whatever will I do when I no longer pass by the library in my work travels? Guess I'll have to turn to my backlog of Audible Audio books on my Kindle--though the volume doesn't go loud enough for my beat-up ears when there's road noise to compete with.)

This book had a back cover blurb that piqued my interest. That's the purpose of a blurb, but it's still kinda' rare these days to find one that actually works. The plot had to do with an assassin who decides to go after JFK.

Now, I'm not someone who believes the "lone nut" official stories about such things, and I am especially resistant to the story that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Neither do I believe JFK was greased by a bunch of rabid right-wingers angry about the Bay of Pigs. But there's a lot of unanswered questions about the assassination and the incidents surrounding it, which could make for some fascinating conjectures in the form of a novel.

Kerr got off on the wrong foot with me because he either doesn't know there's a difference between the US Army and the Marine Corps, or he couldn't make up his mind which one the hit man Tom Jefferson came from. It doesn't require a whole lot of research to figure out that the two branches of service are not one and the same, so his use of them interchangeably speaks volumes about how little he knows and how little homework he did.

Another sore spot for me, which other authors have also rubbed, is Kerr's assumption that a sniper can take a rifle out of a box and go right to work with it without ever zeroing the sights.

There were some plot twists in The Shot, but I saw a lot of them coming a mile away. Another mark against the book is the lack of one single character who I liked.


And finally, the big personal disappointment: It turns out the book is not about the assassination in Dallas in 1963, but about an elaborate threat staged prior to Kennedy's inauguration. Hints were dropped that the characters of the story would later carry out the actual assassination, but I had hoped the author would have the cojones to just fill in the gaps of the the JFK puzzle with some plausible theories (BTW, I was disappointed with the puzzle-assembly Oliver Stone attempted in his film, too).

For me, this book was a fail on pretty much every level. The reader doesn't even get a transcript of the Jack & Marylin tapes, which would have at least amped up one of the few interesting aspects of the story..

Saturday, February 2, 2013

House to House

Tactical doctrine stresses that urban combat operations are conducted only when required and that built-up areas are isolated and bypassed rather than risking a costly, time-consuming operation in this difficult environment. Adherence to these precepts, though valid, is becoming increasingly difficult as urban sprawl changes the face of the battlefield. 

- FM 90-10, Military Operations in Urbanized Terrain (MOUT)

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Staff Sergeant David Bellavia’s memoir brackets his participation in the Second Battle of Fallujah as part of A 2/2, First Infantry Division (“The Big Red One”). Operation Al-Fajr would prove to be the most intense urban combat Americans had experienced for a couple wars (The Delta/Rangers ill-fated mission in Mogadishu occurred as part of a “peacekeeping” operation between Gulf Wars One and Two). It was also a relatively unique battle, in that the opposing force was entirely made up of insurgents. And an estimated 70-90% of the city’s civilian population had evacuated beforehand, reducing the risk of collateral damage.

Bellavia was a squad leader in the mechanized infantry. Most of the time his platoon enjoyed the immediate support of the Bradleys they rode in on. Occasionally an Abrams lent a helping hand. At no point in this narrative did commanders on the ground call in close air support once inside the city. Only once did they call in indirect fire.

With co-author John R. Bruning, Bellavia tells his story in an easy-to-read manner. He doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrific mutilation, explosive diarrhea, or other minutia of combat that reinforce (for the umpteenth time) Sherman’s prognosis that war is hell. Both Bellavia and another soldier suffer wounds to the family jewels—one by improvised shrapnel; one by the teeth of an insurgent during a hand-to hand fight to the death.

That encounter, by the way, was the climax of an almost single-handed house-clearing action during Operation Phantom Fury, for which the author was awarded the Silver Star. For Bellavia this John Wayning was not only necessary to eliminate a threat to his platoon; it was also a form of redemption. This was his second foray into that house. The first time he froze up and failed to finish off the insurgents under the stairs who made entering the house a suicidal proposition.

Perhaps this portion of Bellavia’s story is symbolic of the war itself: Gulf War Two took place, according to some pundits, because Bush’s daddy didn’t finish the job when he had the chance during Gulf War One.

Clearing this one house takes up a few chapters in the book and is a white-knuckled read. The author greased four insurgents during this action, and the last one turned out to be a regular Rasputin. Bellavia’s attempts to kill him devolved into the ridiculous. Reading it was even more uncomfortable than watching the prolonged death of the KGB agent in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain.

Even with virtually no civilians to worry about, there were plenty of other obstacles. Like insurgents wearing American battle dress while humping car batteries through the streets, ready to touch off entire city blocks, wired to blow, when the coalition forces moved in. Entire buildings had been turned into bombs in a city that was essentially one huge, well-prepared ambush.

Then there were the Marines. After causing a logjam during the initial assault by using the breach point assigned to Bellavia’s battalion (2nd of the 2nd), then falling behind in the advance to Highway Ten, exposing 2/2’s right flank, they finally catch up to engage in some friendly fire. At one point they call in illumination that perfectly silhouettes Bellavia’s unit as they prepare to clear a house, then open fire on them.

These kinds of SNAFUs are not uncommon during an engagement, but most marines will insist it’s always Army dogs who commit them. I once had a marine brag to me about how his unit allegedly confiscated the weapons and ammo of some 10th Mountain grunts. The reason? Somebody in the 10th locked-and-loaded during a “firefight” in Haiti while still behind the forward lines. Sounds rather disproportionate, considering events like the one Bellavia described. I don’t know how much, if any, of this is true, but it pretty well sums up how history gets written when marines are involved.

Bellavia’s buddy, Fitts, launches into an angry monologue about Marine Corps historic revisionism at one point, and how you’d never even know the US Army fought in the Pacific campaign from reading popular history. His grandfather, wounded on Okinawa, makes the subject somewhat personal for him. Wherever Fitts is now, I hope he has no Internet access, because his prophesy was fulfilled: the Marines alone took Fallujah, according to superficial Google research. You have to dig a bit deeper to find the whole truth, which most people probably won’t do.

Nonetheless, the author is careful not to rag on Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (unlike when the boot is on the other foot), and gives credit where it’s due. He commends them for their devastating unity of fire, for instance. (And having been on the receiving end of it, I suppose he is as much an expert on this as any other living soul.)

Just as Bellavia wasn’t afraid to share grotesque or embarrassing episodes, neither does he shy away from waxing sentimental from time to time. Some of these detours into his own psychology I could have done without, but one toward the end struck a chord with me. He describes how, after leaving the military, he goes back to the Sandbox as a journalist and catches up with his old unit, and Fitts, in Kuwait. There he engages in a bull session.

“…For one brief moment I felt like I was one of them again. He and I talked about the old days. Of course, he had to show everyone his scars from April 9. But as we reminisced, I realized I’d probably never see Fitts again. He’s made the Army his home and career. 

“It was a bittersweet thought. There are never happy endings in the Army. There is no closure, not with friends or enemies.”

In reflections like this one, I’m right there with Bellavia. I suspect a lot of us are, regardless of what branch we served in.

For those who didn’t fight in the Second Battle of Fallujah but have an interest in the subject, a good place to start might be at grunt’s eye view, with this book.

This might be my last review of books in the military/war spectrum for a while here on the Two-Fisted Blog. From here on out, I'll be diverting most such reviews to Hot Extract, where myself and some other vets have already begun posting articles.