RogerBW's Blog

Afterburn, Keith Douglass 24 October 2015

1996 alternate-world military fiction; seventh in the Carrier series. "Tombstone" Magruder is still CAG aboard USS Thomas Jefferson, which is sent to the Black Sea for peacekeeping operations in the context of the ongoing Russian civil war.

I get the feeling that Keith was having increasing difficulty trying to come up with new trouble-spots for the carrier to be sent to. Yes, you did read the first paragraph right: the Black Sea. The setup is that the Turkish government is unwilling to allow American aircraft to operate from or fly over their territory, but is prepared to allow a carrier through the Bosphorus on its way to help out in Georgia. Um, how's that again? I can see the Turks trying to reach a compromise in order to stay on vaguely friendly terms with Russia (after all, they have to live next door, while the Americans can go home when the war is over), but this seems to me like such a major step that they might just as well have allowed American aircraft in too.

The politics are a bit strange, too, as the operation is shifted from American assistance to the UN in George to support for a UN-led "surrender" of the Crimea by its Russian commanding general to UN forces in the hope of preventing a Ukrainian invasion. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong and there's fighting.

Now I know this is military fiction and I expect that the military guys will be Good and the politicians will be Bad. That's the way these things work. But a little before half-way through, a minor character suddenly takes a sharp and unheralded turn straight into Bircherism:

But the thought of handing over a sizable portion of American military power to the United Nations was, for Magruder, a chilling one. If the UN could send Americans into Georgia… or the Crimea… how long would it be before they sent troops into Los Angeles to quell the next round of rioting? Or into American homes to search for handguns? Or to arrest American citizens for speaking out against this dark and twisted vision of the New World Order?

(blink) (blink) Um, what?

I've come up with a crunch against infelicitous writing before, but this is the first time I've been thrown so completely out of a story by infelicitous politics. (There's also a female Secretary of Defense who hates the Navy and pushes through lots of non-traditional policies, which leads to vituperative use of the phrase "political correctness" that would make a Daily Mail reader proud; and the one UN person we meet, naturally a Foreigner, is a stickler for protocol and gratuitously rude, both of which of course are just fine when Navy people do them.)

I was also wondering briefly whether there was a chapter missing. The last time we hear from the political types in Washington, they're trying to work out what to do, with the civilians saying that with the Bosphorus blocked and no chance of resupply they pretty much have no option but to surrender the carrier to the nasty Russian faction. (What the nasty Russian faction actually asked for was help from the carrier group in deterring or repelling the expected Ukrainian invasion.) The military men, when called on their blustering rejection of this idea, can only come up with the idea of a double-ended invasion of Turkey, with the carrier group and Marine force coming down from the Black Sea and another going up from the Med, because obviously that would work. The scene ends with nothing being decided. And yet in the very next chapter our heroes have a plan to resupply (just one of the three things they're running out of, with no mention of the other two) and escape, which most definitely involves exceeding the rules of engagement under which they've previously been labouring, and nobody seems to care about this. So, um, was there a chapter 21a that got cut, where the carrier group's commander decided to mutiny against his political masters? Or a coup in Washington? Or something? (This also means that what should be the climactic fight of the seven-book series, against the last and biggest of the three Russian carriers, is wrapped up in a paragraph in the epilogue.)

Of course I don't read these books for the politics, I read them for the technical action and the occasional flash of good characterisation. Unfortunately those aren't so great here either. An enemy aircraft is identified by a pilot as a MiG-29, and six paragraphs later by his back-seater as a MiG-27, but neither of them seems to notice that they aren't agreeing. Visual identification is actually quite important to the mini-story of one of the minor characters, but nobody ever points out that the F-14 has a television camera system quite specifically designed to allow the crew to identify aircraft at very long ranges and record any sightings, the use of which would break these plots comprehensively. It's claimed that the AIM-54 Phoenix was designed both to shoot down Soviet bombers at long range and to intercept cruise missiles; every source I've read suggests only the former.

On the other hand there is a plausible level of confusion, with a couple of friendly fire incidents, and a torpedoing of a Russian submarine based on a misunderstanding, though it doesn't seem to me so terrible an error as the characters think it is. (The Russian is near the US carrier group, is being scanned by active sonar from multiple ASW helos, and opens a torpedo tube to fire a decoy, the equivalent of the American MObile Submarine Simulator – not that that would help under active sonar. The US submarine in the Russian's baffles, under "fire if friendlies are fired on" rules, hears the torpedo tube flooding, and shoots. That seems to me a fair kill: were they supposed to wait until they could hear torpedo screws in the water?)

It's not terrible, but it's not much good either; it feels sloppy. This is the last entry in this series actually written by Bill Keith; "Keith Douglass" was a house name that after this point was taken over by other writers, whose names I haven't been able to discover. It continues, I believe to a total of 23 volumes though I haven't been able to find even an authoritative list of titles. In any case I don't plan to follow; by all accounts quality drops off very sharply.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:35am on 24 October 2015

    There are whole sub-genres of fiction dedicated to massaging the American Right's sense of persecution. The most obnoxious I ever read was A STATE OF DISOBEDIENCE (a Baen book naturally) in which Texas secedes from the US after the newly elected female president of the US installs her lesbian lover as Chair of the Joint Chiefs and not only takes away peoples guns but FORCES THEM TO HAVE ABORTIONS! (Yes, it is meant to be a Hilary clone.)

    The people who believe Socialism -> Collapse of America are widespread and are not bothering to check their assumptions. Which makes their narratives a bit weird sometimes.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 05:17pm on 24 October 2015

    There was a little bit of this sort of thing in the previous volume, mostly "They Are Out To Get Us by allowing women to fly in combat", and the politicians are always bad guys in this kind of book, but that sudden lurch into black helicopter country took me rather by surprise, particularly since William Keith doesn't display much of this tendency in anything else of his that I've read.

  3. Posted by John Dallman at 08:48pm on 24 October 2015

    And, of course, they never remember the times when US military power has been used under UN auspices. The Korean War and the Gulf War of 1991 are the main ones.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 08:54pm on 24 October 2015

    I think that one of the objections is to putting American troops under foreign command: if the overall commander is an American, they don't mind having the UN telling them what to do, because that guy can always say "no" at the civilian/military interface point. But a military guy taking orders from another military guy is presumed to be incapable of doing that, even post-Nürnberg. I'm sure this is psychologically fascinating.

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