No Appeal: Special Forces

Ok, some topics don’t appeal to me. This is a matter of personal taste, but still. I might as well give my opinion. I’ll start with the first, and one of the largest. Special Forces.

There’s multiple reasons why I dislike (and wouldn’t routinely use, at least for a main character) the trope of “special forces” or “elite warriors”. One of the biggest is a knowledge of the very real limitations of real special forces, the very different roles employed from the fantasy, the very different basic definitions of the term across different countries and times, and how all of them (in a setting with some degree of realism, at least), differ dramatically from the common fantasy. So that’s one piece of the pie.

But the second has nothing to do with practicality. It just feels off to have someone start the story at the top of the heap. It takes away from the sense of development and heroism, and (especially if used in a fictional fantastical role rather than a more plausibly limited one) smacks of wish fulfillment. It just seems better to have someone ordinary doing something extraordinary than someone extraordinary doing something ordinary-for them.


Twilight 2000

Twilight 2000, the classic semi-postapocalyptic tabletop RPG, is a very contradictory game, one of the most so I’ve ever seen.

See, the plot is good enough. It’s more realistic than many WWIIIs in that the nukes fly, but manages to stay intact enough so that all the cool toys aren’t taken away. And whatever the many plausibility issues, it works for the sake of setting up an adventure.

The problem is in the dichotomy. The mechanics have a detailed, often-realistic unglamorous focus on the dirty work-logistics, disease, and the like. Characters are quite vulnerable. This mixed with the shattered, post-nuclear war-bandit setting means it should be poised for a low-tier, somber look, right?

Wrong. Sharing equally with the dirty-work mechanics are detailed stats of individual guns, tanks, and artillery pieces, starting dubious already but taken to excess in supplements. The post-apocalyptic setting is there to provoke challenges, but it’s also clearly there to take away the command post and those pesky orders. The target audience and themes are for the “bored soldier and military enthusiast” crowd, not exactly something somber. It’s like This War of Mine was jumbled together with Medal of Honor Warfighter and printed, to use later video games as analogies.

And then some of the later supplements got-weird. I’m talking “save Arkansas from evil airships” weird.

It’s still fascinating, both as a product of its time and for the “excesses” and contradictions it has.


The Last Horse Cavalry Manual

I’m currently reading FM 2-15, April 1941.

A US Army manual that is quite possibly the last, and certainly one of the final manuals devoted to horse cavalry in depth. It’s interesting to see the ultimate expression of a soon-to-be-obsolete practice.

For all my knowledge, I still don’t have the full frame of mind to accurately synthesize it with both older horse and later motorized operations, but I can see the passing of an era nonetheless.

Horse cavalry in a mechanized age fits my love of oddball formations, which may be why I’m as interested in it as I’ve been.

The public-domain field manual can be accessed here


I like Esperanto, even if it’s just a mishmash of European languages.

I don’t know enough about linguistics to make an exact comparison, but it sounds like a Romance language, vocabulary wise, similar to Italian and French. Like the Circle Trigon Aggressors who spoke it, the language has an air of both artificiality and creativity to it.

(Circle Trigon Aggressors had a unique insignia system, however, theirs was, especially in the 1945-1960s period, acheived solely by repurposing existing US ones. High ranking Aggressor insignia involved a mix of major’s leaves and cavalry branch sword insignias.)

Bad Fiction Spotlight: Victoria

Now, a little under two years ago, I found a book by the defense commentator and author William S. Lind. The book was called “Victoria: A Novel Of Fourth Generation War”.

I was expecting, at best, a book that would be illuminated by its author’s genuine fame as a military expert and advisor to Gary Hart, and at worst a conventional crazy right wing novel. What I got was -something else.

I had to mock it. So mock it at Spacebattles I did. (As with everything I’ve written a long time ago, I feel a little embarassed by it and wish I’d done some things better. Oh well.) It was written right after Lind fell from grace dramatically in the wake of the Gulf War, and his bitterness shows. Boy, does it show.


Generals KIA

The subject of generals killed in action post-1900 holds a bizarre and somewhat morbid interest for me. It’s a period where personal presence on the battlefield was theoretically less important thanks to the use of the telephone and later radio. It’s also a period where fighting formations became exponentially more powerful.

Not surprisingly, the World War II Eastern Front takes the cake. Although there were exceptions, American general officer casualties were surprisingly low-they were comparable in both World War II and Vietnam despite the lower casualties of the latter war.

For a later period hypothetical WWIII/high intensity peer war, I have a tentative list of dead generals that mainly includes air/missile strikes (including a corps commander and some of his high-end staff taken out by a hit on their badly sited HQ). Besides those and maybe a few shot-down ones, there’s an example I made of the commander of an airborne division killed by a tank raid on a forward helicopter base he’s visiting.

Earlier, I have considerably higher casualties among general officers. This is because there’s often more divisions and because worse C3 means the generals have to be at the front more often.


Army Unit Names

So, when naming fictional military units, I like to use fictional names rather than real equivalents. There are many reasons for this, from creating a sort of “wall of separation” between fiction and reality that makes me feel more comfortable writing them, to just the fun of thinking up appropriate names in the same general class.

Regrettably, US Army units encounter both of the seemingly contradictory stumbling blocks I described in an old post on unit names at Baloogan Campaign. Its current divisions are (comparatively) few and in many cases distinctive, especially specialty units like the 82nd Airborne. Almost like aircraft carriers.

However, they’re also numbered-and the US has a huge pool of inactive World Wars-only divisions that make putting a number above them an exercise in stumbling over triple digit units.


The shoulder patch for the phantom 130th Infantry Division.

This is not an insurmountable issue, and in fact I have an in-jokey way. I’ve used the phantom units used in WWII as “real” units. So units that were fictional in real life become real in fiction.

Plus it’s also somehow less of an issue for units not American, especially from fictional countries. There I can add all the 1st and 3rd and 82nd divisions I want to.

The Commander

I’ve been looking at surplus military manuals from various time periods to give me the important information of where a formation commander would physically be during a battle.

Obviously, the answer is “it depends”. Especially at lower levels, the rule of thumb (at least according to American military manuals) is “behind the lead subunit, so you aren’t at the very tip, but can still control the march and battle”. Of course, what the lead subunit is depends on the formation and the circumstances. The manuals themselves do not give a set location for where the command post should be (for very good reasons of both safety and flexibility), and throughout decades of major updates and technological changes, are adamant that the commander personally move often to the best location, which is frequently not the main command post.

Thus this gives me a feel for writing. The nuts and bolts of every specific engagement matter less than general details like where the commander would (in-theory) be. There are exceptions to the norm, for better and worse, which many of the manuals cover to their credit. Naturally, these won’t stop me from putting commanders into very weird situations, because I like weird.

It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve seen in my numerous forays into bad fiction examples of rather dumb commander placement, on all extremes. Many of which are not justifiable in either a tactical or literary sense.

And of course, pre-mechanized command is an entirely different story.




Command Fiction: The Lessons of Java

This is based on the Command scenario Indonesian War: Air Battle Over Java. I did an after-action report of it, but figure it works as a Command Fiction as well.

Commonwealth forces have participated in airstrikes against a major Indonesian Air Force base. Six aircraft have been lost to enemy action. Damage appears to be major, with the airbase ceasing operations since the bombardment.

– – – – – –

Since the 1995 war, the two sides have adopted radically different lessons learned from the climactic battle over central Java. For the Commonwealth, especially Australia, the biggest was all-weather, high-altitude attack capability. From a military perspective, going flat-out even after taking casualties to AAA was essential to neutralizing the threat to the Commonwealth navy. Yet this would not always be a luxury they could afford, so the acquisition of JDAM-style munitions was an absolute must.

For Indonesia, the choice was harder. They chose land-based high-altitude SAMs. There was a practical reason for this-to counter an enemy that can fly at high altitude and hit targets accurately, you need obvious defenses. But there’s also politics. Despite being an archipelago, the Indonesian Army has historically been by far the  most politically influential branch of the nation’s military-a situation compounded by it remaining intact and suffering relatively few casualties, while the air force and navy were shattered.

So a system that it could control appealed to the Army brass, which is why the major cities now boast S-300s protecting them. To the extent that they fit into a cart-before-the-horse strategy, it’s to inflict unacceptable losses on Australian attackers. Only now the threat comes from the PLAAF attacking from the north instead of Australia attacking from the south.

The TNI-AU has been rebuilt with a handful of modern fighters, while the navy has become a Philippines-esque shriveled wreck.

With relations improved to the point where a 20th anniversary commemoration was handled exceptionally well by both nations, it remains unclear whether the upgraded arsenals will clash again. But the Australians are getting ahead of the curve, acquiring standoff weapons to defeat the horizon-limited SAMs…




The Perspective That Destroyed The Technothriller

So, I have an additional theory about the technothriller’s fall. It’s not on the central level that Nader Elhefnawy argued (the fall of the USSR took away the biggest immediate driver), or my own speculation (high technology weapons became so common that they ceased being ‘new and exciting’). This is secondary to those.

The theory is that of a precedent that made it (even) harder to continue the thriller in its post-1991 climate. This is, for lack of a better term, the “high level focus”.

As Elhefnawy describes it:

“Rather than having his protagonist Jack Ryan conveniently turning up in the right place at the right time, every time, so as to dominate the narrative, the story’s action is widely diffused among a large number of organizationally and geographically dispersed viewpoint characters. (11) This includes a large number of minor ones, whose sole connection to one another is their playing some small part in the evolution of a common crisis; and whose sole function in the story is to provide a higher-resolution view of some particularly interesting bit of the larger situation.”

A lot of technothrillers would adopt this high-level focus. While I understand the reasoning behind it, I’ve found that more often than not, it’s detrimental. If I had to describe why, the two biggest reasons would be:

-The perspective-hopping gets in the way of a continual flow, turning it into a “this happened, then this happened, then this happened…” clunker.

-The large number of characters and plots make it harder to develop any specific one in detail.

Those are general critiques that could apply to any genre. Where I think the high-level focus amplifies the problem with the technothriller in general, and the post-1991 one in particular is:

-Going into a genre the author isn’t the best at writing. I’m especially thinking politics here, where it became an increasingly tinny “Stupid politicians getting in our way” at worst and flat at best.

-Most crucially, in terms of threat to the main characters. If there’s a low-level focus and all you need to do is write a challenge to the individuals, that’s fairly easy regardless of how ineffective the threat as a whole is. A single SA-2 battery to a fighter plane, whatever the on-paper threat, is still a guided telephone pole-sized explosive heading straight for it. If on the other hand, one has to go all the way up the chain of command, it becomes harder to present a force with obsolescent equipment as a true threat. And since the conventional threats got harder to find after the Gulf War and fall of the USSR…

This is not to say that a high-level focus can’t be done well, or that a low-level one can’t be done poorly. However, I’ve found low-level works that aren’t the best quality to still be fun (and not in a so-bad-its-good way) that bad high-level ones aren’t.

Before I finish, I should give a recommendation/example: Raven One is a largely low-level work that, while not award-winning, is still a good military thriller.