I don’t typically put content warnings on my reviews, but today I’m going to. There’s no way to talk about this book without talking about some pretty nasty stuff. The book includes some graphic descriptions of violence as well as plenty of swearing. It’s definitely not for anyone who is sensitive or easily-offended. Also, there are lots of racial slurs in it, although not the one you might be expecting. I can’t blame you if, in these troubled times, you prefer not to have your reading filled with such things.
It is a gritty and realistic account of commando raids, told in the first-person with startling immediacy. In great detail, the author describes the covert missions behind enemy lines undertaken by Rhodesian Light Infantry commandos.
Okay, here’s the deal: this book is supposed to be fiction. It’s in the “war fiction” category on Amazon. There’s a disclaimer in large letters at the beginning confirming its fictional nature.
But it does not read like fiction. I read enough non-fiction war memoirs to know what they’re like, and this reads just like one.
Moreover, it doesn’t have any of the standard features one expects in fiction, such as plot arcs or character development. The narrator mentions his comrades and their names and sometimes one or two minor personality traits, but they aren’t “characters” such as might be found in a novel. They are just guys who went on commando raids with him.
And there is no story, no three-act structure, or anything like that. It’s just a straightforward account of missions the narrator carried out, in chronological order.
If Rische just made all this stuff up from a combination of imagination and research, I’d have to say he did a fine job. It captures the feeling of reality with none of the artificiality of dramatic structure. But… I suspect that’s not what this book is.
Every so often, there’s a scandal where somebody writes something claiming to be a memoir, and it turns out to be largely fictional. (This is the most famous example that comes to mind.)
I struggle to think of a case of the reverse, where someone passed off a factual account as fiction. I mean, what would be the point…? Yet I have to wonder if that’s what’s happening here. It just feels too realistic.
And if it really is a work of fiction, and not a memoir, then it feels like a missed opportunity. Because the thing fiction can do that a memoir can’t is explore multiple perspectives and points of view.
The narrator of this book is not interested in doing that. Time and again, after describing some bloody attack on the enemy, he’ll say something along the lines of, “…but I didn’t feel bad about the brutality. The fact was, if we didn’t do it to them, they would be attacking innocent people.”
It never seems to occur to him that presumably his enemies are thinking the exact same thing. No doubt they could provide their own justifications for their actions, just as the narrator does for the RLI.
And this is of course the ugly logic of war: “do unto them before they do unto you.” And it makes a certain sense, once you are in such a brutal situation, but it is the logic of the vicious circle. At every point, each side’s most “rational” choice is to escalate, leading to utterly inhuman horrors.
Early in the book, there’s a section about the Rhodesian Air Force bombing an enemy camp. The pro-Rhodesia position is that it was a terrorist training facility. The anti-Rhodesia position is that it was a refugee camp. Even if, like me, you know nothing about the Rhodesian Bush war, this sort of dynamic will be familiar to anyone who has read about the Israel-Palestine conflict, or any of the United States’ recent “asymmetric” wars.
Our narrator, of course, believes 100% that it was a terrorist staging ground, and only that, and anyone who says different is just repeating enemy propaganda.
Well, as long as we’re subscribing to the idea that this is “just fiction,” sure, why not? But my sense is that in most real-life cases where things like this happen, it’s usually some combination of the two. A common tactic of the militarily weaker side is to place their agents among civilians, so the stronger side can’t avoid civilian casualties.
Even the wars that we look on as “good” wars have their share of incidents like this. No one really likes to think about it, but in any war, there is some expected amount of loss of innocent life. It’s “priced in,” as it were, when calculating the costs of war.
Do you feel a bit sick thinking about this? I feel pretty sick writing about it. As we should. It would have been interesting if the book had featured a little more introspection, a bit more musing about how the narrator and his beloved country became locked in an inescapable conflict that could only end badly. And did.
But there is no introspection here. Which, again, I would understand in a memoir much more than in a novel. As it is… this is a strange and depressing book. Which, I suppose, makes it an accurate account of how the war must have felt.
I’m not tempted to read this book, Berthold, but it’s interesting that it has 71 ratings on Goodreads, 57% of which are 5 stars. There are only six reviews, though, and reading them makes me think the readers appreciate some of the things that depressed you about the book.
Yes, well, I suppose Rhodesian commando fiction would be targeted at a specific niche market.
Interesting. I usually don’t care to read war fiction, but I may have to give this one a look. The Rhodesian Bush War was such a complicated, messy affair.
Yes, it certainly was. I wish this book had addressed more of the complexities, but I suppose no one author can capture everything about a conflict like that.
I lived through this time period, but in the U.S. virtually nothing was mentioned about it. I finished a 12 book series by Peter Rimmer starting with the founding of Rhodesia to the present day, the war was written about from the Tobacco farmer’s perspective, and their losses from roadside bombs. They knew the inevitable would happen, but stubbornly clung to their way of life. As most of the characters are forced to move to England, Australia or the U.S. they have a hard time adjusting and long to go back.
Sounds like a very interesting series. I’ll look it up.
How strange that this book is marketed as ‘fiction’ yet, as you say, its too real with no story arc and, by the sounds of it, too ‘impersonal’ to be fiction.
This point – “the thing fiction can do that a memoir can’t is explore multiple perspectives and points of view” – a possible exception that comes to mind is ‘Storm of Steel’. I wasn’t expecting it but did appreciate Jünger exploring the perspectives of his enemy.
I was probably subconsciously comparing this book to “Storm of Steel” the whole time, which definitely didn’t do this one any favors. Jünger’s book has to be one of the best war books ever written, both fiction and non-fiction.
What an interesting review, Berthold. I can see why it seemed like non-fiction. I don’t think this book is for me, but it sounds unusual for sure.
It certainly is that.