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"It makes the Hitlerite blitzkrieg look like horse-and-cart."
A 1989 novel by Ralph Peters, often counted among the techno-thriller genre thanks to its subject matter — a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Unlike other techno-thrillers, however, Peters wrote the entire story from the Soviet point of view, then went on to commit the faux pas of having the Soviets actually win, something other American writers would never dream of.
As the story opens, World War III has already started (Peters never does mention what started it) and the Red Army under General Malinsky is about to attack across the plains of northern Germany. What follows is the theater-strategic operation NATO so feared during the Cold War, the mechanized Soviet armies splitting the alliance’s front and pouring across Germany too fast for their shocked high command to react.
Like Red Storm Rising, it’s a highly educational read, and is surprisingly easy going since Peters avoids geeky details (he talks about 'tanks' and 'anti-air units' instead of 'T-80s' and 'ZSU-23-4s') and focuses squarely on the characters, every one of whom is properly fleshed-out and three-dimensional. Despite this, Red Army was mostly dissed by the critics who apparently couldn’t forgive Peters for letting the bad guys win. It also had the misfortune to be released at the end of the Cold War and thus became Hilarious in Hindsight when the mighty Soviet Union broke up and the Gulf War occured, meaning that Peters was accused of overhyping the strength of America’s enemies. Make no mistake, however: at the time this was Serious Business. To be fair, Peters acknowledges in his afterword that his novels assumed a complete 'best case' scenario for the Soviets, and indicates that he wrote the novel in part because most of the other writers of World War III technothrillers at the time relied on a best-case scenario for NATO.
While Red Army fails the history test, it more than passes as a human drama, and it details the workings of a modern army far better than any of its rivals, including Red Storm Rising. Forget the romantic image of the brilliant general having a Napoleonic flash of inspiration that wins the pitched battle, deploying modern armies is a matter of march tables and proper mathematical planning. Ironically, war as Peters envisioned it has been carried out since the novel was written… by the U.S. Army on its march to Baghdad.
This novel provides examples of:
- A Father to His Men: Lieutenant Colonel Shilko. Before the war, he and his subunit had a local reputation for being able to raise chickens for food and profit.
- America Saves the Day: Averted
- Author Tract: It's subtle in the story, but it's played straight in the afterword he writes. Peters wanted to show the readers that NATO's strategy of Forward Defense would be extremely unlikely to stop a Soviet offensive, along with the inefficiency of NATO's command structure, lack of unified doctrine and unified troop control, the strategic and operational flaws in NATO force dispositions, and complacency relying on technology and superior individual training.
- Peter's does not hold the West Germans in a positive light. He makes numerous references to them being the weak link in NATO.
- Badass Army: Subverted and a half. Individually, the Soviet soldiers are all a pretty ordinary lot. Collectively, however...
- Batman Gambit: Malinsky’s whole plan revolves around the knowledge of how each of his opponents will react to invasion.
- The Cavalry: Kryshinin’s forward security element is saved in time by the main body of his regiment’s advance guard and top-priority air support.
- Cavalry Refusal: Type B. The attack helicopters assigned to support Gordunov's air assault battalion pull off earlier than he expected, which promptly reminds him of a similar incident in Afghanistan where his company was ripped apart by a dushman ambush.
- Driven to Suicide: Levin.
- Friend or Foe: This is how Trimenko gets killed. His anti-aircraft units mistook his helicopter for an enemy, not helped that his pilot flew higher than normal to avoid striking power lines.
- Even more painful as this is how the Malinsky's son dies. He is embarrassed by a bad case of the shits, and chooses a spot far away from his command post to relieve himself. His father promises his battalion top priority on air support. The Soviet pilots visually identify the green flares of the command post and get vague directions from the air controller to hit the far treeline.
- General Ripper: Malinsky starts sounding like one when he justifies his decision to actively ignore NATO military units which have retreated into West German cities. In his eyes, they are now the Soviet Army's "hostages", to be traded one nuke at a time if the Western Allies nuclearize the battlefield.
- How Much More Can He Take?: Senior Sergeant Hornik is quite incredulous to see NATO tanks shrug off rounds from his anti-tank gun battery. Justified as they were equipped with last-generation anti-tank guns.
- Informed Judaism: Chibisov, as Peters wrote it: "was an ethnic Jew whose family had long ago renounce its religion, but he still felt compelled to struggle relentlessly against every last vestige of his Jewishness."
- Last Stand: When it's clear that no friendly forces are coming to link up with Gordunov’s battalion and the British troops keep on coming to recapture the bridges.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: To humanise this cataclysm, the author has us experience it alongside dozens of the individuals caught up in it. And you know what? It works.
- Million Mook March: Comprehensively averted. The NATO armies are expecting a Zerg Rush: the battle plan they get is an astute, intricate and strenuously thought-out plan. And it all happens very, very fast.
- More Dakka: NATO’s talent for dakka causes some sleepless nights for the Soviet commanders. For their men, too, come to think of it.
- Old Soldier: Lieutenant Colonel Gordunov is an Afghan veteran.
- Opposing Combat Philosophies: NATO is committed to fighting and winning at the tactical level. The Soviets, on the other hand think one scale higher at the operational level. Malinsky’s operational plan involves NATO commanders focusing on and perceiving success at the tactical level against a backdrop of an unfavorable operational situation.
- Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: Many of the story's characters previously served in Afghanistan.
- Shoot the Dog: When Seroysha kills the surviving German civilian with the butt of his RPK to avoid being discovered by NATO troops.
- Part of Soviet information warfare campaign is the destruction of the town of Lüneburg. The army commander whose operating sector the town is within doesn't agree with its destruction--neither are the pilots assigned to bomb it.
- Shown Their Work: Peters was one of the few in the West to actually know and not have a stereotyped view of the Soviet military system, compared to other authors.
- Tank Goodness: Both heavily displayed, and somewhat averted:
- Tanks are the main striking force of the Red Army. Particularly true of the Starukhin's army facing the British. Not that it helps him much, anyhow, as the British manage to set up defense line after defense line in rapid succession without becoming completely disorganized, until Bezarin manages flank and rout the remaining elements of the core British armored division and link up with an air assault bridgehead.
- However, it is clear that the Soviet armored vehicles are smaller (and implied to be of worse quality) than the "monstrous, boxy, Western tanks," which often results in lopsided distributions of wreckage post-battle.
- Averted, in that tank battalion commander Bezarin overcomes the qualitative inferiority of his tanks (and salvages his superior's idiotic battle plan) with a bit of improvisation and a deadly precise understanding of how to use terrain in modern warfare, showing that it's not the guns or armor on the tanks that count, but the soldiers commanding them.
- The Deadliest Mushroom: Although no nuclear weapons are ever detonated, Malinsky has plans to use them if he has to. Chillingly, horrifyingly sensible plans.
- Trapped Behind Enemy Lines: Gordunov’s air assault battalion has the duty of securing the Weser-spanning bridges in Hameln, fifty kilometers behind British lines. This is a diversionary assault, purely intended to draw West German and British units away from the main axis of attack. The battalion dies awaiting a linkup with Soviet armor that was never coming in the first place.
- Twenty Minutes Into the Future: The book’s tagline is, ‘A Novel of Tomorrow’s War’.
- Urban Warfare: The Soviets avoid fighting in the cities to prevent losing operational tempo, but one divisional commander of Starukhin’s 3rd Shock Army draws himself into a bloody fight with the mixed West German and British elements trapped in Hannover. Not a pretty sight.
- Combat also breaks out in the many towns. Hamlen in particular turns into a bloody quagmire for both Soviet and British.
- War Is Hell: I defy anyone to read about being trapped in a burning tank and then get all patriotic about enlisting.
- World War Three
- Would Not Shoot a Civilian: Inverted. Leonid accidentally shoots two German civilians when trying to hide in a basement. Played straight by Bezarin, who nearly fires on his own men and threatens his subordinate with an "immediate battlefield court-martial" to get them to stop raping and killing refugees.
- Xanatos Speed Chess: Heavily shown. Essentially the entire Soviet war plan rests not on NATO making giant mistakes, but being too slow in recognizing and reacting to developments at the operational level.
- Results in a horrific, Stalingrad-style siege at Hannover for what is implied to be a large chunk of the Bundeswehr and many unlucky civilians.