Red Phoenix by Larry Bond and Patrick Larkin
Many moons ago, when the world was younger and more naive, there was a vogue for disaster movies. The format is routine and predictable. The first part of the film is a gentle introduction to the cast of those who will be “at risk” when the catastrophe hits. In most of the scenarios, we get a cross-section of humanity from the families with cute kids or difficult teens, to the random mixture of single adults (some of whom will bond during the catastrophe), and a littering of grizzled oldsters who must be around to offer sage advice, to offer words of encouragement, and to die and provoke floods of emotion from their usually estranged children. Then the disaster hits and we watch all the character arcs play out in their life and death consequences. Looking back to the first publication of Red Phoenix by Larry Bond and Patrick Larkin (now available as an ebook in a Kindle edition) in 1990, we see exactly the same plotting strategy. We have everyone relevant introduced in the first section of the book then, as they say, all Hell breaks loose.
We have to see this against the actual history of the political situations in both North and South Korea. The Republic south of the border has been through multiple incarnations with variations on the theme of an unruly population led by the students and unions, authoritarian rulership from a political elite, and a military trying to maintain some normality but feeling obliged to intervene when the politicians were making too big a mess. This book is probably set during the Sixth Republic which began in 1987 and it runs a scenario in which the North provokes more civil disorder in the South to destabilise the new Government, the US Government gets railroaded into a bad decision on Korean sanctions, and the Department of Defence and other interested parties try to recover the political situation. Exploiting this period of confusion, the North prepares to launch a secretly planned invasion. This is based on tunnels which will allow troops to cross under the DMZ with their armoured and support vehicles, with an air force recently reinforced with newer Russian aircraft offering air cover.
So we watch the fictional Sixth Republic Government overreact to student protests and, with votes in protectionism, the US politicians put in the fix to use the threat of sanctions to force the Republic to reform and become more democratic. Meanwhile, we catch up with a platoon of soldiers on the front line and watch US pilots in training. North of the border, key troops are slowly being moved into place as supplies of fuel and materiel are prepared. To avoid detection, these preparations are spread over weeks and months. Everything is slowly building to the obvious launch of the invasion as the US military stalls the withdrawal apparently mandated by the Act steamrollered through Congress and the House. A faction in the South’s military tries to stage a coup but key troop movements are spotted by the Americans and the rebellion fails. Again the South’s Government overreacts by purging all the officers whose loyalty is doubted. This leaves everything ready for the North’s launch of the attack over Christmas when the American forces are least likely to be able to respond quickly. To add a little chaos into the mix, commando units from the North infiltrate and kill many before being picked off. This sets American and South Korean forces back, as was intended, but a setback is not military defeat. The defenders begin to pick up the pieces as Russia and China decide how to react.
The stock characters are the rookie lieutenant getting his first combat experience and the seasoned pilot who has the cruise ship intense romantic experience under fire with an American civilian logistics officer, newly arrived in Korea. Of the land, air and sea theatres of war, I found sea the most interesting because what happens in international waters is more politically uncertain. This is not to disparage the land or air combat descriptions. They are also taut and exciting. But the naval engagements are much more finely balanced as a convoy moves reinforcements from Japan or a battle group moves north, and the Russians try to rebalance the North’s defensive capabilities. Overall, the prose is Spartan in style with short, punchy paragraphs wasting no time in pushing the action forward. It’s very efficient. As to the balance of the book, I understand why the primary focus of the book is American. Obviously, the two writers must spend their time showing how well their national forces react under pressure. The appeal to jingoistic military fiction readers must necessarily pander to their prejudices if sales to to be maximised. As an outsider, I would have preferred more insight into the debates in Russia and China. Although China is always somewhat opaque and so difficult to predict, I’m not so sure their wait-and-see posture is wholly credible. The Russian response is more interesting, but not put into a proper geopolitical context. The Japanese get no mention despite the non-aggression status imposed on them by the Americans, a burden which has been a considerable political difficulty for the US forces with bases in Japan.
So Red Phoenix is an exciting read with plenty of action to satisfy the military fiction fans. The North Koreans remain as incomprehensible as ever albeit with the predictable paranoia, while the US political scene gets a brief examination under pressure. The elliptical style travels well through time, reading as well today as it would have done twenty years ago so I can unhesitating recommend this little piece of historical military fiction as we wait to see how all sides come out of the “disaster” scenes in the various theatres of war.
For a review of another book by Larry Bond, see
Red Dragon Rising: Blood of War (with Jim DeFelice).
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.