The Liberty Corps, by Mark K. Roberts
September, 1987 Popular Library
Mark Roberts really appears to have invested himself in this book, which initiated a six-volume series. Judging from this mammoth-sized first volume (313 pages of small print), The Liberty Corps might have been Roberts’s attempt at fashioning more of a “regular” or at least military style thriller than the men’s adventure pulp he’d been writing for the past several years.
The book opens with much fanfare, Roberts thanking a host of people for their help in the research and even the actual writing of the novel. It looks like big things were hoped for The Liberty Corps, but only five more volumes were to follow (unbelievably, the covert art only proceeded to get even more homoerotic), so I’d wager the series failed to catch a readership. If this first volume is any indication, that might be because The Liberty Corps is a bit too concerned with how to start up an army, at the expense of the action itself – which is what readers of this genre want in the first place.
The novel really is military fiction, having little in common with Roberts’s earlier work on The Penetrator. This I guess is a natural progression on Roberts’s part, given that his work on Soldier For Hire also veered into the military fiction arena when it came to the action scenes. Eschewing the “lone wolf” aspect of The Penetrator, Soldier For Hire would have “fire teams” engaging in smallscale warfare, even employing artillery and etc, yet it at least still felt like a men’s adventure series. With Liberty Corps, Roberts has moved even beyond the basic men’s adventure feel, so my assumption is he was trying to branch out into a new thing, something perhaps with more of a mainstream appeal.
The titular Liberty Corps is the pet dream of President Dalton Hunter, a ‘Nam Special Forces vet who envisions an “American Foreign Legion” patterned after the famous French Legion. Hunter, who enjoys majority rule of Congress, has pushed through his idea after much opposition-party pushback. Folks, believe it or not…President Hunter is a Democrat!! Indeed it’s the minority party Republicans who fight his army pet project tooth and nail. For one, given the usual “Republicans are warmongers” cliché, I figured Hunter would be a Republican president looking to start up his private army, with the Democrats being the party in opposition. But more importantly, we know from other Roberts books, like his Soldier For Hire novels, that Roberts was an unabashed hater of the Left.
This means that the goofy Right-wing jingoism of those Soldier For Hire books is gone, with the Democrats now the “good guys,” at least so far as being the ones pushing for the Liberty Corps. But whereas Roberts lays off on the Democrat-bashing of that earlier series, he does still set his sights on the friggin’ liberal media, in particular noting how the press is infiltrated by Commie agents, even inferring that Dan Rather is chief among them. The media’s oft-stated goal is to undermine the president and to provoke distrust of him, and Roberts will subtly have Russian intelligence agents coming up with a new angle of attack…and then Dan Rather or some other reporter will repeat their exact words in news broadcasts. But again this kinda seemed off to me. I mean, who ever heard of a press that was hostile to a Democrat president??
Plotting against Hunter is a KGB force led by a chief saboteur named Arkady, who is legendary in the biz and has movie-star good looks. Roberts appears to set Arkady up as the recurring series villain, as he lives through this first volume to plot another day. Throughout the book he dissiminates “news” to his vassals in the media, tries to sabotage practically every move Hunter makes in the creation of the Legion, and most importantly sends out the occasional hit team to rub out newly-appointed Legion officers.
This first hit leads to one of the first “action scenes” in the novel, a brief sequence which has a bearish ‘Nam vet general named Gator, just appointed by Hunter to command the Legion, taken out by a squad of KGB assassins in a subway. That Gator was given elaborate background and setup and etc is just the first indication the reader gets that The Liberty Corps will be much heavier on character and plot-building than other men’s adventure novels. Indeed the entire novel is overstuffed with characters, all of whom compete for top dog status. Here are just a few of them:
Colonel Lew Cutler: young Army officer who is booted into the “dead-end” assignment of the Legion because he’s been sleeping with the wrong general’s wife; he’s assigned to be the regular Army liason, and he’s the closest thing we get to a “main protagonist.”
Norman Wade Standie: an alchie, Cherokhee ‘Nam vet who is suffering depression after the death of his wife; he joins the Legion after the murder of General Gator, with whom he was pals in ‘Nam, and given the fact that he was a commander in the war Stadie eventually becomes the commander of the Legion.
Chuck Taylor: firearms expert; I got the impression he was based on Jerry Ahern.
“Arizona Jim” Levine: a city slicker would-be cowboy who proclaims at the recruting office “I’ve read the Executioner books, The Penetrator, Soldier For Hire.”
Patrick Andrews: Special Forces vet whose name is another in-joke, as Patrick Andrews was the main author of The Black Eagles, a series which Roberts wrote the first volume of.
Jacob Martin: snowflake reporter given the assignment to join the Legion under a fake name to get more anti-Legion dirt for the press; “vehemently opposed” to the army and violence, but is eventually won over by the gung-ho camaraderie of fightin’ men.
In addition we have a battery of other characters, from one guy who joins the Legion to escape the Mafia, to a former IRA terrorist named Liam who gets in drunken fight with Cutler in bar and becomes his BFF. All of these characters (and more!) have their own running subplots and sequences in which Roberts hops into their perspectives, so in this way the book really does have the feel of a war novel. Oh, and the novel features an unexpected usage of the dreaded “N-word,” something I thought would be verbotten by 1987 – and it’s spoken by a black Legion soldier, one who humorously enough has not previously been mentioned, and in fact only shows up in a single paragraph so he can say this particular word and then is never mentioned again!
The first 200+ pages of small, dense print are mostly dedicated to how one would go about setting up an army, along with how to train its soldiers. If this is something that would interest you, you’re in luck. Otherwise we must read about orders for weapons and uniforms and the struggles suppliers must endure when working with a limited budget. Ordering (and designing!) uniforms, getting aircraft, tanks, etc. There’s this interminable subplot about the endless struggles they encounter in getting “CETME submachine guns;” it goes on and on, how they’re such great guns but so expensive and near impossible to get what with all the budgetary limits placed on the Legion, to the point where I was about ready to start up a fundraising drive in my office.
As for the uniforms – despite the “loud and proud” cover art, the Legion soldiers do not go into battle shirtless and wearing berets. Their parade uniforms, designed by General Standie, do include gold berets, but the parade uniform itself is a toga-meets-kilt affair…in other words, “skirts,” as the men call them. Battle dress is leftover “Aggressors” stock from the 1950s, ie the “woolen green” uniforms the aggressor army would wear during war games. The Legion you see is forever being supplied with leftover stock and assorted hand-me-downs; this is another interminable subplot. For example, the Legion’s chief infantry weapon is the M-1 Garand, long outdated but beloved by Standie and others of his generation.
Action is infrequent in these first 200+ pages. One moment that harkens a bit back to the old men’s adventure vibe is when Cutler is attacked by a KGB hit team on the streets of Washington. A later, better sequence has Cutler and a small group of men pull a vengeance ambush on the island fortress of Arkady. But for the most part Roberts saves all the fireworks for the last quarter of the book; the action doesn’t truly begin until page 256, which is when the Legion goes into its first mission. A South African country called Zalambia is in the midst of a revolution, with Communist forces threatening to take over. President Hunter monitors the situation, and decides to send in the Legion when Cuban troops set up shop in Zalambia and begin running the show.
But as mentioned, this action sequence is really military fiction. We hopscotch among the huge cast of characters as infantry teams fight it out, fighter planes dogfight, and tanks blow shit up real good. There’s none of the immediacy of men’s adventure action – or at least that’s how I see it. Rather, the personal touch is lost and it’s more about hordes of men fighting and killing each other. Again, the focus of The Liberty Corps is full-on army battles, not the smallscale action of average men’s adventure novels. And also, most of the action is relayed via dialog, with various units radioing back to HQ about their progress and whatnot.
Another thing missing is the sex. Lacking the outrageous sleaze of Soldier For Hire, this one goes more so for dirty talk and the occasional mention of past sexploits. There’s even a part where the Legion hires a veritable army of hookers to “alleviate” the frustrations of the 6,000 soldiers on Corsair Cay (Arkady hires a hooker for the event, one who just happens to be a Commie secret agent!), and it too only barely dabbles in the sleaze. Only in a part where Cutler gets friendly with his latest babe does Roberts return a bit to that Soldier For Hire fun stuff:
Kristen mewed like a contented, belly-rubbed kitten when Lew penetrated her sensitive portals and slid commandingly into her eager passage. Past, present, and future merged in a jumble of sensations, each more delicious than the ones before, until little hiccups of exploding passion sent them into oblivion.
But the helluva it is, at 313 pages you’d think The Liberty Corps would at least be memorable. Rather, at least for me, it was almost a blur of a read – a blur of easily-confused characters and way too much technical detailing on how one supplies an army. Roberts clearly tried for something big, but in the end overlooked that which made his earlier pulp efforts so much more enjoyable – a central character with a central objective. I’d rather read ten volumes of The Penetrator than just one more Liberty Corps, and that might be a good indication of why that earlier series ran for over 50 volumes and this one ran for only 5 more.
Finally, this novel has one of the most hilariously stupid lines ever:
Silence held while the clock ticked noisily.