Thursday, January 29, 2015
The Black Eagles #14: Firestorm At Dong Nam
The Black Eagles #14: Firestorm At Dong Nam, by John Lansing
February, 1988 Zebra Books
After reading the first volume, which was courtesy Mark Roberts (and the only volume of the series he wrote), I didn’t really consider another installment of the Black Eagles series. But when I came across a pristine-condition copy of this 14th volume for half off the cover price, I couldn’t pass it up.
The copyright page acknowledges a Patrick E. Andrews, who supposedly was the author who wrote the majority of the series, which was edited by William Fieldhouse. I don’t know anything about Andrews, what or any other series he might have worked on, but so far as Firestorm At Dong Nam goes, he has a very breezy and readable style, which plunges you facefirst into the bloody hell of ‘Nam.
Don’t get me wrong, the novel’s no The Short-Timers. I mean, just look at the cover! As I mentioned in my review of the first volume, the Black Eagles series was graced with some of the greatest covers ever; each and every one of them could’ve been like the cover of a Megadeth or Metallica single. But beyond that, this book doesn’t delve into the “war is hell” angle mandatory of “real” Vietnam fiction; the novel’s as mired in realism as the average David Alexander book.
Like every other Zebra publication, Firestorm At Dong Nam is too long – 256 whopping pages. But boy it’s got some big ‘ol print, and Andrews’s style is so breezy that I read the book in record time. Little concern that I’d missed 12 volumes since readng Roberts’s initial installment; while this one makes the occasional reference to previous missions, there’s really no heavy continuity. But even if you’re still worried you missed something, Andrews helpfully shoehorns aout 20 pages of background into the first quarter of the book, an entire chapter which, believe it or not, synopsizes every previous volume of the series!
Anyway, there have been some heavy changes to the series regulars, with apparently lots of redshirts dying in the interim. That appears to have been a schtick of this series, killing off “regulars” at regular intervals, but my friends, these characters are such ciphers that you don’t even realize they’re alive. Honestly, eight of the seventeen Black Eagles die in the events of Firestorm At Nong Dam, and only maybe one or two of those deaths even register with you. And of course, each of them are dudes who just showed up in the previous volume or such.
But the series regulars are still here – Lt. Colonel Robert Falconi, strong-jawed leader of the squad, and Malpractice, the medic. Andrea Thuy is also still afoot, though much less psychotic than she was in Roberts’s hands. In fact Andrea has been removed from the squad; in an underexplained development we learn that she was removed from active duty by the squad’s CIA rep, Chuck Fagin, due to her “love affair” with Falconi. Andrea’s still around, but now she works as Fagin’s admin assistant…and rushes off to screw Falconi whenever he’s off duty.
To clarify though, Andrews unlike Roberts doesn’t provide a single damn sex scene. He’s more in the Fieldhouse realm of men’s adventure writing, more so into the guns and action side of things, and less so about the lurid or sleaze element. Anyway, Archie Dobbs is also still around – apparently the jokester of the squad, and busted down to private for going AWOL in a previous volume. Oh, and Malpractice has married a Vietnamese girl named Xinh, whom he insists upon calling “Jean” in a total disregard for cultural sensitivities.
Anyway, the plot of this 14th volume concerns Lt. Colonel Gregori Kraschenko, leader of the newly-organized Red Berets, the “cream of the Iron Curtain’s elite forces.” Kraschenko, a monster of a man, has whittled 100 recruits down to just 30 men due to rigorous training; the novel opens with the further whittling down to 17 total, including the Lt. Colonel. Sewing a patch emblazoned with a red bear onto their jungle camo, the Red Berets head to ‘Nam to take on the Black Eagles.
Kraschenko apparently was the KGB liason with the NVA forces in previous volumes, and thus is familiar with Falconi and team, but Andrews doesn’t make it clear if the dude actually appeared in those previous volumes. We do get the clarification that he and Falconi have never met, and even Falconi has never heard of Kraschenko. But at any rate, the KGB commando has a burnin’ yearnin’ to kill Falconi, and thus through his intelligence contacts issues a challenge.
This is where you know you’re reading pulp – CIA goon Fagin informs Falconi that the Red Berets have challenged the Black Eagles to a battle to the death in a neutral zone. No backup, no heavy weaponry, just whatever they can carry in on their backs. And if the Black Eagles refuse, the US will be badmouthed in intelligence circles! It all sounds ridiculous of course, but Brigadier General Taggart, who has the final say in what the Black Eagles do or don’t do, demands that they accept the challenge.
Falconi makes it clear that it’s a volunteer mission, but of course the rest of the squad is all for it. Andrea Thuy fights back tears as the men all leave to go fight their secret little battle, and you wish she’d go along, as she was by far the most memorable character in the first volume. But as mentioned Andrews is in the Fieldhouse/Gold Eagle realm, and this is a man’s world; women can’t take part in it. We do though get the occasional page-filler sequence where Andrews cuts back to Andrea and “Jean” as they worry over their men out in the field, as well as Archie’s white trash nurse of a girlfriend.
Another thing to mention about Firestorm At Dong Nam is that there isn’t much action, until past the halfway point. There are no opening firefights or anything; it’s all just plot development, incidental dialog, and previous-volume catchup. The sparks don’t fly until the two squads parachute into the neutral zone in which they’ll wage their war. But even here Andrews fails to give us the OTT blitz we’d want, by throwing a group of Vietnamese refuges into the mix; soon enough, Falconi’s team is saddled with protecting them.
By prior arrangement this zone was supposed to be free of any natives, yet the refugees of course are unaware of such pacts; they’re just trying to escape the battleground that has become of their previous village. The Red Berets make short work of them, blowing away all of the men and going for the women. While scouting the jungle Archie Dobbs and a squad come across the fleeing women, and after a quick firefight with the Soviets they head back to the Black Eagles camp.
Here Falconi remains for the duration, playing mother hen to the natives. He sends out small teams to take on the Red Berets, which leads to several action scenes which are written like military fiction. It’s not that they’re bad, just that they lack emotional content, to quote Bruce Lee. It’s all sort of rendered in summary, relaying the tactics of the various “fire teams” as they shoot at each other in the jungle. And as mentioned while plenty of characters die, even the deaths are quickly rendered, which further undercuts the emotional impact.
The “biggest” team death would probably be Doc Robicheaux, another squad medic, and who apparently joined up a few volumes ago. This death appears to affect the team the most. (Speaking of which, Chen and Park, two characters I seem to recall from the first volume, were killed off a long time ago.) As for the Red Berets, the only character we spend much time with, other than the leader, is a cossack named Ali Khail, whom Archie Dobbs is determined to kill in vengeance.
All of the action is saved for the second half of the novel, and it goes on and on, with periodic cutovers to the three gals back home. It appears Andrews has worked a soap opera aesthetic into his storyline, in particular with Archie and his white trash girlfriend, but so far as this volume goes, nothing much happens on that front. It’s more about Falconi trying to get the refugees to safety while the Red Berets chase after them. And for that matter, the Soviets basically win for the first half of the battle, until Rocky style the Eagles come back and win the day through superior strategy.
Andrews also stays true to the military fiction style with aiming for “realism” for the most part, with no big “action moments” or anything. The Eagles basically just kneel in the foliage and blow away whatever Red Berets they can with their M-16s. Luckily Kraschenko’s send-off is played out a little, with the Red Beret leader being the last survivor of his squad, pleading for his life, and then trying to outfox Falconi, only to suffer for it as expected.
The novel ends with the Eagles flying back into camp and the three gals shedding tears that their men, at least, have survived. Falconi doubtlessly went about refilling the empty slots, but he didn’t have to go all out; the next volume was to be the last. If I see it someday I’ll grab it, but it’s not high on my list. But if you ever see a copy of The Black Eagles for half off the cover price at a used bookstore, you’d really have nothing to lose by picking it up.