By Alexander Wallace
The likes of Tom Clancy and Larry Bond captured a certain American triumphalist zeitgeist that ran throughout the Reagan administration and to a lesser extent the administration of George H. W. Bush. America bestrode the world as a colossus while its rival, the Soviet Union, was a decaying husk of what had suffered Barbarossa and then marched all the way to Berlin. The thriller fiction of the day sang the songs of praise of the American military, portraying it as an invincible thing that would always win the day and keep its honor clean.
In 1989, Ralph Peters, an Army intelligence analyst and novelist, decided to invert the common formula: a novel about another massive conventional war in Europe, told solely from the perspective of America’s adversaries. Indeed, the Americans don’t show up much in the book; NATO is represented mostly by West Germans and Britons. When one reads the novel, one sees men, soldiers, who all, bearing a scarlet star and an ushanka and a rifle at their shoulder, are sent to fight in a cruel war in Low Germany. Peters does his country’s adversaries a great service by showing how each Soviet soldier has all the same dreams and ambitions and fears and desires as his American or Western European counterpart. You have officers and common soldiers and tankers and pilots and political officers who all bring the visceral human experience of war to the page, and they suck you in with their pathos as much as their combat exploits. You see them confronting their role in the history of the Soviet Union and of Russia before it, and you see them confronted with the ruthless moral dilemmas of conflict, and you see them shocked at what they see on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
But what Peters shows you is deftly balanced by what he doesn’t show you. He shuns the gearheady descriptions of military hardware that could easily be called ‘Salgarism,’ to borrow a term from Umberto Eco, which he discusses in his afterword to The Name of the Rose as: "Hence the risk of what I would call Salgarism. When the characters in Emilio Salgari's adventures escape through the forest, pursued by enemies, and stumble over a baobab root, the narrator suspends the action in order to give us a botany lesson on the baobab."
Thus is the all-too-common pitfall of poorly-written thrillers and alternate history with lackluster prose. Peters is content to let a tank be a tank and a helicopter to be a helicopter. He keeps his action paced briskly and never lets small details get in the way of the Guernicas he paints for you.
Something must also be said about the cause of the war he gives you: none. The information you receive through his characters is only the information they would logically know, given the sprawling nature of military bureaucracy and the fog of war overcast above all of them. It is a book about people, not conference room bickerings or grand strategy or the logistics that professionals of war discuss ad infinitum. Peters understands that war is a human thing, and one point he seeks to prove in Red Army is that the men who served the Hammer and Sickle are human just as much as those who served the Stars and Stripes.
Peters admits in the afterword he very much had a point to make about American military doctrine in Europe; this comes out the most in his treatment of the West Germans. Fortunately, the grand strategizing is not the main focus, and there are only so many war room scenes, all of which are character-rich. He never uses the novel as a grindstone for the axe of ideology.
Ultimately, Red Army is a lesson in the humanity of your enemies. He goes against a strain of American conservative thought that reduces those living under Communist regimes to mere automata. In the context of its era, it is a very daring book, and it deserves high praise for being radical in the best way. In terms of its characters and how it matters its subject matter, it has a lot to teach alternate history writers, for whom Salgarism is oftentimes a major sin. It is a book that knows how to use words and to use them very economically. For that, he ought to be among the ranks of that ‘honorary alternate history’ all in our community should read.