Monday, 31 August 2015

Crusaders and Tigersharks

At some point in my impressionable youth I came across Barrett Tillman's On Yankee Station, a simultaneously accessible and authoritative account of US naval aviation during the Vietnam War. Following on from that I read his MiG Master, a study of the Vought F-8 Crusader, an undeservedly forgotten carrier aircraft, and enjoyed it too. I reacquainted myself with both in my 1990s flirtation with academia but otherwise Tillman ended up filed in the recesses of my mind, probably resurfaceable with a bit of context, but otherwise one for the past.

Sparked a little bit by Singer and Cole's Ghost Fleet, I've nosed around such things as Command: Modern air and Naval Operations, musing that perhaps as a non existent summer segues into autumn maybe some time spent in front of a PC recreating sundry old Harpoon like scenarios might be mildly diverting. Connected with that a dig through their archive surfaced a mention of a Barrett Tillman work of fiction, Warriors

Long out of print, Warriors is still relatively easy to track down for not very much, and it's worth a look. Techno thrillers suffered with the end of the Cold War, and the story arc of Warriors was rapidly overtaken in period by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and Desert Storm ushering in the short 21st Century, but the passage of time serves to unearth some of the inherent value to narratives like this. 

Positing a scenario whereby in 1990 Saudi Arabia takes an unorthodox approach creating a parallel air force trained by Western pilots and equipped with the in real life stillborn Northrop F-20 Tigershark and becomes enmeshed in a sprawling recapitulation of the Yom Kippur war Warriors is unusual (very much so for its time) in taking an ambivalent view towards the role of Israel in the Middle East. It's a stance which did not make the novel popular in some quarters at its time of release, but viewed from a perspective 25 years after its publication you can see its point.

Warriors is capable of surprising; where initially it feels like a typical late Cold War military thriller with female characters spatchcocked in as an afterthought, the plot is more well rounded and nuanced than first impression suggest. It's unflinching in its approach to mortality, and much in the vein of Bob Forrest-Webb's Chieftains is not a novel which rewards those who become attached to core figures.

The description of an evolving Middle East and a pan-Arab consensus against Israel rings hollow in an era of Islam's great war of religion and the rise of Islamic State, but the notion of a fragile Saudi monarchy, an interventionist Iran moving beyond the shadow of Khomeini, and a Russia increasingly enmeshed in shaping the region, does indicate that maybe there are aspects we can still learn from, despite the manifest changes the world has seen.

Do we now read 1980s works of this manner in the same way we read pre WW1 war scare fiction? I don't think we do - and if we're being realistic in the same way as the literature of the early 20th century had its ups and downs there's a lot of fairly forgettable material that rode in on the wake of Clancy and his peers. Warriors is not high literature, but when dealing what Tillman knows best it's well written, thought provoking, and keeps you interested throughout.

Worth the investment, and more than that, worth reminding me that Barrett Tillman has written some fine books about aviation.

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