Thursday, 9 September 2010

Watch on the Rhine - Tom Kratman

Watch on the Rhine (Posleen War)
Tom Kratman, John Ringo

A few months ago, I was trapped on a train for several hours (owing to REALLY bad weather on the line.) Having run out of my own books to read, I was lucky enough to be sitting next to a Star Trek fan who loaned me his copies of Star Trek: Destiny, a three-book novel that brought together heroes from many Star Trek franchises. I have never been much of a Star Trek fan, but they featured the Borg and so I read them. The Borg have finally launched an all-out invasion of Federation space and billions of humans and humanoids are being slaughtered mercilessly.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with WOTR? The answer is quite simple; towards the end of the third book in the series, Captain Picard approaches the blind engineer (whose name I have forgotten and I can't be bothered looking up) and orders him to build a superweapon to use against the Borg. The blind engineer refuses on moral grounds and declares his willingness to go to the brig rather than build the hellish weapon. And my reaction, basically, was WTF?

Let’s put this in perspective. The Borg are the single most dangerous race in the entire Star Trek universe. Their ships are effectively invincible. One Cube chopped its way through an entire Federation fleet; another did the same, and then tried to rewrite time so humanity would no longer exist. They assimilate anyone they come across and (unless you have a patriotic scriptwriter) this isn’t just death, but permanent slavery as part of the hive mind. Defeat means the end of the world. Against such an enemy, there is no such thing as an immoral weapon. Picard should have thrown his idiot of a chief engineer out of an airlock, instead of forgiving him, which he does in an emotional scene at the end.

Watch on the Rhine is a spin-off of John Ringo’s famous Posleen War series, in which the Earth (around 2001) is contacted by the Galactic Federation. The Federation warns that Earth is in the path of a rampaging race of alien centaurs who will kill us, eat us and turn our world into yet another spawning ground for the Posleen. Owing to the nature of the Posleen, the war against them will be fought out on the ground (rather than having them throwing rocks at us until we submit) and every country on Earth starts building up a massive army. As of the opening pages of WOTR, Ringo’s Gust Front has concluded, with Washington lying in ruins after the first Posleen landings.

Unfortunately for the Chancellor of Germany, there aren’t actually that many veterans of Germany’s wars left alive. (One of the Federation’s gifts to Earth is rejuvenation technology, which can literally turn an old man into a teenage kid, complete with overcharged hormones.) Facing the certainty of an invasion that will devastate Germany, he makes the very brave (and very politically incorrect) decision to rejuvenate the surviving SS soldiers. Yes, you read that right; the SS. Hitler’s Black Knights. The Order of the Death’s Head. Naturally, this decision provokes massive resistance among the liberal side of Germany, some of whom are in the pay of one of the Galactic Federation races.

I must admit that when I first heard of this idea, I wasn't intending to read the book. The SS are a repulsive historical nightmare, a warning of just how low the human race can sink. Yes, there is no doubting that the SS fought bravely and very well, but they also carried out the orders of some of the worst mass-murderers in human history. The only modern army that comes close to the level of atrocities they committed was the Japanese Army of the same era. Even the Red Army’s horrific march through Germany in 1945 doesn’t come close. The second objection is more practical, than moral; in the words of Basil Faulty, who won the damn war anyway? The SS didn’t win the war for Germany. That may have been because Hitler literally bit off much more than he could chew. Yet, at the same time, Germany didn’t lose the war in spite of the SS, but because of it. The atrocities they visited on their victims were repaid upon Germany itself.

But I had enjoyed reading Tom Kratman’s first book and I decided to give Watch on the Rhine a try. I must admit that I enjoyed it more than I expected.

The book can be effectively divided up into two sections; the prelude to war and the war itself. Tom takes us from the early meeting between the Chancellor and the senior surviving SS officer, to the political manoeuvrings and outright treachery carried out by the Left in hopes of stopping the SS. Sometimes this has its amusing moments. Sometimes this descends into farce.

"Were this true," said the chancellor, mildly, "then equally guilty would be Heinz Guderian, Erich Manstein, Erwin Rommel, or Gerd von Rundstedt. They actually did the higher level planning for that war. The people I propose to bring back were low-level players indeed compared to those famous and admired German soldiers."

"They murdered prisoners!" shrieked another legislator.

"In that war everyone murdered prisoners."

Well yes, in that war everyone did murder prisoners, but how many murdered six million people while following a nutty racial theory? Further, none of the Field Marshals the Chancellor mentions were SS.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that Tom was writing after 9/11. It is hard to see how that fits into the Posleen Universe, not least because 9/11 hadn’t taken place by the time John wrote the first two books in the series. Furthermore, WOTR takes place after the Posleen have torn Washington to shreds and made their presence indisputably known to the world. The level of denial is unbelievable. There might be a few nuts who don’t believe in the Posleen, but after Washington it would be impossible to convince the world that they don’t exist. Europe is painted as a completely insular society. The Posleen War is nothing like the Iraq War, yet the politics are the same. It makes little sense. WOTR Germany doesn’t feel like a society at war.

The book picks up rapidly as the first wave of invaders land in Germany. The German Army and the SS go into action against the invaders, hobbled by manipulations by the Federation – which secretly fears what humanity will do after the war. Tom’s military skill shows itself as the Germans contain and then drive back the Posleen. The harsh discipline of the SS comes to the fore as they deal with lines that were demoralised and broke. The traitors get swept up and jailed, while Germany goes onto a full war footing. The SS – now including French, Polish and Jewish units – makes a final stand as thousands of Germans flee to Norway and the redoubts prepared there.

Where Tom shines lies in the training and war-fighting experience of the young Germans who find themselves called to battle the alien enemy. Tom is an expert at training young soldiers (a theme he returns to in A Desert Called Peace) and the training sequences read out realistically. Once the war actually starts, Tom does an excellent job of portraying the fighting, although there are some odd points. The Posleen seem considerably more intelligent than Ringo depicts them in the original series, more than willing to comment on the absurdities of human nature and use our own weaknesses – such as human shields – against us. Human shields are a favoured tactic of the barbarians we fight these days, but I doubt that the Posleen could conceive of the tactic, let alone use it.

The portrayal of the SS does strike me as a slightly skewed, even though that may be because of my preconceptions and historical knowledge getting in the way. To the best of my knowledge, the SS never told Hitler and his goons to fuck off; in fact, the SS enforced Hitler’s increasingly foolish orders and certainly had a hand in prolonging the war. The assertion that the SS would have – eventually – had a Jewish formation within its ranks is almost certainly absurd. If there were any Jews serving within the SS, they were never identified as Jews. Furthermore, while the SS was good at incorporating non-Germans into their ranks, those units didn’t always perform very well. On the other hand, Tom is quite right to state that many in the SS – the early SS, at least – regarded Himmler’s devotion to racial purity and propagating the Aryan race as stupid.

(That said, even those who loathe WOTR for its politics have admitted to enjoying the battles.)

And yet, while the book is an enjoyable read, its political message is diluted by its own premise. The threat is overwhelmingly powerful; defeat means extermination. There are no rational grounds for opposing anything to help defeat the Posleen…

Yet are the SS the answer? As I said above, the Germans lost the war…and they lost it, in large part, because of the SS. The SS Himmler and his men created could not be separated from their nutty beliefs in racial destiny and the atrocities they carried out helped destroy Germany’s chance of winning the war. What if, one might ask, if the Germans had treated the Russians decently in 1941? Even as a tactical manoeuvre, with every intention of revenging on it after the war, it would have changed history.

WOTR is exciting, thought-provoking and provocative.


  1. Couple of points, Chris. I am certain I've told you this before and you seem to have a hard time with it - if the scenario and actions sound reminiscent of the current war, that's because you missed most or all of the cold war. That's the real inspiration. And I see little moral or practical difference between German Greens supporting the environmentally disastrous Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, then, and other Greens / watermelons supporting an enemy, now. And the level of denial there was at least within an order of magnitude of the level of denail here.

    Secondly, what bloody difference does it make who won the war then? Germany doesn't have access to the veterans of the Red Army, the British Army, or the US Army, all of whom have their own problems. Germany has to use what _Germany_ has to use. That includes old _German_, not American, Brit, or Russki, veterans, and that includes the Waffen SS.

    The case that Germany lost WW II _because_ of the SS - as opposed to, say, getting in a war with an alliance with 6 or 7 times the population, _excluding_ the non-white British Empire, and 10 or 15 times the GDP - is a fascinating conjecture. Make that case.

    As for telling Himmler to fuck off, do a search for Leibstandarte, medals, and chamberpots, or check into the Waffen SS higher commanders general ignoring of Himmler's orders to use SS rather than Army rank. Similarly, note that when Hitler gave standfast orders, Hausser, Dietrich, and, IIRC, Steiner all simply ignored them. That's pretty close to "fuck off," no?

  2. You’re right – I was born in 1982 - the year of the Falklands War – and by the time I was politically aware the Cold War was over. I only know it through history books and the word of people like yourself. That said...

    In WOTR, the Posleen have already devastated Washington and made their presence very clear. The idea of denying their existence is absurd; we’re not talking about the Russian concealment of Stalin’s crimes or the endless barrage of propaganda from the USSR about the glories of living in the worker’s paradise and how everything would be fine if the US would just vanish into the ash heap of history. The Posleen are not even trying to convince people to join them, or allow them to occupy Earth, or playing to the media. There is a considerable difference between a race of thugs and a politically-savvy enemy like the USSR. Tom made this point quite nicely in ADCP; the Western useful idiots saw the evil of the west, were not allowed to see the evils of the east and concluded that the West was eviler. The Posleen are not even trying to conceal what they are.

    And even then, just who surrendered to the communists? Western Europe did not go communist, NATO didn’t fall apart and the USSR was the one that vanished. And good riddance.

    I quite agree with you that there is little moral difference between the Nazis and the Communists. I would go further; they’re effectively the same.

    The Germans lost WW2, as I said, partly because of the SS. What would have happened, I wonder, if the Nazis had been willing to accept large numbers of anti-Stalin Russians into their ranks? At the very least, there would have been no partisan problem. (Or a much-reduced one). The Germans had other problems, starting with major leadership problems – Hitler overplayed the hand he was dealt quite badly. I respectfully submit that saying ‘fuck off’ to Hitler and co should have included disposing of Hitler’s government in 1943 and suing for peace. Minor acts of disobedience are nothing compared to what the Germans needed to leave the war without their country being crushed underfoot by advancing and vegenful allied troops.


  3. Chris, there is no bottom limit to how far a Euro leftist will go to deny reality if that reality offends his theory, his world view, his philosophy, or is simply inconvenient. Today moslem women in burqas lead much longer lines of children than almost any Euro woman can boast, and yet the Euro left denies that you're sliding into that long demographic and cultural goodnight. Hitler made no secret of his ambitions, yet the Euro left ignored them. Sarte couldn't see the difference between Third Reich and Third Republic, said so, and was lionized by the left. People came over the wall on and almost daily basis, which the media covered for decades, and yet the Euro left never ceased to deny the reality of life under tyranny behind the Iron Curtain. In short, no, there is nothing inconvenient they will not deny or ignore or, best of all, blame on America. Clearly it was our fault that the Posleen attacked. We provoked them by sending troops to Barwhon and Diess, after all.

    There really was no practical difference in atrocities between SS and Heer, in the east. So pinning the partisans on the SS is a little bit of a stretch. As for the atrocities causing the alliance against Germany to exist, if that's what you're implying, no, we didn't find out about the big things until they'd nearly lost the war, anyway.

  4. To the best of my knowledge, no euro leftist ever denied that 9/11 (a far smaller attack) actually took place. Pretending that the Posleen don't exist would require a sheer level of willful ignorance that is beyond belief. AHBB and GF made it clear that Franco-German forces fought the Posleen prior to the first wave of landings on Earth. Even if one blamed it on America - which requires a whole different round of sheer bloody stupidity - it would still be hard to deny that America had not been the only place attacked; IIRC, Iran and Vietnam was also attacked.

    I'm not saying that Tom's point is a bad one. It is a very good point when applied to our world. It just makes little sense when applied to the Posleen War.


    PS - there are other reviews of Tom's works on this site.

  5. Indeed? How many have denied that it was an Islamic attack and claimed the ever so evil W was behind it?

    The scale of the lie will go up, Chris, in proportion to the degree they feel their world view threatened.

  6. And, just for enlightenment's sake, read the following from Orwell:

    I list below five types of nationalist, and against each I append a fact which it is impossible for that type of nationalist to accept, even in his secret thoughts:

    BRITISH TORY: Britain will come out of this war with reduced power and prestige.

    COMMUNIST: If she had not been aided by Britain and America, Russia would have been defeated by Germany.

    IRISH NATIONALIST: Eire can only remain independent because of British protection.

    TROTSKYIST: The Stalin regime is accepted by the Russian masses.

    PACIFIST: Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.

    All of these facts are grossly obvious if one's emotions do not happen to be involved: but to the kind of person named in each case they are also intolerable, and so they have to be denied, and false theories constructed upon their denial. I come back to the astonishing failure of military prediction in the present war. It is, I think, true to say that the intelligentsia have been more wrong about the progress of the war than the common people, and that they were more swayed by partisan feelings. The average intellectual of the Left believed, for instance, that the war was lost in 1940, that the Germans were bound to overrun Egypt in 1942, that the Japanese would never be driven out of the lands they had conquered, and that the Anglo-American bombing offensive was making no impression on Germany. He could believe these things because his hatred for the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind. I have heard it confidently stated, for instance, that the American troops had been brought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution. One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool. When Hitler invaded Russia, the officials of the MOI issued ‘as background’ a warning that Russia might be expected to collapse in six weeks. On the other hand the Communists regarded every phase of the war as a Russian victory, even when the Russians were driven back almost to the Caspian Sea and had lost several million prisoners. There is no need to multiply instances. The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged. And, as I have pointed out already, the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also. There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified — still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function.

  7. There is something of a difference, although not much, between claiming that the attacks were part of a massive conspiracy led by GWB – though such talk was very limited, even in Europe – and that the attacks never happened. That would have been insane talk on the same level as claiming that the lunar landings never took place, or that the Earth is actually flat, or that we’re all descended from human-machine hybrids from outer space.

    In the Posleen world, the deniers have to somehow get around…

    -The testimony of the Darhel and other alien races.

    -The series of ‘I was there’ stories from two alien worlds.

    -The thousands of dead or wounded soldiers from several different countries, including France and Germany.

    -The sudden destruction of the satellite network surrounding Earth, the lights in the sky when the Posleen arrived during GF, the seemingly random bombardment of Earth before the landings (including the Great Pyramid)…

    -The landings in Washington, all broadcast on American TV.

    The landings in Iran and Vietnam.

    -The post-battle devastation.

    I’m not saying that there won’t be a few nincompoops with their heads so firmly buried in the sand that they won’t believe in the Posleen even when the Posleen are preparing them for lunch, but I doubt that they will be a significant movement after Gust Front. There will simply be too much evidence that the Posleen not only exist, but America is not their only target.

    Regarding your second post, I think that you are confusing pre-cold war leftism (insofar as that team has meaning) with cold war leftism and and post-cold war leftism. The belief that the war was lost in 1940 was not only held by the left, but also by high-ranking tories and various observers, including Ambassador Kennady, Mussolini and Tojo.

    I have never heard any suggestion that the US troops in England had been brought in to suppress an English rebellion. About the worst large-scale grumbling during the war years, IIRC, was that American troops were paid more, treated better and spent too much time with English women.

    It is worth noting that while the Russians did herald everything as a victory, there was never any independent reporting from Moscow nor any tradition of a free press in Russia. (Anyone who tried putting the Pravda in Pravda – hah – would have been sent to the gulag.) Furthermore, both the US and UK media were encouraged to portray ‘Uncle Joe’ as a hero and turn a blind eye to the failings of the Soviet Regime. Propaganda – such as the movie Song of Russia – was used to create pro-Soviet feelings. The West, in effect, built a mental straightjacket for its own people. To blame this on the Euro-left is disingenuous.

    Why was all of this possible? There was no independent news network in Moscow. That will not hold true in the Posleen universe.


  8. Chris, it has nothing to do with pre or post or during. It is an eternal mindset, completely invulnerable to contrary fact, that will believe anything that supports it and deny anything that refutes it. It is rationalizing but non-rational. Indeed, it is totally immune to reason that leads anywhere but blind acceptance of its own world view.

  9. By the way, there was nowhere in WOTR that anyone denied the Posleen existing. Most of the idiocy was around the whole "it's America's fault" and "the government is controlling the mass media and lies to us about the Posleen" axis. They were essentially saying that if America didn't force everyone else (France and Germany, etc) to attack the Posties on Diess and Barwhon, they wouldn't have come to Earth. I also remember one or two characters from the left saying that they doubt the stories about Posleen eating humans and even the possibility that they were set on killing and eating them all - the silly idiot believed that dialogue was possible...

    By the way, there is a ton I could say on leftism and all that jazz, being a right-minded Israeli (our lefties occasionally throw some hilarious(-ly stupid) lines), but I'll leave it to your imagination. I'm too tired to type all that.