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November Book Review: A Small Colonial War


When Brandon said we were going to start doing occasional book reviews I was excited. I am a voracious reader (no pun intended). I didn’t know what to recommend first. Then he said it could be fiction or non-fiction, as long as it was military related and I was in real trouble. I didn’t know where to start.

The classics? Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Haldeman’s Forever War? They’re both brilliant, but no.  I had to go with Robert Frezza’s  A Small Colonial War, though I will hopefully cover others in the future. Scalzi, Steakley, Buettner, Pournelle, Drake and others all deserve discussion, but, in my opinion Frezza is in a sub-genre all his own.

A Small Colonial War is a well crafted and politically complex novel that begins a trilogy involving the 1/35TH Imperial Rifles (comprised mostly of ethnic Finns and Russians), in a post-nuclear milieu where the governments of the world (and planetary colonies) are under the economic and military thumb of an entrenched Japanese superpower. It’s one of the best military sci-fi novels I’ve ever read, and not just because of the storytelling. The author is obviously an excellent historian who is both tactically and strategically savvy. He has a grasp of irony and military inanity and Quixotic professionalism that is almost as good as his ability to convey it. Plus he has a great sense of humor. Experienced NCOs in particular will identify with some of his characters.

Private Prigal drove an armored car in the Hangman’s light attack company. In the two seven-year enlistments of his checkered military career, Prigal had been promoted ten times...and had been reduced in rank nine times. Mostly this was for doing things no one with half a brain would do, but occasionally it was for thing that no one with half a brain would conceive of doing…While [his] platoon leader, Lieutenant Muravyov, considered him to be his personal cross to bear through life…most people suspected—with some degree of truth—that Henke kept Prigal around for the sheer joy of seeing what would happen with him next. It was also true that in combat on at least two occasions, Prigal had done exactly the right thing for absolutely the wrong reasons.

This is an author who can describe a gunner pulling the bolt to the rear on an open bolt 7.7 GPMG and give an overview of its cycle of operations while the rest of his section prepares an ambush, then realistically portray the ensuing firefight, then manage to tie in a Cervantes or Sertorius reference and make it work.

His fighting scenes are visceral and well crafted, and you should not make the mistake of liking any particular characters. It can be brutal. That said, if you felt the Mack Bolan books had clever plot lines, then Frezza is not for you. Though his work is not overly cerebral, I have to admit in fairness that some will find it too esoteric. This is a thinking man’s sci-fi, and not even all of them will like it.

…The key fact is that Vereschagin, Harjalo, Kolomeitsev and Henke have fought six colonial campaigns…and they have survived. They have seen more combat than any similar group of officers in the Imperial Forces. They have never failed to achieve their objectives—which are not always the objectives chosen for them…. (Frezza)

If you liked Hoffman’s description of Rhodesian counterinsurgency efforts, if you know who von Moltke was or have ever read Field Marshal Slim, chances are you’ll like A Small Colonial War. It’s a witty, occasionally cruel novel that combines elements of the Finns’ tactics in the Winter and Continuation Wars with Rhodesian military expediency, elements of the Malayan Emergency and a hint of the various Indochina wars. His characters, particularly (but not only) the soldiers will be compelling to those of you who are professional soldiers. They are likable, ruthless at need and sublimely proficient.  In fact, the most unbelievable aspect of A Small Colonial War is probably the lack of bureaucratic bullshit and two hour powerpoint briefings once the battalion commanders and supporting elements begin operating autonomously. (The author’s occasional jibe at silly, overbearing staff NCOs and officers will likely resonate with you as well.)

The 1/35TH Rifle Battalion’s three rifle companies had different personalities. A Company, molded by the Iceman, had always been known for dour, frightening efficiency; B Company for modest competence ; and C Company for its efficient and resolute insanity. No one ever tried to explain why…  (Frezza)

As one of my friends, a crusty old former NCO and old school LEO said when I told him I was writing this, “Tell them I hate science fiction. I absolutely hate it. It’s contrived and it’s silly and it’s a waste of time. This is one of my favorite novels. It ain’t like eating candy corn.”

I’m not exactly sure what that means. I am sure that you’ll either love or hate A Small Colonial War. Those of you who love it will read it more than once.

I’m not even going to try to explain ‘The Whistling Pig’ and its significance.

“Buildings are stone or cement with steel reinforcement. Remind everybody about ricochet casualties. As far as tactics, we don’t want bodies. When that changes, we’ll be sure to mention it.”

“So, who are we shooting?” Henke asked.

If he’d had epicanthic folds and the ability to hold his opinions to himself, Major Harjalo would have been at least a Colonel.

“Dear me, the admiral must have forgot to mention that. The Task Group intelligence officer doesn’t know. Admiral Lee declined intelligence gathering prior to landing to preserve strategic and tactical surprise, which is supposed to be our most priceless asset. A few people don’t there don’t like United Steel-Standard or each other. They may not like us. The admiral doesn’t expect to see anyone shoot at us, but his data is falsified or stale. The paper says we establish an Imperial presence. Beyond that, your guess as to what we’re supposed to do is better than mine…”

Sosialististen Neuvostotasavaltojen Liito voitti hyvänä kakkosena tuli maaliin pieni sisukas Suomi.

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