Maybe it’s because I’ve been revisiting some old lore and fiction from BattleTech, or maybe it’s because I’ve gotten back to watching Legend of Galactic Heroes, an military sci-fi anime series that unfolds its critical battles with about as much attention to detail and context as a documentary. Whatever the reason, I’ve found myself thinking about my favorite completely fictional battles, the ones that are imagined and described in such detail that you can almost draw a map of them.
Tom Clancy and Larry Bond achieved military speculative fiction immortality with Red Storm Rising, which has a fictional depiction of a battle in the North Atlantic between a NATO carrier group and the Soviet air force. The ensuing chapter “Dance of the Vampires” tells the story of how complacency and tunnel vision on the part of the NATO commanders, coupled with over-reliance on their advanced technologies, leads them straight into a brilliantly-designed Soviet trap and results in the near annihilation of a Nimitz-class battle group. That battle, as well as a few great submarine combat sequences and some horrifically vivid depictions of armored warfare in Germany, has kept Red Storm Rising in rotation as one of my favorite “guilty pleasure” books even as its politics and much of its writing have aged terribly.
But I suspect one of the reasons the battle unfolds so vividly, with the NATO leadership plausibly opening themselves to a devastating surprise attack, is because the plotting for the battle took so many cues from Larry Bond’s famous wargame, Harpoon. With its fiction grounded in a realistic, chess-like naval wargame, each battle in Red Storm feels readily intelligible. By the midway point of the book, you’re so up-to-speed on anti-submarine tactics that you’re ready to step into the characters’ shoes and start doing doing convoy escort duty.
At the other end of the spectrum, though perhaps it’s of a piece with Red Storm Rising because it’s another story of militaristic hubris, is the Battle of Yonkers depicted in Max Brooks’ World War Z. Basically, with a zombie infection having overrun New York and panic beginning to spread across the country, the US military stages a massive set-piece extermination battle in Yonkers. They set up a gigantic kill-zone covered by tanks, artillery, aircraft, and infantry, then they lure a zombie mob into it.
The entire thing is described by one of the battle’s survivors, a grunt who watched the entire debacle unfold from the front row. He describes the slow-dawning horror as the military’s weapons, designed to destroy armor and shatter the morale of an enemy force, prove completely ineffective against waves of resilient, shambling zombies. Instead of the showpiece the military wanted to show they were ready to contain the problem, what gets broadcast across the country is the best military money can buy getting literally eaten alive by zombies.
It’s a vivid sequence, but it’s also one that works as a detailed metaphor for the blind spots caused by America’s form of techno-militarism, and what happens when theory-induced hubris encounters messy reality. With each additional page, you see the army’s battle plan coming undone, how each piece of technology and standard-operating procedure has doomed those soldiers to a trap of their own making. It’s also a great example of how World War Z uses the metaphor of a zombie apocalypse to examine the assumptions and weaknesses of the fraying neoliberal order of the 1990s and 2000s.
What about you? What are you favorite make-believe battles, and what’s the part that keeps you coming back to them?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/kzkaww/make-believe-battles-that-seem-more-real-than-history