Friday, December 05, 2014

23. The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth

Okay, now back to full manliness!  I've never read this classic and only seen snippets of the movie (which I shall also rectify now that I have read the book).  As a young man, I read a book of short stories, No Comebacks, by Forsyth that I absolutely loved, then tried to read The Day of the Jackal and wasn't able to finish it.  I think that sort of put me off Forsyth for a while.  I found The Dogs of War at the local thrifts shop for two bucks in a thick, generick 90s paperback that I didn't have to worry about treating roughly and jumped right in.

Really, this should be called The Dogs of Preparing for War.  The premise is a massive British mineral company discovers a mountain of platinum in a fictional West African backwater country and their CEO hires a mercenary team to take the entire government out while also performing some financial shenanigans to ensure a massive killing on the market.  The mercenary he hires, Shannon, is the protagonist and he is tasked with first scouting the mission, coming up with a plan, hiring the team and supplying it.  This process is really the majority of the book, a 260-page chapter called The Hundred Days where Shannon and his men travel all over Europe buying weapons and equipment, arranging transport, negotiating with customs brokers, gathering sketchy documentation, dealing with rival mercs and all the rest of the work that goes on in preparation of a military coup.  The only action is the aforementioned rival merc and that is a brief shot in the arm in what is otherwise all procedural.  For me, it wasn't boring at all.  I couldn't put it down.  I love this stuff anyhow, but it being pre-internet made it even more fascinating to read about the way arms get bought and sold and how to avoid surveillance (lot of letters to people staying at hotels under false names) and other extra-legal activities in 1970s Europe.

The portrayal of Africa and the Africans is at best patronizingly colonial and at worst straight-up racist. This book was written right after the wave of African independence from Colonialism and the attitude is one of the post-colonial country's superiority, with a contemptuous portrayal of the African governments as being hopelessly corrupt and inefficient.  This portrayal is not untrue, but when the root causes are unexamined (i.e. colonialism itself), it comes off as pretty ignorant at times.  The context is overall very cynical and morally speaking the whites in power, especially the businessmen are portrayed as being utterly unethical.  It's in the competence where the racism is the worst. It really gets bad when Forsyth talks about the Africans as soldiers, suggesting that they have an innate tendency to shoot with their eyes closed. I'm sure Forsyth is reflecting the attitudes of old Africa hands of the time, but still. It's not just racist, it's also historically inaccurate and weakens the rich, realistic detail he builds up so well otherwise.

It's ironic, because at the end of the book, it's clear that despite his militarism and accepted colonial attitude, Forsyth seems relatively liberal at the end of the book.  I won't give anything away, but "good" Africans come out of the woodwork plot-wise at the end and it's clear that Forsyth is in favour of them ruling their own lands.

Despite my misgivings on the portrayal of the Africans, this is a great read and deserves its reputation as a classic.

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