“Red Metal” fully understands that we live in a post-Communist world, a world of fundamentalisms as well as of nation-states and tenuous alliances. I highly recommend the novel, not only for its entertainment value, but also for its ability to ask all the right questions we Americans need to be asking.

Red Metal, by Mark Greaney and Lieutenant Colonel Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV (21:21, Audible Studios, 2019)

“Not at all. We will split his attention. In my estimation, the Americans no longer know how to fight a conventional force. They have been fighting insurgency for years.”

Red Metal

At the age of 19, I moved to Austria for a year. It was July 1987 when I arrived, and I resided in Innsbruck until July 1988. To state it was a great year in my life would be a gross understatement. It was truly the greatest year of my life prior to starting a family (not until 1998). With twenty other students from the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s College, I took my courses in German, lived in an Austrian dorm, and traveled throughout Europe. Three times, I applied to visit the Soviet Union, and, sadly, I was denied three times. Though I did get into East Germany for a day, I spent most of my travels—about three months all together—exploring Scandinavia, central Europe, England, and North Africa.

After having spent much of my high school time in debate and forensics, I had read everything available in the press on U.S. foreign relations, communism, and military policy. And, when I write “everything,” I more or less mean it. I read Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and every other serious periodical and newspaper we subscribed to.

Nothing, however, prepared me for Europe like Tom Clancy’s novel about a possible World War III, Red Storm Rising. I devoured that book, following troop movements on maps, and figuring out where attacks might come, how conventional war could trump nuclear war. I obsessed over it, to be sure. Though the Cold War ended sometime in those grand twilight years of 1989-1991, Red Storm Rising most definitely shaped my own view of the world.

Now, three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, we have Red Storm Rising’s more than worthy successor, Red Metal, by Mark Greaney and Lt. Col. Hunter “Rip” Rawlings IV. While Col. Rawlings is new to me, I have been reading Mr. Greaney’s novels for over a decade. He roared onto the literary scene during the revival of Tom Clancy co-authored books around 2010 and with his own extraordinary novel and hero (or anti-hero), The Grey Man, a year earlier. I have had the chance to praise Mr. Greaney several times, but never enough. Mr. Greaney is, in every way, our current and better Tom Clancy, taking thrillers into the twenty-first century. By this, I mean that Mr. Greaney fully understands that we live in a post-Communist world, a world of fundamentalisms as well as of nation-states and tenuous alliances. His own analysis of world affairs—though couched in fiction—is every bit as interesting as that coming out from any current periodical or think tank.

Taking place between Thanksgiving 2020 and Epiphany 2021, Red Metal reveals an audacious Russian military incursion into both central Europe and eastern Africa. As with Clancy’s earlier novel, there are heroines surprised by their own heroism, American successes that come from determination and sheer luck, and misunderstood geniuses trapped in the vast webs of bureaucracy. There’s also a lot—and I do mean a lot—of action, thrills, and technospeak.

[Be warned: minor spoilers follow.]

As the story of Red Metal has it, mainland China is furious that a pro-nationalist party has gained popular and political control of Taiwan. So furious, indeed, that it’s ready to invade. America, having been involved in wars of insurgency and counter insurgency in the Near East since 1991 no longer—or so our enemies presume—possesses the ability to wage a conventional war against nation-states. As one of the two most important generals in Russia claims:

Lazar, a colonel general, was equivalent to an American three-star general. He was fighting against a simple colonel, and although the American had likely seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was already demonstrating his lack of practice at dealing with the higher orders of battle Lazar was throwing at him now. The Marine colonel’s experience chasing the Taliban, tracking how many goats each mountain village had, and combating poppy cultivation would provide him no great advantage today, the general thought to himself.

Hoping to take advantage of the world’s focus on China and Taiwan and America’s inability to wage large scale war, an embittered Russian nationalist develops a plan for a blitzkrieg. Knocking out American satellite capability and, thus, blinding NATO, the Russians launch a strike with tanks, trains, and troops through Byelorussia and Poland to hit U.S. military bases in southern Germany. Their real goal, however, is to blind the West—through attack and diversion—to the real effort to claim a mine of precious rare earth metals. That attack passes through Iran en route to the African coastline.

Tellingly, only two U.S. intelligence officers—both passed over as energetic and paranoid quacks—and a French spy (a has-been, put out to pasture) realize what the Russians are doing, though. As with Cassandra, almost everyone ignores them. Once the Russians begin their simultaneous invasions, Mr. Greaney and Col. Rawlings follow the actions of several Americans and Russians, explaining the massive movement of forces through individual stories of Army tankers, submarine commanders, Warthog pilots, and Marine infantry. The best story—of the many great stories within Red Metal—though, follows neither an American nor a Russian, but, rather a Pole, a nineteen-year old barista, Paulina, reluctantly transformed into a national hero by the end of the novel.

The greatest strength of Mr. Greaney and Col. Rawlings is their asking of questions relevant to current American foreign policy. Are we capable—in material and spirit—of waging a full-scale conventional war, if Russia or China need to be challenged? The weakest part of the novel comes for the overuse of foul language. While I don’t expect Marines in the middle of combat to avoid barnyard epithets, I would rather the authors not write sentences such as the following: “True field commanders, Colonel Glowski had thought at the time. And intimidating as f—.” The two authors are more interesting than this, and such writing is simply lazy.

Regardless, I highly recommend this novel, not only for its entertainment value, but also for its ability to ask all the right questions we Americans need to be asking.

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