Sunday, January 14, 2018

"Not By Sight," by Ken Prescott: Late Skirmish in the Cold War

It's been 27 years (December 31, 1991) since the very last act of the former Soviet Union: the Soviet Ambassador to the UN delivered a letter to the UN Secretary-General announcing that Russia was the successor state to the USSR. That was merely turning the lights off and locking the door, however;  the USSR had been collapsing for the past several years, with August 21, 1991 marking the last formal resistance to handing over power to a non-Communist state.

For those who came to adulthood in the post-1991 world, it's difficult to comprehend just what a significant role the Cold War played in the lives of the people born in the 10 years following the end of WWII. We had regular duck-and-cover drills in the classroom, and learned evacuation routes from school to home in case of a nuclear war. Millions of service members served in Europe (I was one of them) to act as a speed bump on the day when the Soviet tanks came rolling across the Fulda Gap, with all our efforts designed to slow their progress so that Reforger could bring the combat units based in the continental US across the Atlantic. Every barracks, every military building of any kind, had posters on the wall, urging us to KNOW OUR ENEMY, with scary descriptions of the utter determination of the Soviet soldier to obey orders without question.

At the time I was stationed in Europe (March 1973 - August 1975), the Soviet Union was in total control. The United States military focus was almost entirely in Southeast Asia, and the reductions in force that came following the end of our involvement there, the end of the draft, and the upheavals in our government all acted to give the Soviets a great deal of security on the home front. (It made them so secure, in fact, that they made the decision to get involved in Afghanistan, which they regretted bitterly.)

In 1980, things changed, with the election of Ronald Reagan, who declared them to be an evil empire.

Reagan's determination to bolster the strength of conventional armed forces, while modernizing and developing new weapon systems, forced the Soviets into an arms race they couldn't possibly win, because their economy didn't have the ability to provide both guns and butter. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he immediately began a process of openness and reform (glasnost and perestroika).

It was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, because having gained a little freedom, the associated republics wanted more. The more concessions Gorbachev gave, the more the satellites wanted, and the more the hard-liners in his government resisted.

And that's the background for Prescott's novel.

Here's my Amazon review of the book, which, after about an hour, still hasn't posted.

I obtained this book through the Kindle Unlimited program.
I MUST first pay my compliments to the cover, else I will forget. It's really eye-catching: a night-vision shot of an attack helicopter, silhouetted against the brighter flares of....something. Might be the lights of a city, might be burning tanks; but whatever the brighter points are, they serve to emphasize the stealthy lethality of the war machine. The font and placement are also good choices, too; my initial impression was of early dot-matrix green-screen printing, and that's exactly the right tone for the time in which the story is set. An artist could tell you why the title and author's name are legible; I don't speak that language, but I appreciate that effect.

Despite a typo in the Chapter Five title, the main events take place over a period of about a week in early May, 1988.

In December of 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the INF, with the implementation date of June, 1988. The hard-liners in East Germany (DDR) and in the Soviet Union bitterly opposed the liberalization policies Gorbachev had implemented, and resisted them to the fullest. The DDR rightly forecast that only the backing of the Soviet military machine kept them in power, and so there were factions that sought any opportunity to disrupt the implementation of the treaty.

Meanwhile, in America, rogue elements in the intelligence community were eager to take just about any action they could, in the wake of the Iran-Contra disaster. Knowing that heads were going to roll, they wanted to produce an intelligence coup as justification for their continued employment.

Enter Dennis Sandoval, an Air Force enlisted man in the process of qualifying for the elite intelligence department known as Ghostrunners. His somewhat fog-shrouded past has provided him with enhanced skills, but he has earned the ire of his executive officer by reporting the dishonesty of an existing member of the team, who has since been kicked out of the unit.

To his surprise, he immediately gets placed into operational status upon completion of training. That, plus an appalling lack of intelligence needed to carry out the mission, makes him suspicious that all is not as it seems.

He's correct in that. He is told his mission is to exfiltrate an unknown American missionary who is smuggling Bibles across the border. (Note: this was a common practice in the days before the Iron Curtain fell.) In addition to the fact that he is not given the identity of the missionary, other aspects of the mission are also problematic; however, the reaction of his executive officer when he asks questions makes him decide to keep his mouth shut, at least through official channels.

What follows is an adventure which could have been written by Tom Clancy at the height of his career, and since I repeatedly devoured every book Clancy wrote, that's high praise from me.  Weapon use and deployment, moving across terrain, and spycraft are all described with the ring of authenticity. The only NON-standard story elements are the little coincidences, which are necessary to the storyline, and incidentally in providing us with a look at Sandoval's background.

There aren't any cliff-hangers, but there are a number of plot lines which could and should be developed further. The story has an obvious prequel called for, and the character is too good to be seen in just one book.

Peace be on your household.

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