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General Sir Richard Shirreff
2017: War With Russia is a badly written fiction novel. But 2017:WWR isn't really a novel, or even intended as a fiction. It is a cry of frustration from a senior military figure who believes we (Britain, America, NATO, the West) are blithely wandering off a geopolitical cliff. Given the background and experience of the author, it should be read widely, and taken seriously.

The premise is simple and openly stated in both the foreword and introduction: the book proposes a scenario by which NATO and Russia enter a hot war, less than 12 months from the date of this review. It is deliberately based on present realities, a format which lends gravity to the purpose (see: alarm bell) but often makes for awful writing. Nonetheless, if you are in the military or interested in military affairs, it is easily readable in a few hours, and has taken a few lessons from Tom Clancy about how to make a page-turning plot from the fertile subject matter. While you may spend a lot of time quickly skimming over the duller explanations of various military formations (included to either educate the uninitiated or hammer home the point that this is a real-life issue), the story of how the scenario unfolds is engaging. That is all that will be said of the story, as discovering that for yourself is most of the fun of the book.

Presumably at the behest of editors and publishers to accommodate readers with no understanding of the military, this leads to some comically bad writing. Dialogue exists simply to introduce tit-bits of information about the current state of military affairs in NATO and Russia, leading to some ridiculous conversation between supposed military professionals where they explain basic terminology to each other: “What about the NATO Response Force, the NRF?“ ... “As you know General, the VJTF has 5,000 troops made of...“ Sometimes this works, most of the time it doesn't. Much of it is perhaps an unavoidable compromise to give the uninitiated reader a fighting chance at understanding the issues, but it makes for some brilliantly clunky dialogue, such as this impromptu history lesson wedged into a conversation between DSACEUR and SACUER:

“...just like Hitler, he may think it was too easy and that may encourage him to keep going while he can.“

“Good analogy, Dave. Hitler initially had no intentions of occupying France of planning an invasion of Britain, but when he came to it, he found it much easier than he'd expected...“

While this may be unavoidable, it could have been better done. It also raises the frightening (but not impossible) thought that these kind of anodyne, A-level lesson summaries are representative of conversations between senior military and politicians. If that is the case, then Russia might as well not bother: we're all buggered anyway.

The characters are a mixed bag, a combination of three types. First, truly fictional characters at the lower levels - to show us the everyday heroism of the British squaddie, platoon commander, or beautiful Baltic state liaison. Second, real political personalities - Putin and, of all people, Corbyn are mentioned by name. Third, poorly disguised caricatures of real political or military figures. The truly fictional characters serve their purpose, but are wildly unrepresentative of reality. They include an Oxford-educated platoon commander in the Mercians; his attractive ex-girlfriend (also ex-Oxford and Cheltenham Ladies College Head Girl) who now works for GCHQ; a beautiful, ash-blonde Latvian liaison (every woman in the Baltics is ash-blonde and beautiful, it seems). These people do exist in reality. Your reviewer knows some of them. But nobody would claim they are representative, and to have quite so many of them accidentally in the same place at the same time stretches the credibility of the writing.

The poorly-disguised caricatures are so unsubtle that one wonders why Shirreff bothered to change the names. General Stanley McChrystal appears as a US National Security Advisor called MacWhite, a 6'2“ ex-SOCOM who eats one meal a day and runs 10k each morning; David Cameron is a lightweight, out-of-depth PM Spencer who protests at having to leave his pub lunch to be briefed on a major incident; Phillip Hammond is eviscerated as a simpering, bean-counting Defence Secretary called Everage; General Nick Houghton similarly destroyed as a British CDS with no combat experience who got to the top “by telling politicians what they wanted to hear“ called Mainwaring (fantastic piece of character assassination though that name is); General Graeme Lamb is brought in as a gruff war-time general brought out of retirement called Jock Kydd...the list goes on.

The problem with this is that, almost without exception, they are all two-dimensional characterisations who are at least one dimension short. Everyone on the ground is mostly dutiful and courageous. The Good Generals/Politicians are Good, the Bad Generals/Politicians are Bad. The US government has a National Security dream-team of MacWhite/McChrystal and a female president (no, not her) who is conveniently engineered as a late-running, presumably third-party candidate in 2016, with all the qualities a general could wish of a war-time civilian leader: i.e. shutting up and doing exactly what the military suggest.

This unrealistic lack of human complexity, in a book that so stakes its case on being a realistic future scenario, is a problem. It appears throughout: the Russians tend to have Bond-villain type evil lair conversations as they plan the war. It throws up obvious dischords with what we know of our actual history: at one point, the wish-fulfilment character of Kydd/Lamb takes aim at Everage/Hammond for cutting the British Armed Forces, saying: “whichever stupid ****** thought they could cut the regular Army by a third and replace it with reserves needs their ******* head examining.“ Real-life Graeme Lamb was on the board that drafted the Reserves recommendations, and is on record defending it. This could be waved away as the prerogative of a fiction writer, but it undermines the otherwise laser focus of the book as a facsimile of reality: the characters and opinions involved in these real life decisions are always more complex than in the book. As an author, when your characters to so obviously represent real individuals, especially when your presumed target audience is likely to recognise the avatars, you can't get away with such incongruities. These short-cuts that Shirreff takes as a fiction writer makes it too easy for readers to rebel at the unreality of some detail, thus weakening the overall point that the general scenario is too close to the truth for comfort. One also has the sense that, understandably perhaps, these characterisations have more to do with personal admiration or settling scores than they do driving home the book's purpose.

There is another unnecessary element that winds its way through the novel, which adds nothing. This is his none-too-subtle digs at the politics around women in combat. Shirreff is obviously opposed to the idea. In itself, this would be fine. But instead of using his scenario to throw up those issues which are undisputed in that debate (strength, fitness, etc), he instead uses some bizarrely 1950s examples. A military disaster at one point is notable largely for the fact that “for the first time, there were many women“ in the casualty lists: an obvious untruth following Afghanistan and Iraq. One male character has a minor stream-of-consciousness paragraph about how he is thinking of a female character “no longer as a professional, but as a woman“, and how “he felt immensely protective“ of her (this is, of course, helped by the fact that every woman in the book is an attractive, ash-blonde double-first Oxbridge graduate). There are many fictional scenarios which could have been invented to highlight the real problems with politicisation of women in the military. They don't appear in the book. It is a mis-step, and undermines the whole.

2017:WWR loses a star for the issues above. If it were written by anyone else, it would be a 2/5 star fiction novel. But it is not written by anyone else, and it isn't a fiction. As an alarm bell to a wilfully blind establishment and a disinterested public, it is both brave (it will undoubtedly have personal consequences for Shirreff) and, considering the evident clarity with which he perceives the threat, the right thing to do. Nobody can now accuse Shirreff of being one of the supine political generals he targets in the book. Whether or not his scenario comes true (and he makes a convincing case), the mere fact that he has felt the need to write and publish in such an unconventional manner means that anyone interested in Defence should read and seriously attend to this warning call.
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