THE FIRST TO LAND: By Douglas Reeman


I am such a research nerd that I can not read a historical novel with out a handful of reference books by my side and my iPad warmed up on stand by.  So right from the star I had problems with this book. The Plot is based on actual events that took place in China around the turn of the century, the 1900 Boxer Rebellion; a virulent anti-foreign and anti-christian movement. Anyone foreign or christian, including Chinese christians were in grave danger of being slaughtered. Enter the Royal Marines to the rescue, more or less.

The Hero of the story Captain David Blackwood, must embark on a ridiculous mission that really makes no sense, except in a cheesy Romance novel sort of way. He is ordered to escort a beautiful German Countess (naturally she’s beautiful) into dangerous Boxer occupied territory. I know that this is necessary to the story, but Historically the German Navy had its own Marines (the Sea Battalion) who should have been tasked with this mission. To be fair they were mentioned in the book. but I really doubt if the  British government would be willing to put a foreign dignitary into to harms way so haphazardly, just because the Germans weren’t there on time.

The next stumbling block for me in this novel, was the Hoshun river. In order to get a handle on what area the book was referring to, I decided to google it more specifically google earth.  What I found was some very interesting restaurants, one of them in New Orleans and one near me in Minnesota, but I found no reference to an actual river called the Hoshun.  So I checked my atlas, several books and wiki and nowhere did I find any river or even a creek named the Hoshun. Well this wasted about twenty minutes to a half hour for me so I abandoned my search and got back to reading. I really have nothing against making up fictitious places in fiction novels, but historical fiction should be about details especially places.  For example the fine historical novel of the battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara is very specific about every part of the battlefield especially place names. Now I know that it is slightly unfair to compare a pulitzer prize winning novel with a hack action series, but you get the point.  The characters don’t have to be actual people, but the places should be real places.

So putting the presumably fictional Hoshun river aside, I trudged on and hit another obstacle to enjoyment, the tactics employed by Captain Blackwood a Victoria Cross winner and a supposedly competent officer.  The primary mission of the Marines of this era, was that of ship’s security and if necessary landing parties. On their way to the German trading mission, the little Coastal steamer Bajamar (a civilian ship employed for the journey) stops for the night, because of river hazards, that make the river unnavigable in the dark.  Captain Blackwood for some inexplicable reason deploys pickets ashore in the dark. He has limited manpower to start with, and he decides to put them in an untenable position, deep in enemy territory where they can be picked off piecemeal. This tactical blunder predictably cost the life of a young Subaltern who is captured tortured and beheaded. Any Marine worth his salt should have known, that the best way to protect the ship is to double the watch and have everyone on board ready to defend against boarders. This was an especially stupid move because he had not reconnoitered the area first so he was flying blind.

When they finally arrive at their destination, the trading mission has been abandoned and evidence of heavy fighting is unmistakeable. The poor Countess who was supposed to meet her husband at the mission, has been put in danger for nothing and the steamer and the Marines must turn around and beat a hasty retreat back to HMS Mediator, fighting for their lives, their objective a failure. This isn’t where the story ends though, Captain Blackwood and his company is now tasked with being the vanguard of the Seymour Expedition, the famous but failed relief of Peking. This part of the book really had me scratching my head. Having read a lot of  military history books about this period in history I know when something doesn’t sound right. First of all I tried to reconcile the action in the book with the actual path of the Seymour expedition. It caused me a lot of consternation because somehow Blackwood’s vanguard ends up behind Seymour’s multinational force,which is holed up in the Xigu Arsenal .  Blackwood’s company ends up in the besieged city of Tientsin Where once again he encounters the beautiful Countess and of course they make whoopee.

The last part of the book is actually pretty good and fits into the category of Ripping Yarns.  The action is detailed and fast paced and the descriptions of violence are graphic and horrifying. All through out the book the action is exciting and engaging, it draws you in as Reeman examines the thought processes of the characters involved. We discover that although outwardly Captain Blackwood has the typical stiff upper lip and nerves of steel of a Royal Marine, on the inside he is as frightened as any green recruit.

While in the midst of all this action Captain Blackwood has to contend with a stodgy commanding officer (an Army guy) and a petulant snobbish younger cousin named Ralf under his command. Cousin Ralf is not what you would call a stellar officer like the rest of the Blackwood clan, he is an unlikable weasel that likes to torment his older cousin. He hates the men under him, refuses to listen to the wisdom of his Platoon sergeant and shows bad judgement and a lack of a backbone. In the opening chapters of the book Cousin Ralfie is packed off to China by Mean old uncle, general Blackwood.  He is a gambler and an unrepentant skirt chaser, and the general hopes to bring him into tow by exiling him to the far east. In the last part of the book Ralf redeems himself showing bravado and moxie but I fear he has learned nothing.

It is a fun read and the action sequences are excellent. You are drawn into the thoughts and fears of men engaged in combat very realistically. The descriptions of action and violence are graphic and taut with anxiety for the hero, as he fights for his life, repelling wave after wave of fanatical Chinese warriors. The price of empire is paid for by it’s soldiers, with blood spilt on foreign soil. and no one knows this better than Captain David Blackwood. This book is definitely one of my Guilty pleasures.

Zero Dark Thirty

The controversy about the movie, Zero Dark Thirty, was purely based on a misconception, at least in my opinion. Maybe the critics were watching a different version of the movie than I was, or maybe it’s just that each brain works differently. To me it was obvious that the protagonist got very little information from torture. The fact that they had tortured detainees for a decade, and never got any closer to Osama Bin Laden proves that it wasn’t  the violence that bore fruit, but the non violent types of interrogation, that actually proved useful. Proper and thorough  detective  work carried out by analyst who actually examined the mountains of information compiled, combined with humane treatment of prisoners and some bribery, yielded the final results that led to finding and killing Bin Laden.

The real controversy should be why did our government employ such archaic, brutal and ultimately useless methods to gather intelligence. Not everyone talks under torture some people just die. Others resist but more often, people will say whatever the torturer wants them to say just to stop the pain. Torture isn’t a reliable source of information. Another thing about the movie that bothered me, was that they received a vital lead from a minor al Qaeda operative, that he had seen Bin Laden in Pakistan, but then failed to investigate that lead. Ultimately Bin Laden was found in Pakistan. It wasn’t the first time that the intelligence service has screwed up and probably not the last; the movie clearly points out this fact.

The criticism that Kathryn Bigelow was some how crediting the discovery of the whereabouts of Bin Laden to torture methods, is in my opinion unfounded. What I saw on screen was an hours worth of horrible interrogation methods, that yielded few results. From an objective point of view the director did not seem to take one point of view over another, but much like a journalist was simply reporting what was happening. We  now know, that torture was used, but even the experts agree that none of the information obtained from torture led to the final results.

It was pointed out to me by an unnamed source, that some of the criticism may be gender bias. Women directors in Hollywood have always had a harder time than men, and Bigelow is infringing on typically male territory. the war/action/thriller. This is Kathryn Bigelow’s second foray into the Iraq war, her first being the Hurt locker (2008) about an EOD team. So there may be some  credence to this theory.

Politics aside, I found the movie’s opening disturbing. The 911 calls of the panic stricken victims of the World Trade center made me want to cry. It was emotional overkill for me, because the last time I was in New York, was on july fourth 2001, when the twin towers were still standing. If I had never actually seen those buildings in reality, the impact of their destruction might have been blunted. Any director worth their salt knows how push the right buttons to draw the audience into the story. The opening did just what it was supposed to do, even though it was a bit heavy handed.

Most of the rest of the movie was depictions of torture, or of the protagonist viewing torture on a monitor. I found it to be redundant and draining and on the verge of boring. The high spots in the movie were the scenes that depicted inter office politics and maneuvering, together with brainwork and investigation. I think the movie would have been more interesting, if more of the foot work of the intelligence community had been revealed to the audience.

The movie picks up again in the last forty-five minutes when the big boys finally decide to do something. After analyzing and agonizing over the information, Seal team Six is finally give the go ahead to conduct an operation, in the territory of another  sovereign nation, without their knowledge or consent. This in it self was not only dangerous, but could and did create an international incident. Bigelow created the perfect blend of  the tension and confusion that comes with the fog of war. By making everything so dark the viewer was stumbling around in the dark trying desperately to keep up with the action on the screen. She resisted the urge to shoot the entire scene through the eerie green light of a night vision scope, which made the situation even more tense.

All in all this was a fairly decent movie although I could have done without all of the torture. I don’t think that it added much to the movie beyond the first uncomfortable visit by the movie’s female protagonist.