Critical Cohort

Reviewed by LtCol Eric M Walters

PROUD LEGIONS: A Novel of America’s Next War. By John Antal. Presidio Press, Novato, CA, 1999, 356 pp., $24.95. (Member $22.45).

Fans of Harold Coyle’s military novels will immediately like John Antal’s first foray into “traditional” combat novels. Antal has long been known for his “interactive” fiction wherein the reader must make tactical and leadership decisions as an Army platoon or company commander in battle. The story in this latest work focuses on Antal’s last command, 2d Battalion, 27th Armor, at the beginning of a new Korean War. While there are snippets within the narrative that describe other parts of the Korean ground war, Task Force 2-27-the “Dragon Force”-is the “critical cohort” within Proud Legions that defeats the North Korean offensive.

Marines may wonder what this novel, written by an active duty Army Armor Branch lieutenant colonel, can of fer them. This reflects perhaps a larger question-what makes great combat fiction? Why read these nonhistorical military novels at all? Proud Legions does two things as modern warfare fiction: First, it provides ideas having immediate, practical value. Second, it conveys general lessons regarding warfare that transcend a specific place and time.

Marine tankers will have no problem identifying with the practical difficulties that confront LTC Johnny Rodriguez, the Dragon Force commander, and his soldiers. Korea is not considered ideal tank country. Sprinkled throughout the text are training and tactics ideas on how to fight tanks in the dangerously narrow defiles so prevalent in mountainous (and urban) terrain. While Antal lavishes loving attention on the technical advantages of the MlA2 tank in the story, his tactical tricks and tips are useful to any kind of armored vehicle or unit. His techniques of communicating target locations, using visual cues, and “quick draw” gunnery techniques are innovafive. Given the Corps’ commitments to the Korean Peninsula and the chat lenges of fighting tanks in cities, Antal’s ideas are worth a look. Proud Legions may be fiction, but the author’s experi ences as an armor battalion commander lend plausibility to his portrayals of taco cal combat over this kind of ground. Anyone interested in mechanized warfare in close terrain will benefit from the book.

Despite the detailed descriptions of machines and informal discussions of training and procedure that are scat tered throughout the narrative, Proud Legions is ultimately about people-the soldiers who fight the battles. Antal gives his characters their proper due as the makers of defeat and victory. Marine officers and staff noncommissioned officers can easily extract a number of tactical and ethical decision games from the book to teach military judgment and leadership.

Proud Legions also offers a terrifyingly plausible explanation for a resumption of the Korean War, providing a topnotch starting point for Marine exercise designers to develop a Korean “Road to War” scenario. His rationale for the war is so convincing that it will remind Marines they must stay proficient in their conventional warfare skills while they master the technical demands of newer concepts.

Even a casual reading of Proud Legions reveals larger lessons that apply outside the storyline. We are treated to examples of the problems of centralized command and control as a Republic of Korea lieutenant grapples with a decision to detonate a “rock drop” to halt the North Korean advance-without necessary higher headquarters authorization. LTC Rodriguez also finds himself cut off from communications but is able to derive a winning mission for his unit from his commander’s intent. He also has a famous journalist trapped with his unit at the outbreak of war, complicating his task. Themes of asymmetrical approaches–from the strategic level of war to the tactical— abound throughout the story as the keys to victory.

As entertainment, Proud Legions is light and lively; from the start the narrative moves briskly along with the end containing an unexpected twist. Admittedly, the book shares the same weaknesses as other nonhistorical combat fiction; the author focuses on what makes the story interesting and not on the more mundane yet equally necessary matters such as supply. Characterization is also given short shrift in favor of an exciting plot. But these do not detract from a fine storyline and several lessons on warfare.

Proud Legions will invariably be compared to an older book on a hypothetical next Korean War, Larry Bond’s bestseller, Red Phoenix. Antal’s book is more narrowly focused than Bond’s; LTC Johnny Rodriguez’s reinforced armor battalion is unabashedly the centerpiece here. Because of this, Proud Legions is a good deal shorter, moves faster, and is easier to follow. Bond’s book is also showing its age given current events in Korea. Proud Legions is recommended as a fun yet informative read for Marines-what more can one ask from military fiction?