In this last volume of the “Red Dragon Rising” series, the handful of Americans who know what’s really going on in Vietnam face some fateful choices.
The president faces impeachment over what some in Congress think is his desire to go to war with China and defend Vietnam; he knows he must but must do so covertly. Military liaision Zeus Murphy has narrowly escaped with his life after a harrowing mission to Hainan; his superior wants him out of Vietnam but meanwhile he won’t go without the Vietnamese woman he’s fallen in love with, now under arrest. Commander Dirk Silas of the USS McCampbell has been given the difficult job of shadowing Chinese warships in the South China Sea while simultaneously under orders to avoid; he must play cat and mouse as the Chinese harass Vietnamese and foreign shipping.
Meanwhile, scientist Josh MacDonald, an eyewitness to Chinese atrocities against Vietnamese villagers at the invasion’s outset in the first of the four-book series, is still being stalked by a determined assassin. Fleshing out the action are supporting characters like SEAL Ric Kerfer, Vietnamese Army commander General Minh Trung, and CIA paramilitary Roth Setco.
The big question, though, is: China has the overwhelming advantage in force and numbers. How long will it take to overrun Vietnam? How long do the Vietnamese have? And can anything save them?
This book continues as the others have – strong on the strategizing and weaponry, reasonable in the supply and depiction of action, so-so on the depiction of today’s Vietnam, weak on the characterization. Bond’s background in Pentagon-level war-gaming provides a dimension not always present in technothrillers – a realistic sense of how wars develop, how commanders plot and foresee moves, the ebb and flow of battles and wars, and the many real-life limitations.
The war-gamers are represented here by Murphy, whose background in that is what’s gotten him detailed to advise the beleaguered Vietnamese Army. In this volume he sees a bold stroke by the Vietnamese underdogs can buy time or even stop the Chinese in their tracks.
There are certain limitations in this kind of realistic, what-if, set-in-the-present book. It’s tougher to dramatize automated forms of warfare – like the missiles and anti-missile systems used by the warships. The human actors make some decisions, give some orders, push some buttons and stand around while bombs go hurtling through the sky. (The era of drones and other robot weapons is going to change the thriller genre, as there are fewer guys with guns and more deskbound geeks in flipflops operating Predators out of an office in Nevada.)
Bond is strong on the weaponry and uses that as a form of realistic detail. Now, there are times when you want to know that the Chinese are using a (I’m making this up) EK-68A-BL personnel carrier originally built by the Russians, and other times when it’s just alphanumeric gobbledygook, unnecessarily cluttering up the writing because it doesn’t tell you anything important. I understand that with the on-the-ground viewpoint he’s providing, that stuff does matter – is this a vehicle, say, that the Vietnamese can shoot their AB6-89-43-X (also made up) rocket-propelled grenade at? Or not? This is a realistic book and that stuff, in real life, matters. But lapsing into too much hardware-speak gets a writer onto shaky stylistic grounds. The writer must walk a fine line.
Of great value, though, is the big picture and the whole scenario: Changing climate (plausible) causing draught and food riots (plausible) in the world’s most densely populated nation, causing it to eye a fertile neighbor and historic rival next door (quite plausible.)
What’s also plausible is how and why the Chinese invasion falters: the army is too hidebound. Its commanders are too nervous to take any chances – for good reason, as they face death in their party-dictatorship system if they fail. Its midlevel officers have neither the authority nor experience to improvise in the field. They are slaves to caution. Everyone sugarcoats failures as they report up the line, meaning those at the top don’t have accurate information.
Bond has also chosen an intriguing scenario overall – the U.S. quietly looking for ways to aid those who had been our enemies in a long, difficult and politically damaging war within recent memory, against a nation that could become a far greater threat if it chose an aggressive path. It also offers some benefits from the writer's angle: this is not that much of a high-tech war. It's still being slugged out on the ground by tanks and troops, and whether to take that hill still matters, and makes better reading than pushbutton warfare does.