Pulp Fiction for Guys, or My Guilty Pleasure

Back in the Hutong
Dealing with the RSS Nightmare
1945 hrs.

When I was growing up, I always equated pulp fiction with Harlequin romances and other, similar examples of the type of fiction my mom – only somewhat despairingly – called “bodice-rippers.” This was stuff to be avoided, good for little more than some low-brow titillation.

Then, when I went to college, I stumbled upon a book series called “The Brotherhood of War” by an author named W.E.B. Griffin. The book I picked up, The Lieutenants, was the first in the series and had the name of somebody I respected on the cover heartily endorsing it. For the price of a paperback – and being in the need of some cheap amusement – I figured it was worth a try.

A quarter of a century and over two dozen books (in four series) later, I can comfortably say I’m hooked.

The books (W.E.B. Griffin is a pen name, the author is actually William E. Butterworth III) are essentially an easy-to-read form of historical fiction, deftly mixing actual events, historic figures, and a continuing cast of main characters who are usually aggregates of real people, whom Butterworth usually either knew personally or second-hand. Providing a dual-focus on the lives of the characters (the heroes are either career military, police, intelligence, or some combination thereof, and often independently wealthy) and the events both large and small, the narrative rips along, assuring that one of the books can easily be devoured in a single day.

And it’s great stuff, filled with well-researched detail and highly likeable (and, in many cased, thoroughly detestable) characters. I have to say, after reading a couple of dozen of the books I’m starting to see some fairly common threads, but most of Butterworth’s characters are fun to read about, and the opportunity to read about forgotten chunks of 20th Century History from the eyes of the participants is just too good to miss.

“The Brotherhood of War” series, for example, follows the careers of a half-dozen U.S. Army officers from the rout at Kasserine Pass in 1942 through the raid on the Hoa Loa Prison (Hanoi Hilton) nearly four decades later. In the course of the books, we get to look not only World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, but also at the occupation of Germany, Truman’s forgotten (but effective) intervention in Greece in 1946, the Marshall Mission in China, the development of the helicopter, the French rout at Dien Bien Phu, the preparations of an invasion of Cuba, the creation and growth of the U.S. Army Special Forces, the Simba rebellion in the Congo, and a host of other events large and small that are of interest to history buffs and people with somewhat elevated testosterone counts.

“The Corps” series covers a similarly-sized group of career Marine officers who are all connected by their pre-World War II service in Shanghai, then move into the Intelligence and aviation establishment when the war begins. Focused largely on the Pacific, the books were my first introduction to the “China Marines,” the politics around MacArthur’s headquarters that often insulated him from the truth, wartime Washington D.C., Colonel Mike Edson and the Marine Raiders, Marine intelligence, the anti-Japanese insurgency on Mindanao in the Philippines led by an unknown U.S. Army colonel named Wendell Fertig, the Australian and American coastwatchers in the South Pacific, and a host of equally obscure but incredibly fascinating events and personalities.

“Honor Bound” is a somewhat shorter series, but focuses on a single OSS mission in World War II: the effort to try to pull Argentina out of its neutral-and-leaning-toward-Nazi Germany status and into the war as one of the Allies. Apart from a superb introduction to Argentina, the book opens the door on some of the more hare-brained of the OSS’ missions in World War II, and the kind of people – good and bad – it pulled in to execute them. On the balance, it makes the OSS look somewhat less like keystone cops than the successor agency, the CIA, but it gives some clues as to why Harry Truman disbanded the OSS at the end of the war.

“Men at War” is a somewhat more thorough study of the OSS and some of the work it did both in Europe and on the Home Front in World war II.

“Badge of Honor” is a fascinating look at the Philadelphia Police Department in the early 1970s, when former cop Frank Rizzo was in the mayor’s office.

These are Butterworth’s main series. If you are a fan of Tom Clancey, Dale Brown, Herman Wouk, or Leon Uris, pick up the first title in any of these series. I can guarantee you’ll enjoy the airplane read, and chances are you’ll learn something to boot.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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