Ghost Recon: Combat Ops (David Michaels)
If you've read my previous reviews of Tom Clancy tie-in books, you might have a certain preconceived notion about the quality if this book. Poorly edited, dumb black and white story, and awful characters would all be hallmarks of just about every one of these books, and to some extent that continues even into Combat Ops, the second book to tie in to the popular Ghost Recon video games. Unlike the previous book in this series, and most of the "David Michaels" books in general, this isn't some trumped up world-at-stake mission that only a crack team of the most boring special forces guys ever can solve. This is instead an exploration into the war in Afghanistan, a book that takes a slightly more nuanced and original perspective on war. Combat Ops still has tons of flaws and is arguably not even any better than other books in this series, but it can be applauded for doing something totally different, regardless of end result.
The plot this time involves the Ghost Recon team’s efforts to hunt down a dangerous Taliban leader believed to be hiding in the area in which they are stationed. Their efforts to apprehend this combatant meet with the usual roadblocks- bad intel, a crafty villain, and dogged enemy soldiers all stand in the way of the high-tech special ops team. What sets this book apart is the conflict between the various branches of the American military. The Recon team just wants the guy dead, while the CIA are using him as an informant, and the regular Army personnel are trying to nation-build in a nearby village and do not want to deal with the pressures a move against this powerful figure would create. Additionally, friction within the Recon team gives us a good look into the psychological tolls of war and shakes up the otherwise completely stale group dynamic. There are plenty of the usual heroics if those are your thing, but the focus of the book is arguably on the dysfunctional relationship and utterly incongruous goals of the American military.
These political tie-ups aren’t that complicated, though they frequently make absolutely no sense, but it’s a really nice twist on the expected “bad guy with nuclear weapons threatens the world, Ghost Recon team stops him in a high-octane action novel.” It’s a remarkably low-key novel in that respect, and it almost, almost approaches a read worthy of your time thanks to this somewhat unique, layered plot. It’s everything else that ends up ruining this novel, however.
As with most of these Tom Clancy tie-in books, the characterization is horrendous. Mitchell is a rock headed moron, arguing with people for no reason and being as much of a contrarian as possible while displaying little in the way of positive traits beyond the generic hero stuff that comes hand in hand with a book like this. Worst of all, he seems to have a complete misunderstanding of economic systems, as he deems the U.S. efforts to build schools and wells for the people of an Afghan village as wrong and misguided because socialism. He even pulls out the Margaret Thatcher quote to prove his point. Apparently in his world humanitarian relief efforts are socialism, so I have absolutely no problem with imagining this guy as some kind of just-world numbskull.
He doesn't stop with having absolutely awful and ill-informed opinions (note that it isn't the fact that he is conservative that irks me, but the idea that he literally thinks that helping people in developing countries is a bad thing because it is socialism, even though it really isn't) as he seems to create conflict with just about everyone in this book. Beyond being an irredeemable jerk, there isn't much to remember about this character. He has some generic back story and strong combat skills, but as a personality he isn't someone you'll root for or remember after finishing up this story.
Everyone else in this book is just background filler or someone for Mitchell to argue with. Apparently some of these other guys were in the last book? Yeah, I totally don't remember that. Anyways, there is no concept of Mitchell's brothers in arms beyond their names and the most generic of archetypes- the lovable giant, the jokester, the unsteady one- to attach them with, and the friends and foes in the rest of the book mostly follow suit. Our antagonist is the most stereotypically evil guy imaginable, though he would've been a tough sell in the characterization department no matter what because the book's first person limited perspective prevents much of an appearance. Still, making the antagonist into basically a cartoon bad guy in a book that is supposed to be about a nuanced conflict just doesn't make sense.
Perhaps the biggest failing in why this book's considerably more mature subject matter fails to impress is the fact that the writing has not taken the corresponding jump in quality and tone. Despite the fact that this plot is gritty, bloody, and various shades of gray, this book is constructed just like all the others in this series. Short, choppy sentences, unbelievably cheesy dialogue, repetitive fight scenes, inexcusable typos (mostly misplaced punctuation this time around,) are all hallmarks of the series, and sadly something that can't be shaken even when the subject matter demands it. The tone is all messed up, too, as Mitchell's narration seems more appropriate for an over the top, 80's action movie than something trying to give us a look into the difficult War in Afghanistan. His "witty" commentary and snide remarks may be the filter a distressed soldier is using to handle his experience, but it just sounds off in this book. We end up getting a book that has the subject matter of an R-rated, intricate war movie, something like Hurt Locker or Apocalypse Now, but with the writing style of a 13-year-old's Call of Duty fanfic. It just doesn't work, more so than usual in this series.
It's a rather surprising take on a story for a Ghost Recon video game tie in book, and as something a bit outside of the norm it is worth checking out, but you'll have to deal with awful characters and a mostly boring and repetitive story to do so. This is a far more ambitious novel than the previous one, but it still falls well short of being genuinely worthy of your time.