Category Archives: Non-Fiction/Documentary

SOF Over-Representation in Pop Culture

Don Pendleton’s “Executioner” character, Mack Bolan, may have been one of the first Special Forces veterans to undertake fictional adventures for public consumption.

In the movies, Billy Jack was the first such character I can think of.

Eventually comic books got in the act. Marvel was “inspired” by The Executioner to create The Punisher. (Anyone who’s read both probably suspects that Frank Castle is really just Mack Bolan with a jones for skintight costumes.)

But the trend didn’t stop there. It seems like every Vietnam veteran character in a film or novel up to the early 1990s was also ex-Special Forces. To judge by popular culture, you’d think the entire conflict in Vietnam was fought exclusively by “Green Berets.”

It got so ridiculous that in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One Lieutenant James Gordon (Before he becomes Commissioner Gordon), observing a crooked cop on the Gotham PD decides, “He moves like he’s had Green Beret training. It’s been a long time since I had to take down a Green Beret…”

 

I probably need to emphasize that I’m not just talking about action heroes (or villains) here, or characters in other genre work who might need the skills they picked up in SOF in a given storyline. I’m talking about characters (sometimes secondary, sometimes who the readers/viewers never even “meet”) who could just as easily have been a clerk/jerk in Saigon, a supply sergeant in DaNang or a motor pool mechanic at Fort Ord. Nope–SF soldiers were the only ones writers had heard anything about, so by Barry Saddler’s Ghost, everybody gets a green beret.

Finally this trend has changed. Now, it seems, (judging by novels and movies) every swinging richard deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan was a Navy SEAL. Or fought with the Recon Marines.

True, I stacked my military thrillers with  Special Operations Force vets, but I had good reason to. Some missions require such men.

Most don’t.

I could probably dissect this subject at length, but in a nutshell I chalk it up to writers’ laziness.

What makes elite forces elite is that not every combatant is asked to do what they do, and not every combatant could, if asked. Having spent most of my active duty at Fort Bragg, NC (the Special Forces Mecca), I’ve probably seen more green beenies than 99% of writers out there, but I’ve decided to make a conscious effort to represent regular soldiers (and sailors, marines, etc.) more in my fiction from now on, unless special missions are necessary. Special Operations play a crucial role, but it’s regular GIs who win wars and I’m gonna try to remember that, despite what everyone else is doing.

BTW, I can’t help wondering if this pop culture conditioning played a part in the US Army’s decision to let every swinging richard (and split-tail) wear bloused jump boots with their Class As and the black beret of a Ranger.

The younger guys probably aren’t even bothered by the Everyone-Is-Elite image because it’s been this way for a while now, but to me this is like letting every athlete in every league call themselves an All-Star, every recording artist have a platinum album and (closer to home) every author claim to be a best-seller.

Where Moth and Rust Destroy

history
Some of my international and military history, plus some books that were just too tall to fit anywhere else.

Almost all of my books have been in storage since moving to Florida nearly a decade ago. I took precautions against moisture, bugs, etc, but I’m just now getting around to setting up my home office and bringing them in.

militaryhistory
American and military history–even with my creative cramming I couldn’t make it all fit.

About those precautions…they worked fine for a few years, but last time I visited the storage shed, I found that moisture had made the tape quit adhering to the boxes, compromising my meticulous sealing efforts. A couple boxes had fallen over for whatever reason (critters I suspect), busted open, and the contents spilled out.

scififantasybooks
My science fiction and fantasy novels–most of ’em, anyway.

I picked up a couple bookshelves at a yard sale, and am organizing my office…and don’t see how I’ll make everything fit. For every book in these photos there are probably two or three I’ll have to sell or give away.

warnovels
Ahh, my war novel shelf. If you’re reading this, Len Levinson: I was the first kid on my block to collect the entire Sergeant series!

Money is pretty tight these days, and one of the bookcases is missing shelves. I will probably cut some out of scrap lumber.

westerns
Westerns…mostly. My hardcover westerns wouldn’t fit.

This bookcase I crammed with my favorite stuff–history, military history, westerns, sci-fi, fantasy (hack & slash; not all that wussy magic elf doorstop fodder), men’s adventure, war fiction–but it’s becoming clear that I have a lot of other paper books I’m never gonna have time to read even once. So rather than acquire more shelving so it can crowd my already shrinking office, I may start trying to sell it on E-Bay or something. Some of it I already threw away (like some OLD software manuals and a couple Writer’s Markets from back when such things were an allegedly justifiable investment).

destroyedbymildew
Even sitting still, boxed up in storage, these two fell apart. The Ghengis Khan biography mildewed.

Here’s the first heartbreaker I discovered: my treasured second-hand copies of Teddy Roosevelt’s autobiographical story of the Rough Riders, and a Genghis Khan biography. In this latter book I discovered a quote that John Millius paraphrased in Conan the Barbarian, in addition to other fascinating tidbits. Well, despite being protected from sun, rain, children, etc., both books had fallen apart in their boxes. Half of the Genghis Khan book had been glued to the side of the box by mildew, and the other half slid further down inside the box and fragmented even more.

I have big plans for my office, and a lot of the material needed. The plans include video and audio editing for possible upcoming film projects, and of course writing more books. What I still don’t have is enough time in the day. I keep hoping my ship will come in and I can retire from my day job to start chasing these dreams. So far that ship is still lost at sea.

An Epic Covering 24 Hours

We’re still not done with the Normandy Invasion.

The Longest Day is one of those iconic war movies (at least it was when I was growing up–I’m sure it’s something else, now) that every kid remembered when playing with plastic “army men,” most likely trying to recreate one or more of the many memorable scenes from it. Before I ever developed the patience to sit in front of a TV for two hours, I remember three or four times catching the scene with the squad of nuns who march calmly through a firefight to tend the wounded.

As a teenager I sat through the entire movie for the first time. It would not be the last. These days it’s hard to appreciate what an ambitious undertaking this production was–exceeded in scope perhaps only by the monumental event it depicts. It was also unprecedented to have so many big-name actors in one film; but it’s still a riveting movie even when you don’t recognize most of the star power.

Not only does this film warrant a permanent purchase, but the book it was based on is well worth a read, too.

For some reason there’s no footage from the Omaha Beach scenes on Youtube. Couldn’t even find a good still from inside a landing craft. But you get the idea from Saving Private Ryan.

 

Cornelius Ryan did a phenomenal job of investigative reporting in putting the book together. He interviewed hundreds of participants on both sides from lower enlisted up to the highest ranking generals (the supreme commander on the Allied side)–armies, navies and air forces. He took all the personal stories of that day and blended them together into a cohesive epic. And he did this before there was any such thing as cell phones, the Internet, social networks and so on. He had to physically investigate and track down witnesses. There was no Facebook or Classmates.com…or even a word processor for him to compile his data on.

And he did a helluva job. If you have even a passing interest in history, you really should read the book or at least watch the movie.

Many of the participants at the time remarked that there would never be another day like June 6 1944 in history, and they were right. The geopolitics will never resemble what it was then, and technology has ensured that war will never be fought that way again. Most would say we’ll never see another armada of that size either, but time will tell.

More Blood & Guts With Len Levinson

Last time I posted the first half of a Q & A with an unsung master of men’s fiction. Below is the rest of it, but first, just a brief 411 on the two war series we’re discussing:

The Sergeant was Master Sgt. C.J. Mahoney—a grizzled, brutal alpha male infantry soldier slaughtering Germans all over the ETO (in between many prose-porn encounters with nurses and French women–Mahoney was a master of “game”). His usual sidekick was Corporal Cranepool—a seemingly innocent country boy who went kill-crazy in combat. Battle scenes were brutal and almost always involved some bloody bayonet duels. The perspective often zoomed out to the field generals, to orient the reader as to the strategy behind why these battles took place. This was something I appreciated more as I grew older and re-read the books.

The Ratbastards was about a reconnaissance platoon in the Pacific Theater (PTO), led by another incredibly tough non-com, John Butsko. These guys were a rough, raw cross-section of America (Butsko sometimes called them “the worst bunch of f**kups I’ve ever seen!”) who expected no quarter from the Japanese and usually gave none. Their ranks included a cowboy, a stunt man, a former bank robber, a Los Angeles gang member, a full-blooded Apache, a rich blueblood, a hobo, a religious fanatic and a New York hustling wise guy. There was occasional sex when one of the guys got lucky with a nurse or native girl, but mostly there was a lot of dirty, bloody jungle combat…also with a lot of bayonet action.

 HANK: There’s another scene I already asked you about on an Amazon forum, but I’m repeating it here so my blog followers can see your answer: In Liberation of Paris, during a lull in the fighting, Mahoney goes inside a shop and does business with a Frenchman. He hears the sound of a typewriter behind a closed door and asks the proprietor about it, and is told pretty much to mind his own business. Mahoney lets the matter drop and goes off to kill more Germans, and the reader never finds out who is in that room. Mahoney actually met war correspondent Ernest Hemingway in an earlier scene, so I always wondered if that was the mystery typist. It was like some sort of in-joke that I was never let in on. So what gives?

LEN: The guy banging on the typewriter in THE LIBERATION OF PARIS was Jean-Paul Sartre himself, who had a conversation with Mahoney, but the editor at Bantam cut him out.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps they were worried about a lawsuit, or maybe they thought my readers might not know who Sartre was, although he was very famous in the day.

HANK: Bizarre. He cuts it out, but leaves in the reference to the typewriting noise. Well, I’m far from the first guy to be baffled by the choices made in traditional publishing.

In the same book, one of the German officers repeatedly gets phone calls from higher, and is asked, “Is Paris burning?” It happens so many times I remember that phrase jumping out at me. Years later in a public library I saw a soundtrack album for a movie (a musical, I think) called Is Paris Burning? I literally did a double-take. So I have to ask: did that movie influence you to include that dialog so intentionally?

LEN: According to my research, Hitler himself was constantly asking “Is Paris Burning?” – and the question was relayed to the German commanding officer in Paris, who didn’t want to destroy Paris.  A best-selling historical book was written about these events called IS PARIS BURNING?

HANK: Well that certainly makes sense, then. It’s an interesting historic tidbit you included in your story, and someone else built an entire story around the dilemma facing that German C.O.

(BTW, before Allied troops enter Paris, there is a see-saw tank battle between the French and Germans, in which the French commander uses German aggressiveness and his own country’s reputation to good effect. Sun Tzu would have been proud, but Mahoney, Cranepool and the other Americans detached for this “cushy” duty get caught right in the middle of the battling armor.)

After I began learning about grand strategy behind WWII, I appreciated all the scenes you included at staff-level and higher, rendering the macrocosm for the reader before zooming in on the tactical-level microcosms your main characters exist in. Especially pleasing is that you do this from the German and Japanese sides as well as the American. Seems like you did a lot more research on the European Theater…or maybe there was just less detail to go into in the island-hopping campaign?

LEN: A lot more info was available on the European Theater of Operations.

HANK: Speaking of research, Patton visits the Hammerheads in Slaughter City (and gives a memorable speech). Over at Post Modern Pulps, Jack Badelaire opined that you probably watched the movie Patton several times before writing it. I never made the connection myself, but then I haven’t read The Sergeant #6 in many years. And with the “is Paris burning?” deal, I’m now wondering if there’s some truth to that. Spill!

LEN: I saw PATTON two or three times, but was mostly influenced by Patton’s book:  WAR AS I KNEW IT and PATTON by Ladislas Farago as well as THE PATTON PAPERS edited by Martin Blumenson, and other histories of WWII and studies of Patton.  He was a great flawed hero and too bad he died in a freak accident.  He might’ve become President of the United States.  Naturally there are conspiracy theories about his death.

HANK: I once read a Patton biography by his grandson. He was definitely flawed but it’s also inspiring how he commanded the 3rd Army. One thing I like about the movie is that it implies he was one of the few Allied generals in the same league as the Mannsteins, Guderians, Rommels, Von Rundstedts, etc. (Perhaps an exaggeration, but he and MacArthur were the best we had IMO.) And if he hadn’t died in that ironic jeep accident, the conduct of the war in Korea probably would have frustrated him to death.

When I read Doom Platoon, I also read your story about meeting John Lennon, and it got me to thinking (dangerous, I know). As an armchair historian and anthropologist, I’m fascinated with the radical change in our country between the end of WWII and the escalation of our involvement in Vietnam (roughly 1946-1966, let’s say). I don’t mean technology, though certainly that played a part. I mean culturally and ideologically there seemed to be a sort of paradigm shift in the mainstream—especially the younger demographics. Plenty of people can pontificate why it happened, including me, but you actually lived through it. I’d like to get your reflections on it. Did you notice it happening? What did you think of it at the time?

LEN: I could write a 100,000 word book about this subject because you’re right, America has changed drastically and for the worse, in my opinion.  I lived through it and have many opinions which probably will be very unpopular.  I think it all began with the JFK assassination, when journalists and political hustlers cast doubts on the official explanation.  The cultural shift also was influenced by Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, which promoted rebellion against the status quo.  Another factor was Marxist-style ideas promoted incessantly by the media-academia complex, ideas which took deep root in America.  And then the Vietnam War came along, which was disliked by the media-academia complex.  They denounced every mistake by American soldiers and Marines while turning a blind eye to atrocities by the Viet Cong.  The American media-academia complex evidently opposes wars against left wing governments like Cuba and left wing terrorism in general.  For some reason, these high-minded reporters and professors also view jihadism in this context.  They’re very sympathetic to the grievances of suicide bombers, who want to kill us all.

Although America supposedly has a free press, it really is dominated by Marxist-oriented journalists and academics who establish the narrative believed by many people.

We are being brainwashed daily to believe that America is the cause of all the trouble in the world.  Many if not most Americans, including our President, believe this.

HANK: Wow. I’m surprised by how much we agree on. Thank-you for your candor. (I myself challenge the official explanation of the JFK assassination, but I also reject the most popular conspiracy theories regarding it.)

LEN: I should add that I think our military is being destroyed by political correctness.  Men and women shouldn’t serve together because it’s got to undermine combat effectiveness and cause all sorts of problems, which in fact is happening.  I also believe in don’t ask and don’t tell.  All soldiers understand the importance of morale, but political correctness is undermining morale.  I also think that our rules of engagement are ridiculous.  Recently I read THE OUTPOST by Jake Tapper, about an outpost in Afghanistan that was militarily indefensible, but set up to satisfy theories about how to win over the indigenous people.  But 400 of the indigenous people attacked the 50 Americans in the outpost, killed ten and wounded 18 until the rest could be evacuated.  This is the new Army that treats soldiers as social workers and targets for Islamist fanatics, instead of giving them the possibility of victory.

HANK: Wow again. Even more that we agree on. I could write an entire book about women in the military, for instance, but few people (on either side of the political spectrum) want to know the truth–they are comfortable with the amazon superninja myths reinforced daily in pop culture. And historical perspective on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: it was a tool for the Clinton Administration to get around the law, and a transition to what we have now, where homosexuals have a priveleged status in the military (while there is a simultaneous, institutional rise in anti-Christian hostility).

I noticed you had a Private Levinson working at HHQ in some of the Ratbastard books. Of course I never noticed that back when I thought the author was John Mackie. So spill, Len: is this an author cameo?

LEN: Yes, I thought I’d do an Alfred Hitchcock routine, because he often appeared briefly in his movies.

HANK: And now Stan Lee is doing it in all the Marvel superhero movies—usually to nice comedic effect.

Just so you know, I haven’t yet mentioned it, or reviewed it, but my favorite out of both series (each with so many killer books) is Bloody Bastogne.

(Toward the beginning, an aggressive American commander sends his formation against the enemy at an ironic time, when the Germans are launching the Second Battle of the Ardennes. A rare simultaneous attack by opposing forces. Of course the Wermacht has amassed more oomph for the campaign on their side, and the weather neutralizes American air superiority, so the Germans make tremendous initial gains. Mahoney finds himself with the 101st Airborne surrounded by the Germans during the Bulge.)

You dramatize the famous “nuts” response by the Americans to the German demand for surrender. I never really believed that’s exactly what was said, and yet you presented the official story. My best guess is that the reply was actually, “Balls!” But then I doubt I know as much about WWII era slang as you do. Do you believe that ‘NUTS” was literally the message?

LEN: “Nuts” is the official version, but as I recall, some historians suspect that something else was said which perhaps was not appropriate for women and children to hear.

HANK: Same book, I believe: you also dramatized the incident in which the Nazis executed a group of American POWs (and Mahoney escapes). Mildly curious why you included this. Was it just to have Mahoney present for another famous incident in the war?

LEN: Yes, that was exactly the reason.

HANK: Still the same book (more of a comment than question): I just love the way you had Mahoney destroy the German fuel reserves. I thought it was brilliant.

LEN: Thanks for the compliment.  To tell you the truth, I don’t remember the scene.  Many years have passed since I wrote it.

HANK: In that case, forget I said anything. Now I can steal it some day and you’ll never be the wiser.

BTW, this interview is more about your books than about the business, but I’m curious what you had to go through to get your backlist released so you could sell them as e-books. Is it OK to enlighten us on that?

LEN: My literary agent Barbara Lowenstein handled the initial ebook deals.  I assume she contacted e-publishers and pitched all her clients including me.  I think that Piccadilly contacted me about THE SERGEANT and BUTLER and I referred them to Barbara.  Then I entered into an agreement with Piccadilly to publish six of my non-series novels, which all are selling very poorly, I’m sorry to say.

HANK: Do you have any idea when the remainder of The Sergeant series will be converted to ebook?

LEN: Piccadilly has contracted to release all of THE SERGEANT.  They’re releasing them one at a time according to their own schedule.  My impression is that THE SERGEANT isn’t selling well, so Picaddilly isn’t too anxious to continue publishing them regularly.

HANK: I’m very disappointed to hear your books are struggling.

In my father’s generation it was normal for red-blooded American males to read fiction. It wasn’t unheard of when I came along, but more rare than I guess I was aware of at the time. Then the big publishers kicked the mid-list authors to the curb in the late ’80s/early ’90s and what male readers remained were seduced away from the written word by video games and 400 cable channels.

I’ve actually given this a lot of thought because I assigned myself the Quixotic task of reviving men’s adventure, both by promoting good work in the genre (like yours) and writing some of my own. I still don’t want to swallow this pill, but it’s really looking like there’s no money to be made in old-school men’s fiction. There are few red-blooded American males left in our culture, it seems to me, and very few of them have an interest in reading. Some authors are making a go of it with niche sub-genres, but only those with the time and talent to build a platform of followers on the Internet.

It becomes a vicious circle and self-fulfilling prophecy: the gatekeepers of the New York Publishing Cartel (NYPC) decree that men don’t read, so they only publish “women’s issues” fiction. If a dude finds himself in a library or book store, all he sees is romance and chick-lit (and YA and gay/lesbian and vampires), decides that reading is for girls, and leaves to go buy a video game. Statisticians from the NYPC survey the visitors to libraries and book stores, find there are no men there, and their prejudice is reinforced and justified.

With the publishing revolution, some choices have finally been introduced by indie authors and small publishers.

But it’s now harder than ever to get noticed by a reader, since anybody with a word processor can be published (and is). There are mountains of literary garbage to wade through, and the video game-induced attention deficit among the male of the species doesn’t help. There are a lot of obstacles, despite the positive aspects of the technological game-changers.

LEN: I think there’s money to be made in action/adventure fiction, but not as much as in other genres such as women’s romances.  American publishing seems unable to adapt to the modern technological world, and is plagued by political correctness just like every other area of American life.

HANK: You said a mouthful there. I know it’s even worse in Hollywood and the news media, but for a non-PC author it’s one of the biggest problems and obstacles right now. I understand there’s a big upheaval in the science fiction trenches over political correctness—among the authors themselves.

Do you have any projects in the works now? (If so, please spill.)

LEN: Yes, I’m working on three novels:

1. A hard-boiled noir-type novel set in NYC in the mid-1990s.

2.   A mystery/romance set in NYC in 1861, first year of the Civil War.

3.  A romantic/tragicomedy set in NYC and Miami in 1984 and 1985, based on my first marriage and played for laughs.

I’m also working on a memoir of my three years as a caseworker with the NYC Administration for Children’s Services (1997-2000), an experience which disillusioned me concerning government efforts to help “the poor”, and which far exceeded any suspicions I had about government waste and inefficiency, as exemplified by the current VA scandals.

Each of these four books is in final editing stages.

HANK: There are more questions I’d love to ask, Len, but you’ve been patient with me already and I appreciate it very much. We live in exciting times, and one reason is because it’s becoming easier to find your action-packed tales of WWII.

I’m close to finishing the last couple books in the Ratbastards series also. After that, I look forward to starting on Len’s westerns, and I’ve already read a couple of his spy novels. Sooner or later I intend to review them all right here.

Interview With a Master of War Fiction: Len Levinson

It’s an honor to be able to post an e-mail interview I conducted with a legend in men’s adventure fiction, author Len Levinson.

First, a little background.

My love of reading really blossomed because of comic books, and I was superhero-crazy up until my early adolescence. I read some detective novels, historical fiction and sci-fi, but still liked comics best.

One summer I had to take a long car trip with grownups. Bored out of my mind, on one of the refueling stops I went inside the 7/11 and looked over the book rack. Something on the back cover blurb of one book caught me, and I bummed the money to buy it. The book was The Sergeant #4: The Liberation of Paris. It not only gave me something to do on the trip, it introduced me to men’s adventure fiction and the subject of World War Two. That book, and some other things happening at roughly the same period in my life, conspired to alter my course. I became a fan of men’s adventure, especially war fiction, and also became obsessed with WWII.

I picked up more books in the series whenever I found them, and gleaned used copies from second-hand book stores once they were out of print. I was one book shy of the entire series for a long time, but just within the last few years picked up The Sergeant #3: Bloody Bush, becoming the first one on my block to have every paperback in the series. I was still a fan once in the Army, and got a buddy hooked on the series, too.

The author name on the cover of those books was Gordon Davis. Due to my subsequent fascination with the Second World War I also discovered other men’s fiction set in that historical period, including a series by “John Mackie” called The Ratbastards. Barely even noticing author names in those years, I took the attributions at face value, though I sure did notice a similarity in the styles.

The Sergeant was Master Sgt. C.J. Mahoney—a grizzled, brutal alpha male infantry soldier slaughtering Germans all over the ETO (in between many prose-porn encounters with nurses and French women–Mahoney was a master of “game”). His usual sidekick was Corporal Cranepool—a seemingly innocent country boy who went kill-crazy in combat. Battle scenes were brutal and almost always involved some bloody bayonet duels. The perspective often zoomed out to the field generals, to orient the reader as to the strategy behind why these battles took place. This was something I appreciated more as I grew older and re-read the books.

The Ratbastards was about a reconnaissance platoon in the Pacific Theater (PTO), led by another incredibly tough non-com, John Butsko. These guys were a tough, raw cross-section of America (Butsko sometimes called them “the worst bunch of f—kups I’ve ever seen!”) who expected no quarter from the Japanese and usually gave none. Their ranks included a cowboy, a stunt man, a former bank robber, a Los Angeles gang member, a full-blooded Apache, a rich blueblood, a hobo, a religious fanatic and a New York hustling wise guy. There was occasional sex when one of the guys got lucky with a nurse or native girl, but mostly there was a lot of dirty, bloody jungle combat…also with a lot of bayonet action.

(I have most of the paperbacks in this series, though it was longer.)

My suspicions grew over the years that these two series were written by the same author. And eventually that proved to be the case. Furthermore, thanks to the Internet, I actually came into contact with this master of men’s fiction.

Len’s been very gracious in granting this Q&A to a fan of his work.

HANK: Having read your essay previously, I understand you wrote The Sergeant first, then The Ratbastards. And I’ve recently read your novella about the suicide platoon during the Battle of the Bulge. So being fairly well-versed in the war fiction of Len Levinson, my theory is that the NCO in Doom Platoon was your first attempt to fictionalize one of the non-coms you knew while in the Army. By the time you created Mahoney, I think you had a much more developed portrait of the character you wanted to star in your wartime adventures. I’m not going to say Butsko was yet another step up; nor do I think they are the same guy with different names fighting in different theaters. The more I read from both series, the more I see them as two different guys. Obviously there are similarities, but I can tell them apart easily, even if you were to cast them both in one story and refer to them by alias. If the two met, I’m not sure if they would kill each other or share a few rounds of drinks at the bar.

Tell me about these guys—were Mahoney and Butsko based on any specific men in particular, or were they amalgams of various war veterans you crossed paths with?

LEN: It’s difficult to say with certainty where characters come from, because writing fiction is a mystery or a “spooky art” according to Norman Mailer.  As far as I know, Mazursky in DOOM PLATOON, Mahoney in THE SERGEANT and Butsko in THE RAT BASTARDS were all similar and based on sergeants I met in the Army, but perhaps mostly based on an old friend named Mike Nichols, who was born and raised in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen, served as a soldier in Europe during World War II, served five years in a federal penitentiary for drug smuggling, and was a very tough guy.  He exerted an enormous influence on me, for better or worse, because he definitely was no angel, but he died in 1993 and I still miss him very much.  He was a peculiar mixture of brutality and gentleness which somehow seeped into the characters of the above-mentioned three sergeants.  He also was one of the best conversationalists and storytellers I’ve ever met, and also introduced me to my first wife.

HANK: Now this is like finding buried treasure! First let me say that I really noticed this mixture of brutality and gentleness in Sgt. Butsko. He’s a bad mamma-jamma nobody in their right mind wants to cross. Yet I remember in Too Mean to Die I was prepared to read about a horrendous barroom brawl when he and a marine laid claim to the same stool, but he displays rare restraint and makes friends instead (later on he does take another marine apart, but only after being pushed too far). Then in Down and Dirty he is prepared to castrate Bannon for fooling around with a native girl, but suddenly shows almost paternal affection for him instead. Rather than striking me as out-of-character, it made Butsko all the more real to me…and perhaps more sympathetic than Mahoney.

But I’d like to know more about Mike Nichols. Was he raised Catholic like Mahoney? (I can certainly see Mahoney smuggling drugs, if forced out of the Army and other circumstances conspired.) I’m also wondering if the stories he told included any amorous exploits during wartime in Europe, and if that influenced your depiction of Mahoney’s prolific “alpha game.”

LEN: As near as I can recall, Mike was raised in Hell’s Kitchen by a single mother.  I don’t remember if she was divorced, or her husband deserted, or she was an unwed mother.  She was very left wing and so was Mike, who also was a militant atheist.  I often argued religion with him, because as mentioned earlier, I’m a mild-mannered religious fanatic, although perhaps not always so mild-mannered.  In the context of NYC, atheism was very common and I the oddball.
Mike was very attractive to women and had many love affairs before marrying Maggie Gethman, who became the first woman managing editor of FIELD AND STREAM magazine.  Mike looked sort of like that old time movie star Victor Mature combined with John Garfield.

Mike had been very influenced by Nietzche, and thought that conventional morality was bullshit.  He definitely had the criminal mentality mixed with generosity and occasional saintliness.  I should add that he deserted from his unit in WWII, became a black marketeer, was locked in a stockade and busted out.  I don’t know what kind of discharge he got.  After mustering out he went to Columbia University for a few years, hung out with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and that crowd, and one of his many girlfriends was the real-life character on whom the fictional character Mardou was based in Kerouac’s THE SUBTERRANEANS.

Once Mike said to me:  “You’re the craziest person I never met in my life, but you seem  normal.”  I took this as a great compliment because he’d travelled extensively and had met many crazy people.  In fact, he was quite crazy himself.
Mazursky, Mahoney and Butsko all had elements of Mike, but weren’t totally based on him.  I created characters out of bits and pieces of various real people and invented a lot also.  Writing definitely is a spooky art because it’s difficult to pin down the source of everything.  Some of me is in those sergeants also, and probably in every other character I created.

HANK: Just a comment here about all your main characters I’ve encountered: I think it’s their fatalism that appeals so much to me. That’s what helped me relate to Brockman in Operation Perfida right away…but possibly why others may not like or understand him. When I think about it, probably all my own protagonists are fatalistic too. Just a hunch that maybe this was one of your friend’s attributes that you translated to the page?

LEN: Yes, Mike could be considered quite fatalistic and cynical.  But so can I.  Mike and I would insist we’re realistic, trying to live without illusions.  I should point out that Mike didn’t seem depressed or unhappy at all.  He was a true party animal, and he and his wife Maggie were constantly inviting me to parties at his apartment, or to parties in other people’s apartments.  Once he invited me to a party that lasted three days, but I was only there for around 10 hours.

HANK: There are differences in Bannon (a cowboy from Texas) and Cranepool (a farm boy from Iowa); chiefly, Bannon is not nearly as innocent to begin with…but there’s a whole lot of similarities, too. Did these two hatch from the same egg?

LEN: I don’t see Bannon and Cranepool as similar at all.  Cranepool was Mahoney’s sidekick but Bannon was no sidekick and had real leadership potential.

HANK: That is a good point. Bannon was certainly more mature, and was a capable leader. Cranepool was a natural follower who idolized Mahoney.
The Sergeant was usually a one man show, though occasionally Corporal Cranepool shared Mahoney’s spotlight. The Ratbastards (as the name suggests) was more like an ensemble. There was Homer Gladly, Sam Longtree, Frankie LaBarbara, the Reverend Billy Jones, Craig Delane, Shaw, Gomez… though Butsko and Bannon were certainly your “go-to” guys. What made you decide to change your approach to writing about the war between these two series in regards to number of continuing characters?

LEN: You’re right:  THE SERGEANT was mostly a one-man show while THE RAT BASTARDS was an ensemble effort.  After completing THE SERGEANT, I didn’t want to take the same approach with THE RAT BASTARDS, because that would be boring.  So I decided to develop more characters and have some fun with their interaction.  But Butsko was the main man.  But the way, I named him after an old college friend of mine named Butsko from Duquesne, Pennsylvania.

HANK: I can assure you that The Sergeant was FAR from boring. Every so often I go back and read them again, because each one was such a fun ride. But the interaction between the Ratbastards was certainly fun, as well. It’s authentic and hilarious at the same time.

LEN: No, I didn’t mean to say that I thought THE SERGEANT was boring.  I thought it might be boring for me to write another series centered around one sergeant.  So I threw in more characters and came up with THE RAT BASTARDS, which was enormously enjoyable to write.

HANK: Back to The Sergeant for a moment. Mahoney starts out on an OSS-type mission, detached from the Rangers in Death Train. In Hell Harbor he rejoins the Rangers, but for the bulk of the series he is a plain ol’ straight leg dogface. Did you always intend to have this “demotion” take place? If so, why? If not, what made you steer him in that direction?

LEN: I wrote THE SERGEANT for Walter Zacharius, president of Zebra Books, who’d been a Sergeant in WWII and participated in the liberation of Paris.  After I handed in the first SERGEANT, which was DEATH TRAIN, he asked me to come to his office, where he explained that most soldiers never went on missions behind enemy lines, and he wanted the series to be about ordinary front line soldiers.  So I followed orders and wrote about ordinary front line soldiers beginning with the second novel, HELL HARBOR.

HANK: As an old soldier myself now, I’m curious why you always have your GI characters fasten their grenades to their lapels. Was there no place on a GI’s web gear to keep grenades back in the WWII/Korea days?

LEN: When I was in the Army, web gear consisted of the same cartridge belts as WWII soldiers.  These web belts didn’t have special fittings for grenades, as I recall.  Fastening grenades to clothing or dropping them in pockets was probably the common practice.  I was in the Army 1954-1957 and never in combat.

HANK: I took the author names at face value when I was a kid, but even then I noticed that John Mackie and Gordon Davis sure described combat in very similar styles. I had never read anything like it. Maybe it’s nothing more than my own twisted psyche, but I consider you a genius at describing horrific carnage in a way that makes it sound rather fun. You’ve mentioned before your preoccupation with surviving a bayonet charge by the Red Chinese if you were sent to Korea—is that what got you started imagining such Technicolor bloodbaths?

LEN: Thanks for the compliment.  Perhaps I’m a warped genius but definitely not a full-blown genius.  Joe Kenney on the GLORIOUS TRASH blog called me a “trash genius”.  Since childhood, I’ve always had a very vivid imagination, perhaps because I often was alone reading comic books.  When I was in the Army, I regularly imagined bloody scenarios, and wondered how I’d respond to real combat.  Everything I am as a writer, and everything I’ve written, came from my peculiar imagination influenced by the real world.  I never could’ve been a sci-fi writer, although I’ve read and enjoyed sci-fi.

HANK: What comics did you read? (Batman and Spiderman were my favorites, but I liked a lot more than just those. And after reading my first Gordon Davis novel, I began buying Sgt. Rock.)

LEN: I was born in 1935 and started reading comic books when I was six years old in the first grade.  That was 1941, back in the so-called Golden Age of Comics.  My favorites were Batman, Captain Marvel, Superman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Submariner, The Heap, and a comic called, I think,  CRIME DOES NOT PAY, about lurid true crime stories concerning bloody murders and such.  I also loved a comic book series called PICTURE STORIES FROM THE BIBLE, which was the Old Testament, King James Version, as a series of comic books.

HANK: I’m finding that our childhoods were not terribly different, though we were separated by generations and geography.

The Reverend Billy Jones is a character who I didn’t like much at first. Seems to me that when you first began the Ratbastards series he was the typical religious-right stereotype (anti-Semitic bigot, etc.). But later on you allowed him to become more sympathetic, I thought. In Suicide River, Victor Yablonka (of the Recon Platoon) grudgingly accepts a Gideon Bible from Billy Jones, in a scene I found surprisingly touching. Yablonka puts it in his breast pocket and that Bible winds up stopping a bullet, saving his life. Then, when I finally completed my Sergeant collection with Bloody Bush, I read about the same thing happening to Mahoney. So you plagiarized yourself. First off, did you ever sue yourself over copyright infringement (and if so, who won)? Secondly, what was it about this idea you liked so much to use twice?

LEN: I wasn’t plagiarizing myself.  I was only reflecting reality.  During World Word II, true stories were told about Bibles stopping bullets, so I tossed a few of these incidents into my books, because evidently they actually happened, and as a mild-mannered religious fanatic, I kind of liked the idea.

HANK: Now that is fascinating. BTW, if you care to, I ‘d like to know just a little more about your religious fanatacism. For some reason I thought you were Jewish, but then outside the Hasidic it’s hard to think of any examples of Judaism that could be considered fanatic. Certainly this topic doesn’t have to be made public if you prefer not.

LEN: Both my parents were Jewish, born in the U.S.A.  My mother died when I was four.  My father never arranged for any Jewish education or Bar-Mitzvah, which made me very unusual among Jews.  I grew up in a Catholic and Protestant working-class neighborhood in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  Some Sundays I went to Catholic church with my Catholic friends.  Other Sundays I went to an Episcopalian church with my Episcopalian friends.  I never went to any synagogue.  My father had contempt for religion although he claimed to believe in a “supreme being”.  I was very influenced by the comic book series mentioned above, PICTURE STORIES FROM THE BIBLE.  Around 16 I fell under the influence of so-called “progressive” thinking and became an atheist.  Then I had a religious experience during an acid trip when I was around 28, which turned me into a mild-mannered religious fanatic.  I became interested in Eastern religions, converted to Roman Catholic in 1979, dropped out in 2006, and now practice my own religion which I call Transcendental Realism, an amalgamation of everything that seems true in all the religions I studied and practiced.

HANK: We are roughly halfway through the Q & A. I’m going to pinch it for now and come back with Part 2 next time, in which Len answers questions I have about specific scenes in these books, we discuss General George S. Patton, men’s fiction/action adventure, author cameos and some other cool stuff.

Amazon Reviews For Dummies

I just had to excerpt from Larry Correia’s rant over on his blog. He put voice to some of the frustration so many authors have to swallow. Looks like the straw that broke the camel’s back was some jerk who admittedly didn’t even read the book he posted a review for, but gave it two stars because he didn’t like the price.

(For the record, Mr. Correia has no control over price-setting, since he is traditionally published.)

Here’s part of the rant:

“I didn’t like the color of the box the book was shipped in. ONE STAR!” “I bought this book that is clearly not in the genre I like, so it gets ONE STAR for not being in the genre I wanted because I’m too fucking stupid to read the back cover blurb!” On and on. Holy shit, there should be an IQ test before people are allowed to use the internet, because you are really pissing off the rest of us who don’t sleep in helmets.

Authors simply love having our average ranking pulled down for bullshit that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual book. “I do/don’t like sci-fi. This book has/doesn’t have sci-fi in it. ONE STAR!” “I don’t like whales. Whales are stupid and fat and so is Herman Melville! Moby Dick gets ONE STAR!”

It would be difficult to capture the attitude of this type of reviewer more accurately than these two paragraphs do.

I’ve seen quite a bit of this kind of garbage on Amazon, but I don’t really have a solution for it. The fact that Amazon makes it so easy for their customers to leave reviews is a plus. 95% of people who read a book never leave a review; and it’s too bad that that percentage does not include all the idiots, petty vindictive harpies and PC thought police.

But alas, the 5% who do review has a strong representation from those demographics. Larry is spot on with his lampoon of the individuals who read outside their genre boundaries, then pan the book for not being in the genre they prefer.

I’ve got a hunch some of the drive-by reviews I’ve seen are written by authors (or wannabe authors) hoping to elevate their own reputation by slinging mud at the competition.

As semi-prolific Amazon reviewer myself, I often err on the side of being too generous with the star rating…especially for indie authors. I figure indies need all the help they can get, so I’ve given a lot of 5-star reviews on Amazon when I normally would have been a bit more critical. I usually don’t post a review at all when I think a book only deserves 1 or 2 stars.

And y’know what I’ve noticed? I get a lot of “not helpful” votes on the rare occasion that I do post a tough review. Right up to and including 4-star reviews! I take my time to convey what the book is about, careful not to give away the ending or too many spoilers, and point out what I liked about the book (all for no compensation and often not even reciprocation)…only to have the author and/or their fans vote my review down.

One change I do see as positive is the removal of tagging.

So far as I know it never helped either authors or readers anyway, it was abused as a marketing tool…and then there was my own experience.

I noticed somebody had tagged another author’s book “anti-Semitic” and a few other shocking accusations. I had read the book and knew this was total BS, so I blogged about it. Next thing you know, my own debut novel got tagged “anti-Semitic.”

Now, anyone who has read Hell & Gone knows that was BS, too. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if my name was only a couple spaces down from Salmon Rushdie’s on the Islamic Hit List for how Zionist a couple of my heroes are.  And I’m sure the Neo-Nazis would include me on a list of their own (assuming they could read or write).

This is how easy it is to malign the character of an author (or anyone) in the Information Age. An accusation is all that’s needed to wreck somebody’s reputation, because most people’s knees will obediently jerk without them ever checking (or thinking) for themselves to find out if there’s any truth to it.

This is one of the costs of freedom: one or two assholes can ruin a good thing for everybody.

What is a Kindle/E-Reader Device?

iconVirtual Pulp Press and the Two-Fisted Blog are all about old-school action adventure (yes, even some new stuff is old-school), so it makes sense a lot of folks who visit here prefer a paperback to reading a book on some newfangled electronic device.

If that is your preference, then this post is for you.

When I first heard about e-readers, my reaction was, “What the…?” Why in the world would you want to take something as simple as a book and replace it with something that requires electricity? That makes about as much sense as replacing mechanical steering linkage in an automobile with electronic controls. (That right there is the pinnacle of stupidity, IMO.) And my eyes get tired enough looking at computer displays every day. I experienced similar hostility when the military (then the world at large) started becoming dependent on the GPS, but that’s another rant story.

I eventually changed my tune and, in about 2011 I got an e-reader of my own.

What is a Kindle reading device (or other brand of e-reader)? It is a portable library that you yourself stocked, effortlessly.

First off, one thing an e-reader does that paper can’t is allow you to carry thousands of books around with you in a device that is thinner and lighter than the average paperback. An entire library you can take anywhere you go. Fiction, non-fiction, magazines…and if you’re like me and don’t like random strangers starting up conversations with you when they study the cover of what you’re reading (that right there may be worth an article in itself), an e-reader offers you a greater degree of privacy. All busybodies know is that you’re looking at some kind of device. Of course they can then pester you with questions like “what is that–a big cell phone?” or “whatcha readin?” but hey, baby steps. You can also upload audio books to the device, or music if you like listening to tunes while you read. (At least you could with my model of Kindle…more on that later.)

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Ever been reading while you eat, or doing something else that requires at least one hand, when your hand cramps up from holding the book open to the page you’re on? Then you either have to put the food down and turn pages every minute with your other hand, or demonstrate impressive dexterity by turning the pages with two fingers while the other three continue to hold the book open. Well, e-readers are cramp-free.  And “pages” are turned easily with the press of the ambidextrious buttons. I’ve never heard anyone else mention this advantage, but it was an important one for me.

By-the-way, one surprisingly common objection to e-readers I’ve heard is that people like the smell of books. Hmm. Freud may be better-equipped to analyze that than I am. Though I certainly don’t mind pleasant aromas, I buy books to read them; not to smell them. Maybe I should develop some sort of perfume that smells like paper to spray on reading devices, and sell it for the difference in cost between a mass market paperback and an e-book.

Ooh, that’s another point. Buy a traditionally published paper book and you’re not just paying the author, agent, editor(s), corporate suits and their assistants, but also the truckdrivers and secretaries and beancounters in the distributing company, the clerks in the bookstore…and so on. With an e-book, the author gets a cut, and the publishing company gets a cut, and the book is delivered painlessly to your device from a wireless network. In other words: the same book for the fraction of the price!

Well, here is one caveat to the above paragraph: the New York Publishing Cartel (NYPC for short), for reasons of their own (involving some combination of greed, desperation, self-preservation, malice and fear) have been jacking up the price of the e-books they have rights to until they’re almost as expensive as the mass market paperbacks. But that doesn’t make e-reading as prohibitive as they’d like, because…

The NYPC no longer has the power to tell you what kind of books to read!

E-publishing has democratized the literary landscape, and you can now find good books that the suits in New York City would otherwise have decided you could not read. And those books usually cost much less. If you walk into a book store, and go to the fiction section, for instance, your choices are:

  • romance
  • chick-lit
  • young adult
  • paranormal
  • supernatural thrillers
  • political thrillers
  • techno thrillers
  • gay/lesbian

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But what if you want to read something not in those genres? Tough luck, if you only read paper. With an e-reader, though, the selection is nearly unlimited.

There is a downside to the e-publishing revolution, however. It’s much easier to get work published now than it ever has been, and so a lot of garbage is flooding the market, peddled by people barely competent enough to write a tweet or Facebook status. They can’t spell, punctuate or put a coherent sentence together (much less suspend disbelief or present compelling conflict), but by Zeus they’re authors now, and nobody can tell them different. There are so many of them, pimping so much garbage for such cheap prices, that it can be difficult to glean out the good stuff amongst it (that’s one reason Virtual Pulp Press went into business).

But even before the e-publishing revolution there was more crap than good–it was just edited crap.

As long as your e-reader is with you, and you have a 4G, 3G or wireless connection, you can shop for a book whenever you want without driving anywhere, and it’s delivered in seconds, ready for you to dig in. Also, I believe every online store has some sort of forum for feedback, to tell others what you thought of the book if you’re so inclined.

Earlier I mentioned eye strain–a valid concern. Some of the readers (especially the newer ones competing with the iPad) are backlit, and so quite similar to computer or smartphone displays. But this is where the early Kindles stand head and shoulders above the competition. Their screens display pages that look like ink on paper. No backlighting. Reading a Kindle is no harder on your eyes than reading a paperback. You might be amazed when you take a look at one. When I first got mine the screen saver was on and I spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to peel off a protective sheet covering the screen…that wasn’t there. I assumed it was a protective cover with some information printed on it because I couldn’t imagine an electronic display ever looking like that.

While writing this post I’ve been interrupted 26 times, so this article may not be as comprehensive as I intended. What do you think–have I missed something?

P.S: Wow. While I was in the process of writing this very blog post, my Kindle bit the dust. It is out of warranty and the model I have isn’t even made anymore. Refer back to my initial reservations: Electronic devices will all eventually fail you. I was hoping this one would last longer. Never had a paperback do this to me. Sigh.

P.P.S: Actually, since I bought it at Target, I had paid extra for their additional coverage when the factory warranty expired. They tried to renege, and it got ugly for a while, but I was finally credited with the purchase cost. Unfortunately, the Kindle Keyboard is no longer made (free 3G + wireless; audio capabilities for recorded books or music, a physical keyboard, etc.), and Target quit carrying Kindles. I was ready to switch to Nook, but none of them could do all my Kindle did. In fact, I couldn’t even get the display Nooks to come off the screen saver. I wound up taking my Kindle to a gadget repair place (long story in itself) and using the store credit to buy an XBox.