Phantom Leader by Mark Berent

I picked Phantom Leader up, I think, in Myanmar. It was the only English-language book I could find in the hostel’s bookswap. After sitting down and getting through it, I’m glad I did.

Berent was a pilot in the Vietnam War so he certainly knows what he’s talking about, and it shows in the writing. Here and there, the narrative is put on pause as he details everything about an aircraft, a procedure or a point in history. I just let the cannon sizes and firing rates wash over me, but I’m sure those with more of an interest in the statistics will lap this lot up.

By his own admission at the beginning of the book, he has tinkered with history for the sake of the story too. Many of the major events in the novel happened, but not perhaps in the same order or within the same timescale. That’s the writer’s prerogative – after all, you can’t have the characters twiddling their thumbs because the next major event is six months down the line.

A handful of plots are interwoven, but not unbelievably so. One follows a black POW, another a decorated front line soldier, another a couple of fly-boys and also the situation back in the US in the White House. The overall impression is that Berent was and is fully in support of the troops out there, but highly critical of the administration and rules of engagement the forces were limited by. He certainly doesn’t make the Vietnamese come across as any better or worse than they have been made out to be elsewhere and he pulls no punches criticising either side.

There’s a small romantic interlude with one character that just doesn’t seem to come to anything, but I think there’s a sequel where a few statements made may become clearer. But the main thrust of the novel is the war, the tactics and so forth. There’s plenty fo blood and guts and some excellent action sequences that would look amazing if a film-maker could do them justice. The dialogue’s generally well-written too with only that romantic chapter being a little off-kilter, perhaps just old-fashioned.

I don’t know how heasy his books will be to find, but I’ll keep my peepers peeled for more of his other stuff. For those who like their war books fairly technical and quite bloody, this is a good read.

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