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Watch on the Rhine by John Ringo and Tom Kratman

Cover art by Kurt Miller

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When John Ringo wrote his original Posleen War trilogy (which became a tetralogy due to the 9/11 attacks, which left him unable to write fiction for so long that the ending of the third book had to be made a stand-alone fourth book), he confined the storyline to the United States for the simple reason it was the region he knew best, and was most confident of being able to adequately portray. However, he also acknowledged that many acts of heroism must have taken place beyond these shores, and opened an invitation for other authors more familiar with those areas to write about them, with the possibility of the resultant stories being collected into an anthology similar to the Ring of Fire anthology of 1632-verse stories.

One of the people who took up his invitation was Col. Thomas Kratman, who had already mastered the professions of soldier and lawyer and was interested in learning that of the writer. His military service had taken him all around the world, and he had a number of ideas about how some of the various places in which he'd served would respond to the Posleen invasion.

Reasonably enough, he began with a couple of short stories, one about the Phillippines and the other about Germany. However, the latter quickly expanded in the telling, far beyond the scope of a short story for an anthology. At this point Ringo was sufficiently impressed with the work that he offered to take Kratman on as a full collaborator and turn the overgrown short story into a novel that really brings home the sheer desperateness of the war against the Posleen and the moral issues that it would necessarily entail -- in particular, at which point do you compromise on an important historical issue in order to purchase your species' survival in the present?

The central premise of the Posleen invasion is that humanity's back is against the wall. We are literally facing extinction as a species if we cannot throw back the horde of ravenous reptilian invaders who strip whole planets of resources the way locusts do a field. Invaders who eat literally everything organic, including humans, making no distinction between plants, animals and sophonts -- it's all potential fuel for their ravenous metabolisms.

Only if humanity can mobilize all its military potential does it have any hope of survival. Every able-bodied young male and more than a few young females are trained as soldiers. The super-advanced technology of the pacifist Galactic Federation enables old soldiers to be rejuvenated, made young and strong again so that they can serve as cadre for the enormous numbers of young conscripts being poured into the military system. Every possible source of soldiers to stand against the attackers has been put into service.

All except one, a cadre of experienced soldiers whose bravery in battle is undisputed by any objective historical measurement, but whose organization is considered so utterly defiled that to even consider reviving them would be unthinkable. I am referring of course to the Waffen SS, the military arm of the Nazi Party, inextricably associated with the monstrous racist doctrine of that organization, a doctrine which found its ultimate expression in the horrors of the extermination camps where six million Jews and several million assorted other groups considered undesirable were systematically slaughtered simply for existing while members of those groups. (Horrible as the Soviet Union's Great Terror was, its evil lay in falsification, in the leveling against innocent people of false accusations of actions that would have been crimes had they actually been committed -- had the supposed spy rings and sabotage networks actually existed and been wreaking the destruction that was claimed in all those interrogations and trials, Nikolai Yezhov would be celebrated as one of history's greatest masterminds of counterintelligence instead of reviled as one of history's worst mass murderers).

Given the monstrous nature of the Shoah and how hard present-day Germany has struggled to overcome the shame of its stain upon the national escutcheon, it would be hard to imagine anything that would justify reviving any organization associated with the Nazi Party. Many would say quite sternly that they would sooner die than allow the Waffen SS to be revived to protect them, even against alien invaders hell-bent upon an even worse genocide. But it is one thing to say that on one's own behalf, and quite another to make that decision for every human being -- and that is what the German government is effectively facing, for their decision will profoundly effect the chances the human race has to survive as something resembling the societies we know, as opposed to an Indowy-ized saving remnant human in the biological sense only who are being taken off to worlds far behind the front lines.

Kratman doesn't soft-pedal the evils committed by members of the Waffen SS when they were working alongside the regular SS. The name "Anna" on the tank portrayed on the front cover is the name of the late wife of one of the major characters, a Jewish woman who was forced into prostitution in the guard barracks of the death camps to save her life and who was sterilized -- spayed like an animal is more like it -- when her repeated pregnancies became inconvenient to the SS officers who enjoyed using her as an outlet for their sexual urges. And although the German chancellor of the novel was adamant that no individual whose unit had been involved in war crimes should be rejuvenated, more than a few unreconstructed hard-core Nazis still make their way through the sifting mechanisms to take leadership positions in the reconstituted organization, resulting in some very ugly anti-Semitic incidents.

But the old SS are also hardened in a way that the new recruits are not, and when one of the rare Posleen tactical geniuses realizes that humans have ethical qualms about shooting their own kind in order to destroy an enemy force (something completely incomprehensible to the average Posleen God-king, who will readily sacrifice a portion of his own host of near-moronic normals for food should rations run short and hunting prove impossible), it is the unreconstructed old SS who are able to pull the trigger knowing full well that the human shields will die alongside the Posleen force hiding behind them. An act that buys just enough time that many times more refugees are able to successfully escape in a Dunkirk-style sealift to SubUrbs (underground redoubts) in the mountains of Scandinavia than are killed in the attack.

If this description sounds grim, it should also be noted that this novel is not without its touches of humor and of science-fictional sense of wonder. In addition to the unsparing scenes not only of the horrors of battle, but also of the horrors that can be inflicted through mindless pacifism at all cost, we have the charming story of Rinteel, the Indowy mechanic who became integrated into the crew of the tank Brunhilde, at first purely as a mascot and as he overcomes his reflexive horror of participating in any way in the killing of other sophonts, as the tank's principal maintenance person, freeing the humans for the tasks that directly involve killing and greatly increasing the tank's operating efficiency. And here and there we get glimpses not only of how the Posleen became the most decidedly unnatural killing machines they are, but also of a disastrous earlier contact between humans and Indowy which has been remembered only through confused legends by which a traitor became regarded as one of the Germanic peoples' greatest heroes.

In addition to the story, Ringo and Kratman include a brief concluding essay which seeks to tie some of the themes of the novel to the current global situation and particularly the threats posed both by politicized Islamic Fundamentalism and by transnationalist progressivism (sometimes called tranzi-ism). If their political leanings are not to your taste and would spoil your enjoyment of this expansion of the Posleen War series to include Europe's desperate efforts to evacuate an undefendable land, feel free to skip it and go ahead to the glossary of terms at the very end, which explicates a number of terms and historical references that may be opaque to the average American reader.

Review posted January 1, 2010

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