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Watch on the Rhine by John Ringo and Tom Kratmanone-half star

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsYou have got to be kidding me.

Okay, where to begin? I honestly didn’t have Watch on the Rhine high on my TBR — traumatic memories of John Ringo’s previous “collaboration,” the hopeless Cally’s War, still ringing in my head — until Rob Preece of Books for a Buck told me at Fencon in 2005 that this book was actually worse. From that point on, I don’t know what happened. Perhaps it was the atavistic, rubberneck-the-car-crash aspect of my personality that I haven’t weeded out. But I knew, after hearing that, that I just had to read this thing, come what may. Now, still reeling from the experience, I find my primary response disturbingly similar to that of a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, gazing on the debris of his entire subdivision. You have got to be kidding me. You have got to be fucking kidding me.

Cally’s War was bad, but only on the level of garden-variety schlock. Bad writing, bad storytelling in the service of exploitation cheese whose only selling points were extreme violence and sweaty sex. Watch on the Rhine, from a writing standpoint, is more competent. Tom Kratman (remember, in these kinds of “collaborations,” the less famous guy does about 85% of the work) can string a sentence together and assemble a narrative thread that flows adequately, even if all of his absurd dialogue sounds cribbed from Stan Lee comics of the early 1960s. Its badness, however, is far more ambitiously mounted. Morally, politically, and intellectually, the book is simply reprehensible. Because what it wants to do is give the Nazis — the Waffen-SS, no less — an extreme makeover. It wants us to accept them as misunderstood soldiers who did their duty under corrupt and evil leaders, whose true goal was simply the defense of their Fatherland, and whose rank and file consisted mostly of men of high integrity and scruples who were quietly appalled by the Holocaust and only too happy to tell Hitler and Himmler “fuck you.” And then it resurrects them in the present day and asks us to accept them as the only hope for humanity faced with a ruthless alien horde.

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

Okay — talents like Bujold and Weber aside, Baen Books has long been SF’s home for jingoistic right-wing power fantasies. And in the post-9/11 era, I suppose it might follow that said power fantasies would become increasingly paranoid and extremist in a manner consistent with the zeitgeist. But even I never would have thought Baen would go this far. To think that any audience outside of hate groups monitored by the FBI would be attracted to a story in which the Waffen-SS is given a chance to “redeem” themselves borders on derangement. The book’s added indulgences involving routine stereotyping and bashing of “liberals” — more accurately, the far right’s straw-man image of the antiwar left — are merely the icing on an already stale cake. About the only thing that can be said in defense of Watch on the Rhine is that, early on, it crosses an event horizon beyond which it’s just too stupid to be offensive. That doesn’t mean, however, that you ought to read it, even in an MST3K mindset. Remember, guys like me take out the trash so you don’t have to. You can trust me to do my job, folks. 

I really want to get this over with, so I’ll give you the plot in brief. The book is set in the present day in Ringo’s Posleen universe, in which Earth is about to be invaded by hundreds of millions of those ferocious man-eating aliens, with our only allies the shady, elfin Darhel, who have their own hidden agendas in aiding us. After America has been pretty savagely demolished by Posleen hordes, Europe must scramble to figure out what to do. In Germany, the proposal is advanced that, as no current army can be mustered with the discipline and fighting prowess to meet these invaders head on, the only solution is to use Darhel rejuvenation techniques to restore hundreds of aging ex-Waffen-SS geriatrics to the full flower of youth. The measure is passed by one vote, on the ludicrous grounds that the revived Nazis will be suitably isolated and prevented from spreading their political views while they’re about the business of saving the human race. (In reply to an angry remark about the Nazis’ human rights record, Kratman has the German chancellor say, “In that war everyone murdered prisoners.” Such both-sides-ism is unconscionable considering exactly one side murdered six million civilians based on racial purity ideology.)

Now, here’s the thing. I suspect that if you asked Tom Kratman to his face, “Are you pro-Nazi?” he wouldn’t answer in the affirmative. (Anyone who appears on his website in his US Army fatigues wouldn’t, I would hope.) The view this novel presents seems to fall more along the lines of deploring the Nazis’ genocidal racial policies and crimes against humanity, while perversely admiring the perceived discipline, loyalty, and efficiency of its fascist, militarist caste system, especially as exemplified by the SS. In other words, we’re meant to agree that the Nazis had some good ideas about how to run a country; it’s just too bad all that Final Solution business spoiled everything. 

Now take note: the novel doesn’t spell it out in those exact words. But it’s impossible to read the unfolding story and not glean a sense of awe expressed by the writer(s) towards the ideal the SS was meant to represent: the ultimate soldier and perfect citizen. This is actually something I’ve seen firsthand from time I’ve spent among guys I used to know who held pretty far-right views. They were staunch about their American patriotism, collected guns, loved Reagan and Bush, and wore American flag T-shirts with slogans reading “Burn this one asshole!” And sometimes, they’d pin Nazi emblems to their jackets. Not because they thought the Nazis were good guys or anything. Heavens, no. But man, did they have snazzy Hugo Boss uniforms!

Those who find the aesthetics of Nazism attractive — the bizarre appeal of a rigidly conformist society, with no long-haired lefty agitators to undermine good citizenship and “patriotism” — while excusing or ignoring their innate evil really made themselves and their subculture known to the general public during the openly fascistic Trump administration, a decade after this book was released. The jacket copy tries to tell us this book’s depiction of the Nazis is “unbiased” and examines both “all that was good, and evil, about the most infamous military force in history....” Let’s set aside the fact that the “unbiased” claim is about as laughable as Fox News’s “fair and balanced” slogan. (The revived SS are unambiguously the heroes; the “liberals” who try to oppose them, thus making the world more vulnerable to Posleen attack, unambiguously the villains.) The mere fact this book has the balls to use the phrase “all that was good” in reference to the fucking Nazis in the first place shows how morally adrift the entire enterprise is.

Kratman unwittingly makes things worse by his efforts to portray the disapproval his revived SS men are supposed to feel towards Nazi racial policies, a conceit that flies in the face of the historical record. Racial purity was a tenet at the core of SS membership. (For the sake of fairness, one of the soldiers is portrayed as fanatically eager for a complete restoration of the bad old days of the Reich.) In one scene, the freshly-youthened Gruppenführer Mühlenkampf, touring a plant building a new tank to battle the Posleen, encounters a Jewish engineer. The scene follows:

“David Benjamin,” answered the only truly swarthy man in the room. “Of Tel Aviv,” he continued coldly, so as to keep a hostile note out of his voice. “I am here on loan from Israeli Military Industries. We intend to build a few of these ourselves, and to purchase several more.”
The time for apologies passed before they ever became fully due, thought Mühlenkampf. None I could make would make up for anything. 
Instead he answered, merely, “Very good. I have been most impressed with the design for all four versions of your Merkava panzer. Sensible. Wise. I am pleased you are here, Herr Benjamin.”
The Israeli shrugged as if to say, It would please me more were you displeased to see me, SS man.

So here we have a scene in which a Jew comes face to face with a prominent authority figure from the political party and military force best known to history for mounting a concerted effort towards the genocide of his whole race, and he’s depicted as having some kind of attitude problem. Not to mention the completely unreal and ahistorical portrayal of a Waffen-SS leader feeling remorseful about the Holocaust. For Christ’s sake, the Waffen-SS weren’t hapless Wehrmacht draftees. Through its division the SS-Totenkopfverbände, these were the guys who worked the concentration camps. A more strident gang of racial-purity ideologues you couldn’t find. Just who does Kratman think is buying this? Probably the same yahoos who reject evolution and climate change. 

Finally, I suppose I shouldn't leave this review hanging without a comment or two about Kratman’s pandering to the wingnut extreme of the far right (for the record: yes, I am aware there are wingnuts on the far left, too), and the biolerplate smears of “liberals” that have been a mainstay of America’s poisoned political landscape since the turn of the century and the rise of Karl Rove. There’s a rather stunning scene in the book’s fourth chapter in which thousands of protestors beseige the headquarters of the Waffen-SS, outraged by the presense of Nazis in their midst. Ringo and Kratman waste no time in trying to stage this scene as a metaphor for the current antiwar movement. Ten years later these writers would surely have called them “antifa.” They trot out the usual canards that the antiwar movement are oblivious sympathizers/enablers of the enemy (replace the word “Posleen” with “Muslim terrorists” in the following passage)...

Not one of those rioters saw any incongruity in the fact that the signs bore slogans such as “Peace Now” and “Don’t Grease the Wheels of the War Machine.” Not one marcher found anything amiss in the attempt to sabotage the training of men who would save the Earth, if they could, from the Posleen who would destroy it. The protesters simply refused to acknowledge that the Posleen were any threat. Many of them refused even to acknowledge that the aliens existed. well as the one that casts them as unwitting dupes of treasonous conspiracies or secret well-funded organizations out to undermine Our Way of Life.

...the left of center of German politics, at least of that part which answered to those leaders of the left who had secretly sold out to the [Darhel]....

Both of these distortions, needless to say, are as off-the-mark as a fellatio scene in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, so their metaphorical value is only worthwhile to those assclowns who have bought into the Rush/Hannity/O’Reilly party line hook, line and sinker. It ought to be clarified to the clueless that the antiwar movement that arose during the Iraq War wasn’t made up of naifs who denied that terrorists existed, but those who were critical, to varying degrees of vitriol, of the Bush administration’s policies in dealing with the problem, which basically involved destabilizing the entire Middle East on false pretenses. And as Bush’s approval rating dropped as low as 38%, it wasn’t a fringe opinion, to say the least. But Ringo and Kratman know their intended audience, and are only too happy to assuage the bloodlust of the red state rabble by letting our valiant SS paladins bust some hippie heads. 

Presumably, the folks meant to swallow this stuff aren’t supposed to notice that the dramatic goal of the whole scene is to depict Nazis as victims and have you cheer them as heroes! More frightening to consider is that many of them did notice it, and either didn’t care or were enthusiastically on board.

I think I’ve said enough. Watch on the Rhine is so breathtakingly full of shit that it’s possible a single copy, appropriately mulched, could fertilize enough arable land to end global famine for the next four centuries. But then, I imagine that helping the downtrodden and unfortunate is one of those stupid woolly-headed liberal ideas that’s got no place in the brave new world, eh? Arbeit macht frei, swine.