The War After Armageddon — Ralph Peters

Oh noeeeeeeeeez the terrorists nuked LA! Now the US has embarked on a war of despair in the Middle East, in a 21st century version of the Crusades. There are concentration camps for Muslims and Arabs in Europe, and internment camps for them in the US. The US has opened its borders to moderate Muslim civilians fleeing European hatred. The internment camps might suck, but at least there’re more ways out of those then DEATH.

There are several things this work does right.

1. There’s a sustained critique of fanaticism. There are several types of good guys and they’re caught between two militant, conservative types of organized religions. The new kind of American Christian is terrifying, and the idea that this organized religious group would garner enough political power to become an official branch of the US Armed Forces? That doesn’t seem wholly unlikely.

2. There are several types of soldier. The ethnic diversity of the Armed Forces is at least acknowledged. Unfortunately, they’re all men.

3. The action’s way more compelling than other technothrillers or other pieces of military SF that I’ve read this year. While that’s not saying much, I found myself really invested in the evolution of strategy, and the idea that after the use of nuclear munitions, you wouldn’t be able to rely on electronics or whatever in terms of planning your strategy. It’s very smart.

Uhhh. Three = several, right? Because I think I’m out of stuff I liked. I actually want to go back to the paucity of female characters in this work because it actually really bothered me. We don’t get to see a female POV until 12 chapters in. This is the general’s wife, who’s trying to hold down the homefront.

The female characters mentioned and Sarah, the wife, mainly work to highlight what good men our guys are. Sgt. Garcia thinks about his mother’s death like ALL the time, and it’s part and parcel of him missing the wasteland of East LA. It also highlights his compassion for the Muslim women/girls he encounters, since he compares them to the snooty, arrogant Chicanas he knew in high school. They get contaminated with the same taint of nostalgia and frustration that colors all his memories of growing up  Chicano and poor in the US, and their trickiness (one’s a suicide bomber) highlights how NOT-HOME this new battle is. Nasr jokes about how he’s not fully a member of the Special Forces, because he hasn’t yet gotten into and out of a marriage yet, and then reminisces about the sexy, lusty, unpredictable woman he’d never let himself get close to. All this while he’s dying and thinking of his parents. Cavanaugh is haunted by the violence experienced by civilians transported in trains to the German border. In each case, women are victims, reminders of lost innocence, and signifiers of home. Muslim women are silent — they’re either hollow eyed rape survivors begging for American rescue, or are suicide bombers whose rage is as unpredictable as a pretty little teenager’s disdain. :weirded out by the conflation of sexual desirability, Otherness, and danger:

It would take an amazingly powerful POV to interrupt this. Sarah, the general’s wife? Not that. She’s hiding from her husband that their daughter just died, and while that could be a powerful moment in the story, it’s not. Instead of emphasizing her strength, Peters emphasizes her struggle, suggesting that Sarah, too, is swept up by the same overwhelming forces of history that her husband is drowning. Unfortunately, Sarah’s not a swimmer — she’s not even an agent in this story. When The War After Armageddon ends, Sarah’s story is closed out, and not by Sarah herself. Someone else talks about how she insisted that her husband was innocent of the war crimes he’s been accused of, and how she was eventually put into a mental hospital, where she died. Her surviving daughter became a ‘fallen woman’ — in this new America I couldn’t tell if that meant she became sexually promiscuous, a sex worker, or a feminist, all of which would’ve been interesting to explore in more than one sentence.

IN CONCLUSION: Men (even poor men of color) can be historical actors. Women (even rich white women) cannot. Men (even poor men of color) can strive and fail and it’s noble. Women (even rich white women) fail at warfare, survival, and being civilians, and it’s tragic.

What especially sucks about this is that it’d be possible and interesting to have Sarah be a military spouse, and just have her be dynamic as such. Someone paralleling Carren Zeigenfuss would’ve been great — someone with experience in the Army, who serves her community in a variety of ways, whose politics are part of what she does versus what she is.


  1. Brand Robins says

    Its kinda sad, but so many post-apocalypse works are incapable of escaping the fundamental conservativism of the genre. Part of the underlying structure of so much of the break down of order fiction is a message of “without current PC rules you women/minorities/anyone that isn’t like me would be put back in the kitchen/slavery/a position of being a non-person.”

    All the recent works I’ve read have had similar issues with women being removed from combat roles, or simply never being acknowledged as having the capability to be combatants. Which is especially sad, considering that its been more than two years since Congressman McHugh (R – New York) said “Women in uniform today are not just invaluable they’re irreplaceable. We have crossed that line in Iraq. Debate it all you want folks, but the military is going to do what the military needs to do. And they are needing to put women in combat.”

    The reality of the US Military for at least 3 years, and of many other militaries for much longer than that, is that women are fighting (and doing well) on the front lines. And yet that never shows up in the extremely fetishistic military detail in these books. The authors will do painstaking research and thought about the newest theories in military strategy and schematics of military hardware, but can’t be bothered to so much look at the fact that women are fighting and all evidence indicates will continue to fight.

    • The Other Patrick says

      I think it’s interesting that you mention the conservatism of the genre. In a way, post-apocalyptic fiction is more like fantasy than sci-fi, in that I regard fantasy as a mostly reactionary genre and sci-fi as the one with more progressive ideas. Of course, military sci-fi often also fetishizes conservative ideas. And then there’s the technothriller or espionage fiction, which also… and when I’m looking for progressive science fiction I get pointed to books from the 70s and before. I mean, I love Forever War, and the Dispossessed, and even the Foundation series (despite its lack of women), but isn’t there *anything* new? Or maybe it’s that with Isaac Asimov, I can explain away the lack of female characters by the social context, and now I couldn’t. I mean, even Barry Eisler, whom I love (personally, not as a writer – erm, the other way around), writing pretty liberal-minded spy thrillers has problematic female characters. And Mieville is more Marxist then feminist, as well.

      As you say, why is it so hard to just put women into the field of combat. I just watched “The Book of Eli”, and there may have been a single woman amongst the scavengers hiring themselves out as fighters. In a world devastated by war, where everybody fends for themselves, there are not female fighters? But there are fat dudes despite no food being around. Ugh,.

      • Charles RB says

        “Of course, military sci-fi often also fetishizes conservative ideas”

        I read part of Better To Beg Forgiveness by Michael Z Williamson. In it, I remember being bewildered by a mercenary saying (and non-Yank mercs agreeing) that the US Armed Forces were the best of the best and were always going to be in the lead… several centuries into the future, when the world had a unified UN government and we’ve spread across space. Also two soldiers/mercs agreeing women weren’t suitable for frontline combat, presented as something that’s right – in the far future!

        IT’S THE FUTURE!

    • Maria says

      It really bugs me! Gah. Back when I was a wee Ria, I read a really FANTASTIC fantasy military fiction where the commander was an OLDER woman who’s a great tactician, respected by her colleagues, and has a sex life by the end of the story. :-/ I of course can’t remember the name of it.

        • Maria says

          No — it’s medieval fantasy setting, where the woman and her soldiers have been stationed at the border of the kingdom, where there’s a ton of wild magic. She doesn’t have any, but one of her lieutenants does, and she relies on him to track instances of its use, while she does the mental heavy lifting of planning how to attack. Ugh. I can remember several scenes from it, like how she wanted to train some merchants’ daughters how to fight so they’d be able to defend their goods better, and when her and that LT fall in love or whatever, but the title’s a total blank.

    • Charles RB says

      “Part of the underlying structure of so much of the break down of order fiction is a message of “without current PC rules you women/minorities/anyone that isn’t like me would be put back in the kitchen/slavery/a position of being a non-person.” ”

      Which makes not the slightest bit of sense. When the invasion of the USSR caused everything to break down, women were on the front lines partly out of sheer desperation (women barely out of school were manning the defensive batteries at Stalingrad); both world wars in Britain, women were drafted to do “men’s” jobs and also for roles on battlefields & bombsites. You got the same in other countries. Hitler’s Germany was an aberration IIRC because it was too big a part of Nazi ideology that women stayed at home, so they were kept back and even THAT got thrown out when the Red Army was kicking the door in.

      • M.C. says

        There were 450 000 women working for Nazi military, and that number doesn’t even include the female medics.

        Over 1 000 000 women were working for USSR military.

        • Charles RB says

          Was that from the start of the war or the later years when it was going badly that the Nazis had 450k women in the military?

          • M.C. says

            Bback in WWI there were thousands of women working in communications, delivering supplies ect. and a few women from the border territories were recruited for combat.
            So right from the start women held these positions in Nazi army too. But you’re right that their number grew immensly as the war went on.

  2. Gategrrl says

    I’ve noticed, as I’ve steadily read more variations of end of the world apocalypse type books and short stories-that practically the only authors who incorporate women into the picture *at all* in combat or action roles are women writers. There are exceptions. Max Brooks, in World War Z, has his narrator interview a military woman pilot. There aren’t enough women in that book for me, but he hits about 30%, which is about average for the more decent anthologies (in including women in apocalypse scenerios).

    There’s a very interesting story in “The Living Dead 2” anthology that features a woman commander of her own army, with a male second in command-and no one questions her authority. Of course, it was written by a woman.

    • The Other Patrick says

      I think “The Walking Dead” is actually pretty good about the portrayal of female characters, if you want zombie apocalypse. Realistic, but in a good way.

    • Charles RB says

      “Max Brooks, in World War Z, has his narrator interview a military woman pilot”

      And the Russian army soldier.

      • Gategrrl says

        Yes! I knew there was another woman in there that was in the military. Her situation was dire, though, being used as a brood mare by her country after serving. Brrr.

        • Maria says

          What bugged me about that is that her loss of bodily sovereignty was I think cast as a kind of service similar to her military service.

  3. Charles RB says

    “There are concentration camps for Muslims and Arabs in Europe”

    Wait, the nuclear bomb was triggered in the States but it’s Europe that runs the concentration camps? (I’m guessing the book doesn’t touch on the Human Rights Act that the whole EU has to ratify to be a member, or that Germany would go “yeah fuck that shit” even if nobody else did)

    • Maria says

      Basically, the nuclear strikes were at the end of a series of terrorist attacks that encompassed like every major city in the West. The US was the only country to have nuclear strikes.

      I could buy Europe kicking out Muslims, if the focus had been France, since I get the impression Islamaphobia’s on the rise there.

      • Charles RB says

        It’s been on the rise in a bunch of countries, sadly – but even France would have people balking at that, assuming other EU nations allowed it. The Nazis and WW2 drape a very long shadow over most of Europe. Not that I don’t imagine Americans have the same “WTF” reaction when they see near-future stories by Europeans which mention America!

        (They hit every major city in the West? The terrorists sure amped up in the near future!)

  4. says

    Umm… I don’t know why you’re all so surprised that Armageddon stories are so male biased. They come from a religious misreading of ancient, alien traditions and warning stories about imperialism.

    Disappointing as the bias may be, it’s all pretty understandable considering it comes from a boys-own (only) religious perspective to start with. Women were never agents in that tradition. Ruth, Esther, Deborah and Mary only “acted” in terms of the men around them, either as “good” women, as defined by men, or in Deborah’s case as a lesson to men who allow a woman to lead in a man’s rightful place.

    I wonder what a series of stories would look like set in a future where the Patriarchy had run it’s course and a more civilised, sustainable society took over… Or the conflict between the last gasp of Patriarchal militarism and a new culture.

  5. Tony says

    Well, for what it’s worth, the lack of women in the military is explained in-story; the ultra-right wing regime in place in the States had banned women from serving in the Armed Forces in any capacity. You may view it as a cop-out, as you said, a lot of stories of this nature do carry something of an anti-feminist message in a lot of different ways, but at least this was addressed rather than glossed over.

    • Maria says

      Really? I THINK I remember that, but don’t recall if any of the characters reflected back on good ol’ Sgt Jane or any specifics.

  6. Sally says

    I’m afraid Ralph Peters is simply not a good writer, IMO.

    I bought ‘Red Army,’ a novel telling of an invasion of Western Europe by the USSR, on the strength of the blurb that promised me a story told “from the viewpoint of the ordinary Soviet soldier.” What I got was such a cauldron-full of Cold War commie-baiting clichés that I threw it against the wall several times before I could bring myself to finish it (and the one or two women appearing or spoken of in ‘Red Army’ were caricatures too).

    Perhaps Mr Peters should confine himself to politico-military commenting, along the lines of “There will be no peace. At any given moment for the rest of our lifetimes, there will be multiple conflicts in mutating forms around the globe. Violent conflict will dominate the headlines, but cultural and economic struggles will be steadier and ultimately more decisive. The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing” (“Constant Conflict,” Parameters, Carlisle, Pennsylvania: United States Army War College, Summer 1997), “If you cannot win clean, win dirty,” and “Although it seems unthinkable now, future wars may require censorship, news blackouts and, ultimately, military attacks on the partisan media” (“Wishful Thinking and Indecisive Wars,” Journal of International Security Affairs, Washington, DC, Number 16, Spring 2009)

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