Never volunteer

For millennia, the essential part of every tribe and nation has been its military. Whether called war councils, war offices or war departments, their concern was having sufficient arms and training men to use them to the best of their ability.

The drawback is that men, for all their skills, are human. They have physical and mental restraints, feel pain, lack the fury of attacking wild animals. Can their inhibitions be removed, greater strength and agility added? If so, the perfect soldier can be created.

Changing the name from the War Department to the Department of Defence was socially correct. Army scientists proceeded to deal with the material at hand. Benign calls for volunteers went out. Those who responded their willingness to be experimented on “for the good of the country” had no idea what they were letting themselves in for.

Yank author David Baldacci spells it out for the readers in No Man’s Land. Cell mutation took them apart and put them together, but not back together. They now had extensive surgery and implants. Painless, super strong, able to climb walls with skin grafts. Killing machines. More monster than human. The secret project was discontinued, those associated with it murdered.

Not all, however. One of the guinea pigs, Paul Rogers, served 30 years in prison for his cold-blooded crimes. On parole, he seeks revenge on those who made him this way. US army investigator, intelligence operative Veronica Knox means to catch and stop him.

The minor plot has John Puller searching for his long missing mother. Did his father, a retired lieutenant-general, kill her? The two plots ultimately mesh, unconvincingly I think. Otherwise, his revelations about the military making soldiers more effective might well shake you up.

Rogers is presented sympathetically. Not so the male and female scientific-minded senior officers who in their striving for efficiency lose their humanity. No battles depicted. Just officers pulling rank.

You would do well to heed the oldest of army sayings: Never volunteer.

Caught In The Revolution by Helen Rappaport Windmill 430pp Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops 450 baht

Eyewitness accounts

Apart from still using the Julian calendar while the rest of the world had switched to the Gregorian calendar, Imperialist Russia was backward in many ways. Slow to free the serfs, it resisted all change. Tsars were anointed by God and it was a sin to try to depose them.

Okhrana, the secret police, jailed those who embraced socialism, which had infected Europe to a degree. In a word, the Empire was backward. Though it had a duma, the parliament was powerless. The populace was restless, wanting free elections, a chosen not appointed government.

The decisive defeat in the war with Japan in 1904-1905 precipitated a revolution, which was put down. There were more to come. Entering World War I a decade later, defending the Slav nations against the Germanic nations, found Russia again unprepared.

The Germans outfought them, millions of Russian soldiers losing their lives and a good deal of territory. But they served a purpose, dividing the strength of the foe by forcing them to fight on two fronts. The citizenry suffered from food shortages. Bread lines escalated into hunger marches.

With Tsar Nicholas II demonstrating his military incompetence, Tsarina Alexandra was under the thumb of Siberian monk Rasputin, who was treating the haemophiliac Crown Prince. It was apparent that they had to go. Rasputin was murdered and the people in Petrograd, the capital, revolted.

British historian Helen Rappaport details this, focusing on what the foreigners there experienced. The bibliography lists their memoirs, books, news stories. There are also photos and an index. Her point is that the February 1917 Revolution, resulting in the abdication of the Tsar, was the actual revolution.

Lenin, exiled for 16 years, wasn’t involved — only when Kerensky headed the Provisional Government did Lenin persuade the Germans to get him into Russia and pull his country out of the war. How this would affect the Western Front wasn’t his concern. The storming of the Winter Palace ousted Kerensky. Lenin did as promised, the Bolsheviks taking over until late in the century.

The Reds played down the significance of May 1917, but the author leaves us in no doubt of its importance. Her chapter on the forming and performing of the Women’s Battalion of Death is my favourite.