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The Fist of God.

The Fist of God. – book reviews

Michael Rust

With the end of the Cold War, politicians, spies, polemicists and even thriller writers have had to adapt to a confusing new world where things just don’t seem as clear as they used to. Which brings us to The Fist of God (Bantam, S60 pp), the fine new novel by British author Frederick Forsyth. That is not to say confusion permeates the book. On the contrary, just as he has for nearly a quarter-century, Forsyth has produced an intelligent, well-crafted, highly readable story that brims with authorial confidence.

The Fist of God picks up where Forsyth’s 1991 novel, The Deceiver, left off. At the end of that book, its hero, a British intelligence operative forced into retirement by superiors convinced that his services are redundant in the age of satellite technology, fishes as he listens to a radio report of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The scene is pure Frederick Forsyth, for whom the cornerstone of intelligence-gathering — in real life and in fiction — is still the human agent, for all his fears, weaknesses and misjudgments.

In The Fist of God, the human agent is Maj. Mike Martin, an officer in Britain’s Special Air Service Regiment, or SAS, a unit known for its counterterrorist skills and its ability to penetrate deep into enemy territory. The writer constructs a tightly woven plot centering around Martin, deadly and erudite (he speaks fluent Arabic) if somewhat lacking in personality — and “Jericho,” a traitor within Saddam’s highest councils who, before the war, sold information to Mossad, Israel’s secret service.

Martin has a rather busy war in which he goes from Kuwait City, where he organizes resistance to the Iraqi invaders, to the heart of Baghdad, where he attempts to reestablish contact with the mysterious Jericho to gather information concerning an ominous Iraqi superweapon that could spell disaster for Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s forces. A busy war, but a silent one. “Like members of any elite unit,” Forsyth writes, “the officers and men of the SAS tend to live quietly within their own society, unable to discuss their work with outsiders, refusing to be photographed, and rarely emerging from the shadows.”

Schwarzkopf himself makes a brief appearance in The Fist of God — cameos by real people being a Forsyth stable. Indeed, the novel opens with the 1990 assassination of weapons designer Gerald Bull in Brussels. Forsyth’s explanation of this still-mysterious event is as plausible as any that has been suggested by journalists and policy analysts. And having engaged the subject of murder, he goes on to speculate entertainingly about what various intelligence agencies will and won’t do to “terminate” individuals. There are definitely good guys and bad guys in Forsyth’s war — not for him the murky moral equivalence of John LeCarre.

In addition, Forsyth’s almost maniacal attention to detail — from the room temperature of Mossad headquarters to the procedure of National Security Council meetings — creates an atmosphere of plausibility around his fictionalized account of great events. Readers will learn how Royal Air Force pilots managed to supply themselves with adequate quantities of alcohol in abstemious Saudi Arabia, how Israeli intelligence used nonprofessionals to gather information, and even a few of the favored torture techniques of Iraqi secret police. He also describes how the Iraqis were able to distract AWACS heat sensors with dummy Scud launchers — but not SAS operatives. “Although only a handful in number, they swarmed into the western deserts in their Land-Rovers and on motor bikes, lay up in the blistering days and freezing nights, and watched. At 200 yards, they could see what was a real mobile launcher and which was a dummy.”

Forsyth has always striven to show the inside story behind world events. But with The Fist of God, he feels obliged to spell out in an epilogue what he regards as the key lessons of the Persian Gulf War. The author places much of the blame for the conflict on those industrialized nations that sold the means to produce high-tech weaponry to “the crazed, the aggressive, and the dangerous for short-term financial profit’ ” During the conflict, large parts of this Iraqi war machine remained well hidden from Western technical wizardry. Thus, “for certain tasks in certain places, there is still no substitute for the oldest information-gathering device on Earth,” concludes Forsyth — “the human eyeball, Mark One.”

Forsyth preaches this message throughout the novel. For him, the folly of governments considering “humint” — human intelligence — obsolete in the face of technological advances is as deadly as the private sector’s profit.

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