I’ve always been pretty into stories from niche special snowflake jobs. I was a medic among engineers or infantry dudes for most of my time. It’s not that special, really, but when you’re the only dude that does the job you do among a couple dozen others it is a fun little feeling.
That feeling is what makes me enjoy a good amount of Level Zero Heroes, which is written from the perspective of a JTAC, which is a Joint Terminal Attack Controller. Now that’s a pretty rad special snowflake job. It’s sort of like a forward observer that most of us basic unit guys know, but they get to coordinate fuse timers on JDAMs from B2 Spirits instead of Spc. Snuffy in the mortar platoon and his 81mm. However, I’m sure the B2 pilot doesn’t get the satisfying “thoomp” of hanging a round...
Michael Golembesky is the author and slinger of everything from artillery to Fighting Falcons. He was a Marine, which is notable considering that the JTAC role is a pretty Air Force dominated job. The stage is set well here for some joke about a Marine doing a job that requires some assembly of brain power but I’m gonna leave you disappointed on that one. That’s lower hanging fruit than my ballsack.
I read the book first, but for this review I also took a spin through the audiobook to refresh myself.
Peter Berkrot narrates, and boy, does he lay the cheese on this. He speaks in a gruff half whisper with Shatner-esque pauses every other sentence. There are long segments where it really feels like I'm listening to Solid Snake monologue about Afghanistan and Otocon is listening patiently through the Hideo-written dialogue. Do yourselves a favor, if this book interests you, and read it for yourself. But that's not the only dairy fare on this slab of charcuterie. Unfortunately, as cool as the book is, the text is rife with tropes and cliches. The ones that sort of irked me the most was the devotion to using jargon throughout the text. That probably means that Michael really wrote this book himself as opposed to relying on a ghostwriter, which is often a feature of these SF-focused books. During the convoy to FOB Todd at the beginning portion of the book, Mike rocks an M240B on the back of the GMV he was riding on. You certainly won't miss that detail because he uses the term '240 Bravo' and 'Gee Em Vee' repeatedly. A tactical thesaurus may have done some good. Replacing some of those numbers with a casual mention of 'belt fed' or 'machine gun' or 'crew served' could have really broken things up. Maybe that's a nitpick since I have enough background to understand all those in the context of the gun, but it's not the only repetition. The book has plenty of it, to the point where I winced slightly every time he referred to Taliban activity as 'operating.' Boy oh boy, I could go forever without hearing that word again and it'd be too soon.
Likewise, the descriptions of the MARSOC team members read like a middle schooler was doing an informative speech on SEAL Team Six. Lots of glowing praise, lots of brooding cool-guy darkness. There isn't much relatable about the descriptions of these statues he erects in the shape of people. The whole book is a little bit of a flag-waving affair, really, so know that going in.
All said and done, while this is a pretty cheesy affair, rest assured that you're getting a pretty good array of some artisan brie, gouda, and aged cheddar. There is some real canned whiz sort of material out there to slather over a saltine. Mike is gonna give you cheese and crackers, sure, but be thankful for that garlic & herb goat cheese with prosciutto on that hand made salt cracker with cracked pepper.
Bob Ross with a Cigarette
If you like landscape descriptions you're gonna love Level Zero Heroes. He paints pictures in the way Bob Ross would if all he had were brown tones and a pack of unfiltered marlboros.
He definitely lays the paint on thick over the canvas, but it works in this context. The setting is pretty desolate, nasty, and swirling in dust. A lot hinges on a good understanding of the squalor and barren nature of the environment that they're living and working in. Specifically, the descriptions of the action, which is what Mike really does best in this book. The first conflict on the convoy when he describes the sounds of the different guns really took me back. He makes a note about the MG with the slowest rate of fire setting the 'pace' by which the others are judged. That's definitely something folks who've heard these guns on a range can relate with. An M240B and an M249 can be told apart up close, but maybe a half mile away it's tougher. Hear them together or side by side and it becomes pretty apparent again. It can be funny how distinctly one can pick out which gun is blasting during all that hoopla.
This book is describing some hairy events. It's good that the strongest writing elements here focus on those. Mike feels like he takes the creative narrative style pretty freely from the Tom Clancy school of storytelling with some hard-and-fast verb use with plenty of equipment names and jargon thrown in for authenticity. Considering the target market, that's what most of the audience for this book is signing up for, I'd imagine. I would say it's like reading a comic book, but instead of art each box had the dialogue juxtaposed with a description of what was going on in that frame. If you're an action oriented reader you're going to find a lot to like here.
It's a fun read. You'll learn some cool stuff, even if you're not impressed by the reliance on some tropey stuff to sell the same brand of stars and stripes that other books have sold before.
Yes, war is a grim reality. This is hardly the first book to say so. But you'll get to see it waged from a pretty different perspective and have the action described in a competent and compelling way. If that's your deal, pick this up.