"Punk's War," by Ward Carroll. Naval Institute Press. 224 Pages. $24.95.
Each year, the venerable Naval Institute Press in Annapolis -- publisher of much history, maritime know-how and tactical thought for 128 years -- puts aside its weightier business to produce the occasional fictional work.
No less a figure in popular literature than Tom Clancy got his start here. Now comes first-time novelist Ward Carroll, daring to step into the sizable Weejuns of the man who practically invented the military techno-thriller.
Since "The Hunt For Red October," Clancy has gone on to become all but a household name, the gold standard against which all would-be writers of manly war novels must be measured.
Clancy, however, was an insurance broker in real life. Carroll is the real deal -- a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, a Navy Commander and an actual F-14 Tomcat intercept officer. And it shows in his book, "Punk's War." It has all the zip and whoosh of a proper 2 a.m. page-turner, with a narrative depth not commonly found even in the best stuff of the genre's masters.
Fans hooked on the precision-guided battle sequences of writers like Clancy and Stephen Coonts won't be disappointed. But Carroll is after something more here, examining a broad range of dilemmas facing the modern military -- not the least of which is finding a way to accommodate a new generation of younger, smarter, more independent-minded officers for whom the culture of the nation's most hidebound service are often anathema.
The new generation is represented by one Lt. Rick Reichert, an F-14 jock nicknamed "Punk" by a former skipper for his taste in music. Stationed in the Arabian Gulf on trip-wire duty during a time of heightened tensions in the Middle East, Punk and his cohorts spend at least as much time answering e-mail and fretting over their career options as they do worrying about potential combat engagements.
Among the recurring subplots is how many of them will bail out to become airline pilots once their shipboard hitches are up. As in the real world, retention in Punk's Navy is a continuing internal debate for most of the crew.
Carroll's modern sailors are motivated less by adventurism than by their quest for personal improvement. That is not to say that they lack for valor when the time comes to deliver the blood and thunder of U.S. foreign policy. But they are not the hot-dog frat boys of the standard-issue military potboiler.
Enter Punk's commander, the embodiment of the Old Navy and the principal antagonist of "Punk's War": Alexander "Soup" Campbell -- "former Top Gun instructor, former Blue Angel, current pain in everybody's ass ... the guy was about form over function."
Campbell is a creature of an outmoded system built on seniority, chit-punching and self-aggrandizement, a master of the cover-your-butt ethos that guides the traditional military careerists who rule the squadron's roost below the flight deck.
Even when Campbell fails, he succeeds. This would include nearly getting half the squadron killed or disgraced by the time the book's rousing finale rolls around, a royal sanfu in the desert for which he is lionized and decorated by the president.
It is only through the grit of the squadron's punks that they survive.
"Punk's War" is a remarkably honest book -- both for a member of the fraternity to write and for the Naval Institute Press to publish. For readers of military fiction who want some brains with their boom, meet Ward Carroll. This won't be his last.
Jim Haner, a Sun reporter, is a U.S. Navy veteran and student of military history. Before coming to The Sun, he worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Miami Herald.