Walt Gragg’s First Novel ‘The Red Line’ Is a Frighteningly Realistic Portrait of War
By James Thompson
All is definitely not quiet on NATO’s Eastern Front in the mind of author Walt Gragg and his epic World War III novel, “The Red Line,” newly published by Berkley-Penguin Random House.
Gragg is an attorney and former state prosecutor in Austin, Texas. He is also a Vietnam-era veteran, who served at United States European Headquarters in Germany, where the idea for “The Red Line” took shape.
Told from the perspective of an expert military tactician, the story explodes off the page as an onslaught of Russian military aggression overruns stunned U.S. soldiers along the German-Czech border. This scenario represents the classic East vs. West positions of the NATO–Russia relationship.
Within minutes of incurring casualties, and losing direct communications with the outside world, the Americans are scrambling in Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFVs) and M1 Abrams tanks to survive behind the enemy that is sweeping across Germany.
The Russian Annexation of Crimea Validates the Novel’s Fictional Surprise Attack
In the long shadows of post-World War II geopolitical legacies and Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, one could imagine the possibility of such a surprise attack, set against a conventional war to expand Russia’s empire and quash the threat of NATO’s presence. A return of the former Soviet Union to its European prominence led by a former KGB official who could be Vladimir Putin against a distracted U.S. president is remotely possible. Between conventional war and Doomsday lies Gragg’s red line. The line exists not just in terms of crossing an imaginary wire. But would crossing the line ultimately escalate the situation to nuclear war?
The narrative includes multiple soldiers and comrades across the scope of the entire war and the modern weaponry used to fight it. From new-school F-35 fighter jets to old-school A-10 Warthog aircraft, Bradleys and M1 tanks, Gragg’s preference for detailing weapon systems is intertwined with quick-hit backstories that make the book a page turner.
Gragg’s authentic storytelling will entertain casual readers and military buffs alike (whether siding with Americans, Russians or as an objective observer). There’s a recurring suspicion that the author intricately knows military simulation—a notion confirmed by Gragg’s personal experience analyzing such scenarios while serving in the U.S. Army in West Germany during the Cold War.
Gragg’s Novel Features a Megalomaniacal Russian Tyrant Who Seeks Regional Domination
This war is what really could happen if the Cold War was wrapped in aluminum foil, thrown into a microwave and set on high by a megalomaniacal Russian tyrant hell-bent on dominating the region. Who’s to say this scenario couldn’t happen in the near future? That’s Gragg’s underlying argument.
While many readers might be quick to liken Gragg’s novel to those of the late Tom Clancy, Gragg’s narrative is more liberally sprinkled with a cadre of frontline warriors and commanding officers, on either side of the battle.
It takes serious chops to write realistically about such a cast of characters. It’s as if we’re looking at the micro-pieces of the game of risk centered squarely on Germany. Each piece has a quick-to-relate backstory. When those backstories are connected, we have a greater commonality of service and personal sacrifice. Who wins depends on how Gragg rolls the dice and lets his thrilling simulation unfold.
Gragg builds his pyramid of characters and experiences that feel real, interspersed with weapons and tactics that are real. And with no author’s remorse, you may see one of your favorite characters surprisingly killed off (a la Game of Thrones), whether that character is instantly vaporized by an air burst or ravaged by chemical weapons. No brutal aspect of warfare goes unexamined in “The Red Line,” as each block of the story’s pyramid ratchets up to the tipping point, culminating with a unique twist.
From the alpine-skiing assault over the Zugspitze Crest on the border between Germany and Austria (inserted cleverly via a ski lift under the saboteurs’ cover of being playboy tourists), to the American soldier Rios struggling to protect Ramstein as his team dwindles—the author keeps the reader’s expectations steamrolling into more escalating scenarios.
You have to hand it to Gragg’s talent, considering that “The Red Line” is his first novel. With his boundless creativity and meticulous research, even greater military stories lie on the horizon. For example, how will North Korea’s unbridled nuclear proliferation play out in the face of two U.S. Navy carrier groups off the Korean Peninsula? (Hint, hint.)
With hope, any war that results will just remain a work of fiction.
Get your copy of Gragg’s book here!