In The Red Line, Walt Gragg’s debut military thriller, set in the near future, a revived Soviet Union sends armored units into the heart of Germany to face isolated, unprepared U.S. forces. Here, Gragg lends insight into the thinking behind his novel, which PW’s starred review called “must reading for any military action fan.”
When did you get the notion of Russia invading Germany, igniting World War III?
I came up with the idea for the book while serving at United States European Command Headquarters in Germany, around 1975. At the time, I had neither the opportunity nor the ability to write it, so I carried the idea around in some small crevice in the back of my brain for a number of years. I began writing it in 1994. Despite the fact that our relationship with Russia at that time appeared rosy, I had little doubt that given Russia’s history we would eventually find ourselves where we are today. So despite the fact that the book’s political scenario looks like it was written last week, its central core was actually put on paper more than 20 years ago.
In the novel you attribute much of the success of the U.S. troops to their abilities to improvise and adapt under fire. How do they differ from the Russian combatants?
The American soldier has grown up in a freethinking society, where from a young age the ability to adapt to the issues he or she faced was encouraged and fostered. That carries over to their military service. If the orders the soldiers receive don’t work, they will change them on their own and complete the mission. The Russian counterpart typically has no such skill, and the expectation is for them to follow any orders no matter how flawed or out-of-date. All other things being equal, the advantage, one on one, belongs to the American.
Readers of military thrillers are used to U.S. weapons technology dominating all battlefields, but in your novel that’s not necessarily the case. Why is that?
The American system has consistently produced a significant portion of the world’s superior weapons for the past 70 years. Russia lagged significantly in the period after the Cold War, but they’ve refocused a major part of their efforts on modernizing their military. They’re creating highly competitive weapons at an alarming rate. Until recently, the American M-1 Abrams main battle tank was far better then anything the Russians could put into the field. With the Russian T-90 and newly released T-14 main battle tanks, however, that gap has significantly narrowed or even closed. And that doesn’t even address the buildup and modernization of their nuclear armaments.
Your book delves into political and military strategy, but also depicts in-the-trenches fight scenes. How did you balance those elements?
While the president and the generals and all the fancy weapons are a part of the story, they’re secondary to the people on the ground. The political and technical
aspects of the book were the least interesting parts for me. While I needed some elements of a technothriller to satisfy the readers who enjoy those books, I did my best to simplify those aspects. Along with the political elements, the book involves five intertwining stories of ordinary soldiers and airmen caught in extraordinary circumstances. One of my goals was to focus the story on the most important element of any war—the people. Nothing else truly matters.