W.E.B. Griffin Novels
The Brotherhood of War
Brotherhood of War 1 The Lieutenants by W.E.B. Griffin
I remember seeing this series in the bookstore back when I was in high school. I didn’t read it then, but read the whole series after I read Griffin’s The Corps series some fifteen or twenty years later. I enjoyed it, but couldn’t have told you what the plots of the various books were in any detail and only a couple of scenes stood out vividly in my memory. But I just reread The Corps so I decided to give this series a second read as well, and I’m glad I did.
The Lieutenants begins during World War II and mostly follows three young soldiers who get commissioned as officers during the course of the stories. One of them is interested in intelligence work and is smart enough to figure out how to manipulate the system to get what he wants. One is a rich playboy who was drafted and just wants out, but discovers that he likes army life. And one is an enlisted man who wins the Congressional Medal of Honor and gets commissioned. After World War II two of the men get sent to train Greek forces to fight the communists—a very interesting circumstance that isn’t broadly known to have occurred.
The story is always interesting and at times is quite exciting, but there really isn’t any real plot to speak of. It’s more of a look at the lives of these soldiers that will continue in the next novel.
Brotherhood of War 2 The Captains by W.E.B. Griffin
Griffin has found his stride in this novel. The Korean War starts and his protagonists from the last book, plus an African American lieutenant who played a small role in the first novel, all find themselves in harms way (or, in the case of the Medal of Honor winner, trying to get into harms way when the army doesn’t want him there because it would be bad public relations if he got killed). In addition to Griffin’s signature “dealing with the army bureaucracy” scenes, there are tough moral decisions and a decent amount of action. We all see more of the West Point alums protecting each other and their careers at the expense of non-West Pointers and usually against America’s interests in the war. (This sort of thing comes up enough in Griffin’s novels that I sometimes wonder if he dislikes the military academies, but it is probably just his attempt to show how those who are connected take care of themselves no matter what the cost.)
There’s a tragedy in the middle of this novel which I think Griffin handles very well, but mostly what I like about this series is Griffin’s insights into why the military functions the way it does—the good and the bad.
The Corps 1 Semper Fi by W.E.B. Griffin
I read several W.E.B. Griffin series back near the start of the millennia and loved them. Then I read a couple of isolated books of his fifteen or so years later and wasn’t so thrilled. So it was with mixed feelings that I returned to my favorite Griffin series to see if it still lived up to my memories. Thankfully, it is every bit as good as I remember.
Griffin writes a very strange kind of military fiction. For most authors, this genre is all about the battles, but for Griffin it is all about the behind the scenes work that leads to those battles. In Semper Fi we primarily follow Kenneth McCoy, an enlisted Marine stationed in China before the start of World War II. McCoy has the misfortune of being chosen by four Italian soldiers as their target for payback after several Italians got injured in a brawl with U.S. marines. In the purest form of self-defense, McCoy kills two of the Italians with a knife and the marine corps, wanting to appease the angry Italian authorities, plans to court martial him for surviving. It’s obviously not a good look for the marine corps but feels very plausible as events unfold.
After getting extricated from his court martial, McCoy falls into intelligence work, and Griffin does a fabulous job of taking this sort of activity out of James-Bond-land and making it highly plausible. At the same time, the reader’s respect for McCoy continues to grow in part because Griffin counterposes him with two inexperienced officers who have neither his brains nor his commonsense.
After “Killer McCoy” is forced to shoot a significant number of Chinese bandits to save two of his fellow marines, he gets recalled to the U.S. and put into an officer training program. World War II has begun in Europe but the U.S. is not yet involved. Again, we get to see how the Marine Corps functions as the cast of characters grows and young men try and figure out what it means to be an officer and a gentlemen as the country inches towards war.
The first novel ends with Pearl Harbor and the initiation of hostilities against the U.S. It’s an exciting page turner even though very little of the book actually depicts scenes of combat. For anyone who would like a behind the scenes look at how the military functioned in World War II, this is a great series.
The Corps 2 Call to Arms by W.E.B. Griffin
Ken “Killer” McCoy and his fellow marines return in the second volume of The Corps series as Griffin chronicles the Marine Corps trying to rapidly bring itself up to war footing after Pearl Harbor. All the characters from the last book return. Banning is blind; Pickering is in flight school; and McCoy gets drafted to spy on a fellow marine whom many in the corps believe is either a secret communist, insane, or evilly determined to destroy the corps by transforming the marines into a version of the British Commandos called the Marine Raiders. The problem with this existential threat is that the evil commander has the ear of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt—so much so that the president’s own son is a high ranking officer in the raiders.
Griffin continues to make the internal marine politics just as exciting as most writers make a battlefield. He also pays some attention to the spouses and girlfriends of active service marines, showing how the war impacts the civilian members of marine families. This touches upon the area where Griffin is weakest—his marines and their girlfriends fall in love at first sight and never look back. He does a better job with relationships that were established before the series began. And of course, he does his best job showing people maneuver and grow within the structures of the corps.
If you’re looking for a book that makes the internal operations of the marine corps breathlessly exciting, this is a good series to look at. I’m already anticipating the next novel.
The Corps 3 Counterattack by W.E.B. Griffin
This novel is less tightly bound together than the previous two in the series as the U.S. moves into World War II and Griffin picks up many of the supporting cast members of the previous two novels and elevates them into primary roles. Disappointingly, Ken “Killer” McCoy and Malcom “Pick” Pickering have almost no role in the entire novel.
Counterattack chronicles the U.S.’s efforts to gear up in the Pacific campaign as the Japanese continue to set the tempo of the war. As this is a series about the marine corps, the navy is never the focus except for one officer, the former marine corporal turned shipping magnate turned naval officer, Captain Pickering (father of Pick Pickering from the earlier books). Pickering reports directly to the Secretary of the Navy and his function in this novel is to help us understand from an eagle eye view what is happening in the overall conduct of the Pacific War. He is our insight into MacArthur and the politics between the army and navy command structures.
Mostly, though, as he always does, Griffin gives us a grounds eye look at how things get done in the marine corps. We see the early marine parachutists training. We see the marine press corps trying to raise the country’s morale. We see men getting ready to go into harm’s way. We get an absolutely fascinating look at the Australian Coast Watchers—brave men and women who reported on Japanese movements at the literal risk of their lives. And all of this leads to the landing on Guadalcanal after Griffin has effortlessly shown the reader why the entire Pacific theater depends on preventing the Japanese from getting an airbase functioning on the island.
In many ways, this book appears to be setting up the rest of the series. It’s a little high on romantic drama, but mostly what it does is establish the characters whom I presume we will be following in the next novel. That being said, it is not a slow-moving story by any means. I’m very anxious to continue reading about the corps.
The Corps 4 Battleground by W.E.B. Griffin
In the last book in this series, Griffin brought the corps to Guadalcanal, but he did so in large brush strokes mostly from an eagle-eyed view. In Battleground, he retraces some of that territory from his characteristic boots-level perspective, going over the lightning preparations for the invasion and reminding the reader again how the navy pulled out—stranding the marines on the island without giving them all their gear or even all their personnel. Griffin rarely puts the actual battles in the center ring, but you feel like you’re there anyway as reports come in and the consequences are dealt with. You also see quite a few of the people you’ve come to care about go into harms way.
In addition to battles with the Japanese, there are also plenty of the petty conflicts between the branches of service and between officers—the sort of stuff that you would think people would put behind them as they fight the Second World War but which human nature insists would become even more prevalent as the tension mounts. Even Magic—the greatest secret of the war (the U.S. had broken several Japanese codes)—is put at risk more than once for the basest of reasons.
Yet, it’s this pettiness and corruption that lets Griffin’s true heroes shine even brighter—men and women making every sacrifice to serve their country in one of its darkest hours. These books are not only exciting, they inspire us to imagine how we would (hopefully) step up when our country needs us.
The Corps 5 Line of Fire by W.E.B. Griffin
The first two-thirds of this novel is filled with Griffin’s characteristic behind the scenes maneuvering—some of it in Washington, some of it on Guadalcanal, and some of it in Australia and all of it is exciting. The book checks in with most of the large cast of characters. General Pickering is in Washington with malaria and his absence leaves his team in Australia unprotected from officers more interested in advancing their careers than the mission. His son, Pick, arrives on Guadalcanal where he joins the now familiar group of pilots fighting to keep the Japanese from retaking the island and with it quite possibly winning the war in the Pacific. And the two marine Coast Watchers, each sick with half a dozen tropical diseases, get weaker and weaker as they come to accept that their superiors in the corps have written them off. Unfortunately, this is true. Their replacements are being trained, but no effort is being made to create a plan of extraction.
The scene where that changes is one of the most moving in the series this far. Recently returned from Guadalcanal and sick with malaria, Reserve General Pickering asks a simple question—when did they kick those two young men in the Coast Watchers out of the corps. His deputy gets angry at him, but the questions stand because, as Pickering was taught when he enlisted in the corps for World War I, marines don’t leave their wounded behind and Pickering is wholly determined to bring those two young men home again.
Enter Lieutenant Ken “Killer” McCoy, veteran of the first Marine Raiders mission and star of the opening novel in the series. McCoy gets the job of planning the rescue mission—and overcoming tremendous obstacles including the hostility of superior officers. Leads to unusually granular action-writing for Griffin as the reader is taken not just through the planning but through the mission itself to see if the corps really can rescue its men.
The Corps 6 Close Combat by W.E.B. Griffin
This is another excellent volume in The Corp series, following marine aviators, infantry, and press corps as they return to the states from the fighting on Guadalcanal. On the one hand, this book is clearly setting up the next which will focus on contacting guerillas in the Philippines and the tension between the intelligence services and especially the OSS and General MacArthur. Yet it also shows other aspects of life for servicemen and women during the war—especially the press corps—and ends with a tremendously emotional moment between a very young photographer and a medal of honor winner with an attitude problem.
This series is not high on actual combat. Griffin’s gift is to make the bureaucratic operations of the war intensely exciting. He makes it look as if the war has to be first fought with the bureaucrats in the military and in Washington before guns can actually be turned upon the enemy combatants.
My first complaint, and it’s a small one, is that Griffin is extremely interested in the romantic endeavors of his cast of characters. A lot of pages get spent on these endeavors which at first appearance does not seem to be directed toward chronicling the deeds of the marines in the war. However, upon consideration, it occurred to me that the men and women in harms way probably did indeed spend a lot of time thinking about potential romantic escapades that they could pursue when off the front, and so I think that in the broader view of the lives of these men and women these pages were probably right on target.
My second complaint, again a small one, is how many of the characters are extremely wealthy. That seems improbable, but I don’t know that it is. I’ve noticed in these sorts of series that authors love to focus on officers of tremendous financial resources.
The Corps 7 Behind the Lines by W.E.B. Griffin
I really like this series. I think the gritty detail that Griffin gets into with planning and infighting between the services and what should be mind-numbing bureaucracy but is actually quite fascinating looks into how our military operates makes this series intensely exciting and highly realistic.
This book is my favorite since the opening novel, Semper Fi. It takes the readers back to the Philippines as the Japanese conquers it and focuses upon a small handful of American marines and soldiers who decide they were going to violate their orders and refuse to surrender. It then focuses upon their successful efforts to set up a guerilla operation in the Philippines and their struggle to get the U.S. to support their efforts. Getting that help is complicated by politics—Douglas MacArthur has declared that guerilla operations in the Philippines are impossible, so naturally there can be none there to support.
Enter our band of heroes in a small intelligence office in the Marine Corps who decide to make contact with the guerillas anyway. Throw in “Wild Bill” Donovan and the young OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and his driving need to control all intelligence services run by the U.S. and you have plenty of room for infighting as political needs get in the way of the practical reason for launching the mission.
Griffin gives plenty of action in this novel, but once again, it’s the preparation, the infighting, the rivalries, and the human factor that makes this novel so enjoyable.
The Corps 8 In Danger’s Path by W.E.B. Griffin
This is another stellar volume in W.E.B. Griffin’s The Corps series and it wraps up the World War II storyline by reviving plot threads from the very first book in the series. What happened to Banning’s wife and Zimmerman’s wife and kids when they were forced to leave them behind when the Fourth Marines were pulled out of China to reinforce the Philippines just before World War II began?
In Danger’s Path also spotlights those things that W.E.B. Griffin does better than anyone else in the business—show the planning of operations and the problems that come from interservice and even inter-officer rivalries. In an organic and always interesting manner, Griffin shows how different groups (Banning and Zimmerman’s wives, retired marines and Yangtze River patrol men living in China, and a few marines left on station in China who don’t want to surrender to the Japanese) plan separate efforts to get the heck out of China, across the Gobi and into India. Later, he’s going to show how plans evolve to locate those marines and use them to help set up a weather station in the Gobi that will help the navy plan its operations as it advances on Japan. This is truly fascinating stuff, made much more complex by the lack of cooperation and outright interference that various self-interested groups within the U.S. military and OSS bring to the table.
Yet the best part of the novel is the threat that Banning uncovers to the secret of Magic—the codename for everything connected with the U.S. government’s ability to intercept and decipher Japan’s supposedly unbreakable codes. It’s a secret that is giving the U.S. the edge it needs to combat the Empire of Japan and it may have been compromised. And in the process of investigating that, our hero General Pickering finally comes to the internal understanding of how stupidly cavalier he has been with the same secret. His attitude toward secret information has bothered me though out this series and it was nice that he finally came to understand how unacceptable some of his actions have been.
This is a great novel that wraps up the storylines of all of the major and most of the minor characters. I suspect that Griffin had considered closing the series with it, but fortunately he decided to return to The Corps and usher them into the Korean War in the next two volumes.
The Corps 9 Under Fire by W.E.B. Griffin
Seven years have passed between the events of In Danger’s Path and the start of Under Fire. World War II has ended and the Cold War has begun. MacArthur is in charge of Japan just a couple of weeks before North Korea invades the South. MacArthur and the U.S. has no idea that such an invasion is being complicated because MacArthur’s head of intelligence suppressed a report that suggested war was coming because it disagreed with his own assessment. General Willoughby not only suppressed the report but he ordered it destroyed and kicked the officer who wrote it out of the Marine Corps. That officer was the hero of many of the earlier books in this series, Captain Kenneth “Killer” McCoy. McCoy breaks regulations, steals a copy of his report, and gets it to his old boss, General Pickering, who is now back in civilian life. Thus begins a great addition to The Corps series.
Pickering brings the report to the attention of President’s Truman’s top military man, but the investigation into McCoy’s report is still ongoing when war breaks out. Yet that report (the correct assessment that war was coming when no one agreed with him) gives Pickering a significant amount of credibility in the president’s eyes and he is made Assistant Director of the new CIA and sent over to Japan to resume the intelligence role he played in World War II. He reassembles his old team which allows us to check in on many of the characters from the earlier books in the series as they are pulled into a new war.
As anyone who knows anything about the Korean War knows, the war is not going well. Caught unprepared and with the military cut to the bone in the draw down after WWII, even slowing the North Korean advance seems impossible. As the fighting continues, Pickering becomes aware of MacArthur’s daring plan to turn the tables on the North Koreans and he identifies a very dangerous flaw in that plan that could cause the U.S. to lose the war. So he decides on his authority as Assistant Director of the CIA to covertly (and independently) act to neutralize that danger, but if he fails, MacArthur’s whole plan will be exposed and made impossible.
There are tremendous risks in this book and the costs are not cheap as one of the main cast is lost behind enemy lines with little hope for rescuing him. If you enjoyed the first part of the series, you will definitely want to read this book.
The Corps 10 Retreat, Hell!
History repeats itself, as it actually did in the Korean War. After having been caught by surprise by North Korea initiating the war, it is clear that MacArthur and his staff are about to be caught by surprise again by the Chinese entering the war. The military part of this novel is all about Pickering (Assistant Director of the CIA) and Kenneth “Killer” McCoy trying to prove what they know—that the Chinese are preparing to invade in overwhelming strength if the U.S. continues to destroy North Korea’s military forces (and thus take over North Korea). It’s frustrating to watch happen, because the reader, of course, knows that Pickering and McCoy will ultimately fail. That doesn’t stop it from being intensely exciting.
An important subplot is that of Pickering’s son (and McCoy’s best friend) who was shot down and is trying to survive behind enemy lines. Searching for Pick is a good plot, but in many ways, the story gets even better after he is rescued and we get to see what happens to pilots who are recovered in this fashion. The military knows that many have problems after the trauma they endured, and we see their efforts at mental health care.
This is another good book in the series. Unfortunately, it’s also the last. I for one would like to see another book to complete the Korean War and then watch Pickering, McCoy, and everyone else in the early stages of Vietnam.
Concluding Comments on The Corps
You know a series is a good one when you finish it and you immediately want to start reading again from the first book. The Corps was my first experience with W.E.B. Griffin and it led me to go on to read his Brotherhood of War series and the first three books of his Honor Bound series. Rereading The Corps has convinced me to go reread those series and I expect the rest of the W.E.B. Griffin library.