Somehow, I went 36 years without reading this book. That has now been rectified.
I did see the 1980 movie, with Christopher Walken (very young and not quite as wooden and weird as he is now) some years ago. It follows the book for the most part, though it adds a few things.
One of the elements that the movie adds is that it makes The Dogs of War an action-adventure. Which, while there is both, the book really isn’t. The actual coup, “The Big Killing,” as Part Three is appropriately titled, doesn’t start until Page 335. There are scattered bits of violence elsewhere, but that’s not really what the book is about.
You see, the book is a manual for the preparation and execution a mercenary-led coup in a Third World country, in the 1960s.
That’s essentially what it is. Forsyth, as was his wont, went into excruciating detail concerning the financial, logistical, intelligence, and personnel requirements to launch such an operation. He also illustrated some of his extensive knowledge of African affairs during the period, some of which he obtained first-hand.
Forsyth, having been a de Havilland Vampire pilot in the RAF, first went to Nigeria in 1967, as a BBC reporter covering the Biafran War. The eastern Nigerian region of Biafra, mostly populated by the Igbo tribe, broke away from Nigeria following massive pogroms of Igbo by the northern Hausa-Fulani. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the first few days of the war.
When the BBC expressed their disinterest in Biafra, especially against covering Vietnam, Forsyth quit and returned to Biafra as a freelancer. He was devoted to the Biafran cause after seeing what he saw on the ground, and his first book was an account of the war, The Biafra Story.
Much of his activities will probably never be known, but there is reason to believe that he at least met several famous mercenaries working Africa at the time, including Mike Hoare, Bob Denard, and “Black Jack” Schramme, all of whom he name-drops in The Dogs of War. His research for the book was so extensive that he met with actual arms dealers, and later described them as the most frightening people he had ever met. The detail of his research shows up in the novel.
There is a theory out there, that Forsyth was actually involved in a plot to launch a coup in Equatorial Guinea, and then wrote The Dogs of War to cover himself, so that he could point to his mercenary and black-market contacts as research. The truth of that theory is something we will probably never know.
So, the bulk of the novel is taken up with extremely detailed descriptions of the preparations that Cat Shannon and his band of rogues go through to get themselves, their weapons, and their ammo to Africa, all without getting rolled up by the authorities for either the illegal operation they are planning, or for international arms smuggling.
It’s not all dry finance and logistics, though. Forsyth is far more of a pro than that. There is a subplot involving an old enemy of Shannon’s that offers a little extra suspense and, eventually, bloody violence in the middle of the story. And the final assault on President Kimba’s palace is excellently done. As is the aftermath.
Because, while Sir James Manson apparently thinks that Shannon and his men are little better than hired thugs, who will do whatever they’re told for money, in the end, we see that Forsyth saw the soldiers for hire in Africa in a somewhat different light. They’re not unalloyed heroes, not by any means. But they have some principles, at least, and those come out in the end. It’s not the money they care about. It’s the fight, and the camaraderie.
If you’re looking for bullets and explosions from page one, you’re not going to find it in The Dogs of War. But you will find a fascinating exploration of the mercenary business in Africa in the ’60s, along with a very satisfying climax, after the pages of shell companies, arms shipments, and smuggling.