Literature / The Dogs of War

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"Knocking off a bank or an armoured truck is merely crude. Knocking off an entire republic has, I feel, a certain style."
Sir James Manson

The Dogs of War is a 1974 novel by Frederick Forsyth. It follows Sir James Manson, who discovers a large amount of valuable platinum in Zangaro, a People's Republic of Tyranny, and endeavors to obtain it via a discreet coup d'état. For this end, he employs Cat Shannon, a mercenary, who is given a hundred days to gather his team and make the strike. The rest of the book follows Shannon as he gathers his old friends and prepares for it.

This book is a famous example of Shown Their Work; Forsyth spent time covering the Nigerian Civil War, and drew heavily from his experiences there. Several people have even tried to carry out coups in real life based on the methods presented within. Forsyth actually pretended to be overthrowing the government of Equatorial Guinea based on the very methods he later put into the book, although it is not quite clear whether he would have actually succeeded.

Made into a 1980 film directed by John Irvin and starring Christopher Walken.


This book contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Sir James Manson.
  • Anonymous Ringer: Several: Biafra, 'General' Ojukwu and even Forsyth himself all play major roles in the plot without ever being explicitly named.
  • Arms Dealer: Mostly of the legal variety, except for the one selling Schmeissers.
  • Assassin Outclassin': Roux's hitman proves ineffectual against Langarotti.
  • Author Avatar: One of Manson's henchmen asks a freelance journalist called "The Writer" to supply him a list of the world's deadliest mercenaries. Most are real mercenaries Forsyth knew personally.
  • Author Tract: Forsyth makes no secret of where his sympathies lie regarding the Nigerian Civil War.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Shannon gives the republic as a safe haven for immigrant workers and ends up reforming the government, but both Marc Vlaminck and Jan Dupree are dead, Semmler is killed later on in an accident with explosives, and Shannon commits suicide, though in his case he was killing himself because he had terminal cancer.
  • The Big Guy: Marc Vlaminck.
  • Border Crossing: Smuggling the Schmeissers over the French border.
  • Bulungi: Zangaro.
  • The Caligula: President Kimba.
  • Call-Back: Several to Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal: one character fought with the French OAS terrorist group in Algeria, another mentions Jackal's fictional Colonel Rodin and there's a Belgian character named Goosens (albeit a different character than Jackal, where he's a gunsmith rather than a banker). Shannon also employs the same passport fraud during his travels.
  • Crazy-Prepared: The mercenaries, as one small error in smuggling arms would give them life in prison.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Sir James Manson and his underlings.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The mercenaries carry out a night attack on President Kimba's palace and barracks, relying not only on shelling the buildings with mortar bombs and bazooka rockets, but also gas-operated foghorns to further disorient the defenders. Faced with a sudden and overwhelming attack in the middle of the night, Kimba's Praetorian Guard Run or Die.
  • Deadly Distant Finale
  • Decapitation Presentation: A rival mercenary puts out a contract on Shannon. One day he opens his mailbox and finds the hitman's head in there.
  • Dumb Muscle: What Shannon's employers make the mistake of thinking he is.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Played with throughout, as Shannon and the other mercenaries have their own personal codes and moral boundaries. More evident in the film where Shannon develops genuine disgust towards Kimba's regime.
  • Every Man Has His Price: Sir James Manson ponders this trope, concluding "If they cannot be bought, they can be broken." Unfortunately for his plans, the mercenary he's hired to overthrow an African dictatorship for his own puppet ruler proves otherwise as he's Secretly Dying.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Forsyth admitted to have based Zangaro on Equatorial Guinea and Kimba on Francisco Macías Nguema, who was just as evil in Real Life.
  • Friendly Fire: How Dupree meets his end, not hearing an ally's warning he accidentally runs into a grenade's blast radius
  • Honey Trap: Shannon sleeps with Manson's not-so-innocent daughter to get information on her father regarding what he's after in Zangaro. Somewhat subverted from the way this trope is normally played in that she never realizes how she was being used, and Shannon breaks up with her gently and respectfully when the time comes.
  • Ironic Nickname: "Tiny" Marc Vlaminck.
  • Knife Nut: Langarotti, who is always sharpening his blade.
  • Kill 'em All: The only member of the group left alive at the end is Langarotti ...maybe.
  • Literary Allusion Title: From Julius Caesar ("Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the dogs of war").
  • London Gangster: Locke, Simon's bodyguard in Africa is mentioned to have been an enforcer for the Krays He makes the mistake of thinking an East London Hard Man would be a match for a trained merc
  • Manly Tears: Upon Jan Dupree's death, by his aide.
  • Mutual Kill: Kimba's KGB bodyguard and Tiny Marc.
  • Not So Different: Shannon points out the Endean that they're both mercenaries.
  • Out-Gambitted: Manson and his cronies.
  • Private Military Contractors: Shannon and company.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: Zangaro, though later changed.
  • Properly Paranoid: The mercenaries about smuggling arms, because one error will get them all life in prison.
  • Rival Turned Evil / Driven by Envy: Roux and Shannon.
  • Shown Their Work: The entire book.
  • Stock Quotes / Literary Allusion Title
  • Redshirt Army: Kimba's forces, mostly due to not having workable guns — Kimba is more afraid of a coup than an invasion. His army is merely a thuggish show of force meant to keep order.
  • Secretly Dying: Mercenary leader "Cat" Shannon has been diagnosed with cancer, which motivates his betrayal of his employers as a final act of virtue.
  • Steel Eardrums: Averted. The gun and mortar fire deafens Dupree so he doesn't hear a warning about a grenade.
  • Take a Third Option: Zangaro is an impoverished nation controlled by an incompetent and Ax-Crazy dictator dependent on the Soviet Union. Sir James Manson intends to replace him with a corrupt thug in order to turn the country into a Banana Republic under the thumb of his corporation. Shannon and his mercenaries carry out the coup, but instead of installing Manson's puppet, they create a provisional government run by a more honorable general that Shannon has worked with in the past, with Zangaro's overlooked (but numerous and industrious) immigrant labor force as its support base.
  • There Are No Good Executives: This trope is Manson, all over. He finances a coup and plans to put a puppet government on Darkest Africa because of a literal mountain full of rare metals in the country.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Semmler was in the Hitler Youth and the Belgian the group buys the MP-40s from was an SS cook.
  • War for Fun and Profit: Most of the protagonists are mercenaries, and Sir Manson thinks it better to finance a coup than trying to negotiate with Kimba. To be fair, negotiating wasn't really an option given that Kimba was a Soviet puppet and therefore very unlikely to open up his country to a major Western corporation.

The film contains these additional tropes:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The movie removes much of the central theme of the connection between big business and war, as well as the entire Nigerian Civil War subplot (leaving a Plot Hole of where Shannon's force of African soldiers comes from).
  • Adaptation Expansion: Shannon's private life gets more focus; he's shown to befriend a street kid and have an ex-wife, rather than the loner he is in the books.
  • Apathetic Citizens: The reporter gripes about how everyone watching his documentary on Zagaroo switched to the Miss Universe contest as soon as they saw there was nothing interesting on.
  • America Saves the Day: Shannon has been changed from Anglo-Irish to American, though given the movie takes place in the 1980's this is justified. When the novel was written, most mercenaries were from Europe or Southern Africa, whereas the end of the Vietnam War saw an increase in American mercenaries.
  • Bilingual Backfire: Shannon goes on a reconnaissance mission where he leaves his local guide behind in the jungle and lets slip that he has training in guerilla warfare, thinking that the man only knows the Zangaron language. After Shannon is imprisoned and tortured by the authorities and kicked out of the country, it turns out that the guide is proficient in English when he reveals to Shannon that he's a supporter of the Kimba regime and the one who reported him.
  • Brick Joke: Shannon's final debriefing with Manson (and his meeting with Gobi) has Shannon insisting that they arrive on time to Zangaro after the battle is over. When they arrive after the battle is over, Shannon yells at them about arriving late and introduces them to Dr. Okoye, who he had just handed over the presidency of Zangaro to (and saying again that they should not have arrived late).
  • Every Man Has His Price: Kimba tries to pull this card (in rather severe, sweat-soaked desperation) during the coup. Shannon's response is to stone-facedly put a burst of 9mm ammo through his chest.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: Dr. Okoye tells Shannon (while attending him after the Cold-Blooded Torture of the Zangaro police) that this happened with Kimba-after he deposed the previous dictator, he just went into full-on A God Am I mode.
  • Grenade Launcher / Revolvers Are Just Better: The Movie had "XM-18's" (actually Manville revolver launchers) used for the climatic attack.
  • Infraction Distraction: Shannon plants a Playboy magazine and a bottle of whiskey in his luggage for the customs official to 'confiscate' so he doesn't look too closely at anything else he is bringing in
  • Intrepid Reporter: Alan North, who first meets Shannon on Zangaro and then starts to tail him when he meets him again in Europe. Unfortunately, he thinks Shannon is a CIA agent planning a coup on Zangaro (instead of a soldier-for-hire to a Corrupt Corporate Executive). He gets killed by an assassin sent by said Corrupt Corporate Executive (which pisses off Shannon) for his trouble. Also an Incredibly Obvious Tail.
  • Ironic Echo: Shannon is given a local guide who apparently can't speak English. After leading him on a Wild Goose Chase he says, "In my jungle you'd be just another asshole!" After being beaten up by the secret police, Shannon is limping out of the airport when he encounters the 'guide' again, who hands him his passport while saying with a grin, "Can't leave Zangaroo without your passport, asshole." Shannon gets his payback during the final attack however, when this asshole has the misfortune to be in Kimba's palace.
  • Jerkass: Manson and General Gobi.
    General Gobi: He [Kimba] wants to be God. I want to be rich!
  • Manipulative Bastard: Manson manipulates Shannon into "completing the mission" (after the recon is over and paid for) by appealing to his need for Revenge after the Zangaro police worked him over. Also see below about Shannon's ex-father-in-law.
  • Money Is Not Power: Shannon machine guns Kananga even when he's offering him a massive amount of money to let him go and screws Manson over (thus not completing his contract to the letter) because he finds both men repulsive and refuses to be the latter's puppet.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: The mercenaries insist on taking one of their dead comrades with them on the last plane out of the country.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Minor version, but Shannon's father-in-law completely detests his guts and when he confronts Shannon's ex-wife about him wanting to meet her again and give her a trip to Florida, she says the line below. Their following discussion also implies that he forced her to divorce by playing the "needful, crippled old man" card.
    Shannon's Wife: I didn't divorced him! You did!
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner:
    Manson: This is preposterous! This whole country was bought and paid for!
    Shannon: Well, you are going to have to buy it all over again! (Blows Gobi away with a .45, leaves).
  • Shout-Out: A musical version of the poem Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries is sung over the movie's end credits.
  • Try Not to Die
    Shannon: [to the other mercenaries] Remember, you have to make it home to get paid.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: From what little we see of him, apparently North thinks of himself as the Intrepid Reporter that will expose a CIA plan for a coup in Zangaro. He's both wrong about the details (Shannon is a mercenary being funded by a Corrupt Corporate Executive) and his own importance in the narrative (at best, he's a Mauve Shirt; and is killed by one of Manson's goons when he gets too nosy).

Alternative Title(s): The Dogs Of War

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