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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 thriller novel by Frederick Forsyth. It follows Sir James Manson, who discovers an entire mountain of valuable platinum in Zangaro, a fictional People's Republic of Tyranny in Africa, and endeavors to obtain it via a discreet coup d'état. For this end, he employs a mercenary named Carlo "Cat" Shannon, who is given a hundred days to put a team together and make the strike. The remainder of the novel follows Shannon as he gathers his old friends and prepares for it.

This novel is a famous example of Shown Their Work, as 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. And Forsyth himself is actually rumored to have tried overthrowing the government of Equatorial Guinea using the very methods he later put into the novel, although it's not clear whether he would have actually succeeded.

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

This novel contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Sir James Manson.
  • And Then What?: When informed there's actually no rebel force inside the country waiting to take over, Shannon points out to Endean that killing Kimba only leaves a power vacuum, and his successor must have a force of African soldiers occupying the capital by daylight, who ostensibly carried out the coup and killed Kimba.
  • 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 MP40s (Uzis in the film) 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: Most of the surviving mercenaries die later on, most importantly Shannon, who is last seen walking into the jungle to commit suicide.
  • Decapitated Army: During the planning stage Shannon stresses the importance of killing Kimba due to the belief among his followers that he has juju that protects him from harm. Whoever kills Kimba will be assumed to have more powerful juju, making his ability to run the country much easier. Furthermore Kimba is so paranoid about a coup that he concentrates the only effective firearms in his own palace along with his Praetorian Guard, so Shannon just plans a direct assault on the palace and kills everyone in it.
  • 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.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: Shannon tells Manson's daughter that he'd rather go out with a bullet in his chest than a slow death as a civilian. Failing to die in action, the bullet turns out to be his own.
  • 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 that often conflict with each other, and their employer's. More evident in the film where Shannon develops genuine disgust towards Kimba after visiting Zangaro on a reconnaissance mission. Book Shannon is more focused on the Western businessmen who bankroll such people.
  • 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.
  • Hollywood Tactics: Justified; Shannon has only a tiny force under his command, so if he attacked the capital 'by the book' the defenders would rally and fend them off. Instead he does a night attack striking directly at his target, relying on surprise and overwhelming firepower to break their morale.
  • 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.
  • Leitmotif:: Alluded to throughout the novel; whenever Shannon is about to go into action, or is coming out of it, he always whistles "Spanish Harlem", including when he goes into the jungle to kill himself.
  • 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" Remark:
    • Shannon points out to Endean that they are both mercenaries.
    • When Endean expresses disbelief that the Africans would believe in juju, Shannon says it's no different from Westerners believing that God is on their side when fighting wars.
  • 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. Forsyth himself said that he tried to think of how to take over a country.
  • 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, who happen to be from the same country as the general.
  • 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.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Zig-Zagged; in order to convince Sir James Manson to hire him to carry out his coup d'état of an African state, Cat Shannon writes a detailed professional report (including costs) on the pros and cons of such an attack. After Manson reads this section, the reader is then told that six more pages detailed exactly how Shannon planned to recruit, arm, and transport his force and carry out the attack. Which all goes according to plan except for some hitches during the attack which get a couple of Cat's men killed. Oh, and he left out how he was planning to double-cross Manson and put his own leader in place.
  • 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.
    • There's a Take That! to the Nigerian War with a mention that British business interests advocated support for the government side provided that the war could be brought to a swift end. Shannon having witnessed the subsequent disastrous civil war and famine first hand has a lot to do with his motives.

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. This leaves a Plot Hole of where Shannon's force of African soldiers comes from, and what Shannon's motives are for betraying his employer. However in the film it is stated that Jinja recruits volunteers from Zangaran exiles who have fled the dictatorship and Shannon has a crisis of conscience as Dr Okeye had helped him after he was tortured in prison.
  • Adaptational Nationality: Shannon is changed from an Irish Unionist to an American. Likewise, his multi-national mercenary team of the novel is changed to Brits, Americans, and one Frenchman.
  • Adaptation Name Change: The entire mercenary team has its names changed, to the degree that they're largely different characters who fill similar roles.
    • Less significantly, Shannon has his first name changed from Carlo to James.
    • Simon Endean becomes Roy Endean.
    • Shannon's wife Julie becomes Jessie.
  • 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 Irish Unionist 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.
  • Bitter Sweet Ending: Drew is dead and Shannon has broken his agreement with his employer (although he may have simply helped himself to the piles of cash Kananga offered him). However Dr Okeye is now the leader of Zangaro having demonstrated humanity and compassion to Shannon when he was held in prison and able to fund his new regime with the platinum deposits Manson was intent on exploiting. There is at least some hope for the future of the country.
  • Blood Knight: all of the mercenaries, we only really see them come alive in the end battle scenes.
  • 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).
  • Canon Foreigner: Alan North, the documentarian, and his film crew are original characters created for the film.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Two major scenes: Shannon gets worked over by Zangaro's secret police to try to find out who he's working for in reality (which is the major reason he accepts Manson's offer to finish the job), and later Manson's goon that ran over North gets to have broken glass shoved in his mouth followed by getting bitch-slapped.
  • Composite Character: Endean is combined with his employer in the novel, Sir James Manson.
  • 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. There's also a Shirtless Scene of Tom Berenger testing the grenade launcher in mid-ocean, in one of the most laugh-out-loud Rated M for Manly spectacles you will ever see.
  • 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. The official also helps himself to a sigificant chunk of Shannon's pocket cash, saying that it's an "importation tax" for the liquor.
  • 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!
  • Man in the Iron Mask: A politician who opposed The Caligula in the independence elections is kept in his prison, working as the doctor there. This provides a handy alternate not only to the mad dictator, but also the Puppet King that the mercenaries were supposed to put in power.
  • 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.
  • More Dakka: perhaps the ultimate example, a small force wielding extreme firepower and exploiting the element of surprise and violence of action is able to overwhelm a vastly superior opposition.
  • Never Hurt an Innocent: in the heat of battle Drew storms into a room, submachinegun in hand, screaming his war cry. Only to be confronted with a mother and her young children. He turns and walks away whereupon she shoots him in the back.
  • 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. Gets a Book Ends call back when the mercenaries ride off into the sunrise after the raid with Drew's corpse.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Minor version, but Shannon's father-in-law completely detests his guts, not wanting her hooked up with a man who is essentially a professional killer for hire. 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 divorce him! You did!
  • Of Corpse He's Alive: At the beginning, the mercenaries bring their dead comrade with them on the plane out. Someone complains about it and demands they throw him off. Drew puts a grenade in his hand and pulls the pin and claims he's alive.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The film significantly streamlines down the novel's many characters, methodical plotting, and subplots to focus on Shannon's plot, changing the story from a bit-by-bit breakdown of a coup to a more conventional action-adventure story.
  • 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).
  • Screw the Money, This Is Personal!: While Shannon is a mercenary and willing to get as much money as he can out of Sir James Manson, it doesn't take much for Manson's dragon, Endean, to talk Shannon into leading the assault on Zangaro after the police beat the living crap out of him while he's doing recon (and has also seen first-hand what kind of monster President Kimba is). When he ends up facing off against Kimba on the climactic assault, Kimba goes into a Villainous Breakdown and offers him a small mountain of money to let him go. Shannon just shoots him, and then goes on to screw over Sir Manson (who wasn't going to improve Zangaro with his puppet government anyway).
  • Selective Slaughter: Drew, by far the most gung-ho of mercenaries and obviously revelling in the combat spares an African mother and her children. She promptly shoots him in the back!
  • Shout-Out: A musical version of the poem Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries is sung over the movie's end credits. Ironically the poem has nothing to do with Private Military Contractors, but the professional soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force in World War One, described by German propaganda as fighting for money rather than patriotism.
  • Spared by the Adaptation:Everybody in the mercenary team but Drew.
  • 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