Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
“Arlen's Gun” is a thrilling military and historical fiction novel that features the Vietnam War. The book stars the titular soldier, Arlen Washington, a gunner on an AC-47 gunship.
The AC-47 is the heart and center of this novel as its the rallying point of Arlen and his crew. The AC-47, which can be described in layman's terms as a military aircraft with tremendous firepower, was called “Puff the Magic Dragon” after the song by the band Peter, Paul and Mary. This is presumably because it flew and belched “fire" (bullets) down on the battlefield. It went by the designation “Spooky.” The AC-47 in the novel is often called “Spooky 45.”
Washington is a relatively shy and reclusive soldier from a poor part of Baltimore, Maryland. The author does a good job at portraying him like a blank slate, someone whose shoes the audience can put their feet in and experience the crisis for themselves. And it is quite a crisis!
The AC-47 is frighteningly shot down in the middle of a skirmish between US and North Vietnamese troops, possibly a victim of an RPG-7. The crew is forced to make an emergency landing in enemy territory where the threat of death, capture, and torture loom heavy on the stranded soldiers who are told that help is hours or even days away due to bad weather. There are few things more unsettling than that!
Well, to make matter worse, the jungle is crawling with all sorts of threats including tigers! They're stuck there with seemingly nothing more than a few pistols and an M16 rifle. What are our protagonists going to do to survive?
They're going to pull a full John Wayne or Rambo that's what!
The crew quickly realized that staying there alone with only some small arms wasn't going to cut it, and one of them remembers the Dillon Aero M134D-H machine gun on the plane, a doggone minigun—possibly the most incredible firearm ever made, capable of firing over 4,000 rounds per minute! The book says they can fire up to 6,000! Now, in what movie did John Wayne carry a minigun into battle and get himself killed like the book says? We've seen quite a few John Wayne movies including The Green Beret (in which he wielded an OG M-16), but we don't remember him ever wielding a heavy machine gun with belts of bullets across his shoulders as described. Maybe the characters are experiencing combat fatigue or are confused, so they misremembered the actor playing the heroic war character? Maybe.
In any case, the protagonists figure out how to rig the minigun to a battery to get it to work. We eventually even get to see one loaded onto a dump truck! It's both hilarious and cool. And it's amazing to see how resourceful and clever these soldiers can be when their backs are to the wall and they have to fight or think their way out.
There's even a somewhat humanizing moment for the enemy when one of the Vietcong is captured and spared by the US soldiers after playing dead. This creates a huge moral dilemma for the US soldiers who debate about what to do about him. On one hand “the war is over” for the Vietcong who is disarmed and heavily wounded, but on the other hand, the US soldiers know that the Vietcong like to pretend to surrender or play day only to blow themselves up or shoot them from behind. Furthermore, the medic's attention is torn between the wounded enemy and wounded friendlies. Keeping a POW seems like the righteous thing to do, but is it the right thing to do?
There's also this amazing line: “I know some great guys from crappy backgrounds and some real shits born to privilege. Guess the Lord works in mysterious ways...You don’t control the cards you’re dealt. It’s all in how you play the hand. Take a guy like Chief. Born in some barrio in Peru. Lousy hand, good player.”
Things like this make this book a very worthwhile read, particularly if you're into military fiction.
Check it out on Amazon!