In his debut novel, former Marine Lt. Owen West already displays the literary skills of Ralph Peters when it comes to portraying the modern military everyman caught in the complexities of modern war.
Add to that both a sense of the absurd and of compassion for people trapped in modern hellholes that marked P.J. O'Rourke's foreign correspondence, and the result is "Sharkman Six," a new military classic.
Lt. Gavin Kelly is used to being a fish out of water. As a child, he was the grandson of a famous Marine hero and the son of another Marine whose Vietnam service was talked about in whispers and who was scorned by the elder patriarch.
Kelly was ROTC at Harvard - not the road to popularity in the ultra-liberal environment - and now the men in his Special Forces Marine Recon unit suspiciously view him as an intellectual Ivy Leaguer.
His men are among the first to land on the beach in the glare of television lights for Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. They find that not only has the media been given the details of their landing but also so has most of the country.
In the confusion of establishing a perimeter in the midst of a media circus, one of Kelly's best men kills a Somali man who was heading toward the landing with an AK-47 at the ready. However, the rules of engagement allow for Somalis to carry weapons while dealing with U.S. forces - as long as the gunmen don't aim at them.
Even worse, the dead man had a press pass hanging around his neck and was acting as bodyguard for an aggressive CNN reporter. Kelly is reluctant to throw his man to the wolves over an untenable rule, and he goes along with his sergeant's decision to cover up the issue of the pass.
After the initial controversy, the Marines settle into a routine of helping to feed starving people, burying the dead and guarding food supplies from the gangs of thugs who know just how far they can push the Americans without a response - which is frustratingly far for men whose primary training is in killing bad guys.
The mission of alleviating famine is largely solved in a few weeks, but the new Clinton administration decides to conduct an experiment in establishing democracy in Somalia. However, the rules of engagement have not changed, and the Marines are basically sitting targets for night mortar attacks and snipers.
The Americans also are forced to sit by and watch while the minions of the local gang chief are allowed to rape and pillage at will - often tauntingly in sight of the Marines' positions.
Chafing at the task of treating the symptoms of famine but not allowed to take out the bad guys who caused it - and under constant strain from media scrutiny - the Marines are itching for a real fight. It is only a matter of time before the increasingly aggressive Somali gangs go too far and provoke a response, but Kelly is as worried about how his men will be judged by Washington as he is about dying in a dusty street.
A Harvard grad and former Marine Recon unit commander himself, West imbues both his setting and his characters with complete authenticity. He gradually ratchets up the tension in "Sharkman Six" to the breaking point by making us care for each of the well-drawn characters in Kelly's unit and about the people forced to live under the guns of vicious gangs.
But what really sets this novel apart is West's keen eye for the absurdity of international command and "peacekeeping" in a place where there is no peace to keep.
If your personal reading limit is one book on the Somalia debacle, then "Blackhawk Down" has to be your choice.
But as we near a time when international politics tries to meddle in U.S. military considerations, "Sharkman Six" is a powerful reminder of the dangers of using soldiers in situations for which they are ill suited and saddling them with rules that restrict them - and not the bad guys.