Cowboys vs. Kippot

The awesome sci-fi novel about U.S. relations with Israel -- in an alternate acid-trip universe.

Ballantine Books
Ballantine Books

Texas has seceded from the United States. Israeli tanks thunder across the Southwest plains — mercenaries hired by the nuclear-devastated federal government to drag the recalcitrant republic back into the Union.

This is the cowboys vs. kippot world of The Texas-Israeli War: 1999, a 1974 science-fiction novel by Jake Saunders and Howard Waldrop, and one of the most bizarre SF books ever written. With this month marking Texan independence from Mexico in 1836, a petition to the White House for Texas secession already garnering 125,000 signatures, and the president of the United States in Jerusalem, it seems an appropriate moment to examine what will likely be the first and last war fought between Israel and Texas, as well as take a look back at how 1970s sci-fi foresaw the future. Besides, who can resist a book with a cover that shows an Israeli tank being charged by a horde of Native Americans on horseback?

The novel’s premise is that the United States was devastated by a nuclear and biological war in 1992, after it supported a Russo-British alliance against a Chinese-Irish-Afrikaan South African triad. (Actually, the war is triggered when the IRA conquers Ulster and pours LSD into Britain’s water supply, inducing British leaders to launch their nukes, presumably to enjoy the pretty colors.) The ensuing conflagration wipes out 90 percent of humanity and leaves the survivors sickly and starving — except for Israel, which somehow emerges unscathed and prosperous.

To add another drop of lysergic acid to this alternate history trip, billionaire oil barons convince a neo-fascist Texas to secede from the Union and restore the Republic of Texas (ReTex) after 150 years. Desperate for Texan oil reserves but with the bulk of the shattered U.S. military fighting off a Chinese invasion of Alaska, the federal government hires a tank unit of Israeli mercenaries (other Israelis are hired by the Texans, including Ariel Sharon) to beef up its army and bring the renegade republic back into the Union. The story’s protagonist, Sol Inglestein, is a veteran Israeli colonel leading a force of Israelis, Americans, and loyalist Texans on an armored commando mission to rescue the U.S. president, who was kidnapped by Texas Rangers during a peace conference. Their effort will be supported by an amphibious invasion of Cuban marines storming Galveston. Yes, it sounds like more like a game of Risk than real international politics. But then again, someone writing in 1974 that U.S. troops would fight in Afghanistan for 10 years would have been dismissed as a fantasist or a nut.

The Texas-Israeli War is solid Grade B sci-fi: punchy, page-turning prose with lots of action and a fair bit of sex (Sol gets it on with Myra, a dark-haired beauty who commands an all-female Israeli tank crew). This is one of those books that is funny even when you are not sure the authors mean to be humorous. Inglestein’s Israeli mercenary unit has the radio call sign "Charlie Bagel," and dances the "Hora" and sings the "Hatikvah" after battles. The U.S. vice president, now president in the new capital of Pittsburgh, plots to dump his wife in a Minnesota lake and appoint a presidential consort. As for the Texans, their currency has John Wayne’s portrait, and their secret police are "The Sons of the Alamo" (not-so-subtly abbreviated "SA" like the Nazi paramilitary organization), who wear SS-like lightning bolts on their collars. A final ingredient in this stew of clichés is the Confederate theme embodied by a ReTex general, portrayed as a reluctant, honorable warrior who talks like Robert E. Lee and acts like he could have stepped out of a painting of Appomattox (and lest this be judged as Yankee propaganda, the authors are Texans themselves).

Growing up as a teenage science-fiction fan in New Jersey, I loved this novel. Action, intrigue, and, as a bonus, the crushing of Texas. ("Drive 70 and Freeze a Yankee," will you? Think again, cowboy.) It is very much a product of the 1970s, an ugly decade squatting unloved between the turbulent idealism of the 1960s and Reagan’s "Morning in America." The theme of doomsday spread like plague bacilli through that era — from Charlton Heston as the last human in a mutant-ridden world in 1971’s The Omega Man, to Heston’s culinary discovery in 1975’s Soylent Green, to the cruel "In space, no one can hear you scream" universe of 1979’s Alien.

The true fascination of the book is to read it 40 years later for its vision of a future America. It predicted a grim time of war, disease, and poverty — a world in which the descent of man leaves the living envying the dead. The Texas-Israeli War is Cold War apocalypse, where whatever survived the nuclear bombs was destroyed by weaponized diseases and blights that decimated the human and plant worlds and left the survivors sickly and struggling. As Inglestein reflects while looking out over the Texas farmland, "Early in the War of ’92, the plagues — many more than seven — began to strike. Moses had been dead a long time. Now there would be no deliverance."

But some things in the book’s future are actually less frightening than our present and recent past. Our 1999 saw the advent of drones and cyberweapons, leading to an era where autonomous machines make war (and one day will turn on us, in the world of the Terminator). Tanks have begun to seem like Industrial Age relics, ponderous and useless compared to agile robots and special operations forces. However, in the alternate 1999, armor is the king of battle in a future that is more like World War II than Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Texas-Israeli War is post-apocalyptic Panzer porn, with tanks appearing on every page, as if the Omega Man found himself an M-1 Abrams to pump high-explosive shells at those weird-eyed mutants that torment him. Yet it is also the twilight of the tank, as warfare plummets toward the pre-industrial. The United States and ReTex forces make do with junkyard leftovers and museum pieces, such as World War II Sherman, Grant, and Stuart tanks. Only the Israelis have high-tech equipment, a handful of Centurion tanks armed with plutonium-powered engines and Gatling lasers:

Sol’s unit was among the last possessing modern tanks. When the remaining stuff wore out, the battlefield would be totally given over to infantry. Already, the airplane approached the dodo’s fate. Eventually the two great power conglomerates would resemble men who, having wounded each other fatally, crawl together and thumbwrestle even as they bleed to death.

The portrayal of Israel will be especially jarring to 21st century readers. The novel, and the original short story that spawned it, were written just after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and a few years after the Six-Day War, when Israeli military prowess was legendary (an image dented by the 2006 Lebanon War). The Israelis are depicted as spirited but weary warriors resigned to a lifetime of struggle and to losing friends and family to war and terrorism. Soldier-farmers are fighting for the promise of money and a few of acres of American land to farm, which won’t seem much like the upwardly mobile Israeli computer programmers now earning shekels in Tel Aviv.

Perhaps the eeriest, almost creepy, part is the portrayal of Ariel Sharon, who is mentioned in passing, but in reverential tones as a skilled and honorable warrior who refuses to obey orders by the Sons of Alamo to execute civilians. The book was written just after Sharon earned fame by leading a counteroffensive across the Suez Canal that turned the tide of th
e Yom Kippur War, and before the Israeli government found him responsible for not preventing a Christian massacre of Palestinians during the 1982 intervention in Lebanon’s civil war.

Our time as foreseen in 1974 may be similar in some ways, but it is very different. As Sol Inglestein would say, baruch Hashem, it is a blessing that the world did not turn out so.

Michael Peck is a defense writer. Twitter: @Mipeck1