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Dangerous Games: Faces, Incidents, and Casualties of the Cold War

Dangerous Games: Faces, Incidents, and Casualties of the Cold War by James E. Wise Jr. and Scott Baron. Naval Institute Press, 2010, 256 pp.

The Cold War, which lasted from the end of World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union, was anything but “cold.” During that time, numerous incidents occurred—ranging from strongly worded letters to actual shootings—in the air, on the ground, and at sea. Instead of discussing grand history or strategy, Dangerous Games: Faces, Incidents, and Casualties of the Cold War focuses on individuals—a great way to give the reader a look into some of these little-known events.

Beginning with Marine Corps engagements in China after World War II and ending with Army special forces operations in El Salvador in 1987, the authors—a former Navy aviator and an Army veteran—chronicle “hot” and “not-so-hot” actions. As one would expect, the hot actions involve actual combat, whether with Chinese Communists, U-2 flights over Cuba, or a seemingly never-ending series of incidents in Korea. The not-so-hot portion includes mysterious disappearances of attachés and military officers, Carl Brashear’s heroic story, the death of Yuri Gagarin, and the tale of “Red Spy Queen” Elizabeth Bentley, described as a “lush, a leech, and a slut” (p. 16).

Each chapter begins the same way, with a brief historical introduction that sets the stage and context for the story to follow. The authors take pains to supply plenty of background information, such as the development of the U-2 or the events that led to the building of the Berlin Wall. One obscure but amusing account relates the “real-life” Top Gun canopy-to-canopy maneuver over Cuba between an F-4 and a MiG-21 in 1966.

Even casual readers of military history are probably familiar with many of the narratives, such as the “candy bomber” of the Berlin airlift, but a few stand out as noteworthy. The latter include the story of Hans Conrad Schumann, an East German border guard famously photographed leaping barbed wire to escape to the West (pp. 85–89), and, in particular, that of “Commander Bucher and the Second Korean Conflict, 1966–69” (pp. 127–43). Most of us have heard about North Korea’s seizure of the USS Pueblo, but the sheer number of events that took place around that time in Korea is staggering. The yearly border incidents (up to 700)—not to mention running gunfights, special operations infiltrations of the South, assassination attempts, shoot-downs, and more—made this anything but a cold war. Of special interest to the aviation community is the detailed treatment of aerial action from 1945 to 1990, such as the downing of aircraft. The more familiar confrontations examined in these 23 pages are more than matched by the number of lesser-known incidents.

The authors have researched their material well, including 20 pages of notes and citations. However, the downside to this exhaustive documentation is that in many sections Wise and Baron cite whole pages of text, as they do with Yuri Gagarin and Carl Brashear. Granted, shorter quotations and sections help emphasize points, but this wholesale cutting and pasting impedes the overall flow of the book. Although Dangerous Games is not required reading for airpower historians, anyone with an interest in the Cold War—especially the minor skirmishes that flared up around its edges—will enjoy this book.

Lt Col Aaron Burgstein, USAF

Washington, DC

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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