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Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer. Hunting Che: How a U.S. Special Forces Team Helped Capture the World’s Most Famous Revolutionary. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 300 pages, 2013. SBN: 978-0-425-25746-3. Hardcover $26.95
SWJ Book Review by Kristen Wood
Before Che Guevara was a copyrighted image emblazoned across the front T-shirts of hipsters and hippies alike, he was a feared revolutionary fomenting communist uprising throughout the Third World. Che was rightly seen by many as an existential threat to the free world and is largely given credit for the 1959 rise of Fidel Castro and the communist party in Cuba. Eight years later, however, he was a corpse lying in a schoolhouse, executed by the Bolivian army. Rumors of U.S. involvement in his death immediately began to spread and the U.S. eventually released classified records detailing both CIA and military involvement. Since then, the few books that have been written about the U.S. involvement in the incident focus mainly on the CIA’s role and are typically written in the conspiratorial “American-led death squad” prose that can cause many readers of history to become queasy. Therefore, the ground was fertile for an authoritative and analytical account and the release of Hunting Che: How a U.S. Special Forces Team Helped Capture the World’s Most Famous Revolutionary could have flourished where others had failed. Unfortunately, this book, like many before it, is a disappointment.
The story of Che Guevara is picked up in 1966 as he lands in La Paz, Bolivia to initiate a communist revolution based on his “foco” style of guerilla warfare. The narrative spends little time following Che in the jungle and as the title implies quickly transitions to focus on the Bolivian government’s response to the insurgent threat. Major Pappy Shelton and his Special Forces Team are eventually introduced and the storyline runs through the challenges faced by the Special Forces team in turning a group of incompetent Bolivian soldiers into the elite Bolivian 2nd Ranger Battalion. Once the Bolivians are trained, the story shifts to follow the operations in the jungle as they track down, capture, and ultimately execute the world’s most wanted revolutionary.
Contrary to the title, the actual discussion of Major Shelton and his team is very limited. Less than half the book is dedicated to the training provided by the Special Forces team and the challenges they overcame. What is written about the training is awkwardly interrupted by shallow character development and cumbersome internal monologues. At a time when a soldier is more likely to be singularly concerned with surviving the arduous Ranger training in the Bolivian jungle, the authors have them contemplating geostrategic maneuverings of superpowers throughout the international environment. Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer, in their Authors’ Notes, explain their desire to not “bog down the narrative” of a story they felt read like a “1960s spy novel” with the use of footnotes. Unfortunately, the melodramatic narrative and the barrage of clichés that only the Hollywood military uses make it read like merely a second-rate spy novel.
Buried in the awkward narrative, however, was the potential for a few insightful points. The description of a sugar mill built as a U.S. Alliance for Progress project but left rotting in the jungle had the potential for an editorial discussion on the sometimes-erratic nature of American aid and the affects this can have on local communities. The explanation of the operational restrictions placed on the Special Forces team by senior political leaders could have been a launching point for a discussion on how creative and innovative special operations teams can overcome challenges which may at first appear insurmountable in order to accomplish their mission. Unfortunately, none of these themes were developed and it is left up to the reader to cull out meaning from between the lines.
Perhaps most alarming to the reader should be this blatantly incorrect fact: on page 268, the authors explain the Iran-Contra affair as a “complicated scheme to trade arms to Iran in exchange for U.S. hostages held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran”. The Iran-Contra affair came to light in 1986, almost six years after the hostages were released from Tehran; the affair was actually an attempt to sell arms for hostages held in Lebanon. While that mistake may be excusable for someone who is only a casual observer of history, it is unforgiveable for authors who reference the incident in a non-fiction book. A mistake this simple makes one wonder what other facts they got wrong.
This book was more a mediocre cross between a Brad Thor and W.E.B. Griffin novel than an informative discussion of “How a U.S. Special Forces Team Helped Capture the World’s Most Famous Revolutionary”. If one is looking for an historical and analytical discussion of Che Guevara and his time spent in Bolivia, both Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson and Death of a Revolutionary: Che Guevara’s Last Mission by Richard L. Harris are better suited in that regard. Unfortunately, neither fully address the U.S. military involvement, which means the world is still left waiting for an authoritative, unbiased account of the role played by the U.S. Special Forces team in Che Guevara’s capture. Even more unfortunate, however, is that Hunting Che does not do Major Shelton and his team justice.