When I first heard of this book I asked another old hand in the SF community to tell me a little bit about Billy Bowles. “He was known for going into the fray often and doing it well,” was what I was told. I highly suspect that Covert Loves is a work of fact rather than fiction, the names and some of the specifics changed to fictionalize Bowles’ life story in order to protect some of the people and professional reputations involved.
The protagonist of the book is named Ken Fisher, a kid who grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama and joined the Army as he came of age at the conclusion of the Second World War. The first half of the book details Ken’s early experiences in the Army as a Signals specialist where he sees the horrible aftermath of war up close and personal, including the horrendous toll suffered by the European people. I can also tell you that young Ken Fisher drinks enough beer and fornicates with enough German women to make any para-trooper proud.
Covert Loves really comes into its own in it’s descriptions of Army culture and how it changed over the years. Take for instance First Sergeant “Iron Jaws” who tells Ken to man up and stop feeling sorry for himself over a glass of whiskey. That’s the kind of old school leadership that that Army needs but all to often finds itself lacking.
My favorite parts of the book was when Bowles describes the early years of Special Forces as his protagonist joins up, begins training, and ships off on a secret training mission to Laos in the late 1950’s. I learned a lot about SF history that I didn’t know before hand and really came to understand why those early Green Berets were such a tight brotherhood of soldiers.
Ken Fisher proceeds to Vietnam by way of Okinawa, his ODA is the first of two sent into the country. Its chilling when you know where all of this is going, having the benefit of hindsight. The stories about Vietnam are particularly important, the lessons learned about unconventional warfare were hard learned, and continue to inform Special Forces missions to this day. The mid-night ambushes, the SFOB nearly getting over run, and what it is like for a 12-man ODA to plow into the jungle with nothing, stand up an encampment and begin training indigenous soldiers is something that everyone interested in Special Operations Forces should read.
The book does have a happy ending for Ken Fisher, despite several heartbreaking moments, even if it is sober in its tone. It couldn’t end any other way, the time frame taking the reader from Post-WWII to Post-Vietnam. Still, when Ken retires from the service, a happily married man, he picks up the phone to hear from an old friend. A friend that is offering him a new job.
The author writes with a wink and a nod, telling the reader a story in his own matter-of-fact manner. I think William Bowles has a few more stories to tell.