Garth Ennis reaches the end of his Punisher MAX run with a book that examines his life as a soldier in Vietnam and how those experiences still inform what he does now. In my opinion the series reached it's emotional apotheosis with the previous book, "Long Cold Dark" which examined the concept of him as a father. After that, this book feels more like an epilogue, tying up the loose ends still dangling from the "Mother Russia" storyline and restating his original mission ready for the next writer to take on the character. Frustratingly this also acts as a companion piece to the miniseries "Born" which is effectively a prologue to this run, which I will cover as soon as I can afford it. This volume also contains lengthy text extracts of a fictional book written by a man who lost his brother in Vietnam, a character who featured in the "Born" mini as well, and which told the story of how their base, Valley Forge was overun by the North Vietnamese Army and how of all the one hundred and ninety-two men stationed there, only Frank Castle made it out alive. The in-story book explores the lives of the soldiers as human beings, fighting in a war they didn't understand at a base where discipline had broken down completely. It touches on possible reasons why and how Valley Forge might have affected the man who was to become The Punisher, and forms a good counterpoint to the present day story of a group of US soldiers being given the unthinkable task - to capture The Punisher alive. Just a note, this book relies heavily on the events of Book 3 "Mother Russia", there are recaps provided in this book, but it'll help if you haven't already read it to read my recap of that volume first.
The story begins with Frank meeting Nick Fury in a bar. They ponder the death toll of U.S. troops in the Iraq war and Fury wonders if they don't have something coming to them. A suicide bomber exploding downtown somewhere:
Fury: "It's always some grunt. Some poor fucking civilian".
"Sounds like your losing your faith" remarks Frank. Fury says if he is it's because of the contents of the envelope he has passed to Frank. He says there's been another book written about his time in 'Nam. Frank says he never reads the books. He gets up and starts to leave. Fury asks him if he is going to "waste the pricks". Franks says "might do" and departs.
|Nick Fury, one man Frank does respect.|
They start arguing about what to do about Frank, especially recovering the tape with Rawlin's confession about the Mother Russia plot. They figure Frank is probably going to come gunning for them now they made it personal. One of them points out they all hold high rank, but another says they haven't exactly fought in any wars. Also they need to get rid of Frank to protect all the cushy jobs they have lined up in the private sector.
One of them has had an idea. "What if you give him a target he couldn't possibly shoot at?" He wants to send U.S. soldiers after him. A small Delta force unit to subdue and extract him. Easy. The others are dubious, what if local law enforcement find out? The general dismisses these fears say they can blame the War On Terror. He is positive the Punisher won't fire on U.S. troops and they already have a volunteer to oversee the operation.
Howe believes Frank is a "stain on the reputation of the United States Military". They trained him, it's time they closed the book on him. Geller says Frank has a tape to be recovered as part of the operation, then the Frank can be handed off to the Justice System for trial. Geller remarks that Howe isn't like the stereotype of Delta Force officers, and it's good that people can rise above their stereotypes.
Howe: "I imagine it is lieutenant. I imagine it is."
And we get a page of Frank regard the photos of each of the generals which he has pinned to a board on the wall of his lair.
|Frank plots and plans.|
Howe: I joined S.F. because I wanted to do the job properly instead of being helpless and outclassed. I wanted to be the best because America needs and deserves the best."
His problem with Frank is that he "dishonours what we do". Then he introduces Geller to the unit who'll be doing the job.
They discuss tactics, they are going to set-up in Brooklyn and wait for him to take someone out and when he does they'll stake out other locations owned by the same outfit. They believe their sheer numbers will allow them to take him alive, the difficult thing will be not tipping their hand. He is one of them, he knows how they work, "even what you might call tribal customs".
We then return to the generals discussing Howe, one of them says he is "wonderful. He's almost white". Another reiterates Frank won't fire on U.S troops, but yet another points out that they are U.S troops and "the whole reason we're doing this is we're all pretty convinced Castle's going to fire on us".
|Delta Force do some recon on Frank.|
Woody: "Ever seen Alien? My kid brother was crazy for it growing up. Line I always remember ' I admire its purity'".
Later that night Woody and the sergeant are on a stake out. Then FRank finds the sergeant and walks him at gunpoint to where Woody is, saying "who might you be?" Woody calmly tells him they are U.S. soldiers sent to detain him. Frank kicks the sergeant in the back and into Woody and runs into the bar they were staking out. Woody calls the others to come help as he runs in after him.
Wodody manages to corner Frank on the top floor and gets him to drop his weapons. Then the floor collapses under him. As Woody hangs on for dear life, Frank says he can guess who sent them and takes off. The sergeant helps Woody up and says he managed to place the tracer inside Frank's coat, they can track him now.
Howe orders them to follow him before he finds the tracer. They track him to a basement apartment and gain entrance only to find Frank is ready for them. He sets off a bunch of smoke grenades and in the confusion wallops a couple of them, then he tosses a stun grenade into a box of stun grenades and there is a huge but non lethal explosion flooring the soldiers and allowing Frank to escape. "This is him trying not to kill us" says Woody.
|Frank takes down Delta with ease.|
Steve: "He made us feel like we make ordinary dudes feel. Is how I'd put it."
Woody admits they should have been more prepared for how prepared Frank was. Howe blames himself for rushing them. They discuss how much longer they have to find Frank when the generals show up.
|Seriously, fuck this guy and his mates.|
In a bar, Frank watches the news which shows the police discovery of all the weapons he was forced to leave behind when his basement safehouse was compromised. He rolls the tracer around between the bar and his finger and ponders...
The remaining Delta's follow the tracers signal. One of them says Frank probably fed it to a dog. They arrive at a graveyard where the signal is broadcasting from. One of the men expresses uncertainty about the generals. Woody agrees saying the way the generals spoke to Howe was less like officers to officer, "sounded more like people in business".
He says Howe is too smart to be played by the generals, and they tool up with guns and tasers. They find Frank standing in front of an angel statue which he has covered in dynamite and plastic explosive, and is holding a dead man's switch. He wants to talk to Howe.
|Negociation, Punisher style.|
Howe comes to the graveyard alone while Geller, who he is leaving out of the loop, tries to contact him. He introduces himself to Frank, "want to tell me what's on your mind?" Meanwhile Geller is speaking to one of the generals on the phone who is agitated by Howe going off like this.
Frank tells Howe the generals "aren't soldiers. They're executives in a corporation". Howe asks how the got their names and says he is just following orders. "They don't give orders. They do business" responds Frank. He tells them to pack up and leave "and we can stop wasting each other's time." Howe says they won't be leaving without him.
|Howe is no pushover though.|
Frank: "I'd be dead by sun-up. Either you'd do it for them or they'd get someone else. I could give a shit about dying. But those assholes have to be punished".
He says he tell them where to find a copy of Rawlin's confession (extracted from him in Book 4) and then they can decide of they still want to come after him. Howe says he comes with them now, so Frank releases the dead man switch.
The statue was a decoy, the charges are fake, just tear gas and smoke. This time the Deltas are ready with gasmasks. They pin Frank down and taser him. They zap him several times until he is fully down and one goes to cuff him, Frank knocks the cuffs away and shakily gets up, but they keep zapping him until he stays down and they cuff him and take him back to their base.
Howe goes into the interrogation room alone and says to Frank, "it isn't you". He tells them it's the tape the generals really want which he thought was a secondary target but now realises is the whole point of the exercise, which leads him to believe Frank is telling the truth. Howe says he has done tours with the Green Berets, his words as an American soldier means something to Frank.
Howe: "So soldier to soldier. I'm asking you to trust me now."
|Frank at bay (for now)|
Howe believes Frank wants him to watch the tape and acts upon what he sees. Woody says all this is "way above my pay grade" and if it was him he hand over the tape to the generals and forget all this ever happened. Howe says Frank is right about the generals being businessmen.
Howe: "They've never been tested in battle. None of them are soldiers, not the way you and I understand the word."
For now Howe wants to keep ahold of Frank, "let's just say I have my reasons." We then are shown Howe watching Rawlins confession, how the CIA operative set up an Islamic terrorist cell on the orders of the generals who would be able to use them at targets they couldn't attack directly. Which is why they were aimed and fired at Moscow when they needed a distraction from Frank and Vanheim's raid on a Russian army base to get a sample of a weaponised virus being carried in the bloodstream of a six year old girl (who was immune). Vanheim died on the mission, Frank bought her back to the US, but didn't allow anyone to take a sample from her and the virus broke down completely and became useless.
|Scumfuck Rawlins summarises Book 3.|
The generals are having a meal in a restaurant, Geller reports via text that he is not being allowed access to Frank. He doesn't know Howe has the tape. One of the generals is angry that he has done his research on Howe and found out he has the reputation as being a man of outstanding moral character, "now would you like to tell me what we're doing with a man of outstanding fucking moral character? On this?"
|No seriously, FUCK these guys.|
Howe tells Woody to destroy all of Frank's weapons bar the forty-five. He then tells them they can all go, he'll take it from here alone. He goes into the room Frank is still shackled to a chair in. He puts the tape on the table and says he won't use it, not only would it lead to an international incident it would sully the ideals "integral to our nation's honour".
Frank: "Figures. You want to tell me where that leaves us?"
Howe places Frank's forty-five on the table with eight bullets in it. He sits down and asks Frank why he does what he does. Frank says it's so people can't walk away, can't profit from the pain they cause. He doesn't do redemption. "And you'll never stop" says Howe. "No" says Frank.
|In the end it comes down to this.|
Howe: "But I watch that tape. And I see what was set in motion in the name of profit. And I think about what would happen if it saw the light of day. And I understand that you've taught me a lesson in necessity".
The generals arrive at where Frank is being held all ready to kill him. Howe comes out and tells them Frank and the tape are upstairs, "I wash my hands of it general. I'm done" and he walks off into the night.
|Howe leaves the Generals with a sick burn.|
Geller: "And if he is as dedicated to doing the right goddamn thing as I suspect he might be, and he's seen what's on the Rawlin's tape. Then I am very much afraid that theres no telling what he might do."
The volume ends with extracts from the book "Valley Forge" paying tribute to the soldiers of Vietnam. Nick Fury is in a bar reading it. He finishes, looks despondant and orders another drink. There is a short epilogue:
Valley Forge: "In the end the war in Vietnam was much like any other. There were those that profited. Those it devoured. And then there was those for whom there are no words."
And we end on an image of Frank walking away from the bodies of the generals he shot with the gun Howe left him with. His war still not over. It'll never be over.