By Tom De Haven
Updated May 20, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Set before and during Operation Desert Storm, The Fist of God (Bantam) reads like a thinly disguised World War II adventure novel. Despite the attention paid to contemporary geopolitics, Frederick Forsyth (The Day of the Jackal, The Deceiver) practically insists that readers translate Iraq into Nazi Germany, Baghdad into Berlin, Saddam Hussein into Adolf Hitler, and the Persian Gulf of the 1990s into Western Europe circa 1944. No moral ambiguity, please. No mucking around in the dangerous swamp of a new world disorder. In this enormous, frenetic, and swarmingly populated extravaganza, the torturers all smirk, the dictator rants, and the only hero that counts is a regular guy named Mike. Subtle it’s not, but you can’t say Forsyth doesn’t try to deliver bang for the buck.

In the summer of 1990, Mike Martin, a British commando, infiltrates Kuwait shortly after the Iraqi invasion. Posing as a bedouin, he almost single- handedly organizes, trains, and equips a lethal resistance movement before being reassigned, this time to the manifestly more dangerous city of Baghdad. His mission there is to try to make contact with ”Jericho,” a traitor-for-pay in Hussein’s inner circle.

Although Martin looks like an Arab and speaks perfect ”street Arabic, every swearword, slang, piece of jargon” without any trace of an accent-boy, aren’t the Brits lucky to have found a nerves-of-steel guy with that profile!-he’s soon being stalked by the Iraqi chief of counterintelligence, the ”clever, cultured, cosmopolitan, educated and refined” Hassan Rahmani. Who just happens to have been Martin’s closest boyhood friend.

For several hundred pages, Forsyth seems to be finagling his story (in between pointless cutaways to President Bush, Prime Minister Thatcher, and a glut of spies in London, Tel Aviv, and Vienna) to culminate in a face-to-face confrontation between these two old school chums-turned-deadly enemies. Yet just when all of his careful plotting looks about to pay off, he changes direction entirely, whisking Martin out of Baghdad and transforming the last quarter of his novel into a high-tech rehash of The Guns of Navarone. Enough of the cat-and-mouse stuff; it’s time for the commando raid. And the big explosions.

Hidden deep in the mountains of northern Iraq is Saddam Hussein’s secret weapon, a Supergun with a barrel 180 meters long and loaded with a ”small, workaday, but perfectly functioning atomic bomb.” Unless the gun-nicknamed The Fist of God-is blown to smith-ereens, General Schwarz-kopf’s army will be vaporized as soon as it rolls into Kuwait. Naturally, the clock is ticking.

But since Forsyth isn’t writing alternate history, we’re never in any doubt about the outcome of Martin’s third secret mission. What’s downright peculiar, though, is how dramatically flat, and unobstructed, that assault finally proves to be. Thanks to military electronics, nothing goes wrong, and none of the ”good guys,” either on the ground or in the attacking fighter planes, is really threatened. So come to think of it, maybe this isn’t a disguised World War II novel after all. More like a World War II-inspired computer game. Sit down, boot up, and vicariously blast those ratskis to kingdom come. And in that case, the only annoying things missing are the cheesy sound effects. C