This is a pretty amazing book. If it were priced reasonably, rather than insanely, I'd recommend getting it just for the table of contents, the footnotes, and the bibliographies.
And there is lots to like in the book's 26 essays, which cover from the mid-19th century to today. The speed of this ambitious romp through history is sometimes breathtaking. The American Civil War, for example, gets three pages. The Spanish Civil War gets a page or two in one essay, five more in another. (Btw, I didn't know that roughly half the Spanish army, and 70 percent of its generals, sided with the Republic against Franco's rebellion.)
And this book isn't just about wars -- it is about doctrine, PoWs, culture, military occupations, the effects of decolonization, and so on. Even Hogan's Heroes gets a shout-out. To cover all that, you need to move through history fast, distilling a lot of information and so sometimes launching some pretty big assertions. Geoffrey Wawro, discussing technology in the pre-World War I era, writes that, "The great, blinding conceit of modern armies was that they could win by pluck and morale."
I didn't like the occasional bouts of academic jargon in Eugenia Kiesling's essay on "Military doctrine and planning in the interwar era," but I was taken by some of her observations on military culture in that time. She detects in the Japanese army before World War II "A culture that justified insubordination, if it was committed in the name of Japan's warrior spirit," which "led junior officers from the army to murder a prime minister in 1932 and to attempt to overthrow the government in 1936." Likewise, she sees in the U.S. Army of that time "additional evidence that in shaping technological choices, institutional culture tends to trump both strategic vision and operational planning."
It also is amazing to me that there is always more to learn. For example, I've read hundreds of books on World War II, but I did not know that as "late as 1938, about half of U.S. light artillery was horse-drawn." Nor did I know that the climactic battle of the Chinese civil war, in late 1948, was the biggest battle between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980.
Gerhard Weinberg also does a masterful job of summarizing all of World War II, Europe and Asia both, in 32 pages. How? In part by summarizing entire campaigns in just a few succinct lines. Here is how, in three sentences, he explains why the Pearl Harbor attack was a failure on three levels -- strategic, operational, and tactical:
First, by ensuring the Americans would insist on a crushing victory, it destroyed the Japanese concept of making extensive conquests and then arriving at a new settlement. Second, the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor, of which the Japanese were aware, meant that most of the warships that Yamamoto imagined sunk were instead set into the mud, raised, repaired and returned to service. Third, the attack on ships in harbor on a peacetime Sunday failed to eliminate the crews of most of the ships.
Tom again: One downside to the book is that these are academics writing, so sometimes you get sentences such as, "This chapter looks beyond this narrative and telos of World War II in three contexts." (In academia, "narrative" seems to be a bad thing, a snide putdown like "conventional," and almost as contemptible as "popular history." I don't understand why, as narrative is the most human of traits -- it is how we make sense of the world. Anyway, I'll see you a telos and raise you a conatus.)
Footnote for those who believe the British generals of World War I have been cleared of the donkey charge by recent research: Michael Niberg, in his overview of World War I, concluded that the British were "unimaginative" at Passchendaele and risk-averse after Cambrai. He also makes the interesting observation that "casualty rates were higher during periods of greatest mobility."
Still, a lot of fun, if you can persuade your library to buy it.
Today's all-volunteer soldier is alone; very few of his peers have served in the military, much less gone to war. Rarely are there guys to hang out with at a Manion's. Earlier, the American Legion, the VFW and reunions were a refuge of comradeship. But those are dying institutions, and today's veteran is not a joiner anyway. He is largely isolated, with only his iPhone as a comrade. Wounded or whole, modern veterans speak of yearning to be back with their units, no matter how unpleasant it would be. Many feel alone, no longer a member of Henry V's "band of brothers."
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
The Marine Times reported this week that "[t]he Navy's Center for Security Forces is in the final stages of creating the first apprenticeship trade program for those with military specialties that involve working dogs." If the Department of Labor approves the program, it means that that "hundreds" of MWD handlers in both the Navy and the Marine Corps will be eligible for apprenticeships that will not only potentially "boost [their] military career, but also help [servicemen and women] land a law enforcement gig" after they retire from the military, say with a police department K-9 unit or with a private security company.
This is especially encouraging news as many retiring military servicemen and women are finding it difficult to find jobs in the civilian workforce. The Washington Post reported in November that the "unemployment rate for recent veterans remains incredibly high -- around 10 percent -- and remains noticeably higher than it is for non-veterans in the same demographic group."
Should this new program receive the expected approval, it will, says MA Jose Bautista, programs manager at the Navy's Center for Security Forces, offer "concrete documentation of your skills and experience, and that's what selection boards love to see. That same documentation enhances someone's marketing potential in the civilian workforce when their military service is complete for the same reasons. I've seen many apprenticeships on the résumés of senior enlisted sailors who've walked out of the Navy's door into very good civilian careers."
And for many handlers, this is good news for handlers for another reason entirely: Life after the military doesn't have to mean a life working without dogs.
Above, MWD Rex, of Naval Air Facility Atsugi Naval Security Force, lays on the deck of a MH-60S Seahawk helicopter during an aerial training exercise for K-9 units. Rex and his handler are participating in readiness training for future deployments through accumulation of scents, movement, and the feel of riding in, and being around helicopters.
Rebecca Frankel is special projects editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kegan E. Kay/Released
Those are thoughts that occurred to me after reading about Churchill's decision in the summer of 1940 to attack the navy of France, which had been an ally just a month earlier, and which certainly was not at war with the United Kingdom. More than 1,200 French sailors were killed in the attack, while the British suffered two dead. The purpose, of course, was to prevent the French fleet from falling into German hands (as had happened with Austrian gold and Czech weapons factories).
President Roosevelt, knowing how difficult a decision it was to launch a surprise attack against a former ally, was said to have calculated that his defeatist ambassador to London, Joseph Kennedy, was wrong, and that in fact Britain was determined to fight on alone. (Speaking of FDR, it took me a while to remember the names of his three vice presidents, but eventually I did. But for the life of me I couldn't remember who Truman's veep was, and had to look it up.)
On the other hand, I was interested to read in Cambridge History of War, Vol. IV: War and the Modern World that one reason the Germans couldn't invade England later that same summer was because of their naval losses the previous spring in fending off the British attempt to take Norway. "While the victory of the British in the Battle of Britain was won in the air," Gerhard Weinberg writes in his fine essay on World War II, "the German failure to attempt an invasion was due at least as much to their naval losses in the Norwegian campaign."
That British attack on Norway long has been regarded as a disaster. Reading about its beneficial effect on the Battle of Britain makes me think that Churchill may have been right in his view that in conventional warfare, doing something, even at the periphery, is always better than doing nothing at all.
As Bob Dylan or Clausewitz once observed, nothing is easy in war, because friction makes even easy things difficult.
The editor's page in the November issue of Proceedings begins with the phrase "As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down...."
Putting aside the fact that the war in Iraq is not winding down, and no hit on Proceedings editor Paul Merzlak, what does that phrase mean? I mean, we all use it. I think I have used it, and I know some of youse have in comments on this page (because I checked).
As I read it, it occurred to me that this phrase has become very popular in the last couple of years, but I have no idea what it really means. If I had to guess, I'd invoke T.S. Eliot:
Almost like we just got bored with our wars.
Best Defense guest columnist
Although the drawdown has left scars across every level of the armed services, it poses some of its biggest challenges for those at the start of the commissioning pipeline. Rapidly decreasing numbers of slots, a surplus of qualified candidates, and a universal lack of information have combined to make today's application process deeply uncertain. Many strong applicants -- shoo-ins just a few years ago -- must now try repeatedly for a ticket to OCS, effectively putting their lives on hold. Many still will not make it. The situation raises tough questions without good answers.
I've watched this process unfold as both a Marine Corps applicant and an active observer to discussions surrounding defense budget reductions. Officer wannabes struggle to stay free of doubt as they put their spirits into commissioning programs that could abruptly cease to exist. Meanwhile, grim numbers thrown around by policymakers suggest that the situation will likely get worse before it gets better. While my experience is specific to the Marine Corps, I suspect the story is similar for folks on the Army side.
Anonymous forum boards like Marine Corps OCS provide a window into the mindset of today's aspiring candidates. Amid standard topics like pull up techniques and essay tips can be found a growing number of discussion threads that reflect more fundamental concerns: Could my application ever make it? Will there even be slots available? At what point should I stop trying -- and what could I possibly do instead?
When applicants' final packets have been submitted for consideration, they often post their "stats": their school of graduation, their PFT, their GPA, number of waivers, and status of their recommenders. This is done both for the benefit of the community and for the aspiring candidate's own peace of mind. It's difficult to read these posts and not think immediately of sites like College Confidential, where stat-filled "chances" threads provide elite college applicants an opportunity to measure themselves against the competition. Between each of these worlds, the same earnest motivation bleeds through. So does the same numb despair when word of rejection arrives.
While the college analogy provides a good fit for today's officer selection process, there's a crucial difference. This is an admissions process in which even basic information like average scores and acceptance rates remain hidden from view, and where the number (and even existence) of some commissioning program slots can change overnight. Only the broad trend is clear: steeply rising standards and rapidly shrinking odds.
There are numbers of truly qualified candidates -- exemplary leaders, fitness gods -- who have now thrown themselves several times through the application cycle without success. In the interim, many effectively put their lives on pause, drifting from one job to the next while reserving the start of their real career for the Corps. With the defense budget continuing to deflate, they may never get a shot. It's an open question what these "could-have-beens" will pursue in place of service. In any case, one suspects the really serious ones won't talk about it much.
Emerson Brooking has worked as a journalist and is currently a DC-based defense researcher. He's just signed up for his first marathon and would welcome training tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I noticed the other day with surprise that Bob Dylan's website lists among books that influenced him Clausewitz's On War. I wonder if there are any other pop artists influenced by that book? Maybe Eric Burdon or Edwin Starr?
What is weird is that as I typed this, a Bob Dylan song came on the radio -- "Rainy Day Women," which I don't even like. Btw, he isn't just an icon of the ‘60s. There are a ton of Dylan songs over the last 20 or 30 years that I think are great and should be better known -- "A Sweetheart Like You" (which I think is about an assistant to Lucifer talking to a morally lost woman), "Jokerman" (which I think in part is Dylan talking about himself, and about other false idols), "Working Man Blues No. 2" (with its refrain about fighting on the front lines), and another recent song, "Thunder on the Mountain," which speaks to the issue of military personnel with a neat rhyme:
Well, it works the way he sings it.
PS -- While we are on the subject of music, you should check out Radio Paradise. Good music, no ads. I used to listen to it while in Baghdad to get my mind off the war. Now that I think of it, it is kind of ironic -- being in Hell but listening to the music of Paradise.
From a book review by Mark Grotelueschen in the October issue of The Journal of Military History:
Although the infantry assault was conducted by just one reinforced regiment, the attack was supported by the rest of the 1st Division (itself nearly half the size of Lee's entire army at Antietam), thirty French aircraft, a squadron of French heavy tanks, a section of French flamethrower troops, a wide variety of communications technologies, and over 250 pieces of French and American artillery (about a hundred more than Lee used to support Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg), Cantigny truly was the U.S. Army's baptism into modern battle."
I'd never thought of it that way, partly because it is hard to judge by reading first-person accounts, which is mainly what I read when, as research for my book The Generals, I was looking at George Marshall's experience in World War I.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.