Awhile back, one of you recommended this novel about the American occupation of Japan. I read it and sort of enjoyed it. I found it kind of slight. My favorite was the opening vignette, titled 'The Atom Bowl,' about a football game in Hiroshima.
One of the fun things about overseeing this blog is the comments that come in. I had to read this one a coupla times: "I had two dozen BARs for my Nung tribal irregulars in Laos. They were hugely more useful than our other basic weapon, the 30 cal M1-A3 carbine (which barely pretended to be an automatic weapon)."
The amount of knowledge collectively possessed by all of you amazes me.
--Despite the images of waves of soldiers being scythed down by machine gun fire, artillery and mortar shells inflicted the majority (60 percent) of wounds in the British infantry in World War I. Bullets caused 35 percent. (I didn't see numbers on gas casualties.)
--In 1938, some twenty years after the end of World War I, there were still 120,000 former British soldiers receiving pensions or awards for "shellshock" or other psychiatric disabilities -- that is, what he now call severe PTSD.
--Finally, I read aloud to my wife this passage by a Royal Fusiliers officer about dealing with a panicky soldier as they sheltered in a shell hole during a German artillery barrage during the battle of Passchendaele:
I tried to reason with the boy, but the more I talked top him the more distraught he became, until he was almost screaming. 'I can't stay here! Let me go! I want my Mum!' So I switched my tactics, called him a coward, threatened him with court martial and slapped his face as hard as I could, several times. It had an extraordinary effect. There was absolute silence in the shell-hole and then the corporal, who was a much older man, said, ‘I think I can manage him now, sir.' Well, he took that boy in his arms, just as if he was a small child, and when I crawled back a little later to see if all was well, they were both lying there asleep and the corporal still had his arms round the boy . . . .
From my current reading: British Capt. Alan Hanbury-Sparrow, who served in World War I, called chemical weapons "the Devil's breath." (That would be a great title for a history of chlorine and mustard gas.) Soldiers wearing gas masks, he wrote, looked like "imbecile frogs" -- I guess especially in the green haze of chlorine.
I saw this on page 389 of Jean Edward Smith's new biography of Eisenhower: "Army Group B had three wartime commanders: Rommel, von Kluge, and Model. All three committed suicide." (In the photo, that's von Kluge with Vichy France troops in Russia.) That's quite a track record.
But on page 568, though, Smith has a footnote I just don't understand. He writes that "President Obama initially chose Marine Corps general James L. Jones [as national security adviser], the first nonacademic to hold the post since the Eisenhower years." What? How could the following people be considered "academics"? Brent Scowcroft, Richard Allen, William Clark, Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter, Frank Carlucci, Colin Powell, Sandy Berger, and Stephen Hadley. In fact, by my count, the majority of national security advisors have not been academics.
When I first read the passage below, I thought Patton was writing about mission command. But as I typed this in, I began to wonder if he simply is prescribing rote learning of a military repertoire. What think you?
From the same 1932 paper I quoted the other day:
The successful use of such [small, mobile, self-contained] units will depend on giving great initiative to all leaders in actual command of men.
. . . Under such circumstances the solution of the command problem would seem to rest in using the method called by the British: "The Nelsonian Method," or by our Navy, the method of "Indoctrinated initiative."
This system is based on the belief that the: "Best is the enemy of the Good." That a simple mediocre solution applied instantly is better than a perfect one which is late or complicated.
Among leaders of whatever rank there are three types: 10 percent Genius; 80 percent Average; and 10 percent Fools. The average group is the critical element in battle. It is better to give such men several simple alternative solution which, by repeated practice, they can independently apply than it is to attempt to think for them via the ever fallible means of signal communications."
From Six Weeks, the book about British junior officers in World War I that I've mentioned before, here is a stanza from a poem by Sub-Lt. A.P. Herbert, who fought at Gallipoli, and later saw his battalion destroyed at the Somme:
We only want to take our wounds away
To some shy village where the tumult ends,
And drowsing in the sunshine many a day,
Forget our aches, forget that we had friends.
I really like those lines. The emotion they convey is more complex than it may first appear, especially the last five words.
I've been reading Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War, by John Lewis-Stempel. I bought it in a store in St. Ives, Cornwall, on a stormy day when the tops of the gray waves off the Irish Sea were hitting the slate roofs of waterfront houses in the town. (But in Doc Martin, wasn't Cornwall always sunny?)
One thing that has really struck me in the book is how often battalions would lose many or even all their officers in a battle. "I ended up the only officer in the battalion," wrote 2nd Lt. Stuart Cloete, who was 19 years old. Of the 30 officers in one battalion of the East Surry Regiment who went into a battle on the Somme, four came back. And the 6th Battalion of the King's Own Scottish Borderers lost every one of its 20 officers in an attack on September 25, 1915. If I recall correctly, Robert Graves wrote in Good-bye to All That that as a lieutenant he went on leave and returned to find himself the senior surviving officer in his battalion.
I also was struck by the narrowness of military history in the small bookstores I visited in Cornwall. Basically, they are about the British in the two world wars, with a soupcon of the Falklands and Iraq tossed in. I can understand not paying much attention to the Americans, but how about ancient history at least?
And has anyone read Emperor Maurice's Strategikon? Worth reading?
By Ken Weisbrode
Best Defense department of Thucydidian analysis
Some months after the 9/11 attacks the diplomatic historian Paul Schroeder published an article in The National Interest with the title, "The Risks of Victory: An Historian's Provocation." He posed a simple question that has been asked many times: How does a minor crisis lead to a major war? He considered the possibility that the 9/11 attacks would result in something far worse, and the analogy he gave was to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.
Another Great War has not taken place, and even if it were to happen in the near future, it would be difficult at this point to claim that the fuse for it was lit on September 2001. Much has happened since in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Schroeder's provocation should still be taken seriously. We recall that not once during the entire Cold War (with the partial exception of Soviet pilots in the Korean War) did soldiers of the two main protagonists fire on one another. But both superpowers were engaged in armed conflict to one degree or another during the entire course of the conflict. The remarkable thing is that none of these smaller wars or crises escalated to an all-out hot war between the superpowers.
The consensus seems to be that nuclear weapons and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction are primarily responsible for that. This may be true but there is no way to prove it. We are told that John F. Kennedy had the 1914 scenario in mind (thanks to his reading of Barbara Tuchman's Guns of August) during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War calculus may have been reversed whereby nuclear weapons and the prestige associated with deterrence made escalation more, rather than less, likely in this instance.
A higher cost attributed to escalation, in other words, does not do away with Schroeder's basic question. How and why do major powers make crises worse? Political scientists and others have been testing hypotheses for a long time, but a general blueprint still eludes us. One reason may be that their models emphasize the roles of major actors over minor ones. For nearly a century historians have debated whether Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia or the "system" was most responsible for the escalation leading to World War I.
Tom has recently reminded us to ask who won the Peloponnesian War and, by implication, who lost the most after starting it. Our eyes are trained to hunt for underlying structural conditions, "the long fuse," and great, zero-sum rivalries.
Overlooked in many of these accounts are the active and sometimes dominant roles of instigators: Corcyreans, Serbs, Cubans, et al. These second- and even third-tier revisionist powers tend to follow a different, more opportunistic calculus. They too -- potentially -- have everything to lose, but also much more to gain, they must imagine, from provoking a war among much bigger powers. The burden falls upon the latter to master the ways of defusing crises before it is too late.
The other day a friend sent along a 1932 War College paper by Maj. G.S. Patton Jr. on the likely characteristics of the next war. He actually got that next war wrong, predicting that small professional forces would prevail over mass armies. Or, as he puts it, "there is a reasonable probability that the next war will be characterized by the use of smaller and better trained armies."
Even so, seeing the history of warfare through his eyes is interesting, in part because they illuminate his approach to World War II, as when he writes, "Mobility and enthusiasm are a powerful combination."
Here are some of his other observations -- or, rather, assertions:
--"Distant wars and hard campaigning need quality rather than quantity." This made me think of Iraq and Afghanistan.
--His summary of the American Civil War: "Up until the Summer of 1863 a regular force on either side would have had decisive results. After that date both sides were professional in everything but discipline."
--"The sole useful purpose of depth is to replace losses in the front line, not to push it on."
--He disagrees with Clausewitz on the tactical importance of surprise. Patton says that "Surprise is one of the prime requisites to victory. Broadly speaking, surprise may be utilized in respect to: TIME, PLACE and METHOD."
Now, anyone wanna argue with Patton about warfare?
I had known that Enoch Powell, before becoming the most controversial politician in modern British history, was an intelligence officer in World War II (and a very good one, according to his boss) and a classicist before that.
But one thing I learned in London after a wine-fueled dinner at the old school bohemian Chelsea Arts Club ("dress code: none") was that Powell was one of the editors of a very good edition of Thucydides. I checked on Amazon and unfortunately it costs too damn much.
Bonus fact: The original version of the Beatles song "Get Back" had an allusion to Powell's "rivers of blood" speech (which itself was a reference to Virgil). It is not often that you can pack Paul McCartney, Enoch Powell, and Virgil into the same song. What a bag of cats.
I'm not even gonna get into Eric Clapton's 1976 endorsement of Powell.
While I am on the subject of what I did in London, can anyone name the one-time terrorist who is honored with a statue just west of the Houses of Parliament? Hint: She eventually became a member of the Conservative Party.
Best Defense guest historian
I fully appreciate the dialogue between the Athenian elite and the Melian elite. I am sure that among the Melians there must have been contention as to what choice to make. In 400 BC, as in our time, an elite in the name of the people always makes such decisions for better or worse.
A modern parallel existed in May of 1940 in Great Britain. With her armies being shattered on the continent and her key ally in the final stages of her death throes, Britain faced a choice very much like that of Melos.
The choice was no less stark than that faced by Melos. The enemy was a great power, with the momentum of victory behind it. It was utterly ruthless. Britain could have cut a deal with the looming threat -- a deal eagerly sought by Hitler -- and opted out of harm's way with little loss but of reputation and humiliation.
Many of the British elite who were led by Halifax and the Foreign Office were looking for such a peace treaty but Winston Churchill, understanding the nature of his foe, outmaneuvered the Halifax faction and accepted the challenge from Hitler come what may. This choice amounted to the key strategic decision of the 20th century. Churchill's leadership resulted in a decision that showed a willingness to risk all to preserve western civilization from Nazi barbarism.
This choice in my view was anchored in realism. Churchill and his Parliamentary allies possessed a hardboiled realism that fully appreciated the consequences of defeat but also the possibilities (as remote as they seemed at the time) of victory in the end.
Halifax's approach, in contrast, was seemingly realistic on the surface but in fact was not, because it failed to appreciate the nature of the opponent. Any deal arranged with the Nazis could only be temporary, because of the innate predatory nature of the Nazi regime and its cold-blooded ideology. Churchill, a historian, intuitively understood this important fact.
I find this parallel with the experience of the Melians very compelling. Had the Melians had a great power ally (Sparta), perhaps their choice may have become heroically successful rather than heroically doomed. As it was there was no deliverer off in the distance whose interests were served by a living Melos.
"Jeff" is an amateur military historian and financial executive retired after thirty years with Merrill Lynch.
I think I've mentioned that I can't find a good operational history of the Afghan war so far that covers it from 2001 to the present. (I actually recently sat on the floor of a military library and basically went through everything in its stacks about Afghanistan that I hadn't yet read.)
Here are some of the questions I would like to see answered:
--What was American force posture each year of the war? How and why did it change?
--Likewise, how did strategy change? What was the goal after al Qaeda was more or less pushed in Pakistan in 2001-02?
--Were some of the top American commanders more effective than others? Why?
--We did we have 10 of those top commanders in 10 years? That doesn't make sense to me.
--What was the effect of the war in Iraq on the conduct of the war in Afghanistan?
--What was the significance of the Pech Valley battles? Were they key or just an interesting sidelight?
--More broadly, what is the history of the fight in the east? How has it gone? What the most significant points in the campaign there?
--Likewise, why did we focus on the Helmand Valley so much? Wouldn't it have been better to focus on Kandahar and then cutting off and isolating Oruzgan and troublesome parts of the Helmand area?
--When did we stop having troops on the ground in Pakistan? (I know we had them back in late 2001.) Speaking of that, why didn't we use them as a blocking force when hundreds of al Qaeda fighters, including Osama bin Laden, were escaping into Pakistan in December 2001?
--Speaking of Pakistan, did it really turn against the American presence in Afghanistan in 2005? Why then? Did its rulers conclude that we were fatally distracted by Iraq, or was it some other reason? How did the Pakistani switch affect the war? Violence began to spike in late 2005, if I recall correctly -- how direct was the connection?
--How does the war in the north fit into this?
--Why has Herat, the biggest city in the west, been so quiet? I am surprised because one would think that tensions between the U.S. and Iran would be reflected at least somewhat in the state of security in western Afghanistan? Is it not because Ismail Khan is such a stud, and has managed to maintain good relations with both the Revolutionary Guard and the CIA? That's quite a feat.
Anybody got a recommendation on what to read that covers all this? Maybe articles that explain some of it?
The last four books I've read have been on very different subjects -- a terrific novel about Watergate, a startling unpublished book on foreign policy in the Middle East, the final years of the Vietnam War, and the manuscript of my own history of American generals since 1939.
Despite their differences, I was surprised to see one person appear in them all: Alexander Haig. He may be the real Zelig.
Question time: What is the best book to read on him? Is it time for someone to write a new bio that uses the disclosures of the last 30 years?
By Peter Mattis
Best Defense guest respondent
Colonel Gregory Daddis' argument is that strategy is overrated: "Talented American generals can develop and implement a comprehensive political-military strategy and still lose a war." As sympathetic as watching a poorly executed strategy fail is likely to make someone to this argument, the argument itself rests on fallacious assumption. In the United States, a general cannot develop and implement a comprehensive political-military strategy. That's what civilian control of the military means. We are not the Prussians under Frederick the Great or the French under Napoleon, where civilian and military command was unified. A talented American general only may advise on creating such a strategy, because he/she -- like almost everyone else in the room -- lacks the standing and the comprehensive professional competence to establish the political ends. Something civilian commentators should remember when the national introspection and reflection begin, hopefully with more honesty.
Does a good strategy guarantee success? No. A good political-military strategy however does mean that individual operational and tactical successes (or failures) are far less important.
The Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 provides a useful antidote to the focus on operational successes at the expense of thoughtful strategic planning. The Chinese suffered enormous losses for the number of troops engaged. Apart from the crossing the border with some level of operational surprise, it is hard identify what the People's Liberation Army (PLA) did right. Beijing did however achieve its political objectives. As Vietnamese documents later showed, Hanoi learned that Moscow could not be depended upon to protect Vietnam from China. Vietnam's potential expansion was stifled, because it had to maintain more forces closer to the northern border. Beijing earned the gratitude of Bangkok and Washington, while getting Moscow to back off in Asia. If there is a Chinese way of war, then focus on political outcomes of campaigns is a key element to how the use of force is measured.
General Ulysses S. Grant's peninsula campaign in 1864 also shows the value of operations within a sound strategic framework. From the Wilderness to Spotsylvania to Cold Harbor and the failed amphibious move on Petersburg, Grant continued to have opportunities -- irrespective of stalemate or defeat on the battlefield -- to hurt Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and separate it from the Confederate political leadership. Because Grant understood this, he did not react the same way to defeat as the previous commanders of the Army of the Potomac. Lee may have been able to parry Grant's individual and successive thrusts; however, he could not force Grant out.
Although Andrew Bacevich's charge that the U.S. military has failed in almost every conflict since becoming an all-volunteer force may be hyperbole, there is enough truth to warrant some critical introspection. The lack of a draft meant a U.S. administration did not have to think as critically about power, passion, and politics -- even if the draft was not always a sufficient guard against supercilious "strategizing." Similarly, we should compare the record of the PLA's operational competence against the record of it accomplishing Beijing's objectives. That the former was poor while the latter superb should raise important questions for would-be U.S. strategists to consider about why and how to employ the U.S. military.
On one score at least Clausewitz was unequivocal: "War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means." Although the military's professional prerogative and special competence, victory on the battlefield and operational competence are only relevant if they advance political objectives. The focus on the war-fighting excellence of the U.S. military seems to distract those in the civilian world from understanding that that excellence means little without walking through the political steps of strategy long before the military becomes involved.
Clausewitz was clear about war being simple, but he decried devotion to any simplistic notion of how to design and execute strategy. One of the analogies used was a comparison to chopping down trees with an axe. At first glance, the object is simple. Chop the tree down. However, it rapidly gets more complicated. Which direction does it need to fall? What about the knots in the trunk? Is it a hard- or soft-wood tree? Where to start making the cuts and at what height? Each tree grows in a different context -- even if in the same forest -- with different features. Thus, what is simple in concept rapidly becomes more difficult in execution.
In his book The Logic of Failure, psychological researcher Dietrich Dorner highlighted how complex problems needed variable levels of planning for good strategic decision-making to occur. Many individuals had a marked tendency to plan too much or too little, based on how insecure they were facing uncertainty. Dorner's experiments were not simplistic "games" of strategic choice, but rather continuing tests of people to manage the complex relationships -- such as the interrelationships between healthcare, population, food supply, and more -- over time where they had near dictatorial powers. Even people should know better by dint of training and experience still fail to set clear objectives, to treat strategies like testable propositions, and gather information related to the first two. Instead, most "muddle through" and a repair approach, which, although often better than nothing, is the result of a lack of clear objectives. In the face of such uncertainty, humans fall back on what they know and can deal with -- no matter how trivial -- to preserve their sense of competence.
The conventional wisdom is that Sparta won, because Athens ultimately surrendered and faced total destruction.
But as Robert Strassler points out in his epilogue to the Landmark edition, which I read this time, the big winner was not a belligerent. Rather, victory belonged to an observer, Persia, which stood on the sidelines and encouraged the fight, and then moved in to collect its winnings. I think too often we don't consider that as an outcome in wars.Interesting -- Athens going broke, Iran/Persia ascendant . . .
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
I think it is the best book I've read on the last part of the Vietnam War. Essentially, he argues that "Vietnamization" was a misnomer. Rather, it was the "Americanization" of the Vietnamese military. "Nixon's Vietnamization policy had worked very well to the extent that it taught the South Vietnamese to fight ‘American-style,' using air mobility, tactical air support, and lavish expenditure of ammunition and other materiel." But in 1974, the Americans cut off all that support.
It makes me wonder whether the war would have been different if from the outset, the Americans had tried to help Vietnamese fight in their own way. Would that even have been possible? I think so. (There is a good but PhD dissertation to be done comparing the U.S. efforts to build security forces in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.)
One of the things that struck me in the book is how different the American experience of the war was from Vietnam. For us, the worst year was 1968, with nearly 15,000 KIAs. For the South Vietnamese military, the worst year was 1971, with nearly 40,000 dead. Their second worst year was 1974, when they lost 31,000 soldiers. In that year, American combat deaths in Vietnam numbered 207.
Look for yourself:
The Final Years, Jeffrey Clarke
In the dialogue with the people of the small, weak island of Melos, the Athenians explained why the island must submit to the wishes of the city of Athens: "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." (P. 352, Landmark edition) Yow. That is (as the headline suggested) perhaps the nastiest line I ever have read.
The Melians asked to be allowed to remain neutral in the war. Tough luck, said Athens, which then invaded and "put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves," and then re-settled the island with their own colonists.
Such wholesale violence seemed to be about par for the course in the ancient Greek world. Samos is not that big an island, but when one party in a civil war on the island prevailed, it executed 200 of most powerful men from the other party and banished another 400. (P. 493, Landmark edition) Sounds to me like they extirpated the opposition.
Describing the evil effects of revolution, Thucydides writes, "Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them." (P. 199 of the Landmark edition)
That's an insight that strikes me as true, and that I don't remember seeing before. Though Orwell's wonderful essay on the language of politics makes a similar point. (If you haven't read that, you should. You have my permission to take off the rest of the day to study it.)
C'mon, you know who you are. The National Archives has just the session for you, on Tuesday April 10:
The Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense and the National Archives invite you to a panel program discussing Robert S. McNamara's most controversial years as Secretary of Defense (1965-68), and Clark Clifford's brief but significant successor tour as Secretary (1968-69). The event will take place at noon on 10 April 2012 at the McGowan Theater, National Archives, located at 7th and Constitution, NW, Washington, DC.
Discussion will be based on the Historical Office's recent publication, McNamara, Clifford, and the Burdens of Vietnam, 1965-1969, by Edward J. Drea. Panel speakers will focus on the work of Secretaries of Defense McNamara and Clifford and the Vietnam War, but they will also address the impact of Vietnam on American defense interests in other parts of the world.
David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, will convene the panel and introduce Dr. Erin Mahan, Chief Historian, Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense. Dr. Mahan will introduce the panelists and lead the panel. Harold Brown, Air Force Secretary under McNamara and later Secretary of Defense under President James E. Carter, will talk about working with McNamara. Professor Emeritus George C. Herring of the University of Kentucky, one of the nation's foremost experts on the history of the Vietnam War, will review the book. The author, Dr. Edward J. Drea, currently a contract historian in the Office of Joint History, Joint Chiefs of Staff, will respond to Secretary Brown's and Professor Herring's comments. The speakers' presentations will be followed by a question and answer session and then a reception.
The event is free; reservations are not required. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. For this McGowan Theater event, doors to the building will open 30 minutes prior to the start of the program. Use the Special Events entrance on Constitution Avenue.
It seems to me, reading Pericles' funeral oration (431 BC), that it clearly provided the inspiration for Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Pericles begins by dismissing his own speechmaking ability: "[I]t is hard to speak properly upon a subject where it is even difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking the truth." That reminded me of Lincoln's "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here."
Pericles then dwells on what we might call "Athenian exceptionalism": "Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves." A bit later, he adds, "In short, I would say that as a city we are the school of Hellas." This brought to mind Lincoln's beginning, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."
Most striking of all, both speeches conclude by challenging the living to live up to the standard set by the fallen. "So dies these men as became Athenians," says Pericles. "You, their survivors, must determine to have as unaltering a resolution in the field." I think Lincoln expresses that thought better: "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
(After writing this I did some quick Googling and saw that the comparison between the two speeches is apparently a major theme of Garry Wills' book on the Gettysburg Address. So clearly I am not the first to come across this.) I knew that Lincoln was into Shakespeare and the King James Bible, but I hadn't realized he also absorbed the Greeks.
By Ron Rogers
Best Defense department of odd war stories
I forgot to mention a unique story about an experience enjoyed by no other soldier in Republic of Vietnam (RVN). There came a day when I gave a nice Viet Cong (VC) platoon a ride down the canal separating RVN from Cambodia and they asked to be dropped off on the VC side and disappeared into the high grass as they walked to their R&R leave, 1 kilometer away in Cambodia. They were so grateful for the ride that they didn't shoot me!
When the platoon leader waved me down, I thought that I was giving a Popular Force platoon a ride. As I continued down the canal to my temporary duty at A-424, it dawned on me that they had gotten off on the wrong side! I pushed the throttle as far as it would go and raced along close to the bank so the VC would have a harder time tracking me with a weapon. Their nice platoon leader wore an NVA pith helmet without the star and he spoke French with me. I think they would have ridden further, but their crisp khaki uniforms were getting wet and the men got upset. Their leader wore shorts and high socks and didn't care, but he didn't want their uniforms messed-up or their AKs (very few of the South Vietnamese Popular Force had that weapon!) to get rusty. They didn't try to take the 2 M1s lying in the bottom of the boat. They belonged to the two VN SF assholes who ignored my orders to get underway and went to eat and take Pak. The chain didn't know what to say to me and I told them I didn't appreciate being fucked with. We had a schedule and they were violating it. Boy, were they pissed when they were handed back their rusted rifles.
We radioed around when my commander thought it was weird to find a wandering PF unit wanting to cross the canal. Well, there were no PF in that sector that day -- just me and a VC platoon. I held that throttle so hard that the web of my thumb was bleeding badly. So I stopped at a fort and a Vietnamese medic bandaged it and spoke French with me. (Can you get a Purple Heart for a self-inflicted wound?) They thought that I was French! In 1965, a decent number of rural folks thought that we beret wearers were French. I guess they hadn't read the papers nor watched TV.
Sometimes you can get scared without being shot at. Of course, that platoon commander was awfully nice.
Ron Rogers was a Special Forces soldier once, and young.
I was struck by Gen. Martin Dempsey's observation of what prevails in policy and planning discussions: "when I go into a meeting to discuss policy, discuss strategy, discuss operations, plans, whatever it happens to be, he who has the best context generally prevails in the argument, not necessarily who's got the best facts. There's a difference. It's who has the best context in which those facts exist."
I think Dempsey is right, and the implication is that the way to successfully develop policy is to develop a framework or even a narrative. In other words, you say, "you all know about X, Y and Z. Here is what I think those facts mean, how they are connected."
In the same speech, delivered recently at Duke University, he also made a comment on the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats that actually is related: "he was probably one of those poets unique in that he changed; he allowed himself to change and to reflect about that change as he moved through his life. Now, he did some really bizarre stuff at the end of his life but, that said, he was always a man who could understand his time and himself, and he understood in that regard the context in which he was living." Dempsey didn't offer an example of Yeats understanding his time, but for starters, I'd recommend "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," one of my favorite poems ever, and one of the first I ever memorized. Next, read "Easter 1916."
Yeats also wrote these lines that I kept thinking of back in 2003, as the Iraq war began:
Things fall apart; the
centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The last two lines kept ringing in my head as I watched pundits on TV back then.
By Peter Bacon
Best Defense department of video reality
Video games have somewhat of a bad reputation today: individuals have attacked games for their supposed contribution to obscenity and their debilitation of male virtue. Despite these fears, scientists have identified some benefits from gaming, ranging from improved self-worth to augmented surgical skills. In the foreign policy arena, video games can and should serve as a powerful tool for educating civilian and military personnel about war and foreign affairs.
Video games can serve to help bolster America's glaring deficiency in one crucial discipline: history. Video games focused on war and IR provide refreshing bursts of information about often-overlooked leaders and wars. These games can offer descriptive backgrounds of leaders or events (e.g. Age of Empires' description of Genghis Khan or the Crusades). These methods can sometimes provide a deeper and more-engaging understanding of history than just a textbook or lecture.
A subgenre of games, so-called "serious" games, goes further by explicitly trying to educate gamers about historical or political issues. For example, Niall Ferguson in 2007 played the World War II serious game Making History and played out some of his WWII counterfactual scenarios, such as war breaking out over German seizure of Czechoslovakia in 1938. His experience led him to conclude that his counterfactual historical scenarios "weren't as robust as [he] thought." As a result, Ferguson ended up advising this series. This episode, forcing critical re-examinations of events, anecdotally illustrates the range of useful educational experiences gleaned from games like Making History or other, current games such as Global Conflicts: Palestine or the future-themed Fate of the World: Tipping Point that can help civilians better understand history and policymaking, thereby making better choices when voting or arguing politics.
All of the above is great for civilians, but what about actual warfighters and policymakers? Games cannot finely simulate actual combat or crises, yet can provide training related to the planning and responses needed for tactical and strategic decisions. Indeed, military officers have engaged in a modern form of Kriegsspiel by using tactical warfare games for their training: for example, the Close Combat series proved so popular that in 2004 the developer released Close Combat: Marines explicitly for military training. Other games, such as the tank-simulator Steel Beasts or the situational training tools of WILL interactive, have been used by the military for realistic simulations of warfighting and decision-making.
Civilian practitioners, however, have not embraced gaming as readily as the military: while think tankers or civilian politicians outside the Pentagon may play games in an unofficial capacity, official efforts like the Woodrow Wilson Center's Serious Games Initiative have petered out. In stark contrast, DOD policy practitioners embrace video games even in non-kinetic planning: Michael Peck's article on a DOD budgeting game shows how policymakers can prepare for things as prosaic as the budget with games. Hopefully civilian policymakers in the future will use games, both serious, educational games and fun strategy games, to prepare for the decision-making necessary during times of crisis.
I woke up one morning and over my café au lait realized I knew nothing about Napoleon Bonaparte, probably the most significant Western military leader in modern history, so I poked around a bit and bought David Chandler's Napoleon, which seemed to be a standard text.
I read the Chandler, put it down disappointed. Lots of meaningless stuff about troop movements ("Kutusov was still determinedly withdrawing towards his rendezvous at Znaim with Buxhowden," p. 65) but little of what I was looking for about what Napoleon did that made him different from others, what his innovations were, how the enemy adjusted, and what he did next. Chandler's concluding section, on Napoleon and the art of war, did some of that -- but not the previous five chapters.
I'd welcome any suggestions for a book on Nappy that illustrates and discusses him as a military leader, and even compares him to his contemporaries.
Also, best book about Wellington vs. Napoleon?
I recently drove down to the terrific George C. Marshall Library in beautiful Lexington, Virginia, to do a final couple of days of research there. (Btw, eat at the Red Hen, downtown.) While I was going through folders (notes to Patton, even Marshall's desk litter, including his income tax statement), one of the researchers there showed me the transcript of an interview done with George F. Kennan in February 1953 about the making of the Marshall Plan, perhaps the most important foreign-policy action of the United States in the 20th century.
Marshall, not long after returning from Paris, called Kennan into his office. "After discussing the problem on which we were to work he said that he had only one piece of advice to give: 'Avoid trivia.' That was a nice laconic piece of advice, wasn't it?"
Over the weekend I was looking through some handwritten notes in the papers of Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer, placed on-line by the National Defense University. The document is undated and unsigned. The NDU catalog lists it as created by Lemnitzer, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff early in the JFK era, until Kennedy dumped him in favor of Maxwell Taylor. It looks to me like General Lemnitzer wrote it or perhaps dictated it as he stewed in retirement -- but perhaps not, because on the last page there is a reference to "General Lemnitzer."
Anyway, on pages 43-44 (as handmarked; PDF lists it as pp. 45-46) of that document, I was surprised to see a summary of "CINCLANT's operational plan for Cuba," which seems to have been ordered up after the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation in April 1961. In summary, the American invasion of Castro's Cuba would begin with an "Assault on the Havana [sic] by the 82nd Airborne Division and one Marine regiment." The next day, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and the 2nd Infantry Brigade would land. (Grasshoppers, what is "the 2nd Infantry Brigade"? Doesn't ring a specific bell. Maybe the writer mean "division"?) These units would be given 18 days to isolate and capture the capital. Meanwhile, on D+14, the 2nd Marine Division would move toward Santiago. (I don't understand the delay -- why wait two weeks? Surely not to wait for available shipping and air cover.) Between the 24th and 34th days, the two forces would link up.
And then, of course, there is that dose of sunny optimism that ends all U.S. war plans, as if by law: "D+60 to D+90: withdrawal of U.S. forces." Oh, sure.
If the American invasion had happened back then, more people would know who Ted Conway was -- he commanded the 82nd Airborne in 1961-62, and to my knowledge is the only soldier in American history to rise from the lowest rank in the Army to the highest and then in retirement to get a doctorate from Duke.
When Castro buys the collective farm, which should happen pretty soon, if Cuba descends into turmoil, I wonder if these plans will be dusted off...
I asked frequent commenter Tyrtaios if he'd be interested in reviewing the new book on Lawrence. The game was not rigged -- I told him he could write anything he wanted. But to my relief, he liked it.
Best Defense guest book reviewer
A noted fellow soldier and countryman of T.E. Lawrence, Sir William Francis Butler, wrote: "The nation that will insist on drawing a broad demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards."
Thus starts in part, the preface of James J. Schneider's Guerrilla Leader: T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, along with a crisp and pithy forward by Tom Ricks, which will start the reader to understand that Lawrence's strength wasn't his ability to fight a guerrilla campaign, but more importantly, to lead one and how the man came to accomplish that, and a chronicle of events in doing so.
Once I picked the book up, I had to force myself to put it down and savor it. I found the book flowed very easily and quickly from describing Lawrence as a child prodigy, to his early characteristic of standing out from the crowd with a higher purpose, his education at Oxford that reinforced, interestingly to be sure, learning over solving the problem, to his early adventure in the pre-WWI Middle East, along with his gathering notoriety as a most remarkable individual.
The reader will further be provided with a concise description of the regional geo-political-military back-drop of the period that Lawrence would find himself operating in, and quickly move to Lawrence's most notable observations that would form his ideas, and vision of organizing the Bedouin in the north into a cohesive unconventional force, along with developing and lending to it, what I would categorize as a combined arms dimension.
Having read extensively about T.E. Lawrence prior, did I learn anything new reading Guerrilla Leader? Indeed, I was reminded by Schneider in his closing pages, something I wished had been explained to me many years ago as a younger man, something that vaguely nagged at me then, which caused Lawrence to betray his values, but he must have later grasped. I will leave that part undisclosed for the curious of you to find out, perhaps among those curious, that one "dangerous man who dreams by day with open eyes and makes it possible," as Lawrence tells us he did.
Schneider's Guerrilla Leader could easily replace several books all at once that I've seen on the recommended military reading lists for NCOs and commissioned officers alike, as well as those in mufti that work beside the military or cover it.
In closing, although I own other works on Lawrence of Arabia, I have decided that Guerrilla Leader will take a position next to the man's own words written in Seven Pillars of Wisdom on my book shelf ... too late for me now, but for some ... perhaps not?
"Tyrtaios" is a retired infantry Marine whose career spanned 28 years of both enlisted and commissioned service, and included several tours of duty in the Middle East and Africa.
Last week I participated in a discussion of Eliot Cohen's new book about America's warpath between Albany, New York, and Montreal, Canada. One of the subjects was the similarity between that era and today's, with sustained limited wars provoked by acts of terror. Cohen made a couple of comments that struck me:
-- When Champlain traveled with Indians south from Canada into hostile territory, "it's not Champlain who is the actor, it's the Indians who are the actors. The Indians are manipulating him." Likewise, these days, it's not always about us. In the post-9/11 world, "we are a powerful piece often being moved around their chessboard."
--The French did much better than the British/Americans in dealing with the Indians -- but eventually the British/Americans got "good enough" at it to use their other advantages to prevail
--"One of the great strategic virtues is empathy."
I asked an old friend to interview Professor Cohen about his new book:
Eliot Cohen: No, no, no. The movie is not all that great, and James Fenimore Cooper's book is pretty problematic too -- wooden dialogue, implausible characters, unbelievable action. But he got the landscape right. On the other hand, it's still in print, which is more than you can say of most other books coming on two centuries since pub date. But there is a kernel of truth here. Kenneth Roberts was a wonderful historical novelist whom I read when I was a teenager, and between that and a visit to Fort Ticonderoga at age ten I got hooked. Took me some four decades to go from fascination to published book, however.
Magua: Hmm. [Speaking Huron] Magua is glad this guy writes books better than he reviews movies. [Returning to the white man's tongue] Tell us a bit about this French-Canadian character who keeps popping up, would you?
EC: That would be La Corne St. Luc. He led raiding parties against the Americans in three wars (King George's War, the French and Indian War, and the Revolution) although he also offered to join them when it looked as though we were about to take Canada in 1775. He was a brilliant leader of Indians and may have had a role in the massacre at Fort William Henry in 1757. In 1761 he figured New France was finished and set sail for France. He was shipwrecked off what is now Cape Breton Island, saw his two sons slip out of his grasp and drown just before he got on shore, pulled together the half dozen survivors, built a fire, found some Indians to take care of them, and then hiked fifteen hundred miles or so to Quebec -- in the dead of winter -- to get more help. Smart enough to slip away from Major General John Burgoyne's army invading New York from Canada in 1777, just before it was surrounded and forced to surrender to the last man. Died in 1784, aged 73 (a very ripe old age by contemporary standards) one of the richest men in Canada, with a pretty young wife. Quite a guy.
Magua: The French were in so much better a position militarily. How did they blow their hold on North America?
EC: Numbers had a lot to do with it -- there were only 80,000 French Canadians and about fifteen times as many English-controlled colonists in the 1750s. But the more important explanation is the Royal Navy, which pretty much throttled the colony during the Seven Years (French and Indian) War, and the willingness of the British to pour vast resources into the conquest of North America. By 1759, when Quebec fell, there were easily four or five times as many British as French soldiers in North America, and Quebec was cut off and starving. But the French put up a ferocious fight, and might have hung on another year or so. And, in the supreme irony, at the decisive battle outside Quebec in 1759 their combination of French troops, Canadian militia, and Indians actually outnumbered the British army (almost all regulars) under James Wolfe.
Magua: Is there a lesson for our times here?
EC: I am wary of the idea of lessons. What the book shows, though, is just how deeply our way of war is rooted in our past. What is now the United States has been involved in every major global conflict since the end of the seventeenth century, and the Great Warpath was, in many ways the decisive theater for the North American bits of those conflicts. A lot of the ways we think about and approach warfare emanate from the two centuries I discuss in the book, including the paradoxical notion that one can conquer a nation into liberty. On that particular point, see the chapter about the siege of St. Johns in 1775.
Magua: What's the one question you wish someone would ask about this book?
EC: What was the most fun about researching and writing it? Two answers: (a) leaving behind the pundits (particularly the monomaniacs and wingnuts) of contemporary political discourse and spending time -- in my head, that is -- with some great historians and truly remarkable historical characters, including La Corne St. Luc, Benedict Arnold, Ethan Allen, and many more; (b) walking the ground, to include snowshoeing the Battle on Snowshoes and sailing the battle of Valcour Island. If the book inspires lots of people to go poking around the places I write about, I will be delighted.
That's the National Park Service verdict on Bill O'Reilly's error-filled history of the assassination of President Lincoln. My favorite example: He has the president meeting in the Oval Office-which didn't exist until the 20th century.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.