Tag Archives: military history

“Counter Jihad – America’s Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria” by Brian Glen Williams

319 pages, plus preface, notes and index. Three good maps of Afghanistan, but none of Iraq and Syria. University of Pennsylvania Press.

I have so much to say about this book! First of all, the copyright date is 2017. What’s with that? For the record, I got the book from the library’s new arrival shelf. Amazon reports it as being published in October of 2016. Citations include information as recent as April, 2016. This book is about as up to date as a hardcover publication can be.

The first and last chapters of this book are the most important. Chapter 1 (Planting the Seeds for a Global Conflict) covers crucial history of the Middle East, much of which is unfamiliar to me. There’s so much detail, I had to take an occasional break from reading. Williams obviously intends to be fair and even-handed. Can anyone achieve this? Language poses so many pitfalls. Consider the ways one can announce multiple deaths:

  • Murder
  • Killing
  • Massacre
  • Cold blooded massacre
  • Slaughter
  • Execution

How does an author decide? “Cold blooded” was the term that made me pause, since it describes a state of mind. The whole point of this book is to let us know how little we understand the “state of mind”, the history, culture, languages, customs, etc., of the Middle East.

Enough quibbling. Williams works hard to be fair, and is well worth reading.

The events of Chapter 2 (the invasion of Afghanistan right after 9/11) were mostly news to me. Where WAS I while all this was going on? How did I miss so much?! Two youngsters at home, one getting ready for college… I caught a bit of news here and there. So Chapter 2 was an eye opener. What stood out?

  • That we fought the kind of high tech, “precision” war that (I think) the military has been hoping for.
  • That we had some unusual allies, including a tribal warlord with troops on horseback.
  • That women (for the first time?) adopted the mostly male military model to defend themselves and their land against Taliban religious oppression. One such woman, Niloorfar Ramani, a highly trained Afghan fighter pilot, is currently seeking asylum in the US because of cultural biases in her country of birth.

I skimmed over Chapter 3 (Hype: Selling the War on Iraq to the American People) because I knew the bad news. We were conned.

Chapter 4 (The Invasion and Occupation of Iraq) was also basically familiar. The unexpected wrinkle for me was to learn that General David Petraeus, who led some of the Iraq War’s most successful counterinsurgency fighting, to some extent ignored the orders of Coalition Provisional Authority governor Paul Bremer to fire all members of the Baathist Party from their jobs. This destroyed Iraq’s civil government. Bremer also mandated the disbanding of the Iraqi army. This left about half a million men “armed and unemployed”. Petraeus evidently managed some level of compromise, and he engaged (with considerable success) in the type of “nation building” that Bush and his closest advisors scorned. Petraeus also codified the “take, hold, build” model for counterinsurgency. We may eventually look back on him as much more than a general who made a mistake and was forced into retirement. Bremer’s occupation policies already look like a total disaster with consequences that could last generations. And I believe he was warned at the time, most particularly by the military.

The last two chapters of Williams’ book bring us to the present and distinguish ISIS from its predecessors. The extremist call to generalized violence against “non-believers” has borne bitter fruit. Most recent was the bombing of a “Christmas Mart” in Berlin, in which 12 people died and 56 were injured.

ISIS now controls territory and aspires to the status of a state. Potential jihadis, some radicalized by the social media, travel to areas of ISIS control. Their return to their homelands with plans for independent violence is a very serious concern. By late 2015, it was estimated that as many as 30,000 “volunteers” from 90 countries may be in this pipeline. The FBI describes some of the attacks in the USA as “homegrown terrorism”, and calls for a “new approach” to Homeland Security, but there is no clarity about what preventive measures can be taken.

This is a sobering book, but if you, like me, want to know what’s going on and how your tax dollars are being used in the implementation of foreign policy, I suggest you read it.

“Ride With Me” by Thomas R. Costain

When did historical fiction become such an active and popular genre? This book was published in 1944. The author, Thomas Costain, died in 1965 at the age of 80. Looking at a list of his books, I think read two others, “The Silver Chalice” and “Below the Salt”, when I was in high school.

“Ride With Me” uses a fictional newspaper writer to tell the story of an historical figure, Robert Thomas Wilson, a flamboyant, often disruptive British military officer in the Napoleonic Wars.

I tried, briefly, to find out a bit about the Napoleonic Wars. Some subjects simply can’t be reduced to a Wikipedia article! I was rapidly overwhelmed. Fortunately, the novel had enough of it’s own narrative drive for my ignorance not to matter.

This novel is a romance with some military history thrown in. Francis Ellery, the misfit eldest son of an aristocratic family, falls in love with a glamorous, passionate ex-patriot French woman living in London. Over the years, he rescues her from a variety of dangers, then is finally rewarded with love and marriage.

This is very high quality historical fiction, with wonderful atmosphere and period details, and if you get tired of what contemporary authors are writing, I suggest you try Costain as an alternative.

“The Ghost Army of World War II – How One TOP SECRET Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sounds Effects and Other Audacious Fakery” by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles

This book was an interesting antidote to Harry Turtledove’s eccentric fantasy fiction version of World War II. (See my blog entry dated March 24, 2016.) Beyer and Sayles wrote about the real World War II, and about DECEPTION as a tactic. These soldiers were officially known as the US Army 23rd Special Troops.

The trickery fell into various categories. First was camouflage. No surprise. But it was pursued at a very sophisticated level, and led to the assembly of a group of soldiers with exceptional artistic talent. Camouflage was needed both in the US (where it was assumed that Nazi spy planes might fly overhead), and in Europe, where troop movements needed to be disguised. Camouflage became less important as the War in Europe progressed, because Allied air power countered German spy missions.

The remaining measures were intended to confuse the enemy about the location of key military divisions, and to make the Allied forces look much more numerous and formidable than they were.

The techniques used were visual deception, sonic deception and radio deception, plus some “play acting”.

Visual deception meant setting up “dummies” or fake equipment, mostly tanks and guns. Inflatable rubber tanks and arms were used to create the impression of battle ready troops where none were available. (Inflatable people never worked out.) This could not have been believable without the addition of “sonic” deception. Any army on the move is noisy! Carefully prepared, highly realistic recordings were blasted through truck mounted speakers. But the whole performance had to be supported through radio deception. The enemy was always listening. Carefully scripted transmissions would continue long after a fighting division had left an area and been replaced by a deception team. Deceptive Morse code transmissions were also broadcast.

And a final layer of trickery was added. The soldiers of the deception team would change their uniforms and the markings on their vehicles, and sometimes impersonate a specific high officer to convince the enemy of the location of a particular unit. Some “disinformation” was planted.

All of which added up to very dangerous work. The deception teams worked close to the enemy and were not heavily armed. Secrecy was essential. They were supposed to draw fire without getting killed.

Did it work? Information about the “ghost army” was classified for decades after the War, but the overall consensus was that their actions saved many lives, and may have been pivotal in the Battle of the Bulge. Had the enemy known of Patton’s weakness, perhaps he would have been overrun. (This oversimplifies a very complex situation.)

The deception teams included many artists. Although notes and journals were prohibited by security regulations, the artists were never separated from their sketchbooks. These books and their letters home constituted an amazing visual archive of World War II.

This book was preceded by a documentary film and a exhibition catalog. This may explain its slightly awkward style. But it is well worth reading!

 

“All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

This novel has been wildly popular with book clubs. Friends recommended it enthusiastically. It has 17,000+ reviews on Amazon, with an average rating of 5.4/5! And guess what? It really is that good!

This is the story of two youngsters caught in the maelstrom of World War II in Europe. Lesson #1 – there is no childhood during war.

What did I find especially appealing? The relationship between Marie-Laure (who is followed from about age 6 to 17) and her father is touching and idiosyncratic. At a time when (as far as I know) the handicapped were often marginalized, the father pours so much energy and careful thought into his blind daughter’s training and education.

Werner, on the other hand, was an orphan, raised in a Children’s House that takes in the offspring of German coal miners who die on the job. Their caretaker is kind, but the living provided is barely above the subsistence level. Werner appears to have no alternative to becoming a miner when he turns 15. But, against the odds, he educates himself, finding and fixing a broken radio and learning a surprising amount of mathematics and physics from a battered textbook he salvages. The promise of education at a government school transfixes him. He steps onto the path to success within the Nazi party.

Marie-Laure and Werner meet at the very end of the War. He knows he is supposed to kill her. But the War is basically over and he is sick of killing. They are swept apart as the remnants of the German military machine are taken prisoner and French civilians are liberated.

War is hell. Survival is the exception. So don’t read this book when you are feeling emotionally vulnerable. But do read it!

“Fire From Heaven” by Mary Renault

On a whim, I read Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault. It was her first book based on the life of Alexander the Great, covering the period from his early childhood until his father (King Phillip of Macedon) died. Alexander eventually vanquished the High King Darius of Persia and ruled a vast empire until his death at age 33. He ended his wars of conquest because his soldiers refused to go beyond the Indus River into the Indian subcontinent.

If you are curious about the ancient world but intimidated by “the classics”, this is a way to get started. Several of Renault’s books impressed me when I read them 40 years ago. Fire From Heaven did not disappoint me. Renault also wrote two non-fiction books about Alexander and the Persian Wars.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Fire From Heaven is young Alexander’s education. His father was portrayed as a Macedonian who passionately admired Athens and wished to be “accepted” as overlord of Greece. Phillip hired the philosopher Aristotle to tutor Alexander. Perhaps this is what allowed him to develop into a leader who was greatly loved, rather than merely being feared.

Renault was born in England but spent the later half of her life in South Africa, where her lesbianism was more socially accepted. Her literary treatment of homosexual love in the ancient world is probably more sympathetic and respectful than most other authors.

Courtesy of Wikipedia, I learned that Renault (who died in 1983 at the age of 78) wrote six contemporary novels between1939 and 1953 before she concentrated on the ancient world. I look forward to exploring them.

“Peace, They Say – A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World” by Jay Nordlinger, in honor of Veteran’s Day

Initially, this book seemed weak, as the author cited other people’s writings so extensively. Gradually, I realized the book was more about peace that about “the Peace Prize”.

What is peace? What is a “good” or “necessary” war? How is peace related to pacifism, and militarism, which Alfred Nobel disliked? What did Nobel mean by “militarism”? Why are pacifists so skeptical about defensive weapons? Is all peace good? Is there such a thing as a “bad peace”?

Nordlinger quotes (whom?): “There is no dispute so small it can’t be used as an excuse to go to war. There is no dispute so large it cannot be mediated if that is what the parties want.” Nordlinger doesn’t explicitly discuss the situation when one party wants war and the other doesn’t.

Consider the end of apartheid. It could have been a bloodbath… Privilege is never surrendered without struggle, but South Africa made the transition to majority rule without warfare. See my review of Playing the Enemy (October 16, 2013) for one view of this amazing transition and the role played by 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela. Did FW de Klerk, co-winner in 1993, also deserve the prize? Mandela did not think so.

What is the role of the nation/state? Nordlinger criticizes the United Nations, which Nobel considered the world’s greatest hope for peace.

What is the role of the NGO (nongovernmental organization)? (Should Haiti, the “republic of NGOs” be considered a nation at war, or something else? Some call it a “failed state”, not a clearly defined category.)

Published in 2012, this book missed the most appealing Peace Prize winner of all, seventeen year old Malala Yousafzai who was shot in 2012 by Islamic extremists. She is the only citizen of Pakistan to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

This book is so good that I feel I should read it right through again, and take time to investigate and ponder the history that runs through it. It would serve as the backbone for an excellent college course.

(I originally read this book in 2012, just after its publication, and offer my comments here in honor of Veteran’s Day.)

“Human Smoke – The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization” by Nicholson Baker

A friend of mine met Nicholson Baker at a book signing, and mentioned his diversity as an author. Human Smoke is historical, but Baker recently published a novel and has released some “literary porn” (another new genre for me to ponder).

By chance, Human Smoke was handy. I’d started reading it before. This time I powered through it.

First there’s the unusual format. It consists entirely of vignettes, few longer than a single page, most less. Each is associated with a date. NOTES explain the origin of each item. The most common source is the New York Times. A list of references and and index add to the documentation, and I doubt there’s anything in the book that can’t be clearly identified as to origin.

There are no chapters or headings, just 900+ vignettes arranged chronologically. The first is from 1892, the last from December 31, 1941. Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the whole world was at war, but most loss of life still lay ahead.

What does Baker mean by “the end of civilization”? The title might lead you to think he was referring to the death camps, which were just being established when the book ends, but that’s not the main focus of the book. I decided Baker was referring to use of air power, which is one of the things that distinguished WWII from WWI.

The thing about aerial bombardment is that it worked so poorly. Hitting military targets by visual direction was incredibly difficult, so the choice was to desist or to bomb civilians, near military targets initially, then later almost anywhere, in order to “demoralize” the enemy. The extreme came with the use of incendiary bombs to create firestorms. Early in the war, both Germany and Britain expressed reservations about intentionally bombing civilians. Each side blamed the other for changing the “rules”.

Throughout the book, Baker includes statements by and about pacifists, antiwar activists, draft resisters and other nonconformists.

Towards the end of the book, I found this explanation: Four days after Pearl Harbor, the Gallup poll asked Americans if the US should bomb Japanese cities. TEN PERCENT OF RESPONDENTS SAID NO. Bombing should be restricted to military targets. Said Baker…

  • Twelve million people (the 10%) still held to Franklin Roosevelt’s basic principle of civilization: that no man should be punished for the deed of another. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not one of them. It was December 10, 1941.”

This book has been criticized for presenting facts without context. My reply would be that anyone who wants to present a different set of facts leading to another conclusion is free to do so. “Context” can be hard to distinguish from “spin”.

Baker offers this conclusion…

  • I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They’ve never really gotten their due. They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and the stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.

This book presents a different view from what we usually hear about WWII. As a baby boomer, I grew up with fragmented knowledge of what my parent’s generation experienced. Baker suggests that it was not all “inevitable”. There might have been another path through the dilemmas. We need to ponder this as we face new challenges. We’ve managed to avoid WW III, but the small, undeclared wars have been staggeringly vicious. Is someone out there speaking for negotiation, compromise and humanitarian action?