April 2018 Book Reviews

April 2018 Book Reviews

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

West Point Book a Revolutionary Myth Buster

The West Point History of the American Revolution. The United States Military Academy. Simon & Schuster. 320 pages. $55

By John F. Ross

The American Revolution remains the most discussed, contested and myth-filled period in our nation’s history, so tackling this complex story in a single volume might appear to be a fool’s errand. The West Point History of the American Revolution is nonetheless satisfying because it must explain the arc of the conflict so concisely. It helps that the book is richly appointed with pull-out maps, sidebar biographies, primary source illustrations, modern diagrams and paintings, and maps made during the war.

This volume takes a deep bow to military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, as one might expect of a book that contains essays commissioned from three historians by West Point. (This is the fourth volume in the West Point History of Warfare series.) Here the conflict does not boil down to a bloody tournament between opposing armies, but is critically shaped by the politics of empire, riven by uncertainty on the battlefield and ripe for psychological evaluation.

Thus, the volume devotes significant attention to the long lead-up to the war, rooted in the struggle between Britain and France for the New World. And it explains Britain’s defeat to an inexperienced Continental Army and the states’ ragtag militias, not as the result of patriotic rebel grit, but in the machinations of global politics. The British failed in North America primarily due to the entry of the French into the war, followed by the Spanish and Dutch, who poured critical naval support, manpower, munitions and financial aid into rebel efforts, and forced the British to divert precious resources to other theaters.

Through this lens the book comes to grips with George Washington, whose role—although certainly outsized and influential—is often overstated. Essayist Stephen Conway argues that Washington’s chief contribution came not from his battlefield genius: After all, he lost—or failed to win—most of the battles he fought, although his counterattack at Trenton, N.J., on Christmas was bold and decisive. Instead, his effectiveness lay in his service “as the unflappable symbol of American resistance.”

Many other myths also fall by the wayside, including the notion that the revolutionaries won by firing at the enemy from behind trees, and that the British Army was hopelessly inflexible. Washington committed to creating a professional army built on European ideas, critically aided by the prowess and experience of former Prussian officer Baron von Steuben. Also addressed here is how Hessian and British depredations lost hearts and minds, deterring Loyalists from aiding those to whom they originally rallied.

That is not to say this book excludes campaign details—it gives fair attention to Saratoga, N.Y.; the fighting in Georgia and the Carolinas; and the conclusive engagement at Yorktown, Va. It could use more attention to the infighting among rebel commanders and the difficulties of the 13 states in mounting an effective, unified action.

But these and other quibbles aside, the volume’s greatest value comes from its attempt, as essayist Samuel J. Watson notes, to avoid using outcomes to explain causation. Such dangerously circular logic tells us more about ourselves than it explains the past. These claims to logic apply equally well to Afghanistan and Iraq today as they did to North America a quarter of a millennium ago.

John F. Ross is an author whose books include biographies of Robert Rogers, the inventor of special operations, and Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace. His biography of explorer John Wesley Powell will be published this summer.

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Battle in ‘Forgotten War’ Springs to Life

High Tide in the Korean War: How an Outnumbered American Regiment Defeated the Chinese at the Battle of Chipyong-ni. Leo Barron. Stackpole Books. 320 pages. $29.95

By Col. Steve Patarcity

U.S. Army retired

Like many of us in the profession of arms, I never was focused on the history of the Korean War and its lessons for the American soldier. Often called “The Forgotten War,” remembrance of the 1950–1953 conflict in Korea seems to have slipped away from inclusion in American history, with the possible exception of baby boomers who grew up with the TV show M.A.S.H.

Likewise, the Battle of Chipyong-ni, a dogged defense and brutal slugfest by the 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division (with augmentation by French allies) against Chinese regulars in February 1951, for me was always just a painting by H. Charles McBarron that hung in the hallway of my brigade headquarters and merited but a passing glance in the morning.

Now, considering the current tension between the U.S. and the regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the lessons learned from that war of almost 70 years ago are of paramount interest to leaders and soldiers at all levels and organizations of the Total Force. To understand the tactical aspects of Chipyong-ni, as well as its deeper effects, Leo Barron’s book on this key engagement of the war clearly addresses that need. 

High Tide in the Korean War is a well-detailed and engrossing account of the “Tomahawks” of the 23rd and the Chipyong-ni engagement of Feb. 13–15, 1951. Under the command of Col. Paul L. Freeman, the 23rd and attached elements were moving forward in advance of the Eighth Army. Prior to the Battle of Chipyong-ni, the 23rd had fought the Battle of the Twin Tunnels (a key terrain feature 3 miles southeast of Chipyong-ni that consisted of a series of railroad tunnels in the South Korean province of Gyeonggi-do) against elements of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA).

After the Twin Tunnels engagement, Freeman on Feb. 3 moved to the village of Chipyong-ni, which contained a key crossroads and rail line, and prepared a perimeter defense. The decision to defend at this road juncture was part of Eighth Army commander Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway’s plan to make a stand and fix the Chinese with the 23rd, holding the Chinese advance to prepare for a counterattack by Eighth Army against the PVA’s stretched supply lines. What transpired (along with the Twin Tunnels battle and the subsequent Battle of Wonju) has been hailed as the turning point of the Korean War.

Barron effectively captures the intensity of the Battle of Chipyong-ni. He makes extensive use of memoirs and living history accounts by survivors and veterans, as well as unit situation reports, daily logs and other records that serve to support his personal and extensive research. The result is a detailed, almost minute-by-minute account of the battle that brings the reader into the experience of combat.

Barron’s tactical focus locks into the viewpoints of the commanders, leaders and soldiers of the Tomahawks and attached and supporting units who fought at Chipyong-ni. The setting could only be considered nightmarish. They were heavily outnumbered (fighting against as many as six enemy divisions), in bitter winter weather in unforgiving and strange terrain. Barron supplements his text with a great photo section that includes pictures of what the battle area looks like today, along with an excellent selection of maps to chart the progression of the fight. The only negative aspect is some poor editing, which results in more than a few instances of misspellings and improper grammar. While maddeningly annoying at times, these errors didn’t detract from my enjoyment of reading this book.

In High Tide in the Korean War, Barron has done a superlative job in taking an almost forgotten battle in an almost forgotten war and bringing it vividly to life. The impact of Chipyong-ni went far beyond a simple fight at a remote village on the other side of the world. What it did accomplish is provide a badly needed morale boost to soldiers, passing the initiative back to U.N. forces.

The Battle of Chipyong-ni also offered an incredible boost to the confidence of Eighth Army—which until then had envisioned the Chinese as virtually invincible—and set the path for peace negotiations. It also demonstrated the power of strong and confident leadership that can influence the outcome of more than the firefight, as well as an extant example of the fighting spirit, teamwork and tenacity of the American soldier.

I recommend this account as an addition to any unit or command reading list, and particularly to junior officers and NCOs at the tip of the Army spear.

Col. Steve Patarcity, USAR Ret., is a civilian strategic planner on the staff of the Office of the Chief of Army Reserve at the Pentagon. He retired in 2010 after 33 years of service in the active Army and Army Reserve, which included military police and armor assignments in the U.S., Kuwait and Iraq.

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Making Machines Work for Us

Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War. Paul Scharre. W.W. Norton & Co. 414 pages. $27.95

By Capt. James Villanueva

Paul Scharre’s Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War offers a cutting-edge glimpse into the state of autonomous weapons and their potential in future warfare.

A holistic study grounded in research and interviews with engineers, scientists, military officers, DoD officials, lawyers and human rights advocates, Army of None traces the ever-increasing amount of automation in weapon systems from the machine gun forward and examines what autonomous weapons may be capable of in coming decades, given progress in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence. While bringing in his own experiences as an Army Ranger and DoD expert, Scharre also raises questions about how “autonomy” is defined and its implications for warfare and international law.

After a brief introduction recounting one of Scharre’s experiences in Afghanistan to illustrate that a person may invoke morality in making life-or-death decisions while machines cannot, the author goes through a short history of automation in weapons and reviews autonomous weapon systems around the world such as Samsung’s “sentry robot.” He also distinguishes between having a person “in the loop” deciding to engage a target (semiautonomous weapons) versus “on the loop,” where a weapon can decide whether to engage a target but a human can intervene (supervised autonomous weapons). A fully autonomous weapon has no human in the loop as it detects and decides to engage targets.

Scharre then examines emerging technologies such as “deep neural networks” that allow machines to “learn” and which could easily be incorporated into autonomous weapons that can act more rapidly than humans but could also carry grave risks. On the cyberwarfare front, Scharre discusses “flash crashes” on Wall Street caused by automated trading to illustrate the potential strengths and dangers of using machines to make decisions in warfare while removing humans from decision-making.

A key question Scharre raises is whether machines will be able to distinguish between enemy combatants, friendly forces and noncombatants, especially because current object and facial recognition technologies can be spoofed by “fooling images.” Obviously, the consequences of misrecognition could be deadly, although the fact that machines lack morals and emotions can cut both ways, according to experts Scharre spoke to. Anger and fear cause soldiers to kill rashly, but soldiers don’t pull the trigger in situations where machines likely would do so.

In the latter third of his book, Scharre draws on his interviews with humanitarian figures and experts in international law to discuss efforts to ban autonomous weapons. By examining historical attempts to ban weapons such as the crossbow or land mines, which have had mixed success, Scharre suggests policies that could be implemented to minimize potential destruction wrought by autonomous weapons should they be adopted. In doing so, he raises important questions for policymakers and average citizens alike about how autonomous weapons could and should be fielded and tactically employed.

Throughout the book, Scharre uses vivid references to movies and literature, including the Terminator film series, to better illustrate his points and keep the reader engaged. Although repetitive at times, Army of None is an excellent synthesis and would be lively reading for the military professional as well as those interested in technology, warfare or current events. The questions Scharre raises about autonomous weapons should be on the minds of all Americans as they ponder the use of force and its consequences in the 21st century.

Capt. James Villanueva is an instructor in the Department of History at the U.S. Military Academy, from which he graduated in 2008. He is an infantry officer who deployed to Iraq from 2010–2011. He previously was stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, and Fort Polk, La.

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Cold War Warriors Practice Their Art in Berlin

Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the US Army’s Elite, 1956–1990. James Stejskal. Casemate. 336 pages. $32.95

By Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie W. Spencer

U.S. Army retired

World War II was over and with victory came a promise of world peace. The focus for the victors was to start the massive rebuilding process and put agreements in place among nations that would make the world “safe for democracy.” World War I had held that promise for the previous generation but had only served to set the stage for World War II. This time the opportunity for world peace was within our grasp.

That opportunity began to slip away almost immediately. The Soviet Union, our ally during the war, saw the postwar era as fertile ground to sow the seeds of communism. The stage was set for two different visions for the future: democracy versus communism. A government that answers to the people versus a system where the people answer to the government. When it comes to freedom versus servitude, the differences are irreconcilable. The struggle between these two diametrically opposed ideologies would last for almost half a century and would come to be known as the Cold War.

As the two world powers stared at each other across heavily fortified borders and demilitarized zones, Berlin was in a precarious position. The city, like Germany itself, was divided among the former war allies. West Germany was controlled by the U.S., France and England. East Germany was in the hands of the Soviet Union. Berlin, the prewar capital of Germany, was located about 100 miles inside the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic. The Soviets, in an attempt to further isolate West Berlin, enclosed that part of the city behind a fortified stone wall. The purpose of this wall was not to keep the West out but to keep the East Germans in.

Special Forces Berlin by James Stejskal tells the story of a little-known elite U.S. Army Special Forces unit operating in West Berlin during the Cold War years. It was openly known by several names during its 34-year history: Security Platoon, Detachment A and finally, Physical Security Support Element. Its classified names were 39th Special Forces Detachment as of 1965, and 410th Special Forces Detachment as of 1984. This small group of intrepid warriors was highly trained in the art of counterinsurgency in an urban environment. They worked in the shadows alongside the conventional combat forces that occupied West Berlin.

Most of the senior NCOs were combat veterans with experience in counterintelligence, direct action and strategic reconnaissance. These handpicked Cold War warriors were proficient in demolition, escape and evasion. All were seasoned paratroopers with years of experience in conventional Army units. They studied the language, the culture and mannerisms of Berliners in an attempt to blend in, or at least not stand out.

The mission of Special Forces Berlin was similar to the Office of Strategic Services and the French Resistance during World War II: buy time for NATO forces at the outbreak of war. Disappear behind enemy lines and destroy, disrupt and impede the Warsaw Pact forces. The odds of surviving the mission were not good, but it had to be done and they were determined to do it.

Special Forces Berlin is a must-read for military historians and should be mandatory reading for future generations of professional military leaders. In addition to adding to the body of knowledge of the Cold War years, the author—himself a former Green Beret—has lifted the veil of secrecy surrounding an elite Special Forces organization. The incredible story of these unsung heroes needed to be told. Stejskal has helped bring Special Forces Berlin in from the cold.

Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie W. Spencer, USA Ret., held assignments with infantry, Special Forces and Ranger units during his 32 years of active military service. He is the former director of the Association of the U.S. Army’s NCO and Soldier Programs and is now an AUSA senior fellow.