April 2022 Book Reviews

April 2022 Book Reviews

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Tanker Tells of Bitter Urban Fight in Iraq

book cover

Strike Hard and Expect No Mercy: A Tank Platoon Leader in Iraq. Galen Peterson. Koehler Books. 296 pages. $28.95

By Lt. Col. Mark Reardon, U.S. Army retired

Galen Peterson’s Strike Hard and Expect No Mercy: A Tank Platoon Leader in Iraq represents an important firsthand view of the battle for Phase Line Gold in Baghdad in April and May 2008. The scope and intensity of that engagement challenges the accepted interpretation of the term “insurgency.”

From the perspective of Army tank crews, engineers, infantrymen and Navy SEALs charged with physically barring rocket teams in Baghdad’s Sadr City from launching missiles at the city’s Green Zone, their experiences rivaled the intensity of urban combat in World War II’s Aachen, Germany, and Stalingrad, Russia, and in Saigon during the Vietnam War. For weeks on end, hundreds of followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr massed together each day to wage a bitter fight against American and Iraqi forces erecting a concrete barrier thousands of yards long through the middle of Sadr City’s Jamila market. 

This informative tale of a tank platoon leader with the 4th Infantry Division begins in Baqouba, Iraq, in 2006 and ends two years later in Baghdad with the author’s evacuation due to wounds suffered from an IED. Combat narrative abounds, and midway through his tale, Peterson offers a valuable glimpse into the Army Force Generation model designed to sustain readiness during protracted conflict. The narrative makes for a compelling argument that unit-level ingenuity, dedication and perseverance ensured the success of that Pentagon-inspired policy. As I read that particular section, I could not help but think that if I were newly assigned to a tank platoon, I would tab, underline, highlight and abide by the many lessons found in this exceptional memoir.

The book also offers an informative glimpse into the complex dynamics of the Iraq battlefield. In one example, an artillery unit accidentally fires a 155 mm cannon during gun drill training, killing a number of innocents in a distant village. Until U.S. soldiers appear offering compensation, the population believed al-Qaida had engineered the blast to intimidate them.

From that point on, the locals turned solidly against the Americans. Yet Peterson points out that absent such unfortunate incidents, the Iraqis grew to accept the presence of U.S. troops within towns and neighborhoods following the decision to rescind the practice of confining American combat units to remote operating bases. While that original policy was based on a well-meaning but misplaced belief that American troops were an “antibody” within Iraqi society, it had exposed innocents to intimidation and attack while imposing an unsustainable burden on newly formed indigenous security forces.

Strike Hard and Expect No Mercy sends a strong message against stereotyping or labeling the enemy, which Peterson experienced firsthand during a counterattack against a much larger and better organized force than anticipated. During each of his deployments, the gamut of performance exhibited by insurgents ranged from the disciplined fanaticism of al-Sadr’s followers to the ineptness of frustrated bombers who blew themselves up testing a deeply buried IED that earlier failed to detonate.

If Peterson’s account reinforces one universal truth, it is that soldiers should anticipate encountering just about any situation in combat under the most unexpected circumstances.

Lt. Col. Mark Reardon, U.S. Army retired, transitioned from armor officer to professional historian after 26 years of military service. He is the author of several books, including Victory at Mortain: Stopping Hitler’s Panzer Counteroffensive, and is the co-author of a multivolume account of Operation Enduring Freedom, Modern War in an Ancient Land: The United States Army in Afghanistan, 2001–2014.

* * *

Volume Shines New Light on WWI Commander

book cover

John J. Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, 1917–1919: Volume 1: April 7–September 30, 1917. Edited by John Greenwood. University Press of Kentucky (An AUSA Title). 656 pages. $65

By Edward Lengel

Gen. John Pershing has been the subject of several biographies, most notably Donald Smythe’s two-volume work that concludes with Pershing: General of the Armies. Historians and historical writers nevertheless have suffered from the relative paucity of readily available primary and reliable secondary source material about a man who exerted a profound influence on 20th century American military history. This may help to account for the shallowness and inaccuracy of many of the books written about the American experience in World War I.

The weakness of much of the biographical literature on Pershing stands in sharp contrast to that of other important American generals, from George Washington to Ulysses Grant to Dwight Eisenhower. The contrast is explicable not just by the greater public interest in the Civil War and World War II. Eisenhower, and especially Grant, left behind memoirs far superior to Pershing’s two-volume My Experiences in the World War.

What really sets apart these three individuals (and many other major American figures) from Pershing, however, is the existence of effective, readily available documentary editions of their papers, allowing scholars to dive deeply into their day-to-day professional and personal activities and concerns.

The welcome appearance of this first volume of John Greenwood’s documentary edition of Pershing’s World War I papers—John J. Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, 1917–1919: Volume 1: April 7–September 30, 1917—begins to fill an important gap. Commencing the day after the American declaration of war on Germany and entry into the war and continuing until the early autumn of 1917, this volume chronicles a vitally important period in Pershing’s personal career and in the history of the U.S. armed forces.

Content in this 650-plus-page volume is organized chronologically into chapters arranged by month. Following best practices in documentary editing, Greenwood presents each item with clear headings and source notations bracketing clear and accurate transcriptions. Introductory text and annotations substantially illuminate the primary material, allowing readers to understand and place each item in its proper context.

Importantly, Greenwood demonstrates his own strong understanding of Pershing and the formation of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in his supplemental text, which also notes Pershing’s postwar removal of sensitive material from his records and correspondence.

The most outstanding aspect of this documentary edition is the editor’s wide-ranging but careful selection of content. While correspondence from Pershing’s collections in the National Archives and the Library of Congress forms the volume’s core, Greenwood also mines numerous other sources, such as Woodrow Wilson’s papers and—vitally—French records, to provide a complete picture of the general’s activities.

Moreover, Greenwood provides excerpts from Pershing’s diaries and memoirs, as well as letters, cablegrams and so on, written not just from but to Pershing, along with third-party observations on his conferences and public appearances. Well-chosen photographic images and maps reproduced from the American Battle Monuments Commission’s American Armies and Battlefields in Europe further illuminate the text.

Volume 1 of this important documentary edition chronicles a number of important topics, including but not limited to Pershing’s administrative work in recruiting, training and equipping the AEF; organizing the AEF’s transport from the U.S. to Europe; the general’s relations with the Wilson administration and the War Department; and, of greatest interest to me, his often fraught but nonetheless constructive relations with his British and French co-belligerents.

This fine edition is destined to constitute a vital source for future scholarship on Pershing and the U.S. in World War I.

Edward Lengel is chief historian at the National Medal of Honor Museum, which is under construction in Arlington, Texas. He has written 14 books on American history, including Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Great War’s Lost Battalion.

* * *

Going to Battle Using AI

book cover

I, Warbot: The Dawn of Artificially Intelligent Conflict. Kenneth Payne. Oxford University Press. 336 pages. $29.95

By Scott Gourley, Contributing Editor

In a thought-provoking book that could be subtitled Asimov’s Three Laws Meet Boyd’s OODA Loop, author Kenneth Payne provides a well-researched examination of the current state and future possibilities for incorporation of artificial intelligence designs into “warbot” weapon systems.

First penned in the 1940s, science fiction author Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” specified (with some exceptions) that a robot must not injure people, must obey orders and must protect itself. Payne credits the rules as “good for science fiction,” but a poor guide for anyone planning to use artificial intelligence and robots in war.

Building on a basic contention that there have been “vanishingly few attempts to seriously engage with the military impact of Artificial Intelligence,” I, Warbot: The Dawn of Artificially Intelligent Conflict explores an environment where even defining artificial intelligence can be problematic since, as Payne asserts, artificial intelligence is “more a philosophical matter than a discrete set of technologies.”

The book takes an extensive look at the history of computing and applications of foundational technologies in earlier weapon platforms, even reaching back to World War II for lessons from the German jet-powered V-1 buzz bomb, a weapon characterized as “an automatic warbot, but not an intelligent one.”

Technology developments set the stage for the author’s comparison between the status of artificial intelligence today and that of air power before “the Great War.” As Payne explains, “the basic concept already existed, but a period of considerable experimentation was required before militaries figured out the best ways to use the new technology.”

Along with some of the specific technologies, the overview of computer science provides the reader with numerous references to Britain’s Alan Turing and other cryptanalysts responsible for cracking Germany’s Enigma codes at Bletchley Park. In fact, the author’s U.K. perspective as a former BBC journalist contributes to a broader geographic view of artificial intelligence. As an aside, readers will quickly get comfortable with the spelling and expressions of British English, albeit accompanied by occasional misidentifications like “Miramar air base” instead of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California.

Payne’s perspective is also well balanced against myriad examples of related U.S. projects originating from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and academia, accompanied by spotlights on other activities taking place around the world. His clear and concise descriptions of state-of-the-art technologies like loitering munitions provide readers with a sense of their broader tactical possibilities.

Bringing technology to the present, Payne postulates that today’s “grey zone” will present the first opportunity for artificial intelligence to be used in a combat environment. But he notes that artificial intelligence’s reputation for “tactical brilliance and strategic naivety” could limit its applications.

The book compares the emergence of artificial intelligence contributions and limitations with examples of human decision-making during situations like the Cuban missile crisis, asserting the possibility that “widespread adoption of [artificial intelligence] systems could lead to involuntary escalation” in similar future scenarios.

Additionally, the reader is presented with a range of future possibilities through descriptions of many works of fiction, specifically science fiction, in a process that some have begun to call FICINT, or fictional intelligence, the combination of fiction writing with intelligence.

Other issues explored in the book include shared cognition, the three different types of creativity, moral permissibility and gene-editing experiments recently undertaken in China that may have opened the door to actual biological relationships that could follow today’s application of human-machine teaming.

With early computer and robot elements in this book reiterating and exploring Asimov’s famous Three Laws for robot/human safety, Payne brings that thinking full circle, concluding with suggestions for his own three alternative laws for application to warbots.

* * *

Father and Son Reflect on War Experience

book cover

100 Days in Vietnam: A Memoir of Love, War, and Survival. Retired Lt. Col. Joseph Tallon With Matthew Tallon. Koehler Books. 328 pages. $29.95

By Terri Barnes

100 Days in Vietnam: A Memoir of Love, War, and Survival, by retired Lt. Col. Joseph Tallon and his son Matthew Tallon, is about more than its title suggests. Not only because the story takes place in South Carolina, the Philippines and Texas, as well as Vietnam. Not even because Joe Tallon spent 104 days in Vietnam as a soldier. The story of 100 Days in Vietnam is less about a finite number of days and more about their infinite effects over a lifetime.

Matthew Tallon writes in the introduction that the book began as a “stack of yellow legal pad pages” filled with his father’s handwritten recollections of his time in Vietnam. Most of the book comes from those writings, and Joe Tallon’s eye for detail and dark humor create an engaging read, even when the details are not pretty.

Tallon’s tour of duty in Vietnam as an OV-1 Mohawk aircraft pilot began in May 1972. His day-by-day account of Army life in the book is augmented by sweet and funny letters he wrote to his wife, Martha Anne, and some of her letters back to him. In journal-like entries, Tallon relates the pain of being far from home and the contrast between his expectations and the realities of a chaotic war zone.

His recollections reveal much about the state of morale among an Army of draftees. He writes about poor leadership, fratricide and rampant drug use, as well as combat. Without dwelling on the horrors, he simply tells the story of each day, whether harrowing or hilarious, or both, as when he and a buddy were caught in mortar fire at a restaurant in Da Nang.

“That was the third time that restaurant had been hit … since I’ve been stationed here, but that was the first time I was in it when it happened,” Tallon writes. “I don’t go there for the ambiance. I go there for the shrimp.”

The story shifts on Aug. 12, 1972, when Tallon’s aircraft was shot down, leaving him with multiple injuries, including severe burns over much of his body. An observer on the flight, Spc. 5 Daniel Richards, was killed, a haunting loss for Tallon. The book never mentions Tallon’s injuries beyond the physical, but his invisible wounds are evident between every line. The void of the unspoken is as eloquent as the spoken, just as unseen wounds are as persistent as any physical scars.

The final section of the book is about the tandem quests of father and son to recognize the sacrifices of the war. Matthew Tallon, who is also an Army veteran, wanted his father to receive the Purple Heart he was denied because his injury was not confirmed as the result of enemy action. Joe Tallon wanted recognition for the soldier who died in the crash.

For Matthew Tallon, that quest and writing the book opened a new window into his father’s experiences.

“I didn’t recognize the twenty-five-year-old man whose voice I read in those letters to my mom. He was different then,” Matthew Tallon writes. “War changes people. I don’t know if it unlocks something deeply repressed within or if it imprints something new on the psyche of its participants.”

War changes people as much as it changes history. The stories of individual experiences in historic moments—including the personal sacrifices of veterans and their families—provide a richer understanding of history and all its implications. The full picture of history becomes clearer every time a story like 100 Days in Vietnam is read and remembered.

Terri Barnes is a military spouse, book editor and the author of Spouse Calls: Messages from a Military Life, based on her column in Stars and Stripes.