August 2017 Book Reviews

August 2017 Book Reviews

Monday, July 17, 2017

Desert Storm Recounted From 1st ID View

The 1st Infantry Division and the US Army Transformed: Road to Victory in Desert Storm 1970–1991. Gregory Fontenot. University of Missouri Press. 560 pages. $36.95

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

I first encountered now-retired Col. Gregory Fontenot in the late 1990s at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., during a Battle Command Training Program preparatory session (now known as the Mission Command Training Program). He asked attendees if they were familiar with John Colby’s War from the Ground Up: The 90th Division in WWII. I was impressed that he recognized the value of military history. Fontenot’s The 1st Infantry Division and the US Army Transformed: Road to Victory in Desert Storm 1970–1991 validates that impression.

Colby’s book added to an already rich collection focusing on World War II American infantry units. In comparison, Fontenot’s work reawakens a long-dormant Desert Storm historiography. While previous works offer insightful glimpses at the individual or operational level, Fontenot’s book represents the first detailed examination of how U.S. soldiers collectively experienced that conflict. Although some prospective readers might question equating Colby’s story of an 11-month campaign waged across the breadth of Europe to Fontenot’s story of a 100-hour war in a barren desert environment, the latter offers a compressed version of the former, replete with numerous lessons and vignettes.

Fontenot should be no stranger to ARMY readers, as he is a regular contributor to the magazine. Moreover, he has the necessary experience to put together such an in-depth analysis of Desert Storm: He commanded a tank battalion during it. He went on to serve as director of the School of Advanced Military Studies and co-author of On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

This book begins at Fort Riley, Kan., in 1970, where the 24th Infantry Division was reflagged as the 1st Infantry Division following its return from Vietnam. Fontenot devotes several chapters to examining how decisions by Army leaders seeking to transform a dispirited force by refocusing on the defense of Western Europe guided the 1st Infantry Division’s path during the next two decades. The author points out two major developments—namely the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and adoption of the all-volunteer force—that ensured the Army did not return to 1960s-era doctrine, training and professional development. Instead, it pursued revolutionary training regimens and personnel policies while fielding weapons systems designed to allow American soldiers to “fight out-numbered and win” against numerically superior Soviet opponents. In an unexpected turn of events, however, the 1st Infantry Division experienced its post-Vietnam baptism of fire in barren western Kuwait rather than central Germany.

The bulk of Fontenot’s book deals with the developments that occurred after the 1989 upheavals that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. These events triggered the deactivation of the 1st Infantry Division’s forward element in Germany. As the U.S. ramped up plans to further reduce its armed forces, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein brought that drawdown to a halt by invading Kuwait in August 1990. The strategic disturbance from that unexpected act of aggression was mirrored by turmoil within the U.S. Army as it responded to its first post-Cold War contingency. The upheaval that shook Fort Riley to the core for weeks did not subside once the 1st Infantry Division arrived in Saudi Arabia, where it not only integrated the 2nd Armored Division (Forward) as a third maneuver brigade, but also underwent new equipment fielding while coping with the problems associated with inadequate theater infrastructure.

Fontenot then recounts how the 1st Infantry Division, after collecting its equipment from Saudi ports and relocating more than 300 miles to isolated assembly areas, spent two months screening the western Kuwait-Saudi border while preparing for a breach of opposing Iraqi fortifications. The book details how the successful breach occurred on Feb. 24, 1991, as part of a coordinated counteroffensive, as well as the follow-on attack on Objective Norfolk. The author draws extensively from American and Iraqi records alike to present a comprehensive picture of both events. As the fighting at Norfolk subsided, the exhausted soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division, who had been moving and fighting nonstop for four days, received word of an impending cease-fire. Fontenot takes the division’s story to the conflict’s final moments as the division’s ground and aviation units were ordered by U.S. Central Command to secure Safwan Airfield as a site for cease-fire negotiations.

The book offers far more than a detailed recounting of pre-battle planning and tactical combat. It explores the advantages and disadvantages of technology, especially that training did not anticipate the elevated potential for fratricide nor the enduring challenges of diminishing situational awareness of leaders commensurate with their distance from the battlefield. Fontenot retains a good sense of the human dimension of war throughout by showing how personalities influenced operations and points out that a combination of fuel shortages and sleep deprivation would have played a decisive role had fighting continued.

A final comparison of Colby and Fontenot is warranted. Both take great care to downplay their own involvement. That adds credibility to each account, as the writer doesn’t skew events to highlight his contributions or add to his stature. In all, The 1st Infantry Division and the US Army Transformed has earned a place on the chief of staff of the Army’s professional reading list as well as your own bookshelves.

Lt. Col. Mark J. Reardon, USA Ret., served in the Army 26 years before retiring in 2006. He is a senior historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History working for the chief of staff of the Army on a specially commissioned one-volume history of Operation Enduring Freedom.

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A True Hero of American Special Forces

Shadow Commander: The Epic Story of Donald D. Blackburn, Guerrilla Leader and Special Forces Hero. Mike Guardia. Casemate. 213 pages. $32.95

By Col. Kevin W. Farrell
U.S. Army retired

For decades, special operations forces in general, and U.S. Army Special Forces in particular, have held a special allure. Hollywood, the media and politicians have been enthralled by the courageous men memorably portrayed in the 1968 film The Green Berets and the 1966 pop song by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”

As revered as Special Forces soldiers are, the origins of this elite and legendary group are largely unknown. Mike Guardia has examined the careers of courageous men who built the legend. The extraordinary career of Brig. Gen. Donald D. Blackburn is the subject of Guardia’s most recent book.

Guardia is an author and military historian who served six years on active duty as a captain. He has since transitioned to the Army Reserve. Among his other books are Hal Moore: A Soldier Once … and Always and The Fires of Babylon: Eagle Troop and the Battle of 73 Easting. In this compact volume with concise prose, he chronicles the fascinating life of a man whom Guardia correctly characterizes as “a true hero of the Army Special Forces.” A significant portion of the book focuses on Blackburn’s activities in the Philippines just before and during World War II.

Following the American defeat, Blackburn evaded the Japanese and led a private guerrilla army of more than 22,000 men, including a native guerrilla regiment dubbed “Blackburn’s Headhunters.” The incredible exploits of these unconventional forces constitute the most fascinating part of the work.

Hailing from western Florida, Blackburn was dedicated to a career in the Army from adolescence onward. Noteworthy was his promotion to colonel at age 29, certainly making him one of the youngest colonels in American history, but his extensive experience in unconventional warfare took time to be recognized by the institutional Army. Conventional postwar assignments and the occasional inquiry into potentially criminal actions by his guerrillas against Filipinos who collaborated with the Japanese during the war colored his postwar years.

Many ARMY readers will be bemused by the fact that Blackburn attended the Infantry Advanced Course in the fall of 1947 as a lieutenant colonel in a class filled with junior captains. Reductions in rank were commonplace with the postwar drawdown, while his extensive combat experience had earned him “constructive credit” for the Infantry Advanced Course, the Command and General Staff College and the Armed Forces Staff College. Blackburn recognized he needed institutional instruction, so he volunteered. He went on to do a three-year tour as an instructor in the newly created Department of Military Psychology and Leadership at West Point from 1950–53. He then attended Armed Forces Staff College, followed by a three-year stint as a NATO attaché in Norway. He was promoted to full colonel before his next assignment, a yearlong basic training regimental command at Fort Jackson, S.C., in 1956.

Blackburn’s skills were sought by the Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG), headquartered in Saigon, South Vietnam, and his service in the conventional Army was at an end. His welcome by MAAG chief Lt. Gen. Samuel T. “Hanging Sam” Williams in 1957 was memorable: “Blackburn, I’ve looked at your record, and by God, it looks like you are just a thief and a crook.”

The challenge he faced in Vietnam was enormous. The units he advised were fragmented, with complex reporting structures. Soon, however, it was back to the U.S. to take command of the 77th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he implemented important reforms as a result of what he learned in Vietnam. But Southeast Asia beckoned again—this time Laos—and then Vietnam once again where he created a Ranger training program for the South Vietnamese Army.

Most likely, it was Blackburn’s crucial role in the Special Operations Group that will make this book critical reading for those with interest in the role of U.S. Army Special Forces in the Vietnam War. Selection as assistant division commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and promotion to brigadier general in 1968 marked other key events, but the capstone of his career was as a key leader in the Son Tay Prison Raid in North Vietnam in 1970.

Shadow Commander is most appropriate for those with an interest in the history of elite fighting forces and guerilla warfare, but it is an appropriate read for anyone interested in learning about the role of Army Special Forces and, in particular, an inspirational Army leader. Divided into 12 chapters as well as an epilogue and career chronology of its subject, the book is a quick read.


Col. Kevin W. Farrell, USA Ret., is the former chief of military history at the U.S. Military Academy. He commanded a combined arms battalion in Iraq. His most recent book is The Military and the Monarchy: The Case and Career of the Duke of Cambridge in an Age of Reform, and he has a doctorate from Columbia University, N.Y.

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Ike’s Lessons for Leaders

Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission. Bret Baier with Catherine Whitney. William Morrow. 264 pages. $28.99

By Col. Cole C. Kingseed
U.S. Army retired

The peaceful transfer of power between political parties has been a signature achievement of American democracy. In an exciting new book examining the transition of power from Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Democratic President-elect John F. Kennedy in January 1961, political anchor Bret Baier offers a behind-the scenes look at how Eisenhower prepared his successor for assumption of the presidency.

Baier is the anchor and executive editor of Fox News Channel’s Special Report with Bret Baier. He previously worked at Fox News as chief White House correspondent and as national security correspondent based at the Pentagon.

Following a short summary of Eisenhower’s career prior to 1953, Baier describes “the postwar drumbeat for Eisenhower to run for president.” Eisenhower, like current President Donald Trump, was “a nonpolitician in the political arena” before he assumed the presidency. The parallels stop there. On Eisenhower’s presidential desk was a paperweight with the Latin words that translated as “gently in manner, strong in deed.” These words summed up Eisenhower’s political philosophy.

Using Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation as a backdrop, Baier provides a cautionary tale, albeit a hopeful one, to guide Trump and future administrations. In addition to Eisenhower’s warnings of the inherent dangers posed by the “acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” he expressed concern about elevating partisanship above national interests, excessive government spending, and political power of special interest groups.

What Eisenhower most wanted Kennedy to know was there are limits on military force to solve global problems. Baier writes that Eisenhower’s final mission was to convince Kennedy that the U.S. must always use its “exceptional position in the world to create a lasting bulwark of peace.” This warning was at the heart of Eisenhower’s farewell address.

The address that Eisenhower delivered on Jan. 17, 1961, was two years in the making. As communicated to his brother Milton in 1959, Eisenhower wanted the address “to emphasize a few homely truths that apply to the responsibilities and duties of a government that must be responsive to the will of majorities.” His farewell address served as an expression of gratitude to a Congress where Democrats held the majority during six of the eight years of his presidency.

What should current political leaders and military officers learn from the Eisenhower presidency? First, a commander in chief should select the best leaders for the job at hand, just as Abraham Lincoln did in assembling his “team of rivals.” Second, Congress and the White House should strive to be, as Eisenhower put it, “interdependent”—even if it means bipartisanship. Next, it is prudent to check government expansion, but one should also recognize the value of domestic programs and public works that have proved effective. And lastly, no president should engage in personal attacks against the opposition.

One of Eisenhower’s favorite maxims was that you can question someone’s judgment, but you should never question their motives. Baier demonstrates that nearly 65 years since Eisenhower relinquished the presidency, his character and political acumen offer valuable lessons to contemporary leaders. After reading Three Days in January, it is small wonder why so many Americans still like Ike.

Col. Cole C. Kingseed, USA Ret., a former professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, is a writer and consultant. He has a doctorate from Ohio State University.

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Take a Look at Emerging Field of Nanotechnology

Nanoweapons: A Growing Threat to Humanity. Louis A. Del Monte. Potomac Books. 244 pages. $29.95

By Scott R. Gourley
Contributing Writer

There are times when a book best serves as the starting point for new discussions or to broaden existing discussions on military technology. Ominous title aside, Nanoweapons: A Growing Threat to Humanity fulfills the role of starting the discussion.

Drawing on three decades of experience as a physicist and business executive leading the development of microelectronics and sensors key to the integrated circuit industry, author Louis A. Del Monte presents a broad look at the emergence of nanotechnology—the science of manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale—and the potential implications of “nanoweapons” in future warfare.

In defining the technology, Del Monte offers the criteria used by the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, which calls for only one dimension of the macroscale product to be in the nanoscale of 1 to 100 nanometers.

“This interpretation opens the door for numerous scientific fields to engage in nanotechnology research and application, including the fields of surface science, organic chemistry, molecular biology, semiconductor physics and microfabrication,” he says, noting that the multidisciplinary research category brings with it “unprecedented optimism and serious concerns.”

The concerns in this book are focused on what he asserts to be the weaponization of the technology and specifically the risk of losing control of those weapons.

After combing through the available open-source literature, the author makes projections about the research, the leading countries involved and what some of those research directions might be. Because of the limited amount of information on nanoweapons research he could uncover, the author asserts it is ongoing classified work and then relies on a level of supposition and conjecture to spotlight hypothetical nanoweapon threats like self-replicating smart nanobots, able to build copies of themselves from raw materials and operating in ways similar to biological viruses.

The rough time frame of 2050 is presented as a possibility for when two “technological singularities” may occur—first, a point when artificially intelligent machines exist that exceed the combined cognitive intelligence of humanity, and then a point when the self-replicating smart nanobots will “have completely changed every aspect of human existence” and “have the potential to render humanity extinct.”

While some readers might dismiss the resulting vignettes as a cross between Terminator and Star Trek, the presentations are based on intriguing open-source threads that the author weaves into an interesting fabric based on his experience with the rapid evolution of integrated circuits. Common supporting caveats include: “My insight suggests,” “speculation on my part,” and “based on publicly available information.”

Those looking for hard data on weapons will not find it in this book. In fact, the author’s commercial background results in occasionally confusing statements that overlook current military realities, such as: “Nanoelectronics and nanosensors have the capability to make artillery projectiles ‘smart,’ meaning that they will have properties that resemble guided missiles.”

However, the author’s insight is founded on a broad technology background and does include many thoughtful suggestions on how categories of nanoweapons could be regulated as extensions of existing arms agreements.

The strength of the book is in establishing awareness and either starting or expanding discussions on some of the issues surrounding the potential of nanoweapons. If the author’s 2050 timeline is correct, this issue is not far in the future. That time frame is more than a decade prior to the planned U.S. retirement of its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and likely a time when the Army will still employ upgraded models of many current combat systems.

Clearly, it’s not too soon to expand some of the discussion on the warfighting implications resulting from nanotechnology.