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December 2019 Book Reviews

Monday, November 25, 2019

Collection Gives Close-up View of the Services

Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics. Nathan K. Finney and Tyrell O. Mayfield. Naval Institute Press. 264 pages. $29.95

By Lt. Col. Robert L. Bateman, U.S. Army retired

In the years between the Korean and Vietnam wars, three writers on civil-military relations—Samuel P. Huntington, Morris Janowitz and Gen. Sir John Hackett—published books that established the concept of the military as a profession. More than 50 years later, a new group of thinkers moves the discussion further along, especially in light of our past 18 years at war, in this collection of chapter-length essays compiled by Nathan K. Finney and Tyrell O. Mayfield.

The 12 authors assembled in Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics present a spectrum of academic and military qualifications, and include contributors from several foreign services. This is almost always a good thing as it prevents intellectual overlap and the potential for groupthink. The background of the editors themselves probably helps in this regard; Finney is an Army officer (and occasional ARMY magazine contributor), while Mayfield is an officer in the Air Force.

Their differences are invisible in their jointly written introduction and conclusion, but doubtless complement the confluence of historians, military officers, lawyers, political scientists and philosophers in these pages. This diversity alone is enough reason to get this book, but an even better one is that it is readable, which is not always a given for this type of work. Though be warned, there were a few essays for which I needed my Oxford English Dictionary.

Several chapters are particularly worthy of note. Chapter 4, “Professionals Know When to Break the Rules,” by Army National Guard officer H.M. “Mike” Denny, raises fascinating points, positing that it is only when the usually rule-following person is mature enough that they know when, why and how to violate an order that they truly become a professional. Chapter 5, “When the Military Profession Isn’t,” by Tony Ingesson, an assistant professor of political science at Lund University, Sweden, challenges the whole premise of military professionalism, at least in a universal sense.

Two chapters stand out for their “I was not expecting that” factor. Chapters on the Navy and Air Force both decry the effects of the worship of technology on the creation of a true profession. Speaking of the Air Force, author Brian Laslie rams his point home, stating, “Rather than long-held and long-accepted concepts of identity in the other services where every Marine is a rifleman or the Army’s ubiquitous identity of being a soldier, members of the Air Force cannot agree on who they are. There is no widely accepted completion to the sentence, ‘Every airman is a …’ ” Laslie is deputy command historian of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and an adjunct professor of history at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado, and a former Air Force officer.

The editing is sharp and consistent. Unlike many collections, it appears the authors saw drafts of all contributors’ essays. And while one should never judge a book by its cover, when that cover has blurbs from retired Adm. James Stavridis, former National Security Advisor retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and a foreword by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retired Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, well, maybe one might want to take a look.

Lt. Col. Robert L. Bateman, U.S. Army retired, served 25 years as an Army officer. He taught military history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York; George Mason University, Virginia; and Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books and is currently writing one about the interwar period.

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Key Insights Into Wartime Decision-Making

Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from Those Who Made History. Andrew Roberts. Viking. 256 pages. $27

By Col. Douglas Macgregor, U.S. Army retired

In Andrew Roberts’ new book, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from Those Who Made History, the noted British historian examines nine illustrious figures: Napoleon Bonaparte, Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, George C. Marshall, Charles de Gaulle, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Margaret Thatcher. Roberts’ claim is that enough commonality of experience exists among them to identify essential leadership lessons with broad applicability.

The book opens with a carefully crafted portrait of Napoleon, a man of unmatched intellect with a genius for war. Despite the Frenchman’s ignominious retreat from Moscow, Roberts confers on Bonaparte the acclaim he deserves, arguing that Napoleon demonstrated leadership “qualities that we will encounter to a greater or lesser degree—generally lesser—in many of the following chapters.” Roberts is correct.

In the chapters that follow, readers learn how the diminutive British Adm. Nelson (he was 5 feet, 5 inches tall) possessed the magic art of “infusing his own spirit into others.” Roberts treats him with patriotic zeal, but Nelson is an awkward fit. The choice of British Prime Minister Churchill as the inevitable man who pursued his destiny without deviation makes more sense.

Roberts describes how, at age 65, after years in the political wilderness—like a phoenix rising from the ashes—Churchill emerges to pilot Britain into World War II. This account is thought-provoking, though less candid than others. Churchill’s alcohol-fueled flights of strategic fancy, described so vividly in British Chief of Staff Field Marshal Lord Alan Francis Alanbrooke’s private diary, are noticeably missing, as is the tragic impact of Britain’s ruinous national debt on British national power at the end of the war.

Roberts relates the tensions in the Anglo-American alliance with balanced and incisive portraits of Gens. Marshall and Eisenhower. Roberts contributes an invaluable insight from Gen. Albert C. Wedemeyer, Marshall’s strategic adviser, that explains much: “With their ingrained habit of assuming authority … the British naturally expected Washington to defer to whatever strategy was decided upon by their own military and civilian chiefs.”

Gen. de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces during World War II, mystifies Roberts. He cannot puzzle out de Gaulle’s belief that British and French wartime interests were not identical, despite Churchill’s insistence that they were. Had Roberts sketched out de Gaulle’s continental vision of postwar Europe, the mystery would have been solved. His view of British Prime Minister Thatcher is more sanguine. Roberts praises Thatcher for dispatching a task force to the South Atlantic to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982, without parliamentary approval, and applauds her strategic leadership.

Roberts’ chapters are informative and entertaining, but his promised leadership paradigm never fully emerges. The connective tissue linking the nine figures is just too thin. Retaking the Falkland Islands is a skirmish compared with Stalin’s conquest of Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia, actions that changed the fate of nations. Rivers do not compare to oceans.

Col. Douglas Macgregor, U.S. Army retired, is the author of Margin of Victory: Five Battles that Changed the Face of Modern War.

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Battle of the Bulge Went Beyond Bastogne

Loss and Redemption at St. Vith: The 7th Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge. Gregory Fontenot. University of Missouri Press. 384 pages. $34.95

By Steven Zaloga

Accounts of the U.S. Army in the Battle of the Bulge tend to emphasize the dramatic story of the defense of Bastogne, Belgium. In Loss and Redemption at St. Vith: The 7th Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge, Gregory Fontenot, who has written many articles for ARMY magazine, provides a fresh examination of the overlooked importance of the defense of nearby St. Vith.

Central to this battle was the defeat of the newly arrived and inexperienced U.S. 106th Infantry Division on the approaches to the town. Within a day of the start of the German offensive on Dec. 16, 1944, two regiments of the 106th were cut off by the surprise German attack and eventually forced to surrender. The 7th Armored Division, located farther west along the German frontier, was hastily mobilized and rushed to St. Vith.

St. Vith was a crucial road junction that German plans assumed would be captured within a day of the start of the offensive. The arrival of the 7th Armored Division, along with a combat command of the 9th Armored Division, frustrated those plans. The 7th managed to derail the advance of the right wing of the German 5th Panzer Army for a week until ordered to withdraw on Dec. 22. The success or failure of Germany’s Ardennes Offensive depended on how fast the Wehrmacht could reach the Meuse River and race to its key objective of Antwerp.

Had Germany done so, the U.S. and British armies would have been separated. The successful defense of St. Vith by the 7th Armored Division imposed fatal delays on the pace of the German offensive, and so played a key role in its eventual defeat.

The 7th Armored Division enjoyed no respite after being withdrawn from St. Vith and was involved in the brutal tank battles around Manhay, Belgium, in the days before Christmas. It was finally pulled out of the line in early January 1945. The division returned to battle on Jan. 20, 1945, recapturing St. Vith on Jan. 23.

Fontenot notes that the 7th Armored Division never achieved the fame of some legendary units such as the 1st Infantry Division or the 82nd Airborne Division, but its achievements in the Ardennes stand as a corrective “to the largely underappreciated excellence of the US Army’s average units as compared to the 1944 edition of the German Army.”

Although Loss and Redemption at St. Vith contains some firsthand recollections by GIs about the engagements, its primary focus is at the command level. It is aimed more at the professional audience than the general reader. If the book has any fault, it is the usual problem with military histories from academic publishers: an inadequate selection of maps.

Fontenot’s book stands out for several reasons. It provides a thorough and detailed account of a critical battle that has often been ignored. This alone makes it a valuable addition to the literature about the Battle of the Bulge.

However, its exceptional value is elsewhere. Fontenot is a retired U.S. Army colonel and combat veteran of Operation Desert Storm. As a result, he combines a skilled historian’s perspective with that of an experienced professional soldier. He offers pungent and unvarnished assessments of the actions of U.S. Army commanders at every vital step in the battle, frequently in the context of the Army doctrine of the time. This substantially enhances the book’s value to both soldiers and historians.

Steven Zaloga has written numerous books on the U.S. Army in World War II. His most recent book is Smashing Hitler’s Panzers: The Defeat of the Hitler Youth Panzer Division in the Battle of the Bulge.

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War Stories With Dose of Humor

Thank You for My Service. Mat Best with Ross Patterson and Nils Parker. Bantam Books. 224 pages. $28

By J.D. Simkins

Mat Best is not out to gain your approval or acquiesce to any politically correct inhibitions employed by readers outside his firmly established niche audience.

His loyal following, primarily veterans who revel in twisted humor, the Second Amendment and chest-thumping freedom, has been firmly established through a meteoric rise on social media and his many business ventures, including the wildly successful Black Rifle Coffee Co.

Best, a former U.S. Army Ranger who deployed five times to Iraq and Afghanistan before spending five years as a private contractor, knows this brand of humor well, and he employs it mercilessly—to the delight of his readers—in his first foray into the world of book-writing.

Thank You for My Service, an unapologetic, no-holds-barred memoir that could be categorized as a militarized variant of Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell—the debauchery fest that entranced 20-somethings in the late 2000s—offers readers the chance to ride along with Best in a series of scintillating war stories chock full of a brand of macabre humor unique to the military.

Doses of self-improvement tips for vets struggling with depression, substance abuse or the transition to civilian life also appear in the pages of the California native’s book, using examples of Best’s own struggles.

Additionally, potential entrepreneurs will enjoy his how-tos based on his diverse business acumen.

But it is the humorous lens through which Best views what most would consider genuine horrors that separates his memoir from previous veteran offerings that attempt to reconcile time in combat with a retrospective, pacified moral compass.

That humor-at-all-costs perspective developed at a young age. It had to.

With five older brothers—two of whom graduated from Marine Corps boot camp on Sept. 11, 2001, when Best was 15—and a hard-charging military father, Best was thrown into the patriotism party early.

The lifestyle took hold and hasn’t let go since, molding him into the freedom-enthusiast go-getter who goes out of his way to find a silver lining in every situation.

That much will become abundantly clear within the book’s first few pages. The tone is instantaneously set for the rest of the memoir, supplemented by a seemingly endless supply of comedic storytelling and shameless transparency to leave the reader taking away nothing but a raging sense of authenticity.

Through good and bad, Best’s story is one that can be appreciated by both civilians and veterans alike, supplying laughs and counsel to those intimately familiar with wearing the uniform, or a tell-all road map for those who want to learn what that culture is like.

Of course, there are some who may not subscribe to Best’s brand of humor or his exuberance for life as a red-blooded American, but then again, he seems to be doing just fine without ’em.

 J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times. He served as a Marine scout observer from 2004–08