December 2020 Book Reviews
Army Must Innovate in Times of Conflict
Adaptation under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime. David Barno and Nora Bensahel. Oxford University Press. 440 pages. $34.95
By Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, U.S. Army retired
Every military professional should read Adaptation under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime. Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno and Nora Bensahel have delivered a magisterial survey of a critical factor in military effectiveness, the capacity to adapt in the midst of conflict.
The concept of “adaptation” as a key tool for mastering military competition is not new. Historian Michael Howard once famously wrote an essay on military doctrine, arguing that it wasn’t crucial for doctrine to accurately predict the next kind of war; doctrine just had to get close—and then good, well-trained armies would innovate, adapt and improvise their way to victory. In short, he argued that embedding the ability to adapt ought to be an integral part of preparing the force for the future. Barno and Bensahel are definitely, and rightly, following Howard’s lead.
The introductory chapters of Adaptation under Fire look at why organizations, particularly large bureaucracies, have trouble adapting to changing environments, groundbreaking innovation and disruptive technology. They draw heavily on social science literature. One challenge in interpreting and applying this method of analysis is the military doesn’t fit well into an organizational category. The military is not a big business. It is not a traditional government organization.
On the one hand, the military is run by a vast bureaucracy with a rigid hierarchical structure. On the other hand, it’s a mission-driven organization with a strong institutional culture that instills in its members a drive to prevail and succeed regardless of the odds and obstacles. The result is that although there are structural pressures that resist adaptation, there are also countervailing forces that pressure the military to adapt and innovate.
In the following chapters, Barno and Bensahel delve into key factors impacting military adaptation—including doctrine, technology and leadership. They examine each component in detail and provide cases studies of how militaries tried to adapt in modern wars. While they rely mostly on secondary literature, and some of the history is not up to date, all these chapters are worth reading. The past shows that militaries have to adapt to war.
That said, there is a lot missing in this section. One important gap is training. Training affects how adaptive forces are. Additionally, while Barno and Bensahel acknowledge that there are forces outside the military’s control that impact adaptation, they don’t spend much time delving into them.
The second part of the book shows how the U.S. military tried to adapt in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The authors again view successes and failures through the lenses of doctrine, technology and leadership. Here, Barno is able to supplement the authors’ research with his experience as a commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. As elsewhere in the book, he and Bensahel focus on ground forces, arguing that land power is both ultimately decisive and best reflective of adaptation.
The final section of the book addresses the most important question: Will the U.S. be able to successfully adapt in future conflicts? Given the complexity of today’s strategic environment and the ever-increasing speed of technological change, preparing for the next war will be more difficult than ever. As the authors note, the military “must effectively balance preparing for what is anticipated with readying the force to adapt to the unexpected.”
No organization, training or doctrine survives contact with the enemy. It is foolish to organize, train and equip military forces, pretending they will be employed or survive as their designers intended. Unless an enemy is overwhelmed at the start, soldiers in every war are faced with the challenge of adapt or die.
Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, U.S. Army retired, is vice president of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy and the E.W. Richardson Fellow at the Heritage Foundation think tank, Washington, D.C. He has a doctorate in history from Georgetown University, also in Washington.
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Veteran Soars Above the Horrors of War
The Eagle on My Arm: How the Wilderness and Birds of Prey Saved a Veteran’s Life. Dava Guerin and Terry Bivens. University Press of Kentucky (An AUSA Title). 200 pages. $26.95
By Alan Axelrod
Ronald Reagan is often given credit for something Winston Churchill said (though Churchill may have borrowed it from elsewhere): “There’s something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” In The Eagle on My Arm: How the Wilderness and Birds of Prey Saved a Veteran’s Life, Dava Guerin and the late Terry Bivens have written the story of Patrick Bradley, an Army veteran who discovered that the most desperate of men can find something good, something pricelessly good, about living among raptors in the far wilderness.
Born into a family with a proud tradition of military service, Bradley enlisted in the Army in October 1967 at age 18 and became a Green Beret lieutenant, a special operator put in command of 16 men whose mission was to parachute behind enemy lines, locate Viet Cong prisoner-of-war camps, scout out the camps and call in rescue forces.
Throughout the extended mission, close contact with the enemy was continual and often hand to hand. Bradley and his command were held under siege for nearly a month at Dak To, South Vietnam, and he emerged as one of just three survivors of his mission. All would suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD, which was not even a named diagnosis, let alone an acronym, in the Vietnam era—and two would take their own lives.
Bradley survived. Near the close of 1969, he was at an Army base camp awaiting rest and recuperation leave when the camp came under attack. While fighting for his life and the lives of his fellow soldiers, a mortar round exploded close by, and his arms and legs were shredded by shrapnel. When an Army surgeon proposed amputating his left hand, Bradley resisted and punched him with his right, shattering the surgeon’s jaw.
Bradley’s action resulted in saving his hand, but it took the intercession of his father, a colonel in the Pentagon; his uncle, a Navy Cross recipient; and Gen. William Westmoreland to avert court-martial and a long prison sentence.
Bradley instead was sent for treatment by an Army psychiatrist who, at first, pronounced him far too dangerous to release. By some miracle, however, the doctor was also a practicing falconer and believed that his gravely wounded and deeply troubled patient was the perfect candidate for assignment to a unique program sponsored by the Canadian government.
Bradley was sent, alone, deep into the Canadian wilderness, to study bald eagles with the goal of discovering a link between the use of the insecticide DDT and the species’ rapid diminishment.
The daily demands of staying alive on 2.5 million acres of frozen wilderness, far from human friend or enemy, with eagles and other raptors consuming his attention, served to rebuild his body and heal—though not cure—his mind.
Bradley went on to study zoology and become a wild animal trainer, a steward of avian raptors and co-founder of the Avian Veteran Alliance, a nonprofit organization that pairs wounded warrior veterans, especially those suffering from PTSD, with injured birds of prey. The species learn to care for each other, find relief in one another’s presence and, ultimately, reach a level of salvation.
As the record of how a small group of dedicated men and women discovered the healing bond created across species, this story is deeply inspiring. Yet through it all, PTSD remains a persistently threatening presence. The Eagle on My Arm offers a remarkable look at the emotional costs of war and the healing potential of pure wildness.
Alan Axelrod is the author of Patton’s Drive: The Making of America’s Greatest General, Patton: A Biography and How America Won World War I.
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The Thrill of Future Tech
Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution. P.W. Singer and August Cole. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 432 pages. $28
By Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley Jr., U.S. Army retired
Context matters. In 2016, while serving as the Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence, I facilitated an Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting panel on global threats and technology. One of the panel members was P.W. “Peter” Singer, a futurist who is now strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. During the panel, I asked him, “Is there any one emerging technology on the horizon that would be such a game changer it would give our adversaries or competitors an overwhelming advantage?”
Singer said, “It is not that there is any one game-changing technology, there are many under development, but rather, what are you going to do with that technology? How are you going to operationalize it … what is the context in which it will be applied?” (Think of how the Germans used widely available technology in novel ways to achieve remarkable success at the start of World War II.)
The Army needs to keep these questions in mind as it develops the vision and doctrine for Multi-Domain Operations.
In the book Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, Singer and co-author August Cole weave in over 300 technologies, all based on existing and emerging research (artificial intelligence, robotics, big data analytics, facial recognition and more), into a techno-thriller set 20 years in the future. For the uninitiated, as well as those wanting to dig into the capabilities profiled, the reader will find the referenced technology in 27 pages of notes at the end of the book.
The idea of a burn-in is to take an emergent technology to its limits. The storyline follows an FBI agent (a former Marine) who is assigned a robot to be her partner after an attack on Washington, D.C. She must burn in her robotic partner, exploring its capabilities as she goes after a new kind of terrorist. Imagine yourself on patrol with someone who has near-instant situational awareness and access to all the data you would have in a joint operations center. Further, your partner conducts advanced analysis on that data to constantly learn and anticipate what is happening as you move through the streets.
In 2015, the authors captured DoD’s attention with Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. Their concept of near-peer conflict made the book mandatory reading for senior leaders. I have no doubt Burn-In will do the same regarding how we look at current and emerging technology. It should be no surprise that our special operations community has already reached out to the authors to talk about their ideas.
Context matters. Sometimes, operational surprise can come from a lack of imagination. Singer and Cole lay out possibilities for the technology in a storyline that is not dystopian but serves as a warning of the possibilities and the risks of many dual-use technologies. Moreover, the bar for access to these technologies has and likely will remain relatively low, as many capabilities will emerge first as a commercial capability integrated into our daily lives.
Burn-In also brings up ethical questions about how much we can trust artificial intelligence-based technology to make judgments without a human in the loop. While we are only at the leading edge of true broad or general AI, future capabilities described in the book are rapidly descending upon us. We cannot suffer from a failure of imagination regarding how we leverage such technology or how it might be used against us. Like Ghost Fleet before it, Burn-In should be mandatory reading for DoD.
Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley Jr., U.S. Army retired, was the 21st director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Previously, he served as Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence.
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Simpson’s Field Army Fights Without Fanfare
The Conquering 9th: The Ninth U.S. Army in World War II. Nathan Prefer. Casemate. 254 pages. $34.95
By Matthew Seelinger
Of the four American field armies that fought in the European Theater of Operations during World War II, Ninth U.S. Army, under the command of Lt. Gen. William Simpson, often gets overlooked despite its battlefield accomplishments. Author Nathan Prefer looks to shed proper light on Ninth Army’s impressive combat history in his book The Conquering 9th: The Ninth U.S. Army in World War II.
Activated in May 1944, Ninth Army entered combat in August of the same year and oversaw the effort to capture the French port of Brest. After containing German forces holed up in other French ports in Brittany, Simpson and his army were ordered east to take part in the main Allied advance into Germany. As the northernmost of the four U.S. field armies, the Ninth was positioned just below British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery’s 21st Army Group to the north.
Initially assigned the task of advancing to and crossing the Roer River before marching to the Rhine, the Ninth was redirected to hold the northern shoulder of the “bulge” during the German offensive in the Ardennes in December 1944. Temporarily placed under the operational control of the 21st Army Group, the Ninth resumed its advance east in late January 1945, crossed the Roer a month later, and made a dash for the Rhine, crossing it on March 24.
For the remainder of the war, the Ninth made steady progress east, closing and clearing the Ruhr Pocket with First U.S. Army, capturing tens of thousands of prisoners, and advancing farther east than any Allied army (some 55 miles east of Berlin).
Prefer attributes much of Ninth Army’s success, and its relative anonymity, to its commander, Simpson. A tall, quiet Texan who graduated in the same West Point class as his more flamboyant classmate, George Patton Jr., Simpson was “even-tempered and composed” and an “efficient, low-key” commander. Unlike Patton, there was little to relate about him—“no stormy meetings, few revealing anecdotes, almost no memorable phrases.”
Instead of bluster, Simpson’s calm demeanor and desire to be a “team player” greatly served the Allied cause. For example, during the Battle of the Bulge, which largely fell in First Army’s sector, Simpson and his staff were quick to lend assistance to the beleaguered forces to the south.
In addition, when Montgomery suggested Ninth Army come under his operational control, Simpson was fully open to the idea and worked well with the notoriously difficult British field marshal.
The Conquering 9th focuses largely on combat operations of the divisions and other subordinate units of Ninth Army as they battled the remnants of the Wehrmacht, some of which were all too ready to surrender while others put up fanatical resistance. Readers wishing to learn more about the staff work, logistics and other aspects of running a large field army will have to look elsewhere.
Prefer provides a fine collection of photographs (complete with valuable locator information), but many of the maps are too small. He includes three valuable appendices on Ninth Army’s command staff, a chronology of the Ninth’s history and a list of major units of the Ninth.
The Conquering 9th serves to bring attention to an army and its commander, who fought without the fanfare enjoyed by other U.S. Army units and generals in World War II. The book is a good starting point for anyone wanting to delve further into the history of Ninth Army.
Matthew Seelinger is chief historian of the Army Historical Foundation and editor of the foundation’s quarterly magazine, On Point.