Intrepid Warriors on Dangerous Missions
Rangers, Scouts, and Raiders: Origin, Organization, and Operations of Selected Special Operations Forces. Michael Dilley. Casemate Publishers. 240 pages. $34.95
By Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie Spencer, U.S. Army retired
The need for military special mission units in times of conflict is well documented. Military history is replete with examples of special operations missions that played a decisive role in the outcome of the conflict. Such units have been part of American history since even before the Revolutionary War.
Soldier and historian Michael Dilley’s new book, Rangers, Scouts, and Raiders: Origin, Organization, and Operations of Selected Special Operations Forces, is an excellent behind-the-scenes view of the planning and tactics of selected American special operations forces.
Dilley highlights what he calls special purpose, special mission units. This slightly unconventional definition covers organizations with some common characteristics. They have been small elite groups responsible for carrying out difficult and dangerous classified missions, often behind enemy lines scouting, raiding or conducting reconnaissance.
These intrepid warriors were selected for these assignments because of their specific military knowledge, talent and experience. They would undergo extensive training designed to ensure they were able to overcome any obstacles that would prevent mission achievement, and many times they would use specially designed equipment.
The emergence of special mission units on the American continent can be traced back to the time of early conflicts involving the Colonies. Volunteers protecting their families from hostile forces would patrol the perimeter of their encampment. They recorded their movement as having “ranged” the area. Those patrol members eventually would be referred to as Rangers.
Each chapter in Rangers, Scouts, and Raiders reviews a different special purpose, special mission unit raised for operations from America’s war for independence through the war in Vietnam. Readers also will find accounts of the Andrews Raiders, the Alamo Scouts and Recondo training, among others. All the stories show how useful such units can be when used properly.
Traditionally, these ad hoc special units have been disbanded after mission accomplishment. Starting in the early 1950s, special mission units have remained active, but the need for ad hoc teams to perform unique missions continues.
The book includes an appendix that lists the origins of American special operations forces. The list starts with pre-revolution units and includes Air Force Combat Control Teams, Navy SEAL teams and a summary of Marine Corps special operations organizations.
Well-written and meticulously researched, the book is an excellent example of truth being more interesting than fiction. It is easy to read with photos, charts and maps that help the reader keep pace with the action.
Rangers, Scouts, and Raiders is a welcome addition to any military historian’s collection, and it also will appeal to anyone just looking for a first-rate book to add to their reading list.
Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie Spencer, U.S. Army retired, 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 an AUSA senior fellow.
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Exploring the Military Gender Divide
Forgotten Warriors: The Long History of Women in Combat. Sarah Percy. Basic Books. 432 pages. $32
By Kayla Williams
Women have fought in wars for as long as humans have waged them. Yet that long history has been either lost or purposefully hidden, complicating efforts to expand women’s military roles even as we have steadily gained greater equality in other fields. In her book Forgotten Warriors: The Long History of Women in Combat, Sarah Percy offers an expansive and insightful exploration of both the historical record as well as how—and why—it may have been erased.
Percy presents evidence of women Viking warriors that has long been overlooked, in large part due to long-held assumptions and prejudices by archaeologists. To counter this, Percy shares well-documented stories of women military leaders across diverse geographical, chronological and cultural divides, like Boudicca in ancient Britain and Njinga in what is now Angola. Another chapter spotlights rare examples of all-women units such as the Dahomey in western Africa.
She also delves into how women helped supply military needs pre-1900 in a Europe that was frequently embroiled in some sort of war, “supplying food, alcohol and other necessities; doing laundry and sewing; and supplementing rations with foraged or stolen food,” and in some cases also stepping up to fight. While in later eras, these “camp followers” were often framed as prostitutes, Percy convincingly documents the critical role they played in supporting armies on the move during the era before modern military logistics.
Percy also explores women’s experiences fighting—and commanding—to defend their homes in times when siege warfare was common. She presents multiple documented accounts of women who dressed as men to serve as soldiers, fighting honorably and successfully. And she touches on how women have served in rebel forces across multiple continents and eras.
Her many examples convincingly show that women have always had the strength, courage, stamina and ability to fight. However, as Western cultural norms increasingly demanded that middle- and upper-class women be delicate, and as these norms became more deeply rooted, this history was lost or purposefully suppressed, and notions of a “band of brothers” fighting away from the homeland became the dominant conception of what war is.
During World War I and World War II, some women struggled mightily for the right to fight. Percy provides a fascinating overview of how this played out differently in the U.S., Great Britain, Germany and the Soviet Union—as well as how many of these experiences were yet again suppressed or lost in postwar periods.
Gender norms had, by the 20th century, solidified into explicit and enforceable policies that prevented women from serving in combat roles. Such policies took decades to overturn, a journey that was not completed until the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan convincingly “demonstrated that the combat exclusion both limited the strategic utility of the military and also ignored the reality of what women were doing on the ground.”
Those deeply familiar with U.S. military women’s history will notice omissions in the chronicle of our service. However, grounding that legacy within a broader geographical and historical narrative provides critical and fascinating context. Percy’s focus on the role of class and race in how those who wrote history framed women’s abilities is another important contribution.
Given recent trends, and especially the frequency with which authoritarian regimes suppress women’s rights, this fascinating volume’s exploration of “how keeping women out of combat was part of the playbook of patriarchy” is particularly timely.
Kayla Williams is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rand Corp., Arlington, Virginia, and is the author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army.
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Life Lessons Drawn From Comics Genre
Power Up: Leadership, Character, and Conflict Beyond the Superhero Multiverse. Edited by Steven Leonard, Jonathan Klug, Kelsey Cipolla and Jon Niccum. Casemate Publishers. 320 pages. $37.95
By Lt. Gen. David Barno, U.S. Army retired
Who among us was not inspired, energized and excited by our childhood comic book heroes? Whether it was Marvel Comics’ The Amazing Spider-Man or The Incredible Hulk, DC Comics’ Batman or Wonder Woman, or more modern superheroes like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, many of us can quickly bring to mind favorite characters that have in some way animated our lives. And that childhood fascination often continues well into our adult lives.
Steven Leonard (the creative genius behind Doctrine Man) and his fellow editors Jonathan Klug, Kelsey Cipolla and Jon Niccum have brought a comprehensive cast of these fictional heroes to this unorthodox anthology, Power Up: Leadership, Character, and Conflict Beyond the Superhero Multiverse. In this collection of 35 essays, diverse contributors weave the exploits of their favorite comic book or film personae into a series of thought-provoking and often offbeat and unexpected lessons on leadership, ethics and strategy.
But this is not simply a lighthearted cartoon frolic. As Niccum points out in the foreword, these superheroes have become a globally unifying force across a rainbow spectrum of international cultures, with an impact that would have been unimaginable to earlier generations of comic book fans.
Organized into six sections, the contributors weave superhero exploits into a provocative discussion of the complexities of leadership, high-performing teams, character and diversity, strategy and technology, and finally, redemption and rebirth. Each short essay is engaging, but some require in-depth knowledge of niche (and perhaps even obscure) superheroes who accompany us on a trek through a panorama of movies, TV and streaming series, graphic novels and traditional comics.
The reader gets to weigh insights from fictional heroes who span the gamut from Iron Man to Black Panther and Captain America to less-well-known figures such as The Tick and the Lumberjanes.
In all, this is an engaging and fascinating read, with something for everyone. It offers an eclectic menu of treats that serve up a new and fresh look at a genre we rarely connect directly to the demands of the real world, much less plumb for key lessons about leadership. It should be consumed like a buffet meal, with the reader picking and choosing among the stories and characters that resonate.
With luck, this inventive collection may help remind us once again that, as Spider-Man reflects, “in this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility.” Power Up offers us some powerful insights from a place we would not normally look.
Lt. Gen. David Barno, U.S. Army retired, is a professor of the practice at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor and columnist at War on the Rocks. A former infantry officer and 30-year Army veteran, he served as overall commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.
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A Stellar Career Comes Crashing Down
Bipolar General: My Forever War with Mental Illness. Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin, USA (Ret.). Naval Institute Press (An AUSA Title). 288 pages. $27
By David Kieran
In the summer of 2014, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey asked Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin to resign his position as president of the National Defense University due to “numerous reports he had received about [Martin’s] recent behavior and actions.” Dempsey also ordered Martin to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, which subsequently led to Martin being diagnosed with bipolar I disorder.
The fascinating memoir Bipolar General: My Forever War with Mental Illness tells the story of Martin’s career—a successful one, but one in which he suspects that “My low levels of bipolarity … helped me—with high energy, drive, enthusiasm, and creativity—until they didn’t.”
In charting a life marked by great success but shadowed by troubling episodes and damaged relationships, Martin joins other retired general officers, including Carter Ham and David Blackledge, whose candor about mental health challenges has pushed the Army to more comprehensively address mental health issues within the force. Ham is the former president and CEO of the Association of the U.S. Army.
Bipolar General is not a perfect book; occasional clunkiness might distract some readers. But Martin has an important story to tell that is worthy of readership by soldiers at all levels.
The memoir’s first half highlights how latent symptoms shaped Martin’s career. On the one hand, they helped establish him as a hard-charging officer. His mania led to extremes in nearly every aspect of his life: grueling physical fitness regimens; religious fervor that included delusions that he had been divinely anointed to remake the National Defense University; and a two-year stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in which he completes two master’s degrees and most of the requirements for a Ph.D.
Wartime trauma, however, exacerbated his symptoms, leading to alcohol abuse and a slate of incidents that strained nearly every relationship that mattered. Unsparing descriptions of Martin’s troubling behavior as president of the National Defense University, during his father-in-law’s funeral and at his son’s graduation from the Special Forces Qualification Course illuminate the toll that mental illness takes on individuals, their families and their communities.
After a harrowing experience with depression and the end of his Army career, however, Martin found effective treatment and a new lifestyle in which he is managing his illness.
In relating this history, Martin repeatedly raises the question of how his condition could have gone undiagnosed during more than three decades of military service. Part of the answer, he insists, is that the energy and enthusiasm his condition manifested are attributes that the Army values. He concludes that “it’s a paradox that what helped make me a great officer later metastasized, ended my Army career, and then almost killed me.”
But he also suggests that even when his behavior became problematic, people around him were reluctant to speak out because of his rank, or because they wanted to protect his career.
Herein lie the challenges for soldiers and leaders. How should the Army reckon with Martin’s paradox and ensure all soldiers get necessary mental health care? How can the Army build a culture that supports mental health, where psychological ailments do not go unnoticed or unreported, and where mental health issues are not stigmatized?
Martin also notes that many people living with bipolar disorder manage their condition and have rewarding careers; given this, should a diagnosis automatically end an otherwise successful career? Can soldiers effectively managing their condition continue to serve?
These questions defy easy answers, but Martin’s story and his concluding suggestions invite reflection and a renewed commitment to a more thoughtful approach to mental health in the force.
David Kieran holds the Colonel Richard R. Hallock Distinguished Chair in Military History at Columbus State University, Georgia. He is the author, editor or co-editor of five books, including Signature Wounds: The Untold Story of the Military’s Mental Health Crisis. He holds a doctorate in American studies from George Washington University, Washington, D.C.