December Book Reviews
There’s No Easy Way to Explain Warfighting
Reconsidering the American Way of War: U.S. Military Practice from the Revolution to Afghanistan. Antulio J. Echevarria II. Georgetown University Press. 207 pages. $29.95.
By Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, U.S. Army retired
Defeat creates innumerable explanations as to what went wrong. While American troops streamed out of Vietnam after years of seemingly fruitless struggle, there were answers aplenty to explain how the U.S. got off course. Historian Russell F. Weigley penned one of the most widely read and influential treatises, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. In it, he concluded that the traditional manner in which the U.S. military had operated since the Civil War was ill-suited to the kind of combat the armed forces faced in Vietnam.
Now, in Reconsidering the American Way of War, retired Lt. Col. Antulio J. Echevarria II argues Weigley is way wrong. Weigley proposes that American warfare has two central strategies: attrition and annihilation. He argues that before the Civil War, the U.S. military focused on winning through attrition, which he also calls “exhaustion or erosion, which is usually employed by a strategist whose means are not great enough to permit pursuit of the direct overthrow of the enemy and who therefore resorts to an indirect approach.” After the Civil War, the objective of American military campaign became achieving victory by annihilation—“overthrow of the enemy’s military power.”
Weigley’s book, which was written in 1973, has had its critics. Brian M. Linn, at Texas A&M University, stood out as the most noteworthy. In April 2002, The Journal of Military History published his article, “The American Way of War Revisited,” in which he made the case that the “two American ways of war” model was too imprecise to hold up under serious scrutiny. After reading the critique, even Weigley acknowledged Linn had a point. Echevarria takes the issue a step further. Rather than just imperfect, he suggests Weigley’s framework is unhelpful.
Echevarria is editor of the U.S. Army War College’s academic journal Parameters and holds a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University. He finds that the notion of an American way of war is ahistorical. Part of the problem, he suggests, is that “historical analyses of the American way of war—including Weigley’s—will reflect some of the political concerns of the period in which they were written.” While Weigley surveys the sweep of American history, for instance, in the backdrop of it all was an attempt to explain how a nation went from winning most of its wars to losing Vietnam.
The problem: Putting a straitjacket on American military history just doesn’t work. The bulk of Echevarria’s work is an overview of military activities from the American Revolution to the global war on terrorism, highlighting their diversity in nature and scope. The multiplicity of military affairs breaks down what Echevarria calls the “artificial coherence” of the American way of war.
One of the chief culprits is defining a “strategic culture,” which purports to constrain how political-military leaders conceptualize and conduct war. Echevarria asserts the concept is an “elusive fiction,” too ill-defined to serve as a rigorous organizing concept for assessing American military history.
Instead of sticking to a certain way of war, Echevarria concludes U.S. operational military practices include a diverse “repertoire of concepts and methods over more than two centuries.” While Echevarria suggests each American military experience ought to be measured on its own merits, that doesn’t necessarily mean tradition, culture and habit are not relevant to understanding military history and its impact on future war.
Arguably, some militaries can’t let go of a guiding idea that shapes how they fight. Even in the U.S., with all its varied experiences of battle, rhythms of habit do crop up time and again. The American approach to post-conflict and occupation operations is one of them.
In every war, from when the Continental Army tried to nab Canada to the present, American forces invent their practices as they go. They reshape their doctrine when it doesn’t work and then promptly forget all the lessons learned.
Every war has roots in the past and branches of its own. The great challenge of military analysis is figuring out how history and the present intertwine. The answer, no doubt, lies somewhere between The American Way of War and Reconsidering the American Way of War.
Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, USA Ret., a 25-year Army veteran, is a Heritage Foundation vice president in charge of the think tank’s policy research in defense and foreign affairs.
Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines
Black Cat 2-1: The True Story of a Vietnam Helicopter Pilot and His Crew. Bob Ford. Brown Books. 288 pages. $24.95.
By Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie W. Spencer, U.S. Army retired
The Vietnam War was unlike anything the American military had faced in its almost two centuries of combat experience. The terrain, weather, and unconventional nature of the enemy posed unique challenges and required a different approach. The Army needed new and innovative ideas that incorporated state-of-the-art technology.
The answer was the Airmobile Concept: replacing the old with the new. Helicopters delivered soldiers quickly and in overwhelming numbers to the battlefield. Superior firepower of American arms both on the ground and in the air was the key to success of this new concept. And it would be a game changer.
Black Cat 2-1, by Bob Ford, is the story of one of the thousands of helicopter pilots who held the other end of that lifeline. Told in narrative style, his story captures the day-to-day life of a helicopter crew in combat—the good, the bad, the funny, and the moments of sheer terror. It’s the story of one pilot and his crew, risking their lives for troops on the ground.
During the Vietnam War, 2,197 helicopter pilots and 2,717 crew members were killed. Ford is one of the survivors.
His story begins at the University of Oklahoma in 1966, where he completed ROTC training and received commission in the U.S. Army. He subsequently volunteered for Army helicopter flight school and within a year, he was flying combat missions in Vietnam.
The UH-1 utility helicopter, affectionately referred to as the “Huey” by the troops, was the workhorse of the Vietnam War. The Huey was how the troops were transported into and out of the area of operation, flying over terrains that otherwise would have been major obstacles. It was how the combat troops received replacements and much-needed supplies of food, water and ammunition. It was the ground troops’ eye in the sky and an on-call source of firepower during firefights. It provided a means of lifesaving medical evacuation for the wounded. It was a lifeline.
Ford flew over 1,000 missions in his Huey from July 1967 to July 1968. His tour of duty included the beginning of the siege of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive. After his first six weeks in country, he became an aircraft commander and took command of a helicopter detachment at Hue, just 40 miles from the Demilitarized Zone. In a letter home dated Sept. 7, 1967, young Ford reveals a true warrior spirit: “I’ll be taking over the detachment at Hue soon. It’s the furthermost northern aviation unit in Vietnam. They’ve taken more hits and recorded more kills than the entire company combined.”
When he completed his yearlong combat tour, he was assigned as an instructor pilot at Fort Wolters, Texas, training the next wave of Huey pilots bound for Vietnam. The memory of the sight and sound of the iconic Huey helicopter is something that every Vietnam veteran has in common. The Huey’s single-rotor blade pops the air with a unique “whop-whop-whop” that no one who heard it is likely to ever forget.
Many veterans have stories about how they were saved by the brave men flying helicopters. They tell stories of pinpoint fire support and resupply of ammunition just in time to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, much the same as the horse cavalry in all those John Wayne movies of yesteryear. Some owe their very lives to these intrepid warriors. Every Vietnam combat veteran, myself included, holds these daring young men and their flying machines in the highest possible regard.
Black Cat 1-2 is a well-written, true story by and about a true American hero—a helicopter pilot and his crew faithfully performing their duties in time of war. It gives voice to the thousands of Army aviators who served with honor and courage during the Vietnam War; hopefully, it will encourage others to share their experiences. It’s a story worth reading, and one that needed to be told.
Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie W. Spencer, USA Ret., is the former director of AUSA’s Noncommissioned Officer and Soldier Programs and is now an AUSA Senior Fellow. During his 32 years of active military service, he had a variety of assignments with infantry, Special Forces and Ranger units.
Up-Close Look at Army Airmen As They Crippled the Luftwaffe
Hell’s Angels: The True Story of the 303rd Bomb Group in World War II. Jay A. Stout. Berkley Caliber. 454 pages. $27.95.
By Lt. Col. F. Clifton Berry Jr., U.S. Army retired
To say the U.S. Army Air Forces performed a significant role in the successful strategic bombing campaigns against Germany in World War II is an understatement.
The crews faced near-infinite hazards across a broad spectrum. A few examples of the potential deadly perils range from engine failures and midair collisions to deadly attacks by German fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft fire. Whatever the dangers, the crews faced them, performed their missions and eventually prevailed—or died while striving to do so.
In the seven decades since the war ended, an abundance of books, movies and television documentaries have recounted these activities. Most of the accounts have focused on the missions flown by the airmen of the bomber and fighter groups that were the combat components of the Eighth U.S. Army Air Force.
Jay A. Stout has created a book that differs significantly from the customary product. He leads the reader into the lives of the members of the 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) and its component units from activation on Feb. 3, 1942, through training, combat and victory to the unit’s inactivation on July 25, 1945.
Audiences of the innumerable customary accounts about the Eighth Army Air Force have learned about the missions and the results, but they are merely onlookers. Thanks to Stout, the reader of Hell’s Angels becomes more than a spectator. The reader almost joins the 303rd by becoming well-acquainted with its members, learning details of their lives and duties.
In Hell’s Angels, the men of the 303rd and their actions are presented individually. Stout includes information about their lives before they joined the service. Their training begins, their skills develop, and they bond with their comrades. They become aircrews flying successive models of the Boeing B-17 bomber. They train, practice and fly bombing missions. Letters to family, for example, provide samples of their feelings as they perform their special tasks. So do recollections about specific missions. The reader connects with them as people—not just as names, ranks and job titles.
In the preface, Stout prepares the reader for this splendid approach. He writes: “I have worked to describe not only the horrors of the air battles, but also why, how and by whom those battles were fought. I have also gone to some length to describe the roles of the maintenance and support personnel; not a single bomber would have gotten airborne without them. Indeed, for every airman there were approximately ten men who toiled on the ground to support him.”
He delivers the results splendidly across the spectrum of events. He combines multiple sources to create a coherent firsthand experience that is true to the details and the people involved.
The support functions are covered quite well, enabling readers to gain an appreciation for the people and skills that make the combat missions possible. Mechanics, riggers, operations clerks, administrators and more are presented. Maintenance of all equipment is vital and complex. Bombs may be simple, but they require expert attention and focus. So do the functions of food, health and sanitation. As Stout also mentions in the preface, “The 303rd and its support units comprised a bombing organization the size of a large town—approximately four thousand men at any one time.”
Details of the airplanes and equipment (such as flak suits and oxygen masks) are also presented clearly. This information helps readers understand actions by members of the aircrews before, during and after missions.
Each chapter provides detailed information about some aspect of the incredible variety of challenges faced by the 303rd on land, air and sea. Whatever the situation, its members’ actions are covered firsthand and in detail. Instead of reading a text, the reader becomes absorbed in the action and its outcome.
Stout acknowledges the role of the now-dissolved 303rd Bomb Group Association and key members of the group in providing materials that enabled him to create the richness and accuracy that characterize the narrative. He also provides guidance on how to learn more about the 303rd, its members and their lives.
Hell’s Angels sets a higher standard for covering military history.
Lt. Col. F. Clifton Berry Jr., USA Ret., is an Army veteran who saw combat in Vietnam. He is the author/editor of more than 20 books, and the editor of several magazines covering military and aerospace history and activities.
The Roar of the Cannon, the Smell of the Crowd
The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War. Mark M. Smith. Oxford University Press. 216 pages. $27.95.
By Matthew Lee Henderson
Mark M. Smith’s The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege is a cultural history of military events. Smith uses a rare method of historical scholarship to examine the Civil War: He analyzes records that people who experienced the war firsthand left of impressions that strongly convey what they saw, touched, heard, smelled and even tasted. The result is a vivid retelling of select episodes from the Civil War using primary source documents.
The unifying theme of Smith’s work is the overpowering sensory impact of the horrors of the war upon the highly refined and regulated culture of antebellum America, particularly the South. In each of five chapters, Smith picks an event and pairs it with one of the five senses that he believes particularly defined it.
Smith opens with a discussion of antebellum Charleston, S.C., in the months leading up to the capture of Fort Sumter. The sense he chooses for Charleston is sound. In this chapter, Smith sets the stage for the rest of the book, taking pains to describe the ordered, refined, hierarchical slaveholding society into which his sensory assault is about to burst. He leaves us with a good elementary chronology of the events leading up to the taking of the fort. His style is evocative, reading more like a novel in places than a work of scholarship.
One perceives that he fills in details left out by his sources in an effort to be dramatic. For example, his sources clearly state that slaves often used quiet to escape or practice their religion and that some whites feared insurrection at night. Smith goes on to imply that this was deliberate psychological combat by the slaves. “You want quiet? Then quiet, deafening quiet, shiver-inducing quiet is what you shall have, reasoned the enslaved.” The idea that this general fear was a grand design of the slaves is not documented in his notes and seems overly teleological.
The second chapter is the visual description of the First Battle of Manassas. It is very well-depicted, with the blue and gray uniform colors and their consequences clearly explained. His basic outline of the course of the battle is clear and easy to follow. Each of Smith’s chapters has a secondary theme; here, it is the confusion of battle when under fire. Smith’s pairing of sight with this particular battle is more well-attested to by his sources than in other chapters. Multiple accounts from those present affirm that visual confusion had an impact on the course of the battle.
The third chapter is Smith’s attempt to pair the Battle of Gettysburg with the sense of smell. It is hopelessly contrived. He forces this pairing by shifting his focus to the aftermath of the battle and the stench of rotting corpses. Because of Smith’s decision to focus on the aftermath, his narration of the events of the battle itself is less interwoven into sensory records of the fighting. It is laid out all at once, with little ornamentation, at the beginning of the chapter. It is hard not to lose patience: This chapter is titled “Cornelia Hancock’s Sense of Smell.” The label is as contrived as the conclusion that scent dominated the experience of Gettysburg. Hancock’s sense of smell does not turn out to be any different than anyone else’s; she simply wrote about it.
Next, Smith associates the Battle of Vicksburg with taste and hunger. This is as natural a pairing here as it would be describing any other siege in history. To Smith’s credit, he does a fine job of connecting the sense of taste with antebellum standards of refinement. He sets the scene with descriptions of food and restaurant fare available immediately before the Union began to cut off supplies. His telling of the siege from the inside continues previous chapters’ emphasis on the horrors of war, this time focusing on civilians under siege, many living in holes in the ground as protection.
The final chapter examines the experience of the Confederates trapped in the confines of the H.L. Hunley submarine on their fatal mission to crew the first submersible that ever sunk a ship. Here, the emphasis is touch. Smith successfully conveys the excruciating conditions under which they worked. Unfortunately, he then gives in to the temptation to go far afield of what he can document from his sources. He suggests that Confederate submariners must have seen a similarity between themselves and slaves: “It was this willing proximity to the experience of slavery that reveals the depth of sacrifice these men were willing to make to pursue the Confederate cause.” Going even further astray, Smith compares the physical motions required to operate the Hunley to those used for a cotton gin. He presents no source from the crew or those who knew them to suggest the Confederate crew made these connections.
The epilogue is a roundup of all of the senses as Smith describes both the sensory experiences of Sherman’s Army as it marched through the South as well as their sensory impact upon the Southern areas through which they passed and fought. It is an effective summation.
The Smell of Battle is a cultural history before it is a military one. Smith offers insight into antebellum culture, but he is uninterested in the strategic overview of the war. He examines carefully how this culture viewed each of the five senses. This book has considerable entertainment value, but the scholarship leaves much to be desired.
Matthew Lee Henderson currently works as a federal contractor in the national security field. He has a bachelor’s degree from Radford University and a master’s degree from Kent State University.