February 2019 Book Reviews
Hubris Can Undermine Even Elite Forces
Day of the Rangers: The Battle of Mogadishu 25 Years On. Leigh Neville. Osprey Publishing. 352 pages. $30
By Col. Gregory Fontenot, U.S. Army retired
Leigh Neville’s Day of the Rangers: The Battle of Mogadishu 25 Years On should be read widely. Neville has made a serious contribution to our understanding of that sad day in October 1993 in Somalia. He takes his title from the way the day is recalled in Mogadishu. It is appropriate as Neville’s narrative and those who participated reveal what was good as well as what went wrong when special operators and a Ranger company launched an ill-fated attempt to seize Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.
Neville does set the broader context—the mission, the players at the policy level and the bifurcated chain of command that seems to be a part of every coalition effort. Quite apart from that problem, covert and/or clandestine operations require secrecy that complicate unity of command.
Neville also accounts for alleged mission creep. The U.N. mandate for Somalia envisioned providing security for food distribution. The mission changed to targeting Aidid as the chief obstacle to humanitarian relief. The mission did not creep, rather, the relevant authority changed it. The U.S. government not only accepted the mission but also agitated for the change. Going after Aidid stemmed from Americans in the U.N. mission and from within the administration who saw Aidid as the obstacle to peace in Somalia. Delta Force and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) did not deploy to Africa to hand out meals.
Neville builds on Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down by examining assumptions and methods employed. The result is a narrative of the conditions and decisions that led to the tactical event that day in October. Day of the Rangers is a riveting account of courage and tactical skill. It is also clear that Americans from the top down suffered from overconfidence and underestimated the threat. This problem is attributable to post-Cold War American hubris and to the culture of the special operations community and the Rangers. The “best light infantry” line can be found more than once. Delta and the 160th SOAR believed themselves a cut above other soldiers.
Parochial comparisons are abundant. The 160th’s aviators believed they were better pilots than those in the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) while Delta looked down, however kindly, on the Rangers. The special operators speak for themselves, and they reveal their dangerous overconfidence eloquently.
Neville quotes then-U.S. troop commander and U.N. deputy commander in Somalia Lt. Gen. Thomas Montgomery’s observation of special operations helicopter methodology—“They routinely flew in low circles above the ground force … well below the burnout elevation of [a rocket-propelled grenade] … It was almost as if they thought they could not be hit.”
Montgomery’s observation rings true. Shooting down helicopters with RPGs was not invented in Somalia. Nevertheless, confidence remained high. As one Ranger noted, “We always had this ‘big sky, little bullet theory.’ ” Even after the Somalis shot down a 10th Mountain Division helicopter, the 160th believed it would not happen to them. After noticing succeeding missions become “hotter and hotter,” one of the 160th SOAR pilots opined to a more experienced pilot, “You know I think they’re catching onto what we are doing.” The response was, “Well, I don’t know any other way to do this.”
The Americans set easily observed patterns. One operator recalled, “They kind of got used to our tactics so they knew to just wait until the helicopters leave and then converge on whoever they dropped in.” Despite signs of growing capability and improved coordination by the opposition, the team remained confident. Leadership was not blind to the growing threat. After the fact, then-Col. Jerry Boykin wrote, “It [the increasing threat] did become a matter of concern over time, but I did not believe that our chances of success were going down. I believed [threat capabilities] were increasing because we were destroying [Aidid’s] infrastructure, which should force him out into the open.”
Day of the Rangers is a good story about good men who fought bravely. This was a genuine tragedy brought on by internal flaws as surely as those found in the heroes of Greek tragedy.
In his conclusion, Neville examines controversies raised later, including whether U.S. armor should have been sent. Most Delta operators continue to believe armor or other vehicles would encumber their operations. The question is moot since Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison, then-commander of Joint Special Operations Command, admitted to Congress that even if available, he “most likely would not have included [armor] in the force committed on Oct. 3.”
One special operator made the opposite case, noting, “We crashed birds in Iran, we crashed a bird in Grenada, we crashed a bird in Panama, we crashed birds in the Gulf War and we crashed birds in Somalia. Every time we do this we have to call someone else to get armor.” Combined arms works. Armor worked with and for special operations in the invasion of Iraq—access when possible seems sound.
The same soldier concluded with what should be the epitaph for arrogance in special operations forces: “We still believed we could fly around in a helicopter in a skateboard helmet and a black Faust vest and everybody’s going to lay down and give up because they know Delta Force is in town and that’s just not true.”
Neville’s conclusions suggest that many of the issues he raised have been mitigated or solved. Certainly, the record of special operations in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom is exemplary.
Day of the Rangers is compelling reading and of use to the special operations community and the Army at large. Underestimating the enemy, lack of imagination in developing concepts of operation and succumbing to confirmation bias can produce tactical outcomes that lead, as they did in Somalia, to strategic failure. Finally, these flaws are equally likely in the general-purpose forces. This is an American problem.
Col. Gregory Fontenot, USA Ret., commanded a tank battalion in Operation Desert Storm and an armor brigade in Bosnia. A former director of the School of Advanced Military Studies, he is co-author of On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom and author of The 1st Division and the US Army Transformed: Road to Victory in Desert Storm 1970–1991.
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Twitter Is Changing the Character of War
LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking. Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 416 pages. $28
By Lt. Col. Daniel Sukman
Over the past 15 years, P.W. Singer has been at the forefront in describing the operational environment. His books Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry and Children at War explored various actors the U.S. military faces on the battlefield. Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century and Cybersecurity and Cyber War: What Everyone Needs to Know, with Allan Friedman, examined the implications of the newly established cyberspace domain. Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, with August Cole, was fiction that delved into the future of warfare. In his latest book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, Singer, along with Emerson T. Brooking, highlights the impacts of social media on the global security environment and its implications for national security professionals.
LikeWar begins with an introduction to the history of the internet and cyberspace, culminating with the advent of social media. Singer and Brooking complete this history with the emergence of sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram as the centrifugal forces of social media. The authors then detail the impacts these social media sites have on military operations, national policy decisions and political elections.
The authors expand their thinking on the impacts of social media by describing digital terrain. Indeed, Singer and Brooking emphasize the importance of controlling or winning the narrative as an aspect of modern war. Controlling the narrative is done though speed, a principle of war that applies to historic maneuver forces in the land domain that applies equally in the information environment. In this paradigm, losers of the narrative tend to operate in large monolithic bureaucracies. This is a paramount lesson for the Army and the joint force. Accepting the bureaucratic nature of our military structure, and overcoming this information-centric disadvantage, is important.
The stories Singer and Brooking tell and the lessons they teach are fundamental for military leaders at the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war. One example is the ability of social media to amplify or mass the effects of military operations. The authors say the Islamic State group immediately understood this aspect in the application of torture and execution videos on YouTube to intimidate opposing Iraqi forces in Mosul. Conversely, the authors highlight how the gruesome videos united a global coalition and focused lethal targeting on the group’s leaders. Anything posted on social media will have more audiences than one may anticipate.
Another aspect paramount for our military to understand is social media’s influence or impact on the worldview of senior leaders. For instance, senior officers and civilians conducting engagements with foreign officials should understand that their counterparts may be operating off a different set of facts, or even within a different reality or understanding of the world. Counterparts may develop their worldview after reading fake news sites, or based on conspiracy theories amplified on Twitter.
While the nature of war remains unchanged, social media is changing the character of war. Leaders at all levels should understand the speed and influence of messaging, how adversaries will use social media to peddle their narratives, and how populations perceive reality based on their use of social media. Singer and Brooking in LikeWar offer us a blueprint on how to think, operate and survive in this operational environment.
Lt. Col. Daniel Sukman is a strategist for the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command, Norfolk, Va. He also has served with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), the U.S. European Command and the Army Capabilities Integration Center. His combat experience includes multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Gen. Washington Valued Maritime Strategic Strength
In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown. Nathaniel Philbrick. Viking. 384 pages. $30
By Col. Cole C. Kingseed, U.S. Army retired
Few campaigns in American history have been more decisive than the Franco-American victory at Yorktown, Va., where Gen. George Washington secured the surrender of British Gen. Charles Cornwallis’ army on Oct. 19, 1781. In concentrating on the Yorktown campaign in his latest book, In the Hurricane’s Eye, Nathaniel Philbrick opines that Washington alone understood with “a perspicacity that none of his military peers could match, only the intervention of the French navy could achieve the victory that the times required.”
An award-winning author of 12 books, Philbrick has emerged as one of America’s most accomplished historians. His Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution earned the New England Book Award and Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution merited the George Washington Prize. In the Hurricane’s Eye is the capstone of Philbrick’s trilogy on the American Revolution.
Philbrick introduces his narrative by examining the influence of the sea and the rivers of America on Washington’s strategic thinking. After a disastrous voyage at just 19 to Barbados, long before becoming commander in chief of the Continental Army, Washington was nonetheless proud of his maritime expertise, but that did not mean he trusted the sea and the rivers that flowed into it. For the rest of his life, Philbrick attests, Washington “preferred the saddle of a horse to the deck of a ship.”
The year 1780 witnessed the nadir of American fortunes in its war against the British Empire. Two regiments of the Continental Army mutinied, inflation was running rampant, the British destroyed two American armies at Charleston and Camden, S.C., and in September 1780, Benedict Arnold turned against his country. Philbrick posits that the bitter truth was that by the summer of 1781, the American Revolution had failed. A month later, however, the impossible happened when French Adm. Comte de Grasse defeated a large British fleet off the Chesapeake Bay, trapping Cornwallis’ army in Yorktown.
In the Hurricane’s Eye chronicles the remarkable reversal of American fortunes in 1781 by drawing a sharp contrast between the two commanders who ultimately decided the fate of the American Revolution, Washington and Cornwallis. Cornwallis emerges from these pages as a dedicated commander who had established a reputation as an “energetic officer whose eagerness for battle could, on occasion, blind him to the strategic possibilities that lay before him.” By advancing into Virginia in the spring of 1781, Cornwallis “had become the increasingly desperate embodiment of [King George III’s] determination to win the war at all costs.”
Washington, on the other hand, learned from his tactical mistakes in New York and Pennsylvania during the war’s early years. Refusing to risk the destruction of his army in a climactic battle without maritime support, Washington worked tirelessly with French military and naval commanders to conduct combined operations. Ever frustrated by the slow pace in securing coalition support, Washington wrote the Marquis de Lafayette as late as 1781, “No land force can act decisively unless accompanied by a maritime superiority.” Not until he learned that de Grasse was destined to the Chesapeake Bay in August 1781 did Washington turn his army southward from New York.
The ensuing Battle of the Chesapeake on Sept. 5, 1781, sealed the fate of Cornwallis’ army. The battle was one of the most decisive maritime battles in the world and was fought with no American participation. With Washington’s Continentals and the Comte de Rochambeau’s French army laying siege to Yorktown, it was a matter of time before Cornwallis capitulated.
How did the U.S. secure its independence? Philbrick states that the fate of the American Revolution depended on Washington and the sea. British tactical and strategic errors certainly contributed to their defeat, but even Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s trusted aide, admitted that Washington was “one of those rare individuals with the capacity to rise above the emotions of the moment and, given time, recognize what really mattered.”
If there is a lesson for today’s political and military leaders, In the Hurricane’s Eye illustrates that coalition warfare requires extraordinary patience and success generally demands that one lay aside personal ego for the greater good of the country. Philbrick assessed Washington’s character thusly: “Washington had long since learned that greatness was attained not by insisting on what was right for oneself but by doing what was right for others.”
Washington, who accepted Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, gets the final word: “[A] great mind knows how to make personal sacrifices to secure an important general good.” It seems a fitting epitaph for the father of our country.
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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Laos Fighting Required Courage, Determination
The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants: U.S. Army Special Warfare and the Secret War in Laos 1959–74. Joseph D. Celeski. Casemate (An AUSA Title). 400 pages. $32.95
By Lewis Sorley
In this book, The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants, author Joseph D. Celeski is a man with a mission. That mission is to give those Americans who served and fought in Laos during the Vietnam War the credit he believes is due to them but has never been given.
Part of the problem, and it is a legitimate complaint, is that we almost always write and talk about the Vietnam War, tending to overlook or underestimate what was done by those who served elsewhere in what was actually, although is rarely described that way, the Second Indochina War.
Celeski dedicates his book to Army special operations veterans of the conflict in Laos and those who fought alongside them, including members of the CIA, Air America forces, U.S. Embassy officials and allied forces (Laotian, Thai volunteers, and Hmong, Kha and Lao Theung tribesmen) and their families.
The war in Laos was if anything even more chaotic than what took place in Vietnam—fragmented, subject to frequent changes in policy or practice (wear civvies, now wear uniforms, wear civvies and don’t even pack uniforms, and so on) and often dramatically under-resourced.
Small groups of American advisers would be inserted at some remote location, left with little or nothing in the way of instructions or intelligence, maybe not even a map, sometimes without an overlap with their predecessors, and pretty much expected to make it up as they went along. How they routinely did that with courage and determination is an oft-inspiring story, even given the eventual outcome.
A strength of this account is the many working-level veterans of service in Laos the author contacted and quoted, often from journals or letters they wrote at the time of their service, adding authenticity and color to the story. There are also many photos contributed by them, although the photos are of varying quality and interest.
This account also reminds us that the war in Laos was run by the U.S. ambassador to that country. That made for big problems, especially as seen by Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) in Saigon, where they were trying to run a coordinated war, but without authority over major parts of it. When Gen. Creighton Abrams was MACV commander, Ambassador G. McMurtrie Godley came over from Laos for several visits. Godley always pushed for more airstrikes against enemy elements in Laos, but in MACV’s view he lacked the intelligence and targeting data to make such strikes worth the effort.
In an epilogue, Celeski gives his version of the legacy and lessons learned in the war in Laos. Here he is perhaps too generous in concluding that what happened there validated the governing concept and its application: “The selective use of special operations forces … allowed America to achieve its goals and objectives until the political objective was no longer worth the cost.”
But whatever other conclusions might be drawn, this work demonstrates that those who served in Laos did so with courage and conviction. They “believed in their mission and contribution to ‘Free the Oppressed,’ ” Celeski writes, invoking the translated motto of U.S. Army Special Forces.
Celeski has burdened his book with a cumbersome title and subtitle, but we should forgive him for that. He has accomplished his mission, giving the largely unknown Americans whose war this was some welcome “by name” credit and thanks. This results, however, in a work that will be of interest primarily, if not exclusively, to those veterans and their families.
Lewis Sorley served for 20 years as an armor officer. He is the author of A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam and other books.