February 2021 Book Reviews
February 2021 Book Reviews
Human Elements of Combat Brought Home
Headhunter: 5-73 CAV and Their Fight for Iraq’s Diyala River Valley. Peter Svoboda. Casemate Publishers (An AUSA Title). 228 pages. $34.95
By Lt. Col. Dan Sukman
In 2006 and 2007, the U.S. Army, for the first time since Vietnam, faced a real prospect of operational- and strategic-level defeat on the battlefield. After initial successes during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Army was caught in the midst of a population engaged in a civil war, resulting in mass casualty events on a near-daily basis.
In his first book, Headhunter: 5-73 CAV and Their Fight for Iraq’s Diyala River Valley, Peter Svoboda details the deployment of the 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division that was also known as “Headhunter” in honor of the commander’s radio call sign. The squadron’s deployment from 2006 to 2007 occurred during some of the most challenging months of sustained ground combat encountered by the U.S. Army in Iraq.
The author bounces from one tactical engagement to another, painting a detailed description of each encounter with the enemy. Each chapter uses the background of persistent combat operations to tell the story of soldiers within the squadron. Moreover, Svoboda takes the time to capture soldiers’ personal stories and uses these short biographical sketches to forge an emotional attachment between the soldiers and the reader.
The strengths of the book include detailed combat scenes. For those unfamiliar with what life was like for the front-line troops in what was arguably the most challenging time to deploy to Iraq, this book provides a close-in perspective. The images the author describes help the reader understand the human elements of combat, from making decisions on whether to engage a suspected enemy, to the physical exertion of prolonged combat patrols in difficult terrain.
Moreover, Svoboda details the difficulties facing leaders when dealing with a population that was at best indifferent, often hostile. Nothing came easy to the soldiers of the 5th Squadron.
More than a catalog of firefights, Svoboda describes the experiences of soldiers fighting, including their emotional reactions following the loss of a fellow soldier. Further, he uses interviews with family members of the fallen to bring a personal perspective to each story.
Indeed, the book serves both as a tribute to those who fought and as a voice to those who survived. In this aspect, Headhunter is a gut punch that pulls out the raw emotion of combat and the feelings of losing those closest to you. If one is unfamiliar with war, Headhunter will shock the senses.
Each chapter of the book is a separate anecdote, told in detail through Svoboda’s interviews with soldiers. This has the effect of focusing on trees while missing the forest; Svoboda offers no higher perspective to the deployment and no broad lessons learned. The detailed descriptions of combat also rely heavily on military jargon, which could limit the book’s audience.
Those familiar with combat, though, will quickly understand the events, trials and tribulations Svoboda describes. For those focused on the men rather than the mission, Headhunter serves as an homage to the 22 paratroopers of the 5th Squadron who fought but did not come home.
Lt. Col. Dan Sukman is a strategist and member of the military faculty at the Joint Forces Staff College, Virginia. He is a contributing author to On Strategy: A Primer. He served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Comics Draw on Real-World Experiences
DC Goes to War. Various Authors. DC Comics. 352 pages. $39.99
Atlas at War! Edited by Michael Vassallo; Art Restoration by Allan Harvey. Dead Reckoning. 272 pages. $65
By Col. Steve Leonard, U.S. Army retired
When Jack Kirby came ashore on Omaha Beach, France, on Aug. 23, 1944, he was already a household name. Some three years earlier—nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbor—he created the iconic image of a star-spangled comic book hero delivering a sweeping haymaker to the jaw of Adolf Hitler.
That hero, Captain America, transcended the four-color landscape of the medium and ushered in a new kind of storytelling: war comics. By the time Kirby was drafted into the Army on June 7, 1943, his name was synonymous with the explosion of the genre into the national consciousness during World War II.
Writing about war assumes a multitude of forms, from book-length memoirs to short stories, from novels to poetry. Each form conveys the unique experiences and perspectives of the authors. Through those stories, readers experience the authors’ struggles and sacrifices, moments of elation and sadness punctuated by the enduring emotional aftereffects of combat. The authors’ stories are often deeply personal, a brief glimpse into a strange world that few experience and even fewer share.
For Kirby and his contemporaries—almost all them veterans of World War II—their chosen form was the comic book, where their stories sprang to life with a color and grit unlike any other form of war writing.
For Atlas—the company that would evolve into the Marvel Comics we know today—the stories bled realism and grit. There was never a doubt that those pages conveyed actual stories of war, told by real veterans who were sharing their personal experiences.
With DC Comics, however, the stories were more heroic in nature, intended to entertain. Those stories often delved into the supernatural or surreal, and the characters themselves were larger than life in a way that defied reality. Two different publishers with two starkly different approaches to storytelling, but the stories themselves were unforgettable.
In DC Goes to War and Atlas at War!, the stories explode off the pages with a force unseen in the comics world in 50 years. The sense of nostalgia is inescapable. In a moment, I’m 10 years old again, sitting under the elm tree in my backyard surrounded by stacks of threadbare war comics: Our Army at War, Star-Spangled War Stories, Our Fighting Forces, G.I. Combat, Weird War Tales. The characters leap off the pages: the Losers, Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, Jeb Stuart and the crew of the Haunted Tank, the Unknown Soldier, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. The artists and writers are a veritable who’s who of the comic industry: Stan Lee, Joe Sinnott, Steve Ditko, Joe Kubert, Joe Simon and, of course, Kirby.
Nostalgia aside, the storytelling is what makes DC Goes to War and Atlas at War! so memorable. Spanning four wars—World War I through Vietnam—across three continents, the collected Golden and Silver Age works capture combat through the eyes of those who lived it.
The stories don’t glorify war but explore it in a way only a soldier can. While stories like “Rain!,” “Snow” and “Muck!” reminisce on the misery of fighting in bad weather, others such as “Death Stand,” “The Invisible Enemy!” and “5 Hours ’Til Dawn” offer a much darker view of combat. The stories range from the surreal to the mundane. Larger-than-life war heroes leap off the pages of some stories, while others feature characters you would find in any platoon.
As the current generation of veterans tells their own war stories, drawing on the experiences of those who came before can be an invaluable source of inspiration. DC Goes to War and Atlas at War! serve as timely reminders that war comics—graphic novels in today’s lexicon—provide an important creative outlet for combat veterans. Telling those stories is both cathartic and lasting—in many cases, will cast a legacy that endures beyond the life of the storyteller.
Col. Steve Leonard, U.S. Army retired, is a former senior Army strategist and faculty member at the University of Kansas School of Business. The creator of the web comic Doctrine Man, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild, and co-founder of the national security blog Divergent Options.
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Partnership Propelled Pivotal Campaign
Sicily ’43: The First Assault on Fortress Europe. James Holland. Atlantic Monthly Press. 592 pages. $30
By Col. Gregory Fontenot, U.S. Army retired
James Holland is a proven storyteller and historian. In Sicily ’43: The First Assault on Fortress Europe, his latest World War II narrative, Holland examines the reasoning for Operation Husky—the Allied invasion of Sicily—and the stakes from the perspectives of the adversaries.
The first section alone is worth the purchase price as it recounts the complexity of decision-making on both sides—Allied and Axis—as well as the preparations each made. Holland argues convincingly that the Allies learned quickly how to work together with reasonable effectiveness. The Axis partners never came together effectively.
Holland’s character sketches of commanders are compelling. Some Americans will bristle at the light hand with which he treats British Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery (not yet Field Marshal Montgomery). But Holland is no hagiographer. Montgomery was a miserable peer and a wretched subordinate. In his favor, his troops loved him, and his chief, Gen. Alan Brooke, backed him to the hilt. Montgomery had a fetish for preparation and acted with caution based on his experiences in World War I and the spring of 1940. He worked hard to not waste lives.
Holland is harder on Lt. Gen. George Patton Jr., with good reason, amply illustrated by words from the great man’s diary. Patton, like Montgomery, was a difficult peer, an undependable subordinate and a bully—but he, too, obtained results. The troops often opined that he did so with his guts and their blood.
The opening moves of the campaign in Sicily are fascinating in their complexity and scale. Husky, the largest amphibious operation to date, was preceded by an intense air campaign. The 82nd Airborne Division mounted the Army’s first large-scale airborne assault. Both Allied navies demonstrated the efficacy of naval gunfire in support of troops ashore. Although the Axis air forces achieved some success, in the end, the Allies controlled the airspace. From Sicily on, Allied air forces owned the skies.
Memoirs, diaries and oral histories of soldiers, junior officers and their seniors lend credence and texture to a well-documented account of the campaign. The reader sees the story through the eyes of young men such as Lt. Franklyn Johnson, an American platoon leader, Maj. Johannes Steinhoff, a German fighter pilot, Italian Lt. Livio Messina and Cpl. Bill Cheall, a British infantryman. Those who read this book may also choose to find and read Canadian infantryman Farley Mowat’s incomparable memoir And No Birds Sang.
Sicily’s terrain, weather, poverty and disease are characteristics Holland explores. Heat, rugged mountains, flies, dysentery and malaria made the lives of infantrymen, in particular, dystopian. The heartrending poverty of the inhabitants preyed on the minds of many. Dying of a wound simply because of the lack of means to evacuate heightened the misery.
To describe the life of soldiers in Sicily, Holland quotes war correspondent Ernie Pyle: “The outstanding trait in any campaign is the terrible weariness that gradually comes over everybody. … Soldiers become exhausted in mind and in soul as well as physically.”
Sicily ’43 delivers a riveting account of the campaign and, equally importantly, shows the continued improvement of combined operations among the Allies. Sicily occurred on a scale that taught lessons essential to the more ambitious and decisive cross-channel invasion of Normandy, France, that followed. Holland also addresses the mythological ineptitude and supposed cowardice of Italian soldiers, showing that they often fought bravely, while at other times, not convinced of their cause, they gave up.
Holland’s assessment of the importance of the campaign rings true, and his clear-eyed portrayal of the major players escapes the tendency of national bias some other historians have shown.
Col. Gregory Fontenot, U.S. Army retired, commanded a tank battalion in Operation Desert Storm and an armor brigade in Bosnia. A former director of the School of Advanced Military Studies, his latest book is Loss and Redemption at St. Vith: The Seventh Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge.
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Soldiers in WWII Did More Than Shoot
The Other Veterans of World War II: Stories from Behind the Front Lines. Rona Simmons. Kent State University Press. 240 pages. $27.95
By Don DeNevi
Out of the early Sunday morning sky over Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese planes came to bomb Pearl Harbor, sending great ships of America’s Navy to the bottom of the sea. On that fateful “date which will live in infamy,” a nation that had tried to avoid international conflicts was suddenly at war.
America’s paradisiacal existence was shattered. The nation’s mood changed from idyllic isolationism to furious retaliation. Sixteen million men and women were mobilized for the fights in Europe and the Pacific. Yet most of them never fired a shot in anger, serving in noncombat positions behind the front lines.
In The Other Veterans of World War II: Stories from Behind the Front Lines, author Rona Simmons offers 19 accounts of those who served in less visible roles. Often overlooked in histories of the war, Simmons shows that noncombat veterans “served just as proudly and proved every bit as instrumental in winning the war. … They, too, have stories to tell.”
The daughter of a World War II fighter pilot, Simmons spent years locating and interviewing veterans and their children, supplementing their personal experiences with additional research to present a wider view of the war and the people who fought it. Mechanics kept planes aloft, nurses tended to the wounded, and engineers with the Graves Registration Service honored the fallen.
Attitudes toward front-line combat varied. Some men hoped to face the enemy but were reassigned to noncombat roles. Others volunteered for training positions to avoid the infantry. Still others used their prewar skills in maintenance or administration to sustain the mountains of equipment needed to keep the fight going.
Regardless of their eventual assignments, Simmons points out that all the “other veterans” stood in harm’s way while serving. German U-boat captains did not distinguish between riflemen and rear echelon officers when they targeted troop transports, and those on the ground were subject to strafing, artillery fire and air raids.
Jack Coyle, one of the veterans profiled in the book, manned a radio station behind the lines in China facing the constant threat of discovery, meaning instant death as a spy. Supply clerk Randy Bostwick loaded and unloaded medical supplies from the beaches of Italy and France under constant fire. Battalion surgeon Frank Cone tended to Americans and Filipinos until his last day of life in a Japanese prison camp.
“All nineteen did their part and served as proudly as any combat soldier or sailor,” Simmons writes. She has done a great service by bringing their stories to the public in this book.
Don DeNevi has reviewed books for five decades, focusing on military subjects, particularly World War II. After retiring from college and university teaching, he served as supervisor of recreation at San Quentin State Prison, California. He is the author of more than 50 books.