February 2022 Book Reviews

February 2022 Book Reviews

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Valorous Acts Deserve Highest Recognition

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Immortal Valor: The Black Medal of Honor Winners of World War II. Robert Child. Osprey Publishing. 288 pages. $30

By John Morrow Jr.

Immortal Valor: The Black Medal of Honor Winners of World War II recounts the early lives and acts of valor of the seven African American soldiers who, in 1997, more than 50 years after their service, received the Medal of Honor.

It is truly a history of American valor but, as has been well documented, the racist war decorations boards of the world wars determined that no Black soldier was worthy of the highest military decoration America could bestow. Although several white officers who commanded these seven men recommended them for the Medal of Honor, some of them several times, the highest award any Black soldier received was the Distinguished Service Cross.

Only in 1993 did the U.S. Army commission a research team at the historically Black Shaw University in North Carolina to review this injustice.

Subsequently, in 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to seven Black soldiers—Charles Thomas, Vernon Baker, Willy James Jr., Edward Allen Carter Jr., George Watson, Ruben Rivers and John Fox—in a ceremony at the White House. By then, only one of these heroes—Baker—remained alive.

As this fine book by military history writer and director Robert Child makes clear, these seven men, as different from one another as seven random individuals might be, grew up in the white supremacist America of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. The assumption that governed American life was that Blacks were inferior, that the life of a Black person was not worth that of a white person and that consequently, African Americans did not merit equal citizenship. The refusal to consider Black soldiers for America’s highest military award for valor was one aspect of this pervasive racism. When one considers the race riots and massacres, lynching, and housing and school segregation to which white Americans subjected their Black counterparts, denial of a medal for valor might appear a lesser evil than those other injustices.

In fact, however, it was one more injustice in a web that throttled Black progress. Soldiers willing to shed their blood and die for their country deserved equal citizenship back home. The denial of recognition with America’s highest military medal thus served as further confirmation that somehow Black soldiers were not as worthy or valorous as white soldiers, thereby justifying African Americans’ second-class status. Yet valor is an individual quality, not one determined by race, as these seven men proved.

This book and its inspiring stories merits reading by soldiers, and all Americans, because so many of us still conceive of the world wars as “white” wars, fought and won by white men, an image and impression that standard books and movies still convey. African Americans have fought in every war that the Colonies and the country have waged, and a significant way to impress this fact on all ranks, and all Americans, is for them to read such a book.

These young Black heroes served in infantry, tank and anti-tank units. One was a quartermaster who died rescuing others from a sinking ship. Some were commissioned officers, others, NCOs. They represented a cross section of the African American soldiers, and men of other races, serving in the Army. Some of them were born warriors; others were moved to sacrifice their lives to save others at critical moments. They demonstrate the heights of valor and courage that any individual might display in combat and crisis.

John Morrow Jr., the Franklin and Saye Professor of History at the University of Georgia, specializes in the history of the world wars. In 2019, he was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing.

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Soldiers Assess Patton’s Style, Exploits

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Patton’s War: An American General’s Combat Leadership, Volume I: November 1942–July 1944. Kevin Hymel. University of Missouri Press. 432 pages. $39.95

By Col. James Scott Wheeler, U.S. Army retired

Patton’s War, by Kevin Hymel, assesses George Patton Jr.’s style of leadership to highlight the famous general’s use of “aggressiveness and brusqueness to get his soldiers to fight.” Hymel does so by using the rich resources provided to historians by the oral histories, memoirs and diaries of the officers and men who served under Patton during his first two years as a combat leader in World War II.

The author also uses the wide array of secondary and primary sources that other historians have used to describe the colorful service of one of the best American combat generals of the war.

Patton’s War, subtitled An American General’s Combat Leadership, Volume I: November 1942–July 1944, is well-written and an enjoyable book to read. The soldier-focused examples that Hymel uses to assess Patton’s style of leadership add a new dimension to our understanding of one of the most controversial American military commanders.

The book makes it clear that Patton was an aggressive, well-educated and outspoken commander who succeeded in instilling in his soldiers a will to fight and kill. Hymel also reveals that Patton was abusive to subordinates and at times downright immature in his actions on and off the battlefield. The famous slapping incidents in Sicily are well-known examples of such unacceptable behavior from an American commander.

I was prepared when I began reading Hymel’s work to find little that was new about Patton and his leadership. But the soldiers’ perspective provided by the author made it easy for me to stay interested. As the narrative progresses from the Torch invasion of Morocco to the Sicilian campaign of mid-1943, Hymel reveals a great deal about Patton’s leadership, warts and all.

When assessing various incidents or episodes in Patton’s service, Hymel does not hesitate to point out Patton’s poor qualities as well as his battlefield successes. Hymel makes it clear that the general was an incredibly insecure man, as indicated in his relationships with Gens. Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and George Marshall.

My only major regret is that at the end of this book, which is to be the first of three volumes, Hymel does not take the time to bring together a clear summation or conclusion about Patton and his style of leadership during this period. The book ends with Patton about to take Third U.S. Army into combat across Europe following the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France.

The sources used in Patton’s War are generally well chosen. Hymel provides a nice mix of soldiers’ firsthand views of Patton with the materials found in various archives and other Patton biographies. There are a few quibbles I have with the author about his coverage of the Sicilian campaign and of Patton’s relationships with Maj. Gen. Terry de la Mesa Allen and Brig. Gen. Teddy Roosevelt Jr. in that campaign. But these are minor points and open to interpretation.

I recommend this book to the general reading public as well as to historians and educators who are interested in, or deal with, American military leadership.

Col. James Scott Wheeler, U.S. Army retired, is a retired professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. He is the author of several books, including The Big Red One: America’s Legendary 1st Infantry Division from World War I to Desert Storm and Jacob L. Devers: A General’s Life.

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Navigating Unconventional Conflict, in One Volume

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Routledge Handbook of U.S. Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare Operations. Edited by Michael Sheehan, Erich Marquardt and Liam Collins

Routledge. 538 pages. $250; free online via https://bit.ly/31jeq7L

By Maj. Zachary Griffiths

I first cracked open this valuable volume on a flight to Iraq. The Routledge Handbook of U.S. Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare Operations helped this midgrade Special Forces officer expand his knowledge on these topics through rich studies on terrorist groups, irregular warfare cases and institutions.

An incredible effort, the volume is a testament to the legacy of Michael Sheehan, the lead editor and former U.S. ambassador at large for counterterrorism who died before publication. 

This comprehensive handbook divides 34 chapters written by 47 irregular warfare luminaries from academia, think tanks, the military and government into three major parts. The first part profiles terrorist groups from across the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. The analysis covers groups familiar to American military audiences such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, while also including lesser-known groups like the Columbian National Liberation Army and southern Thailand’s insurgents.

The second section is filled with operational case studies starting in Latin America before 9/11 and continuing through the global hot spots of the past 20 years. These cases show how irregular warfare tactics evolved, from hunting cartel leaders like Pablo Escobar to leadership decapitation in Iraq and Afghanistan to supporting Kurdish and Iraqi forces in their battle against the Islamic State group. Importantly, they also document the legal and moral quandaries that frequently accompany irregular warfare.

The volume concludes with an examination of institutions, mostly governmental, including profiles of the New York Police Department, drone warfare commands and social media-based recruiting of Americans to fight for the Islamic State group.

Strengths of this volume include the incredible breadth of material in an accessible format. Despite occasional military and academic jargon, the prose and material are designed for the practitioner or informed reader. As an edited volume, chapters do not necessarily flow from one to another, but together, they paint a comprehensive picture of the state of irregular warfare in the United States. This important work will be a longstanding reference for the military’s irregular warfare community.

Unfortunately, because of this book’s likely continuing influence, I have two concerns. First, the cases present rosy views at odds with American failure in Afghanistan and mixed success in Iraq. Likewise, editor Liam Collins documents the deconstruction of al-Qaida in Iraq but does not offer insights on connecting that effort to a meaningful political solution.

Second, I worry that the volume’s focus on the U.S. may constrain campaign creativity in the future. While including a comprehensive treatment of American irregular warfare, the volume excludes rich literatures on the Thai counterinsurgent experience, French Operation Barkhane in the Sahel, and even Russian or Iranian cases that might offer valuable lessons for American irregular warfare.

In short, the volume’s cases make an important, but narrow, reference for future study.

That said, this volume expands our knowledge of irregular warfare and counterterrorism, enhanced with vibrant first-person accounts. Though pricey in print, chapters are free online and hopefully will soon find their way onto professional military education and irregular warfare syllabi.

True irregular warfare practitioners and policymakers will keep the Routledge Handbook of U.S. Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare Operations handy, either on their Foggy Bottom bookshelf or in their Toughbook while deployed.

Maj. Zachary Griffiths is a Special Forces officer and White House Fellow assigned to the National Security Council. Previously, he taught in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. He has deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.

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The Western Weapons That Made History

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Firepower: How Weapons Shaped Warfare. Paul Lockhart. Basic Books. 640  pages. $35

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The Guns of John Moses Browning: The Remarkable Story of the Inventor Whose Firearms Changed the World. Nathan Gorenstein. Scribner. 336  pages. $28

By Col. Gregory Fontenot, U.S. Army retired

Paul Lockhart’s Firepower: How Weapons Shaped Warfare is an accessible account of how weapons became part of systems rather than warriors’ tools.

Lockhart focuses on developments in the West from 1300 through World War II. He reviews the development of a Western way of war in each of four eras: “The Gunpowder Revolution, 1300–1800,” “The Age of Revolutions, 1800–1870,” “The Revolution in Firepower, 1870–1918” and finally, “The Twilight of Firepower, 1918–1945.”

Weapons became elements of systems that required training, education, doctrine and organization for effective employment. Lockhart argues that progressive industrialization and nationalism combined to produce combat capability across domains of air, land and sea, of scale and scope peculiar to the West.

Lockhart’s survey provides context for Nathan Gorenstein’s The Guns of John Moses Browning: The Remarkable Story of the Inventor Whose Firearms Changed the World. Browning was an extraordinary man and an important contributor to what Lockhart calls “The Revolution in Firepower.”

Browning was born in 1855 in the Mormon territory of Utah, the son of Jonathan Browning and his second wife, Elizabeth. Jonathan Browning was an autodidact who set broken limbs after reading a “doctor book”; he also designed and made first-class firearms. He passed that genius to his son. Although his formal education ended with the equivalent of eighth grade, John Browning became one of the most important firearms designers and developers in history.

Gorenstein’s work is an easily read story of an important man who reflected his time. Browning lived in an era of self-made inventors. He was a contemporary of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Browning obtained his first patent in 1879, for a single-shot rifle that was picked up by the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. While his competitor Hiram Maxim invented the first machine gun, in 1884 Browning designed and tested the first of several automatic weapons that would change the face of warfare.

Browning’s design differed fundamentally from Maxim’s. Maxim employed recoil energy to cycle his weapon and reload it; Browning used gases from burning propellant to cycle and reload. U.S. troops were first issued the Browning Automatic Rifle in 1918, and his .30-caliber designs saw decades of service. During World War II, Browning machine guns mounted in British Hurricane and Spitfire fighter planes helped defeat the German Blitz. His .50-caliber machine gun, the M2, or “Ma Deuce,” is still being made and is still in service.

Browning’s handgun designs were likewise history-making. He designed the pistol that Gavrilo Princip used to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, precipitating World War I. The popular M1911A1 pistol was a mainstay through the 1980s. The U.S. Army’s newest pistol, the M17, made by Sig Sauer, uses a design concept developed by Browning in 1896.

Gorenstein’s study of Browning illustrates Lockhart’s larger story in Firepower. Organized research and development—along with new techniques of production, transportation and communication—enabled the horrific large-scale Western way of war. Arguably, that culminated in August 1945 with the first use of nuclear weapons.

The last sentence of Firepower speaks clearly about the modern nation-state as it evolved in the West: “If warfare created the modern state, then it was firearms that created modern warfare.” The contribution of Browning’s weapons pales by comparison to the impact of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but their place in history remains.

Both these books contribute to our understanding of modern warfare.

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.