War and Its Consequences in Fine Detail
Bravo Company: An Afghanistan Deployment and Its Aftermath. Ben Kesling. Abrams Press. 368 pages. $30
By Robert Williams
War is all hell, whether you are in daily gunfights or blown up by hidden bombs. That hell is everyday life for Company B, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Ben Kesling, a seasoned reporter for The Wall Street Journal and a onetime Marine Corps infantry officer, brings all his journalistic chops and military experience to bear in his new book.
Bravo Company: An Afghanistan Deployment and Its Aftermath is a fast-paced, frenetic read that captures the reality of life in the 82nd Airborne Division during the height of the global war on terror. Ultimately, it is the heartbreaking tale of one company’s deployment and the trials and tribulations of its members as they come to terms with their service.
Kesling also takes on one of the significant problems in the Army’s overall mindset about the war in Afghanistan—an institutional aversion to counterinsurgency. As Kesling demonstrates, a focus on getting into the fight and learning the infantryman’s trade came at the expense of training on the mundane tasks of counterinsurgency.
Rather than build cultural competency and an understanding of the unique environment it faced, Bravo Company chose to focus on squad and platoon attacks and other infantry battle drills. What Kesling describes belies a broad organizational culture within infantry units that places the experience of combat above all else, where earning the Combat Infantry Badge takes priority over learning the nuanced politics of the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan. This culture results in a longing for war, a “be careful what you wish for” situation and Bravo Company’s sudden change of mission from training to daily patrolling.
Eventually, the company is sent to the deadly Arghandab Valley. Rather than the sort of gunfights its members had dreamed of, and had trained hard to be proficient in, the company finds itself fighting IEDs.
Company members spent their days wading through canals, climbing walls and navigating thick pomegranate orchards on foot, trying to avoid deadly bombs at seemingly every turn. The Taliban ultimately took the lives or limbs of 15 Company B paratroopers.
After the survivors return home to the real world and their families, the reader begins to understand the mental difference between visible and invisible wounds, the strain as they come to grips with new realities, and the guilt and anger they feel after combat, whether wounded or not. This description of the journey through the veterans’ health care system—and the gulf between how DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) treat returning soldiers—is this book’s most important contribution.
After two company suicides and dozens of attempts, one paratrooper’s spouse initiates a joint VA and DoD program called Operation Resiliency. This plan centers on gathering as many Bravo Company paratroopers as possible for a multiday reunion in Charlotte, North Carolina, supervised by clinicians and therapists from the VA. As of the book’s printing, no further Bravo Company men had committed suicide—a testament to the program’s success.
Kesling is at his best describing the day-to-day reality of life in the military, before, during and after combat. He writes with brutal honesty and incredible realism. His writing is often so detailed that the reader almost feels like they can touch the mud walls of Afghan compounds or the litters of Bravo Company casualties.
This book is an incredible treatment of one corner of the war that serves as a tragic microcosm for the overall American experience in Afghanistan. I cannot recommend Bravo Company enough to anyone who is interested in war and its consequences.
Robert Williams is pursuing a doctorate in history at Ohio State University. Previously, he served as a U.S. Army paratrooper with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
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General Relives His Remarkable Journey
Standing Tall: Leadership Lessons in the Life of a Soldier. Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Robert Foley. Casemate Publishers (An AUSA Title). 240 pages. $34.95
By Col. Cole Kingseed, U.S. Army retired
Autobiographies of distinguished soldiers have grown into a cottage industry. In Standing Tall: Leadership Lessons in the Life of a Soldier, Medal of Honor recipient retired Lt. Gen. Robert Foley delivers a riveting memoir that resonates far beyond the battlefield. Standing Tall captures the essence of character-based leadership from Foley’s career, which spanned 37 years of commissioned service.
Highly recruited by numerous colleges that offered him a basketball scholarship, Foley opted for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1959. West Point graduates will delight in Foley’s recollections of his cadet days when he struggled academically but persevered to graduate “only by a slight margin.” Foley later returned to West Point as a tactical officer and, ultimately, the 63rd commandant of cadets.
Surprisingly, Foley does not dedicate much time to his Vietnam experience, when he received America’s highest award for valor. In November 1966, Foley commanded Company A, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division. On Nov. 5, Foley led his soldiers on a hazardous mission to extricate another company.
At great risk to himself, Foley defied the enemy’s fire and charged forward while firing his machine gun, destroying three enemy positions. Foley’s Medal of Honor citation states that his “outstanding personal leadership, under intense enemy fire during the fierce battle which lasted several hours, inspired his men to heroic efforts.”
Foley continued to expand his leadership experience following Vietnam in myriad staff and command assignments. He commanded both a battalion and a brigade in the 3rd Infantry Division, served as assistant division commander of the 2nd Infantry Division, commanded the Military District of Washington and led Fifth U.S. Army at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
In the process, Foley received the Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, Legion of Merit with five Oak Leaf Clusters, and multiple additional awards. In 2009, Foley’s classmates recognized him with West Point’s Distinguished Graduate Award.
As the commandant of cadets at West Point, a tenure of duty that he describes as the “most enjoyable and rewarding assignment in my 37 years on active duty,” Foley instituted changes that significantly improved discipline, leadership training and moral character within the Corps of Cadets. By focusing on honor, respect and mission-essential task lists, Foley instilled a new discipline not only within the corps, but also throughout the academy.
What distinguishes Standing Tall from the genre of military memoirs is how Foley deftly intersperses lessons learned from his military experience. From retired Sgt. Maj. of the Army Julius Gates, Foley learned to “be visible and be accessible.” Sgt. 1st Class James Burroughs, his initial platoon sergeant, urged the new platoon leader to “accomplish the mission and take care of the troops.”
These lessons proved instrumental in Foley’s success as a combat commander and throughout his stellar career.
Standing Tall is an extraordinary memoir that captures a remarkable soldier’s personal journey. Combining easy prose and splendid writing, Foley’s leadership odyssey deserves a wide audience. Standing Tall is a primer on leadership that ought to be on every American soldier’s mandatory reading list.
Col. Cole Kingseed, U.S. Army retired, a former professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, is a writer and consultant. He holds a doctorate in history from Ohio State University.
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The Ups and Downs of Psychological Operations
Victory Through Influence: Origins of Psychological Operations in the US Army. Jared Tracy. Texas A&M University Press. 256 pages. $47
By Col. Kevin Farrell, U.S. Army retired
Within the U.S. Army, psychological operations is a little-known and even less understood branch, having only become an official branch in 2006. Despite origins dating to World War I and constituting the oldest part of the special operations community, most Americans are unaware of the existence—let alone the role—of psychological operations.
Jared Tracy, deputy command historian for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, has written a concise history of the early years of special operations’ oldest element.
Tracy explains that his book, titled Victory Through Influence: Origins of Psychological Operations in the US Army, is “not a history of the formal establishment of the US Army Psychological Operations Branch … Instead, it focuses on the origins of [psychological operations] as a capability, a form of warfare … defined during World War II as ‘the dissemination of propaganda designed to undermine the enemy’s will to resist, demoralize his forces, and sustain the morale of our supporters.’ ”
Army psychological operations achieved significant success during World War I, according to the author, primarily through the use of leaflets delivered by aircraft and, occasionally, balloons. Thanks to the efforts of a few determined and foresighted individuals—most significantly Capt. Heber Blankenhorn—these efforts were effective in weakening German morale in the American sector of the Western Front in 1918, the final year of World War I, even though senior military leadership was deeply skeptical. Despite these successes, the Army eliminated psychological operations after the Great War.
World War II witnessed improvements in technique and delivery methods, despite starting virtually from scratch. As Tracy observes, “The US Army … had twenty years to analyze the Propaganda Section’s effort of 1918; … Instead, it did nothing.” Psychological operations drew upon the lessons learned from World War I, while new technologies allowed for more advanced ways of influencing the enemy through artillery-delivered and air-dropped leaflets and, especially in the final month of the war, loudspeakers attached to motor and armored vehicles.
Once again, psychological operations was largely dismantled following World War II. However, Tracy notes, “Unlike after World War I, [psychological warfare] maintained a faint pulse after World War II, kept barely alive by a handful of officers with relevant wartime experience.”
It was the Korean War that brought psychological operations into its own, a branch that built upon the experiences of the two world wars and made the most of what modern technology had to offer in the first of America’s so-called limited wars.
The challenge presented by psychological operations then and now is that the results are difficult to quantify. Tracy’s taut work of six chapters capably details the origins, selected pioneers and performance of this obscure force during World War I, the Mediterranean and the Western European theaters of World War II, the postwar period and the Korean War.
Unfortunately, the history ends abruptly just after the Korean War in 1954. Readers would benefit from an assessment of how psychological operations performed during the Vietnam War and more recent engagements in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Cold War activities.
Victory Through Influence is appropriate for anyone with an interest in special operations in general and, especially, psychological operations of the U.S. Army during World War I, World War II and the Korean War.
Col. Kevin Farrell, U.S. Army retired, is the former chief of military history at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. He commanded a combined arms battalion in Iraq. His most recent book is The Military and the Monarchy: The Case and Career of the Duke of Cambridge in an Age of Reform. He holds a doctorate in history from Columbia University, New York City.
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Lethal Drones Patrol Modern Battlefields
7 Seconds to Die: A Military Analysis of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and the Future of Warfighting. John Antal. Casemate. 196 pages. $22.95
By Scott Gourley, Contributing Editor
The Russia-Ukraine war has highlighted the devastating effectiveness of drones and loitering munitions. While a near-ubiquitous presence on today’s battlefield, the full impact of that system pairing emerged only recently, during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. This conflict is credited as being the first war in history fought primarily by robotic systems.
The study of that war is now facilitated by retired Col. John Antal’s latest book, 7 Seconds to Die: A Military Analysis of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and the Future of Warfighting. Drawing on a wide range of open-source information, Antal provides readers with an excellent overview of the war as well as a critical reference on some of the robotic technologies involved and their implications for future U.S. military operations.
The book traces the seeds of the conflict to a 1921 decision by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin designating the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a landlocked mountainous area in the southern Caucasus, as part of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. This decision ignored the fact that the majority of the population was ethnic Armenian. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the region became central to national movements in both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
One early manifestation was the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, which ran from February 1988 to May 1994, and featured both sides using Soviet-era equipment and tactics. After six years of conflict, Armenia defeated Azerbaijan and took control of the region.
Over subsequent years, Azerbaijan used its oil wealth to build up its military, with a growing alliance between Turkey and Azerbaijan becoming critical to the evolving situation. While Armenia may have hoped for support from Russia, that country announced it would not get involved over Nagorno-Karabakh.
In spite of two four-day fights in 2016 and mid-2020, Antal writes, “Armenia seemed to be sleepwalking while Azerbaijan prepared for a war that would retake all the ‘occupied’ lands and restore the country’s prestige and power.”
Part of that preparation involved the adoption of precision weaponry like the Israeli-made Harop loitering munition and the Turkish-made TB2 unmanned aerial vehicle. When the Azerbaijanis launched a new attack in September 2020, they supported this precision-strike capability with new tactics, using 1940s-designed AN-2 biplanes as unmanned vehicles to identify the Armenian air defense network.
“The combination of ‘shock drones’ and a sophisticated sensor and battlespace coordination effort by the Azerbaijanis and Turks destroyed the Armenian air defense network and provided Azerbaijan with air dominance for the rest of the war,” Antal writes.
“Armenian troops were shackled by the persistent fear, real or imagined, of an attack from above that could come at any time and any place,” he adds. Reflective of this reality, the book title comes from a comment by an Armenian soldier who said when they heard Harop munitions flying overhead, they had seven seconds to run or else they would die.
Following the collapse of their air defense capabilities, Antal summarizes Armenian command and control forces as “paralyzed,” stating, “Their reactions were a matter of too little, too late.” On Nov. 9, 2020, Armenia signed a peace agreement that acceded to all demands for territory, “virtually surrendering.”
The significance of this book goes well beyond the conflict itself to encompass technical descriptions of many of the supporting systems and technologies, identification of evolving new technologies and presenting 14 distinct lessons learned that set the stage for 14 questions for further debate and study.
7 Seconds to Die is an excellent addition to a military reading list.