February Book Reviews

Monday, February 01, 2016

The Definitive History of America’s Top Warriors

Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Sean Naylor. St. Martin’s Press. 560 pages. $29.99.

By Col. Steven P. Bucci, U.S. Army retired

For anyone who wants to understand how Joint Special Operations Command came into being and how the force does its job, this is the book to read. Several years in the making, the research is exhaustive and accurate, the writing top-notch, and the story compelling.

I discussed the book with author Sean Naylor, a former Army Times reporter who’s now with Foreign Policy. He said he initially wanted to write only about the command’s post-9/11 exploits but quickly realized he could not do the subject justice without first laying some historical groundwork. To Naylor’s credit, this was a wise decision that adds greatly to the value of the book for historical researchers, and to the ability of the layman to understand the gravity of the unit’s progress and accomplishments.

In the first seven chapters comprising Part I, Naylor looks at the precipitating events leading to the formation of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and the numerous early alerts for counterterrorism missions that never got the “go” command. It is finally during the Panama invasion in 1989, led by Gen. Carl Stiner, that JSOC hits its first real strides. Following rapidly with the First Gulf War, Somalia and the Balkans, the breadth of the command’s mission set continues to grow. Having witnessed all of these events from the “white special operations forces” side of the fence, I found this a fascinating read, and this was just the beginning. Part I’s title, “The Ferrari in the Garage,” is apt, as this wonderful asset was underutilized.

Part II, “A New Era Dawns,” begins the chronicle of the real growth of JSOC’s capability and reputation with its wider government customers. The exceptionally difficult and classified missions that the organization began to take on were remarkable. The chapter “Rumsfeld Falls for JSOC” was especially interesting to me, as I accompanied the former secretary of defense on his trip to Fort Bragg, N.C., and most of the JSOC briefs he received. JSOC was responding to the needs of the nation, and this shows how they were doing it.

The seven chapters in “Building the Machine,” Part III, will likely draw lots of attention. This section maps the command’s exploits in Iraq, and fills in the gaps between a great many legends with facts. Naylor really did his homework here. The remarkable heroes that most people think of when they hear “JSOC” come of age.

The fourth and final section, “A Global Campaign,” allows readers to see what JSOC has become and what it is truly capable of doing for America. It also shows why our enemies are in no hurry to face JSOC, no matter how much bravado they may spout. The mystique of America’s elite has been solidified, and the mystique is real.

Naylor has done exhaustive research. He spent time with the men and women of JSOC, and it shows. He is a reporter who understands the military but is still able to remain objective. He remains respectful but applies a penetrating eye. In short, he gets it right. His prose is lively and enjoyable.

When the book was first released, there was one point of controversy that I personally addressed with Naylor. He attributes a set of actions to a particular JSOC operator. That individual says he declined to speak with Naylor, who got the information from a different JSOC member, and that the information is incorrect. Naylor told me the individual was given a chance to give him the information or tell him the information was incorrect, but declined. So Naylor went with the source he had.

I also looked into the individual’s assertion that Naylor had “outed” him as a JSOC member and found the individual prominently makes the JSOC connection himself on a personal website.

Final assessment of Relentless Strike is that this will be the definitive book on JSOC for the foreseeable future. It deserves a spot in any professional library worth the name, and goes a long way in filling in the blanks many have in understanding a unit that has sacrificed more than most. They are the quiet professionals. Even with this infusion of illuminated information, they remain so.

Dunwoody Set Above-Average Bars to Earn Stars

A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General. Gen. Ann Dunwoody, USA Ret., with Tomago Collins. Da Capo Press. 286 pages. $25.99.

By Kelly S. Kennedy

Gen. Ann Dunwoody, the first female four-star general in the Army, spent her entire career being treated differently because she was a woman, but succeeding because she was a soldier.

She possessed many of the typical traits of good soldierhood: She could run fast for long distances. She could suck it up and show the almost irritating excitement about driving on that’s found in general officers. (Five a.m. battalion inspection? Whoopee!) And rather than get caught up in bureaucracy, she picked some battles, made her opinions known, and even blew past her chain of command when she believed it was necessary.

Dunwoody details her management style—find good advocates, and ignore and defy those who would hold one back—in her book, A Higher Standard. She writes about some of her early failures, and uses them as examples of the importance of preparation. They include freezing up while reading an award citation in front of her peers in 1977; and failing to qualify on a firing range with a 9 mm pistol as the first female field grade officer in the 82nd Airborne Division in 1988.

Those lessons continued throughout her career. She writes that she often felt “that there was more expected of me in order to gain acceptance and respect in this man’s Army.”

When Dunwoody joined, following several general officer family members, her only option was the Women’s Army Corps. Her first PT uniform consisted of light-green culottes and a light-green blouse with white Keds, an outfit she called “ludicrous.”

She met with resistance throughout her career, from her first jump to reporting to Fort Bragg, N.C. Men received positions ahead of her that they hadn’t earned, she writes, leaving her sidelined until other opportunities arrived. But those opportunities always appeared.

She was one of the first women to attend Airborne School for female officers. “Without that opportunity, my career would have been dramatically different, and I certainly would not have earned a seat at the retired four-star conference,” she writes, hinting at the potential future of the three women who recently graduated from Army Ranger School.

On her first jump, one of the instructors “smacked me hard on my rump with what came to be known as the five-finger tattoo,” although she writes that she never saw that happen to anyone else. The instructors had her jump first so the men would be too embarrassed to “chicken out.” She was one of four honor grads.

As a new officer in the 82nd, she went through a ritual called prop blasting. She was jolted by wires connected to a battery, doused in ice water, smacked with tree branches and told two filthy jokes. She then had to tell a dirty joke of her own to avoid going through it all again.

“Today it would be all over YouTube, and heads would roll,” she writes. But she saw the hazing as another way of showing she could “hang tough with the boys.”

Some of the discrimination followed more subtle paths. During Operation Desert Storm, she became the 82nd’s parachute officer, but she didn’t deploy with the advance party. When she realized it was because she was a woman, she hopped a flight to Saudi Arabia without orders—her only deployment. As she waited for her angry commander, the Army announced she’d made lieutenant colonel—a year earlier than her peer group.

Much of the book is about the men who tried to hold her back, in contrast to the advocates who recognized her abilities. She writes about her first division commander, who wouldn’t let women jump out of an aircraft he was in. Others believed she was promoted only because she was a woman.

And yet, incredibly, she writes that she was surprised about the assaults on women at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., in the 1990s.

“At the time, I did not believe that sexual assaults were part of the Army culture, but instead that this bad behavior at Aberdeen had been tolerated in an organization with a subculture that clashed with Army values,” she writes. And later, “I had been in the service for 21 years and had never encountered any direct form of sexual harassment or assault.”

Dunwoody defends—no, champions—the importance of women, and diversity in general, in the ranks. It’s not a matter of competition, as so often happens in the military, so much as apparent obliviousness about sexual harassment.

Should women be in combat? They already are, she writes. And sexual harassment? “One incident of sexual assault is too many,” she writes. She had teams entirely made up of women she chose because of their merits and, in fact, sought a male candidate at one point to bring diversity to her team.

“Can a woman meet the same standard required of her male counterparts? If she can, then there is no reason why women shouldn’t be able to do the job.”

Dunwoody certainly could do the job.

War in the Pacific: No Guaranteed Outcome


The Pacific War and Contingent Victory: Why Japanese Defeat Was Not Inevitable. Michael W. Myers. The University Press of Kansas. 208 pages. $34.95.

By 1st Lt. Jonathan D. Bratten

As we pass the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, there has been a spate of new works published that examine the events of the war in a new light. In Michael W. Myers’ The Pacific War and Contingent Victory, the author makes the argument that Japan’s defeat at the hands of the Allies was not inevitable. Rather, victory was contingent on a multitude of factors: competing strategies, tactics, commanders, weather, technology and sheer luck. The outcome was never certain.

Myers does not postulate that the Empire of Japan could have overwhelmed all U.S. forces in the Pacific, made landings on the West Coast, and made a tactical drive toward Washington, D.C., to win a war of conquest. That sort of victory was out of their grasp. However, if the Japanese could fight the U.S. military to a tactical draw and induce enough war-weariness to cause the U.S. to withdraw, that would have been a significant victory. This is the contingent victory that Myers refers to throughout the book.

The Pacific War and Contingent Victory is broken into seven chapters, three appendices, and notes and bibliography sections. Each chapter is replete with maps and charts showing strategic plans and their execution. Myers’ work hinges on examining the strategy of each side, how it developed throughout the war, how it was carried out and the strategic results. For example, in Chapter 1, Myers describes the opening salvos of the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from the strategic perspectives of both the Japanese and the Americans. The Japanese envisioned a much more aggressive strategy that would have pinned the Americans back against the West Coast, but the battles of Coral Sea and Midway caused them to make revisions.

Myers cautions against viewing these battles as milestones toward eventual U.S. victory; rather, “they changed the path that the war would take.” U.S. victories caused the Japanese to change their strategy while similarly, war-weariness in the U.S. in 1945 caused the U.S. to seek a swift end to war through the use of atomic weapons, Myers argues.

In Chapter 2, Myers describes how the Japanese responded to the loss at Midway and the various strengths and weaknesses of each side in this stage of operations. The secondary and tertiary effects from the loss at Midway meant that the Japanese had to realign their efforts to knock Australia out of the war and could not count on naval supremacy in every theater. They faced a growing U.S. and Allied occupation in the Solomon Islands, which caused them to change their strategy to one of containment.

 Midway was indeed the turning point in the war, Myers writes, because it put an end to Japanese offensive operations to the east. He again reminds his readers that Japanese loss was not inevitable, and that viewing it through the lens of inevitability robs the situation of its complexity and strategic richness. This interpretation also lessens the accomplishment of the American military and strategists in defeating Japan.

In Chapter 3, Myers takes on Alan D. Zimm, author of Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions, who argued that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was actually a strategic defeat because it drew the U.S. into the war, which it eventually would win. Zimm, Myers writes, also operates under the assumption that U.S. victory was assured from the beginning, which is a logical fallacy. This assumption taints any further conclusions. As an example of the contingent nature of the war, Myers writes that neither side expected to be fighting decisive battles in the Solomon Islands or in a series of naval meeting engagements. Nor did they envision a war of attrition being fought out island by island. The war was a “matter of complex linkages between plans and operations,” Myers writes.

The Allied strategic and economic plans are described in Chapters 4 and 5. Myers describes the competing philosophies in the American high command between a focus on Germany or Japan. While President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted the military’s primary focus to be on Europe, Gen. Douglas MacArthur wanted to take advantage of the situation in the Pacific to achieve a swift victory. The back-and-forth in American strategy led to a gradual buildup of forces in the Pacific. Had more forces been dedicated to Europe, Myers argues, then the Japanese might have been able to develop a stronger defense that would have caused the war to go on longer.

Similarly, had American economists not developed a long-term financial plan for financing the war, the U.S. might have run out of money for its war machine by the time it rumbled into the Pacific Theater. Both the U.S. Army and Navy had separate plans for victory in the Pacific that were pursued along different lines, while the Joint Chiefs of Staff produced an evolving strategy for the war. Allied strategy was hardly cut and dried, Myers points out, and victory was never taken as a given.

That the U.S. victory was an accomplishment allows for appreciating what the U.S. military did to win in a difficult environment, Myers writes, adding that the Navy responded exceptionally well through innovation: task-organizing ships in combat; a greater proliferation of purpose-built amphibious ships; the development and use of radar; and the perfection of mobile logistics. These helped the Navy overcome some of its marked issues such as flawed torpedoes that did not detonate on impact, and smokeless powder that had such a bright flash that it blinded the naval gunners.

This book is a valuable resource for World War II students of strategy who appreciate how strategy can evolve through contingencies. It offers a solid counterargument to the inevitability theses and reads quickly, with 150 pages of text. Based off both primary and secondary sources from the Japanese and Allied sides, this work gives a balanced perspective on the conduct of the war.

African-American Unit Defied Stereotypes

Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, the Civil War’s First African American Combat Unit. Ian Michael Spurgeon. University of Oklahoma Press. 454 pages. $29.95.

By Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie W. Spencer, U.S. Army retired

The sight of armed African-American soldiers wearing blue uniforms was disturbing for some at the outset of the Civil War. For the Southerners in gray, it was more than just disturbing; it was a threat to the Southern way of life.

Soldiers in the Army of Freedom, by Ian Michael Spurgeon, is an inspiring account of one of the many black units that wore blue uniforms during the Civil War: the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment. This largely forgotten regiment played an important role in the Union victory in the Trans-Mississippi Theater of the Civil War.

The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment has the distinction of being the first black regiment raised in a Northern state, and the first black unit to see combat during the Civil War. Its battles were small when compared to the fighting in the East, but it was bloody combat nonetheless.

The War Department mustered the regiment into federal service in January 1863. It was the fourth black regiment to be accepted into the Union Army. William D. Matthews, a free black man in Kansas in 1862, helped raise a company of volunteers for the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry and became one of the regiment’s two black officers. The War Department also authorized Matthews’ commission, which would have made him the first black officer in the U.S. Army. Unfortunately, his orders were lost and never reached the regiment or Matthews.

Spurgeon takes the reader through the recruitment of the volunteers, the process of mustering the unit into federal service, and the desperate battles on the war’s killing fields. He also addresses how the regiment helped shape the evolving attitudes of politicians and the American people—Northerners and Southerners alike—about African-American combatants.

This is their story, told by a master storyteller as accurately and fairly as possible. Spurgeon makes use of war records, soldiers’ letters and official reports to help tell the soldiers’ stories. The good, the bad, the emotional highs and the disappointing lows are all included.

Soldiers in the Army of Freedom is the story of the important contributions of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment to the war, and to the end of slavery in America. It is a welcome addition to the growing body of our knowledge and understanding of the role of black units during the Civil War—and it helps to rescue this important regiment from the dustbin of American history.

Expeditionary Forces in WWI: Untrained, Ill-Led

Thunder and Flames: Americans in the Crucible of Combat, 1917–1918. Edward G. Lengel. University Press of Kansas. 470 pages. $39.95.

By Lt. Col. Timothy R. Stoy, U.S. Army retired

In this excellent book, Edward G. Lengel covers the combat operations and development of the American Expeditionary Forces from the 1st Division’s first combat, in November 1917; to the end of the Second Battle of the Marne and the reduction of the Marne salient, in August 1918, by U.S. divisions operating under French command. This is the period before the creation of the separate American Army in Europe that would fight at St. Mihiel and in the Meuse-Argonne.

Lengel, a University of Virginia professor and editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington, strips away 100 years of myth and exposes the ill-led, raw, untrained and unprepared American Army that arrived in France spoiling for a fight with a superiority complex vis-a-vis its French and British co-belligerents. This complex led to the Army’s willful disregard of the hard-won lessons the French and British learned fighting Germany before the U.S. entered the war, and resulted in thousands of needless casualties.

The book’s greatest strength is the author’s use of French and German records to provide a much more objective view of the combat actions. Lengel makes many excellent points as he examines the American Expeditionary Forces’ various battles, units and commanders. He successfully debunks numerous misconceptions, showing the French army was actually better and more combat-effective than contemporary American accounts would lead one to believe. He demonstrates that the German army was not uniformly elite, had units with low morale and diminished combat efficiency, and made mistakes. He clarifies that the German High Command’s offensives in 1918 were not intended to reach Paris but instead to pull French operational reserves from Flanders to enable a German breakthrough there.

Reading this book, I was struck by how often U.S. commanders and troops claimed credit for fighting achievements that should have gone to the French, who were fighting to the Americans’ front and flanks. A prime example is the U.S. Marines’ battle in Belleau Wood. French units decisively reduced German combat power and enabled the final clearance of Belleau Wood by the 2nd Division. Further, the Americans’ lack of understanding at the brigade and division levels of French doctrine led to the frequent opening of U.S. flanks by withdrawing French units.

Described in contemporary U.S. accounts as bugouts, many withdrawals were preplanned to minimize the effects of Germany artillery fire and maximize terrain for effective fields of fire. Understanding this, the reader should regard the 3rd Division’s stand on the Marne River on July 15, 1918, differently, at least in terms of the criticisms leveled at French units on the division’s flanks.

 Lengel ably shows how U.S. commanders exaggerated the importance of almost every battle, claiming their units fought at the point of main enemy effort, against overwhelming odds and elite German units, and without the considerable support of their Allies, among other factors. Again, the Champagne-Marne defensive serves as a great example.

For 100 years, the 3rd Marne Division proudly claimed to have saved Paris. It didn’t. Lengel clearly documents that the German attack on the Marne was a supporting effort in a secondary area with no intention of reaching Paris. This does not denigrate the valor and sacrifice of the brave men positioned along the Marne in the middle of July, but it does place the battle’s importance in proper perspective.

Lengel lays the responsibility for thousands of needless deaths at the feet of inexperienced and incompetent commanders at all levels who failed to prevent junior leaders and soldiers from using outdated and fatal linear tactics in the face of machine guns and massed artillery.

He discusses the age-old problem of where on the battlefield commanders should be to decisively affect the fight—he takes the chain of command of the 2nd Division to task for this failure in the battle for Belleau Wood, where commanders made the wrong decision with incomplete information while far removed from the fight.

He also excoriates the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division’s commander, Brig. Gen. Beaumont Buck, for “whizzing about the battlefields, with no obvious purpose other than to see what a real war looked like” while his brigade was being decimated in the attack south of Soissons, July 18–22, 1918.

Lengel takes commanders at all levels to task for not passing on their units’ lessons learned from early combat actions, with new units repeating the mistakes made by the “experienced” divisions because they did not know better. Brig. Gen. James Harbord, commanding the 4th Brigade, 2nd Division, appears to be criminally negligent in his failure to pass on lessons learned by the Marines in Belleau Wood to the 7th Infantry Regiment that replaced them, condemning that unit to failure and resulting in hundreds of needless deaths.

This book contains many more critical observations and new interpretations that will challenge readers’ understanding of the American Expeditionary Forces’ performance in World War I. Each point is well-argued and well-supported. Commanders and units are exposed to criticism, with some looking better and some looking worse once seen through Lengel’s lens.

Despite the many critical assessments made in this book, the American soldiers and Marines who fought in difficult conditions under often-incompetent commanders and with terrible logistic support are judged to be brave men who performed their duty as best they knew how, and with an aggressive spirit and abiding faith in the superiority of the American way.

The French poilu and French colonial troops are given the due they have been denied by American historians for nearly a century. The German landser is shown to be no Superman, but is still depicted as a brave and determined foe who continued to fight with discipline and cunning even as the cause appeared to be lost.

I heartily recommend Lengel’s excellent book to anyone interested in the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, and the development of the U.S. Army into a professional fighting force.