January 2017 Reviews
‘Exceptionally Ordinary’ NCO’s Story of Battle
Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor. Clinton Romesha. Dutton. 400 pages. $28
By Maj. Joe Byerly
On Oct. 3, 2009, over 300 Taliban fighters launched a complex attack on Combat Outpost Keating near the town of Kamdesh in the Nuristan Province of Afghanistan. For over 12 hours, the American soldiers living at the outpost fought for their lives against overwhelming odds. In the end, eight soldiers paid the ultimate price, with another 27 wounded.
The soldiers at Keating killed over 150 Taliban, and the battle gave birth to two modern-day heroes, Staff Sgts. Clinton Romesha and Ty Carter. Both were awarded the Medal of Honor. While the stories of what happened that day have been told in official reports, best-selling books and magazine articles, we have yet to experience the battle through the eyes of any man who fought it—until now.
In Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor, Romesha brings to life the Battle for Combat Outpost Keating by bringing readers into his world. The book follows the unit’s training at Fort Carson, Colo., through the final moments of the battle, providing readers with a realistic glimpse into the dynamics of serving in a combat arms platoon. His narrative also successfully breaks down the platoon into its individual parts by introducing the vastly different personalities who fought alongside each other in 1st Platoon, Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment. Finally, Romesha holds nothing back, exposing readers to the realities of combat and showing how friction and chance play out in war.
Red Platoon is not about a singular hero but a group of heroes, and readers quickly learn about the dynamics of being in a combat arms platoon in war. As Romesha explains in the opening chapter, “What follows is not the story of one man, but of an entire platoon.” He begins his narrative at 5:45 a.m. on Oct. 3, moments before the Taliban launched their assault on the outpost.
Romesha then masterfully presses the pause button on his account to give the backstory on the platoon and its members: how they came together, how they trained, and how they interacted with each other at the outpost. We first learn about Red Platoon as a group through the author’s explanation of their motto, “It doesn’t get better.” Romesha explains the platoon adopted it not as a fatalistic outlook but as a source of strength. They all recognized the reality of their situation as they found themselves at a remote outpost that could not be easily defended and then decided to work together to survive. Throughout the remainder of the book, he captures the pranks, the fights and the camaraderie that are experienced only by a group of soldiers who face adversity together.
He then takes the platoon and breaks it down into the individuals who served together at Combat Outpost Keating. He does an excellent job of tearing readers away from the mental images of the archetypal soldier, explaining that, “If we qualified as heroes, then the heroism we displayed that day … was cut from a ragged grade of cloth—a fabric whose folds conceal the shortcomings and the failings of exceptionally ordinary men who were put to an extraordinary test.”
For example, he tells the story of Sgt. Justin Gallegos, whose older brothers were killed in gang violence in Tucson, Ariz.; Spc. Zach Koppes, who was kicked out of a Mennonite school in Ohio for stealing the answer key to a test; and Pfc. Chris Jones, who joined the Army to escape a life of poverty. By the end of the book, readers will feel as if they know each member of the platoon. As a result, one cannot help but mourn the loss of the eight soldiers who died.
Finally, Romesha’s narrative provides readers with several great examples of the roles that friction and chance play in combat. For example, the troop’s mortars, which would have enabled the platoon to keep their attackers at bay, were constantly under direct fire contact and couldn’t be brought into the fight. Another example of friction is when they plan a movement route to attempt to rescue a pinned-down Humvee crew. The rescue crew takes a wrong turn, ultimately bringing their vehicle in full view of the enemy.
The power of chance also plays a role in the narrative. For example, the F-15E Strike Eagle that arrived on scene luckily had a pilot who felt comfortable deconflicting aircraft. This allowed him to quickly manage the airspace and bring devastating effects onto the Taliban fighters. From enemy weapons that failed to fire to a soldier finding a radio hours after losing contact with the rest of the unit, the power of chance or luck is witnessed throughout Red Platoon.
Romesha’s book is a page-turning account of one of the deadliest days of Operation Enduring Freedom. He does an excellent job of telling not only his story, but also the stories of those who fought alongside him in Afghanistan. Red Platoon is a great addition to an ever-growing body of professional literature from the veterans of our modern wars.
Maj. Joe Byerly is an armor officer and executive officer for the 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo. He holds a bachelor’s degree from North Georgia College and State University, and a master’s degree from the U.S. Naval War College.
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Twisting and Turning as the Cold War Began
Elvis’s Army: Cold War GIs and the Atomic Battlefield. Brian McAllister Linn. Harvard University Press. 444 pages. $29.95
By Chuck Vinch
Senior Staff Writer
Despite the celebrity cachet invoked by its title, Brian McAllister Linn’s new book, Elvis’s Army: Cold War GIs and the Atomic Battlefield, doesn’t really have much to do with the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Rather, Linn uses Elvis Presley, who was drafted in 1957 and wearing Army fatigues early the following year, primarily as a talisman to evoke the mood and aura of his book’s era, that distant world of sock hops, drive-ins, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and the novel specter of looming superpower thermonuclear Armageddon.
As the Cold War hardened over the course of that decade in the wake of stalemate in Korea, Linn explores how the U.S. Army sought to adapt to the new concept of global war by focusing on a chilling foundational notion: that atomic warfare did not necessarily mean mutually assured destruction of the combatants, but in fact could be contained to the battlefield and won by one side or the other.
To that end, Army leaders fixated on trying to reorganize and reinvent their service for a fantastical vision of hypercombat, “a great atomic land war against the Soviet Union”—an effort fueled in no small measure by a fear of the Army sliding into irrelevance in the Pentagon interservice budget battles of the day.
Linn is a history professor at Texas A&M University. He notes that not long after Presley’s induction, then-Maj. Gen. William Westmoreland, serving as top staff officer to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor, gave a speech titled “Our Modern Army.” In it, he described a service in “a period of transition never before known in the history of arms.”
Westmoreland spoke with zeal of “new concepts, techniques, tactics and terminology” that had the potential to transform his service into a “truly revolutionary type” of Army “able to gain and retain the initiative in any type of military situation,” from guerilla war to atomic war and staffed by legions of elite, dedicated, professional soldiers.
But Linn notes a rather obvious glitch in Westmoreland’s vision: The Army of the 1950s was a force still built on a conscription model that targeted anonymous farm boys, famous rock ’n’ rollers and every young, able-bodied male in between.
“The U.S. Army of the 1950s was the most diverse, representative and in some ways egalitarian peacetime organization in the nation’s history,” he writes. “It was a truly revolutionary Army, but not in the sense that Westmoreland and his fellow military professionals—fixated on building a force to wage atomic blitzkrieg—either understood or appreciated.”
That glaring disconnect is Linn’s launch pad. “Washington, D.C., has monuments to those who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, but nothing to acknowledge those who also served by standing in wait for ‘the Big One.’ … Elvis and his generation quietly soldiered on, doing their duty so stoically that this nation, and its historians, has all but ignored them. This book is written in acknowledgment of that forgotten Army.”
Linn begins his treatise by delving into the Army’s often disjointed efforts to manage its lengthy post-World War II demobilization, which saw end strength plummet in just three years from almost 8.3 million to 554,000.
This “postwar ghost force of skeleton formations” had myriad flaws that made any effort to focus on future warfare a “haphazard process”—something that would become painfully clear when the Army suffered embarrassing setbacks in the initial stages of the Korean War, which would end in frustrating stalemate in 1953.
With his stage thus set, Linn then spends some time riffing on the many twists and turns of the evolving, often conflicting doctrinal streams of thought on atomic warfare that pulsed within the Army over the balance of the decade, with a subplot featuring Army leaders struggling to ensure a prominent place for their service within President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “New Look” U.S. defense policy that seemed to tilt heavily toward the Navy and Air Force.
The Army never quite got its act together on that score, Linn notes. “Indeed, the Army never developed a satisfactory definition of a tactical atomic weapon, applying the term to everything from squad-level, highly portable mortars with a one-quarter-kiloton blast to missiles that fired warheads larger than the Hiroshima bomb,” he writes.
Linn then segues back to his central cast for most of the remainder of his book: the conscripted soldiers who were expected to wage this new, alien form of warfare despite being quite ill-suited for that mission. “The Army’s abortive revolution … ignored the human element,” he writes. “There was an inherent contradiction between atomic warfare in theory and the troops available to wage it ... the short-service draftees who served in its units.”
This book is an interesting exploration of a chapter in Army history that indeed has faded from collective memory. And with today’s U.S. Army on course to continue shedding soldiers even as tensions rise with nuclear-armed Russia, China and North Korea, it’s a book that has a timely touch of déjà vu about it.
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Tilley Tells Inspirational Tale
Soldier for Life: Leader Lessons From the 12th Sergeant Major of the Army Jack L. Tilley. Jack L. Tilley and Dan Elder. NCO Historical Society. 234 pages. $21.50
By Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie W. Spencer
U.S. Army retired
Soldier for Life: Leader Lessons From the 12th Sergeant Major of the Army Jack L. Tilley is the autobiography of one of the U.S. Army’s most highly respected and well-liked soldiers, retired Sgt. Maj. of the Army Jack L. Tilley. With a little help from another great soldier, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Dan Elder, Tilley has produced an inspirational account of personal courage and resiliency, and once again proven that fact can be more interesting than fiction.
Tilley’s life story would make a great movie. He was a troubled youth who was headed in the wrong direction. What turned his life around is hard to say. It may have been one of those rare moments of self-reflection; it may have been his faith in God; or it may have been his decision to join the U.S. Army.
“It’s not as if I was particularly patriotic or came from a military background,” Tilley writes. “What I did know was that I had just finished high school, and I was pretty unhappy with the way things were going. I was ready for a change.”
Seventeen-year-old Jack had little to offer the Army. He had no skills, and nothing in his short life history would suggest anything but more of the same. The odds were against him from the start; just meeting minimum Army standards seemed to be the best possible outcome. Success at this point would have been doing his job and staying out of trouble. It was the summer of 1966, and Jack’s life was about to change. He would soon receive a crash course in leadership and courage.
By the fall of 1967, Tilley was a private first class and member of the famed 1st Infantry Division, conducting combat operations in South Vietnam. He was an assistant gunner on an armored cavalry assault vehicle armed with a .50 caliber machine gun. His unit, the 2nd Platoon of A Troop, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, was operating near a rubber plantation that was originally owned by the French in a town called Quan Loi. As one of the new guys, he was often tasked to help guard the base camp during hours of darkness.
Guard duty is an important job in combat. Constant physical exertion and stress take their toll on the troops, and sleep is sometimes elusive. Soldiers quickly learn to take advantage of every opportunity to rest. Many lives depend on the vigilance of those selected to stand guard.
Combat has been described as hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. That’s something every combat veteran would agree with. Tilley’s first exposure to that truth started with incoming mortar fire, followed by an all-out attack by a determined enemy. What followed was the first, but unfortunately not the last, moment of terror for young Tilley. He would survive that night and the long days and nights to come in the jungles of Vietnam. By the time combat ended, he was not the same boy. Indeed, he was a man.
The years to follow brought success as a soldier and leader in uniform. Tilley was entrusted with increasing levels of responsibility throughout his career and held every NCO leadership position, culminating with his selection as sergeant major of the Army, the senior enlisted adviser and consultant to the chief of staff of the Army. He held that post from 2000 to 2004.
Tilley was in his Pentagon office bright and early the fateful morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He knew about the attack on the World Trade Center in New York as he departed for a short meeting at Fort Myer, Va. It was on the return trip to his office, with the Pentagon in sight, when the plane struck. That was the day America changed and the Army, in the capable hands of Tilley, provided strong leadership.
Tilley’s commitment to the welfare of soldiers and their families did not end when he took off his uniform for the final time in January 2004. In fact, retiring seemed to free him to pursue his true passion: improving the quality of life for soldiers and their families, with special emphasis on wounded warriors. He is co-founder and chairman of the nonprofit American Freedom Foundation.
Soldier for Life is more than a compelling true story. The book is filled with important leadership lessons by one of the Army’s most respected soldiers. They are lessons from which leaders at every level, in or out of uniform, can benefit.
Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie W. Spencer, USA Ret., held a variety of assignments with infantry, Special Forces and Ranger units during his 32 years of active military service. He is the former director of the Association of the U.S. Army’s NCO and Soldier Programs and is now an AUSA senior fellow. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York.
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A View of D-Day From the Canadian Side
Stopping the Panzers: The Untold Story of D-Day. Marc Milner. University Press of Kansas. 400 pages. $34.95
By Col. Gregory Fontenot
U.S. Army retired
Marc Milner’s Stopping the Panzers: The Untold Story of D-Day is a work of love intended to close the gap of knowledge he believes exists concerning Canadian soldiers who fought in Normandy, France, during World War II. The result is a readable and useful narrative of the 3rd Canadian Division’s assault on Juno Beach on June 6, 1944, and its successful defense of the beachhead the next two days against German counterattacks.
Stopping the Panzers makes a convincing case that the 3rd Canadian Division prevented a major German armor counterattack against the beachhead that might have driven the Allies into the sea. In bitter fighting on June 8, the Canadians prevented the 12th SS Panzer Division from securing the start line for a planned counterattack and thus, “stopped the Panzers.”
But the reasons for Milner’s book are more interesting than his argument, and that is unfortunate. Milner, a professor of history and director of the Brigadier Milton F. Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at Canada’s University of New Brunswick, believes the Canadian efforts in Normandy—and, for that matter, during the rest of the war—are underappreciated. He writes that when his father took him to see the movie The Longest Day in 1962, he was disappointed that the Canadians got short shrift.
Milner also seems offended that Saving Private Ryan found fault with Canada’s efforts ashore on June 6 and 7. And he says the oversights extend even to the 2012 film Argo, which was about the rescue of six Americans who slipped away from the U.S. embassy in Iran after it was overtaken in November 1979. Milner argues accurately that the CIA deserves far less credit for the rescue than does the Canadian ambassador who provided shelter.
Milner asserts that these slights are proof of a general disdain for Canada and the Canadian Army, shown not only by the U.S. in movies but by a group he refers to as Anglo-American historians. He singles out British historians Chester Wilmot, Max Hastings and Anthony Beevor. Of the U.S. half of the Anglo-American historians who have been unfair, Milner points to the U.S. Army Center of Military History’s account of the invasion. He is equally affronted by Canada’s official history of the war.
Milner notes that the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division was the only one of five assault divisions to attain its objectives on D-Day. But the comparison is not particularly relevant to his case. Who says they did not? Cornelius Ryan, who wrote the book that inspired the film The Longest Day, admits as much. However, he does not subscribe to Milner’s contention that Juno Beach required the hardest fighting.
But then, Milner’s argument depends on making comparisons of exactly the kind he disparages. In The Longest Day, Ryan claims the Americans were held up by “the rugged German 352nd Division” while the Canadians were “more than a match for the tired and inferior 716th Division.” What Ryan did that Milner does not is array at least some support for his contention. Milner argues that the Americans at Omaha Beach fought only part of the 352nd, and he suggests they struggled because they operated with poor doctrine and failed to take advantage of the British-designed equipment.
He also argues that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower explained Omaha Beach in his report to Gen. George C. Marshall, “disingenuously or not,” by claiming erroneously that the U.S. 1st and 29th divisions fought all of the 352nd. Milner asserts this is a “gross exaggeration.” However, Eisenhower made the report to which Milner refers on June 8—without nearly 70 years of hindsight. Why does Milner feel compelled to imply Eisenhower deliberately misled Marshall?
Milner also takes exception to criticism that the 3rd Canadian Division did not advance aggressively. On June 7, the division attacked without great success. Milner offers few compelling reasons for why the Canadians struggled that day. Mostly, he contends the division was not adequately supported because a gap developed between the Canadians and the adjacent British division. He finds fault with the author of Canada’s official history, Col. Charles Stacey. Yet Milner’s account tends to support Stacey’s conclusion that the Canadians fought with “courage and spirit but somewhat clumsily.”
Canadian platoons and companies fought superbly that day and subsequently. But the brigade making the attack advanced along a single road, leading to their flanks being assailed successfully. Amazingly, none of the attacking units had forward observers and could call on neither artillery nor naval gunfire support. Milner explains this problem as somehow attributable to British doctrine.
The attack on June 7 was poorly coordinated and added no luster to the 3rd Canadian Division’s reputation. Stacey seems more right than wrong in his judgment. There are other problems that could be laid at the door of the division and corps commanders that day. Importantly, none of these mistakes was an insurmountable problem, but rather made by a “green” unit. It seems the 3rd Canadian Division was learning on the job.
Similar problems occurred in the U.S. and U.K. divisions, some of which were as inexperienced as the 3rd Canadian Division. For that matter, the 12th SS, the main opposition in this story, fought ineffectively because they were less well-trained than their Canadian counterparts.
Milner’s chapters on the 7th Canadian Brigade’s courageous tactical defensive fighting on June 7 and 8 are brilliant. The Canadians fought furiously and ably. In bitter fighting, they prevented the Germans from being able to mount an attack by two Panzer divisions. The Canadians fought a well-planned combined arms fight that integrated preplanned artillery fires with devastating effect.
Over the next eight months of hard fighting, the Canadian Army proved itself time and again. They have nothing to explain and no need for comparisons to their Allied partners. The record of the Canadian Army is worthy of pride regardless of what American movies or British historians suggest. Canadian division and corps formations improved just as did their U.S. counterparts, few of which arrived in Europe with combat experience.
Still, this is a good book that rightly carries the cudgel for those Canadian soldiers who landed at Juno Beach and fought across Northwestern Europe to defeat the Nazis. Milner need not concern himself with British historians Wilmot, Hastings and Beevor.
Also, not all American historians have overlooked the contributions of Canadian soldiers. In his book D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, Stephen Ambrose offered “Payback” as the subtitle for the chapter he wrote on the Canadians at Juno beach. He argued that the Canadian achievement at Juno “was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride. After two years, the Canadians had given the Wehrmacht a payback for Dieppe.” Not only that, but just as Milner has shown us, the Canadians “stopped the Panzers” and saved the beachhead.
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 and the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies, he is co-author of On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has a bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University, and master’s degrees from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the School of Advanced Military Studies.
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The Life of West Point’s Most Senior Alum, Vividly Described
The Oldest Living Graduate: A Story About Love, Luck and Longevity. Lt. Gen. William J. Ely. Lulu Publishing Services. 310 pages. $18.99
By Nancy Barclay Graves
Retired Lt. Gen. William J. Ely achieved the status of the U.S. Military Academy’s oldest living graduate on Dec. 2, 2014, 27 days before his 103rd birthday. His memoir, The Oldest Living Graduate: A Story About Love, Luck and Longevity, is an account of his full life in and out of uniform.
Born in Pennsylvania about 5½ years before the U.S. became involved in World War I, Ely came of age in the Depression years and graduated from West Point as an engineer officer in 1933. In his book, he relays stories of his cadet years that are replete with tradition, frustration and humor.
Ely also covers his early years in the Army, including performing flood work on the Mississippi River; attending U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Belvoir, Va.; and then, in 1937, his assignment to the South Pacific, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was planning construction at Midway and Wake islands years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With this experience on his resume, he was tapped for an assignment in the Pacific during World War II.
He vividly describes the variety of work of Sixth Army, headquartered in Australia, including the construction of new headquarters in New Guinea. Details of the building of airstrips, port facilities and housing for the soldiers advancing through the islands of the Pacific make for interesting reading because this work is not as familiar as work in the European Theater.
Ely also covers his postwar assignments including the establishment of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va.; the inevitable Pentagon tour on the Joint Chiefs staff; and at U.S. European Command headquarters in Paris before returning to the Pentagon for his final assignment as deputy director for administration and management in the office of the director of defense research and engineering.
He includes the challenges of combining Army life and its frequent moves and ever-changing assignments with family life. Ely and his wife, Helen, were married for 74 years before she died in 2014, and they had three sons.
Ely retired from the Army in July 1966 after 33 years of service. He spent 10 years with an engineering firm headquartered in St. Louis and co-authored a biography of Maj. Gen. Leif Sverdrup, who had been Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s chief engineer. He also built and ran a golf course on the Pennsylvania farm where he spent his childhood, holding tournaments to raise funds for wounded warriors.
The Oldest Living Graduate is a straightforward account of a long and productive life filled with the pleasures of golf, friends and family. The book will delight readers, whether it motivates them to relive their own Army years or simply marvel at a long life well-lived.
Nancy Barclay Graves is an Army spouse and freelance writer who lives in Arlington, Va. She is a graduate of Wellesley College, Mass.