July 2020 Book Reviews

July 2020 Book Reviews

Monday, June 22, 2020

Dempsey Offers Personal Leadership Lessons

No Time for Spectators: The Lessons That Mattered Most From West Point to the West Wing. Martin Dempsey. Missionday. 224 pages. $27.95

By Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston, U.S. Army retired

No Time for Spectators: The Lessons That Mattered Most From West Point to the West Wing by retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a collection of personal leadership lessons spanning a military career of more than four decades. This book is a compilation of short stories arranged in a format to support nine key leadership attributes. Each attribute is highlighted in various situations and circumstances, weaving in threads of interactions between leaders and subordinates to demonstrate limitations, expectations and lessons learned from the relationship.

Teaching points in the book are thoughtful and easily understood. Each of the short stories provides leadership lessons based on the author’s experiences gathered throughout a successful and distinguished career. Dempsey is a strong character and a great storyteller with a natural ability to draw readers into the narrative. Those connected to military or government service will naturally be interested in the book, but teaching points in these stories are applicable to any business or institution.

I appreciated the author’s internal dialogue throughout the book as he engaged a variety of individuals, from the president of the United States and the secretary of defense, to senior and subordinate managers, to staff and junior employees. For both current and aspiring leaders, getting inside the head of others and understanding their thought processes and reasoning is priceless. Even when dealing with mundane situations like budget reductions and resource allocation, Dempsey’s candid thoughts and artful method of telling each story left me better informed and appreciative of the decision-making processes. Example by example, through dozens of short stories, the author’s writing style is enjoyable and refreshing.

Leaders of all ages and situations will find great value in the book’s underlying techniques for influencing human behavior and promoting self-development. As a young captain, Dempsey was assigned to be squadron maintenance officer for the 10th Cavalry. Like many units at the time, it had a poor maintenance record. Dempsey worked with a talented warrant officer to install a new program that focused on training, and tracked successes on a large billboard for all to see. The soldiers felt ownership in their roles and competed to be the most knowledgeable in their job—and the squadron passed annual inspection.

This type of organizational transformation set the stage for leader development at all levels of responsibility down to the operator level. Every organization needs to grow the next generation of leaders needed to replace outgoing management.

No Time for Spectators is both an enjoyable and a learning experience. The succinct anecdotal format, coupled with Dempsey’s genuine spirit and humor, makes readers feel like they are there, in person, watching the story unfold.

As each story ends, readers will long for the adventure of the next story and the gems of wisdom waiting in the pages ahead. From corporate executives to small-business owners to aspiring young managers with dreams of greatness, Dempsey shows why there is No Time for Spectators in today’s demanding and ever-changing global society.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston, U.S. Army retired, is a combat veteran who served as the 13th sergeant major of the Army. Since his retirement from the Army in 2011, he has served on multiple executive boards and in several senior executive positions, including as vice president for NCO and Soldier Programs at the Association of the U.S. Army. He was with the association from 2013 through 2019 and is now an AUSA senior fellow.

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Put This Book in Your Toolkit as You Train

Infantry Combat—The Rifle Platoon: An Interactive Exercise in Small-Unit Tactics and Leadership. John Antal. Casemate Publishers. 288 pages. $22.95

By Lt. Col. Tim Stoy, U.S. Army retired

Retired Col. John Antal’s Infantry Combat—The Rifle Platoon: An Interactive Exercise in Small-Unit Tactics and Leadership is a well-written book on small-unit leadership in combat.

Infantry Combat is an interactive, scenario-driven book. There is a basic and general introduction to the combat situation. Thereafter, readers find themselves jumping ahead and back based on decisions made by the book’s protagonist, 2nd Lt. Bruce Davis, as well as actions taken by the enemy.

Decisions leading to mission failure result in a return to the point where the failure can be traced to an incorrect decision. Readers are then presented with the same set of options and decisions to make and follow the flow of combat again. Each decision, correct or incorrect, is evaluated based on one or more key principles of combat leadership.

As Gen. Dwight Eisenhower said, “The most terrible job in warfare is to be a second lieutenant leading a platoon when you are on the battlefield.” In this case, Davis is a recently graduated West Point officer who has completed the officer basic course. Shortly after taking over a platoon, his light infantry battalion is deployed to a desert environment. There, he is to shore up an ally who is under attack from a capable enemy equipped with modern weapons and using Soviet doctrine.

His battalion is the first to arrive and will fight outnumbered to buy time for heavier units slated to arrive in theater. An unknown quantity, Davis must establish his credibility and authority within his platoon and gain the confidence of his company commander, all while preparing to meet the enemy in mortal combat. The book follows Davis as he makes decisions from his arrival in the company through prebattle preparation to decisive combat.

I found the book’s interactive nature, realistic scenario, interplay of personalities, acknowledgement that the enemy always has a vote, and the acknowledgement that future adversaries may have advanced weapons and effective doctrine useful in showing the complex leadership environment combat platoon leaders will face. Although the scenario focuses on an infantry platoon, the book is accessible to noncombat arms branch officers and nonmilitary readers. Coupled with training at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, this book would help prepare a lieutenant for success in combat.

This book should be in the toolkit of company, battalion and brigade commanders as they train platoon leaders for combat leadership. It will serve to remind them of their own duties and responsibilities vis-a-vis platoon leaders. Division commanders need to review this book to be reminded that, despite the combat multipliers and assets under their control, success rests on those platoon leaders effectively leading their platoons under trying conditions.

Finally, every American who cares about their country’s national security needs to read this book to understand what is expected of junior military leaders. This includes all members of Congress—who are responsible for funding military training and equipping our military forces—and the commander in chief.

As demanding and bloody as our counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two decades have been, the possibility of engaging a more capable conventional adversary continues to grow. The Army must be ready. Antal’s book would serve as an excellent tool in training the Army’s combat platoon leaders for such a possibility.

Lt. Col. Tim Stoy, U.S. Army retired, served 31 years in the Army as an infantry and foreign area officer. He is now a military historian.

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First Volume of Trilogy Pinpoints Start of WWII

Tower of Skulls: A History of the Asia-Pacific War, July 1937–May 1942. Richard Frank. W.W. Norton & Co. 768 pages. $40

By Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, U.S. Army retired

Historians generally avoid, even abhor, words like “always” and “never.” In fact, just about anything that smacks of the absolute sends us into spasms. One word particularly avoided is “magisterial.” (“Definitive” can be used, albeit with great caution.) So it is with trepidation that I use that word for the first time in decades of writing and reviewing history.

Richard Frank’s Tower of Skulls: A History of the Asia-Pacific War, July 1937–May 1942 is the first of what promises to be a magisterial trilogy.

As the full title indicates, the scope of this first volume is limited in time. Four and three-quarter years may not seem like many, but what Frank is attempting is so broad that it is amazing he fit even that period into one book. Frank covers everything, from soup to nuts, in the Asia-Pacific Theater of World War II, which, as he notes, started in 1937 with the infamous Marco Polo Bridge Incident on July 7. What began as a random shot and a misreported missing man near this bridge outside Beijing escalated to a minor skirmish between Japanese and Chinese forces, and eventually to all-out war between the two countries.

This book brings in all the combatants in Asia, from the Chinese and Japanese, to the Dutch, Thais, Australians, French/Vietnamese, the Soviets and, of course, after the first 4½ years, the Americans. Further, this examination is not limited to one aspect or level of war. No, Frank attempts, and largely succeeds, to cover everything from politics (both foreign and domestic for each combatant) and culture to diplomacy, strategic planning, operational level events and even some tactical-level clashes.

Of course, as with any work of this size and ambition, the book uses many secondary sources and some can be a bit dated. Given how long Frank must have been working on this book, that is understandable, but it does lead to a few gaffes. For example, Frank denigrates Japanese naval refueling abilities during the raid on Pearl Harbor. In this he echoes American authors who precede him. In fact, newer scholarship demonstrates that the Japanese were the world leaders in at-sea refueling. These quibbles aside, Tower of Skulls, as the first of three volumes, sets the bar high for the next two volumes and any author who follows.

Tower of Skulls fills a significant gap in the professional knowledge of many who deal with war history, in and out of uniform. Even those who generally consider World War II to be an area of specialty will learn new things here. The book makes clear how the scale and duration of events in the Far East exceed the most common impression held by Americans (i.e., that the war started near the end of 1941) and places the role of China at the center of events. Even better, it provides cultural insights that explain the rise of Japan’s cult of Bushido and how it played a role in the internal politics of Japan’s military forces as well as how the Japanese thought about and practiced war at every level, on land and at sea. This alone is well worth the price of the book.

Serious scholars and professionals in and out of uniform should read this book, which thoroughly fills a gap many have in the history of World War II.

Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, U.S. Army retired, served 25 years as an Army officer. He taught military history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York; George Mason University, Virginia; and Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books and is writing one about the interwar period.

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Drugs and Warfare Go Back a Long Way

Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs. Peter Andreas. Oxford University Press. 352 pages. $29.95

By Michael Robbins

At dawn on Sept. 1, 1939, Germany launched a massive three-pronged attack on Poland to start World War II in Europe. With motorized units on the ground and waves of bombers in the sky, this combined arms invasion introduced a new and revolutionary doctrine of modern industrial warfare.

In subsequent German invasions of the Low Countries and France, this mechanized fighting style surprised and overwhelmed enemies with startling speed of movement. It was soon dubbed blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” though the Germans rarely used that term.

Germany’s blitzkrieg was revolutionary in another, surprising, way. As historian Peter Andreas explains in his new book, Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs, “part of the speed of the Blitzkrieg literally came from speed,” that is, methamphetamines that energized German soldiers. “This was the first large-scale use of a synthetic performance-enhancing drug,” Andreas notes. It was indeed large-scale: A German pharmaceutical company, Temmler-Werke, had begun marketing the newly synthesized methamphetamine under the brand name Pervitin in 1937.

It proved so effective in the Poland campaign that the company was soon producing nearly a million tablets a day. And during the invasion of France between May and the end of June 1940, German servicemen reportedly got more than 35 million Pervitin tablets.

The widespread use of amphetamines in World War II was novel, but the association of warfare and chemical stimulants and painkillers has a long history—which is the subject of this book. Warfare historically has been viewed through many optics, but rarely has anyone approached it systematically through the stories of the origins, exploitation, distribution and effects of these six psychoactive substances: alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium, amphetamines and cocaine.

Andreas focuses not only on the medical uses and abuses of these substances across the ages and around the world, but also on their mostly natural origins and their profound social, economic and political impacts.

In one era or another, these substances were the causes of military conflicts and the rise and fall of empires. They have been big moneymakers for nations and for such corporate enterprises as the British East India Company—and have even underwritten the costs of many wars. And through centuries of warfare, these drugs have provided succor, comfort, energy and distraction for legions of individual combatants.

In discussing these drugs, Andreas shows a sharp eye for the telling anecdote and the pithy observation: “The tsar used vodka money to build up the largest army in Europe, but his soldiers were often too drunk to fight.” On the American military experience in World War I, he quotes Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces: “You ask me what we need to win this war. I answer tobacco as much as bullets. Tobacco is as indispensable as the daily ration.”

Throughout, Andreas has thoroughly researched these many war/drug linkages, ancient and modern, and his findings will surprise many a reader. He is a stylish and engaging writer, and his is a fresh take on military history, and a refreshing read.

Michael Robbins is a former editor of Military History magazine and MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.