June 2015 Book Reviews
It’s Time to Share the Responsibilities of Fighting
By Walter E. Penk
Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers. Nancy Sherman. Oxford University Press. 256 pages. $24.95.
Nancy Sherman has written a significant work. She urges civilians to share with veterans the ownership of the wars they fought and to restore the trust and hope that veterans need to thrive and flourish as they return home. In essence, civilians need to learn to be with veterans. She concentrates on ways to resolve moral injuries. She writes we must go beyond the physical symptoms and symptom reduction on which treatment specialists have concentrated in the past. Now, we must also address problems of moral injuries that many in the military are suffering.
“Afterwar” is the time for veterans and civilians to build trust and hope that improve functioning and promote intellectual and emotional growth. Sherman tells her stories for healing moral injuries through history and characters enshrined by historians and philosophers of the past. She relates the stories to the student veterans she is now teaching.
This is not an easy book to read. It’s complicated. This book is as complex as our wars and peace. It’s no longer the Vietnam era of the drafted. Rather, it’s the enlisted era of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s no longer a matter of a teenager fighting for 13 months in a war disliked by fellow citizens. It’s now a professional military redeployed many times, facing uncertainties over and over again.
Now, we must learn to manage by improving our brains to cope with remembrances and risks in peace. Sherman makes the strong case that an academic setting helps harness the mind to overcome the remaining uncertainties in war that prevent improving the brain. Now is the time for all to become like Sherman’s student veterans: learning neural enhancement that trains our brains to be efficient and dependable.
Sherman’s work is personal. She writes from experiences teaching and interviewing student veterans in the classroom. Her classrooms are in military and civilian schools. Her arena differs from those of the clinicians who address trauma in hospitals and clinics, helping some veterans who self-medicate with drugs to reduce anxieties, stress and memories of traumas. Sherman’s student veterans learn to cope in college. In this context, post-traumatic growth is stimulated and starts to thrive.
To validate her conclusions, Sherman concentrates on veterans’ lives and their relationships with civilians within the context of the classics. Writers such as Homer began to teach us all how to cope with moral injuries. In the first chapter, “Reborn But Dead,” Sherman operationally defines moral injuries as actions taken against one’s beliefs in goodness and humanity. She demonstrates for us how today’s veterans endeavor to address and resolve their moral and physical injuries.
In the second chapter, “Don’t Just Tell Me ‘Thank You,’” she explains that veterans and civilians must work together to share the moral responsibilities of having fought and waged wars. She demonstrates how the “mil/civ” wall can be broken down and how civilians can share responsibilities with combat veterans when civilians collaborate and increase their contributions to veterans.
Too often, “Thank you for your service” is another way for a civilian to say “I am happy I did not fight.” What’s really needed is for civilians to share with veterans’ efforts to heal moral injuries. These injuries can be resolved when civilians participate with veterans as they receive medical and mental support from DoD and VA hospitals and clinics. Civilians must ensure combat veterans are supported when veterans and their families go to college, when veterans have nonpredatory loans for housing and when they are guaranteed access to meaningful work.
Recovery from survivor guilt may come from self-empathy, through which veterans strive to regain a lost sense of goodness. Self-empathy is defined as re-evaluating action when fighting and bestowing mercy and forgiveness upon oneself, in the spirit of beliefs that, though one has sinned, one is forgiven.
Recovery includes self-compassion, uncovering the hurt we do to ourselves when we exaggerate consequences because we have fallen short of fulfilling our standards. Sherman also shows how soldiers’ emotional pains from blaming and shaming lead to disengagement and disconnectedness upon their return home and introduces the idea of recovery through self-empathy.
Her most complex chapter is “Rebuilding Trust.” She uses the unique experiences of women in the military to show how trust can be recovered. She illustrates trust bootstrapping to trustworthiness. She traces how women sense gender prejudice by men in the military, how women veterans feel vulnerable and stay alone, and how women can reach out and re-establish relationships based on trust—first, with other service members, then with civilians who have not served in the military. Re-establishing trust is reparative: It helps resolve moral injuries and restore well-being.
In recounting her experience working with military and with student veterans, Sherman makes the case for all of us living in the “afterwar” period that we must eliminate the walls between service members and civilians. This period belongs to us all, and that recovery is a matter of shared responsibilities and a shared moral engagement: Civilians must interact with the warriors returning home.
Walter E. Penk, Ph.D., is a professor in psychiatry/behavioral sciences at Texas A&M College of Medicine. He specializes in post-traumatic stress and started working as a VA psychologist in 1965. He retired in 2003 but continues to serve as a consultant in VA rehabilitation and education.
‘Thank You for Your Service’ Masks Obligation to Veterans
By Gen. Carter F. Ham, U.S. Army retired
No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America. Elizabeth D. Samet. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 235 pages. $25.
After more than a decade of war, Americans outside the military community generally have little understanding of the long-term effects that multiple, frequent operational deployments may have on soldiers and their families. Elizabeth D. Samet, an award-winning author and professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., offers rare insights into how one cohort—cadets and recently commissioned officers from West Point—thinks about and copes with the pace and stresses of war in our time. Samet ably tells of their struggles, and their perspectives provide glimpses into our own thinking about war today.
Befitting a professor of English, Samet finds frequent use of literature helpful in her narrative. “Others could go on imagining an Iliad if they liked: imagining that the end of the war—that victory—was the end of the story. I knew better. We were all of us—the ones who went to war and the ones who waited at home—inhabiting an Odyssey in which the hardest struggle comes after the battle has been won.”
She relates the stories of returning combat veterans in a manner that helps the reader better understand the behaviors exhibited by many vets upon return home: the yearning for a long motorcycle trip, a desire for solitude, sometimes troubled personal relationships, even isolation from friends and family. She takes us into intensely private thoughts expressed by the men and women who have led our Army, not at the strategic level in Iraq or Afghanistan but at the deeply personal level upon which the crucible of combat plays out every day. She introduces us to leaders who wrestle not with grand geo-strategic concepts but rather with how to accomplish their missions while anguishing over keeping their troops from harm.
In an uncertain theater where victory is elusive and ill-defined, bringing everyone home safely takes on elevated importance as a measure of success at the platoon level. Many in the cohort of which Samet writes find themselves more at ease, more familiar in the war zone than at home in the country they serve. Hence, for some, America becomes the place between wars: no man’s land.
“Thank you for your service.” That simple phrase, one officer proposes, has become “an obligatory salutation” by a populace with little comprehension of exactly what it is that they are thanking the person in uniform for. Another says, “But they don’t really know what I’ve done.”
Samet addresses this phenomenon clearly and directly. She posits that “thank you for your service” may “unconsciously hold some degree of absolution from the collective responsibility.” While almost certainly offered sincerely, this now widely accepted means of expressing gratitude tends to mask the real questions concerning our obligations as a nation when we decide to send soldiers to war.
This is a worthy read. Combat veterans, not just West Point alumni, will find common ground here and perhaps some understanding that their feelings are shared by others. For families of veterans—parents, spouses, children and siblings—Samet helps us contextualize our feelings and, ideally, gain insight into how war has changed those they love. For the rest of us, a nation largely untouched by our recent and ongoing wars, No Man’s Land gives us pause to think about our responsibilities as citizens—responsibilities that extend far beyond “thank you for your service.”
Gen. Carter F. Ham, USA Ret., began his Army service as an enlisted infantryman in the 82nd Airborne Division. He most recently served as commander, U.S. Africa Command, and is now a senior fellow at AUSA.
Tragic Yet Heroic Day at the Farmhouse
By 1st Lt. Jonathan D. Bratten
The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo. Brendan Simms. Basic Books. 208 pages. $24.99.
Military history as a genre has tended to move away from critiques of individual battles and the inherent tactical focus they bring in favor of more comprehensive works that embrace other facets of history, sociology and politics. Still, there remains a need for unit-level histories that place the reader amid the swirling smoke and crackling roar of musketry, where the senses are brought to life through the skills of the author.
Brendan Simms’ The Longest Afternoon is such a book. Centered on the 400 riflemen of the British Army’s 2nd Light Battalion, King’s German Legion, during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Simms crafts a narrative that not only delivers the intensity of the battle but also supports his argument that the 2nd Light Battalion played a decisive role in bringing about a victory for the Allied coalition against Napoleon.
Simms opens on the retreating Allied army after the Battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny in June 1815, using this period to introduce his readers to his cast of characters. With Germany overrun by French troops in the early 1800s, patriotic Germans had no choice but to serve in foreign units. As a result, the men who made up the Legion were a unique mix of German heritage and British traditions.
Because of their distinctive ethnic background, Simms notes, the Germans had greater unit cohesion. Their officers and enlisted men shared a common bond that was more significant than that which was found in most other units. The officers in the King’s German Legion could not buy their commissions, as was common in other regiments, but were appointed by merit, which developed into better company- and battalion-level leadership. The men were also bound by the idea that they were fighting for their own Germanic identities in the face of French assimilation.
As the morning of the Battle of Waterloo dawned, the 2nd Light Battalion was posted in the farmhouse of La Haye-Sainte, a solid collection of buildings surrounded by a thick wall, several hundred yards to the front of the main British lines. Simms is able to go into extensive detail in his descriptions of the farmhouse, buildings and courtyard because of his friendship with the current owners, which is one of the things that make this particular work stand out. Simms also provides excellent maps and diagrams of the farmhouse and its outlying buildings. The farmhouse is almost its own character in the story, which he allows to develop under his guidance as he follows the 2nd Light Battalion through its tragic yet heroic afternoon.
As Simms sets the tactical and operational perspective for the conflict, he draws on a variety of primary sources to bring the human side of the battle to light. For example, he uses excerpts from diaries kept by soldiers on both sides of the battlefield to describe how the common soldier spent the night before the battle and the unease and discomfort of the morning before the fight. Soldiers who could sleep awoke to wet clothes and a gnawing hunger. Their thoughts were for dry clothing and a meal more than for the coming maelstrom.
Part of Simms’ mastery is the way he describes the horrors of war. He does not glorify war, nor does he denigrate the heroics of the common fighting man. He simply tells the realities of the gruesome spectacle that was 19th-century combat. The ground became so churned up with repeated attacks and counterattacks that bodies were slowly ground into the mud. This surely had an impact on all who were there, as Simms states.
For the Germans of the 2nd Light Battalion, their eventual victory came at a terrible cost. Seven of the battalion’s 20 officers were present at the post-battle roll call, and only 35 enlisted men were present at the end of the day. For the survivors, victory came absent a sense of triumph: The horrors and losses had been too great. He argues that the unit’s cohesion and sense of honor had kept them together in La Haye-Sainte long after other units had broken under lesser pressures. This same sense of cohesion, however, meant that the losses were felt even more deeply.
The shock of Waterloo remained with the men of the 2nd Light Battalion for the rest of their lives. A disturbingly large number of officers from the King’s German Legion committed suicide or were described as suffering “fits of insanity” after the war. Simms argues that many of these deaths could have been a result of battlefield trauma or post-traumatic stress.
The legacy of Waterloo for the German allies of Britain was mixed. The cross-cultural exchanges continued between the two nations as the Napoleonic Wars receded into the past and veterans continued to gather for commemorations of the battle. International events eventually drove a wedge between the two groups, culminating in the tragedy of World War I. The centennial of the battle in 1915 was greeted with sadness as the former allies slaughtered each other in France. World War II again brought the French and British together in opposition of Germany, which continued to sour the former British-Germanic partnership.
Simms points out, however, that the legacy of the partnership can be seen in a new light with the formation of NATO. The former combatants now serve alongside each other in operations across the world. The contribution of the Germans serving under British command at Waterloo can now be seen as a model for joint operations of European commands.
As a whole, this book is a concise, well-researched and exceedingly well-written account of the 2nd Light Battalion’s pivotal role at Waterloo. While arguments can also be made for other units’ contributions, the fact remains that the battalion did give Napoleon an unexpected obstacle in his path toward the main lines that bought valuable time for Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher to arrive. Students of the battle as well as those uninitiated with the Napoleonic Wars will find this a gripping and compelling work.
1st Lt. Jonathan D. Bratten is an engineer officer in the Maine Army National Guard, in which he serves as the command historian. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history.
There Are Limits to What Good Men Can Do
By Tyrell O. Mayfield
Beyond the Call: The True Story of One World War II Pilot’s Covert Mission to Rescue POWs on the Eastern Front. Lee Trimble with Jeremy Dronfield. The Berkley Publishing Group. 348 pages. $26.95.
Only a mediocre nation would not want a West Point.
Anne Kazel-Wilcox and PJ Wilcox deliver an entertaining history of the American way of war from Pearl Harbor through Vietnam as told by graduates of the U.S. Military Academy. Along the way, West Point ’41: The Class that Went to War and Shaped America reminds why the service academies remain so vital to keeping the promise of providing for the common defense.
Oral histories with members of the West Point Class of 1941 are the backbone of the book. They start with combat jumps over Sicily and end with senior commands in Saigon. The war stories are inspiring. Equally engaging are the glimpses into other valuable contributions soldiers make over the course of a career, from shaping planning at the highest levels during the Eisenhower administration to innovating new weapons and tactics like the air mobility and combat aviation force.
For perspective, the story of the Class of 1941 stands in sharp contrast to reporter Tom Ricks’ coverage of the same time in his book The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, which reads like a nonfiction version of Anton Myrer’s classic military novel Once an Eagle. Myrer’s book chronicles the Army story through the fictional careers of two officers, one dedicated to selfless service and the other a relentless self-promoter.
The Army, in Myrer’s jaded version of America’s past from the interwar years to the fall of Saigon, is depicted as a service at war with itself, undermined by clueless commanders who never figured out how to do anything more than refight the Battle of the Bulge and shallow military superstars obsessed with rank, power and fame over faithful service. In contrast, Rowny and his classmates describe themselves as dedicated, innovative, professional warriors. It’s a head-scratcher to think they are recounting the same period of American history.
Without question, West Point ’41’s greatest value is that it is a catalog of what the members of this class thought was important about themselves. It is a self-selected, reflective view of weathered brows looking back over the sweep of their lives, but it is still a valuable perspective for this generation as it thinks through the meaning of service as a generation of soldiers.
The war for the narrative of the post-9/11 warrior is well underway. The debate on whether our military served us well after the Twin Towers fell—and if they have the right stuff to deal with the dangers to come—will be a central feature in shaping the future Army profession. History matters. Re-examining service in the 20th century can be a touchstone for thinking critically about service in the 21st century.
One particular anecdote in this book should not be overlooked. In the 1960s, Walter Woolwine was tasked with the mission of mapping out the infrastructure for doubling the size of the corps of cadets. This change had a profound impact on West Point and reflected a re-energized commitment to the service academies, which has never wavered despite the shifting fortunes of the armed forces over time.
The military academies remain remarkably resilient institutions. Periodically, it is suggested that schools for soldiers are an anachronism. Ricks, for one, made the post-9/11 case for casting them aside in The Washington Post in 2009, yet these assaults always falter—and with good reason. The critics are wrong. The academies do not endure because of inertia. They are not discarded because they and their graduates might be imperfect. They endure because they still deliver eternal value.
No responsibility is more fundamental than providing for the common defense. No aspect of that obligation is more vital than ensuring the ethos and ethics of military institutions remain true to the obligations established under the Constitution, the fundamental contract between the people and their servant: the government. The academies represent a consistent commitment to honoring that contract. They are the taproot of the armed forces’ institutional culture.
Military academies are the spirit of service for a democracy. Its graduates carry it in their rucksack for the rest of their lives. The members of the Class of 1941 might have gotten diplomas from anywhere and provided an equally faithful lifetime of service, but why risk it?
Only a nation that is poor or poor in spirit would not want a West Point.
Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, USA Ret., Ph.D., served in Europe, Korea and the U.S. Before retiring, he was the executive editor of Joint Forces Quarterly, DoD’s professional military journal. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Carafano holds a master’s degree and a doctorate from Georgetown University as well as a master’s in strategy from the U.S. Army War College.