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March 2018 Book Reviews

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Facing the Threats of a Post-9/11 World

The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power & the Necessity of Military Force. Eliot A. Cohen. Basic Books. 304 pages. $27.99

By Col. Gregory Fontenot

U.S. Army retired

Eliot A. Cohen’s The Big Stick is a provocative review of post-Cold War security policy and execution focused primarily on the era since 9/11. Cohen makes his case in three parts, asking: was “expense in blood and treasure worth it,” whether the “arguments for scaling back American aims” are justified and whether “the United States is simply too incompetent to use force sensibly.”

In these contexts, he examines what he identifies as the primary threats to the U.S. Finally, he proposes six ideas on how policymakers might “think about and use force.” Without dismissing Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power,” which is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction, Cohen asserts that “force remains the last argument of kings—or presidents.”

Cohen, a political scientist who served as a counselor in the State Department from 2007 to 2009, argues that “pacific realists” have for the past two generations grown in influence to the point that they now dominate security policy. These realists posit that the use of force as a means of settling disputes has declined over time. Although it doesn’t follow, they argue the U.S. should define its security interests narrowly to defend against attack. The realists believe the U.S. should continue to engage globally using soft power rather than force.

Furthermore, they argue the U.S. should avoid military engagement because it has proven incompetent in the use of force. Cohen debunks the realists by examining their assumptions. For example, according to him, pacific realists contend that all states are similar and have interests they will defend. Inherently, that suggests a rational approach to assessing interests.

This central assumption is deeply flawed. Time and again, states demonstrate that culture and personality matter, as do emotion, ideology and faith. For example, Saddam Hussein chose to seize Kuwait, reasoning with a logic all his own. His reasoning was perfectly rational from his perspective, however irrational it seemed to Americans.

Cohen’s review of the long war in the Middle East makes the essential point that the problem is not exclusively about post-colonial instability. It is also about the failure of Middle East states. Instability in the Middle East reflects government dysfunction, a crisis in Islam and the ideology of Islamism.

The U.S. exacerbates the problem by conflating the tactics of terrorism with criminal behavior. Although he used the wrong term, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was essentially correct when he described Islamic belligerents as “illegal combatants.” In fact, they are “unlawful combatants.” Cohen also argues that the U.S. government must forthrightly address the fact that no warfare can be done without killing—to include killing those who are more or less innocent. The case for force against enemies such as the Islamic State group must be made unapologetically.

Cohen also addresses the threats posed by near-peers such as Russia and China and would-be regional hegemons such as Iran and North Korea.

“The Logic of Hard Power” is the title of his concluding chapter. In it he dismisses the war college mantra of “commitment, end state and exit strategy” as “pixie dust” and of little use in managing “complex problems.” More interesting, he dismisses the concept of “grand strategy” as infeasible. According to him, the human condition makes it impossible to anticipate the future in a way useful for proactive policy and effective execution. Sadly, policymaking and execution are likely to remain reactive.

Without admitting that the longstanding policy of containment was in fact a grand strategy, he claims it was inadequate to cope with the dynamic and complex nature of the strategic problems the U.S. confronted during the Cold War. John Lewis Gaddis demonstrated in his excellent Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War that the grand strategies to achieve containment, indeed the understanding of the meaning of containment, changed with conditions and administrations. Whether the U.S. got it wrong or not, it did have a consistent policy and flexible grand strategic vision that endured over time. 

Although Cohen questions the idea of codifying rules for the use of force, he nevertheless proposes six rules for the use of military force. But they are aphorisms. One of them is “Understand your war for what it is, not what you wish it to be.” Good advice, but not very helpful. 

Despite this criticism, Cohen’s concluding chapter is as brilliant as those that precede it. This essay should provoke thought in soldiers who assume the next war will look much like the past 16 years and occur in urban areas. They may be mistaken.

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, he is co-author of On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom and author of The 1st Division and the US Army Transformed: Road to Victory in Desert Storm 1970–1991.

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Army Has Always Been a Work in Progress

Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815–1917. J.P. Clark. Harvard University Press. 352 pages. $39.95

By Maj. Joe Byerly

If you follow the military blogosphere, you will notice there has been an increasing number of junior and midgrade officers arguing for reform. These motivated authors seek to change everything from the personnel system to professional military education. While these individuals may feel as if they are navigating unchartered waters, they are not. They join a long line of professionals who have sought to push the Army forward as society and the greater geopolitical landscape continue to evolve.

This idea of the Army adapting to the times is captured perfectly in J.P. Clark’s Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815-1917. The book follows the Army between the War of 1812 and World War I as it expanded and contracted, improved training and professional military education, and prepared its leaders for war.

Two themes are prevalent throughout the book. The first is that individual reformers are only part of the equation for changing the Army. As Clark states, “Fundamental change in any large organization will always likely be the product of multiple intellectual strands and individual efforts coming from both within and without.”

He backs up this statement with multiple examples. For instance, he connects Emory Upton’s influence at the U.S. Military Academy in the late 19th century to later reformers such as Arthur Wagner, Eben Swift and James Pettit who worked together (and against each other) in Washington, D.C., and at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to change policy, education and tactics. Clark also spends a good portion of the book discussing the reforms of Elihu Root, an outsider who was a New York lawyer before taking over the War Department. Finally, he shows how outside societal influences eventually made their way into the ranks, helping the Army reflect greater America at large. 

The second theme that emerges is that there are typically two U.S. Armies. One consists of the “regulars,” those officers and NCOs who make a life out of military service. The other camp is comprised of the civilians who either sign up or are drafted to serve in a time of war. He writes about this dichotomy during the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln called up an additional 300,000 volunteers in the summer of 1862. The second great expansion occurred in 1917 when the Army increased from 98,000 to 4 million young men. He stresses the point that the Army had to figure out how to quickly equip this influx of personnel and train them in military tactics. He also argues that the professional military education and experiences of the regulars greatly influenced this transition period. 

This book is perfect for anyone looking to study organizational change, or leaders who want to impact the Army’s future. It’s also an important resource for those who wish to understand the requirements that will be placed on the military at the outbreak of another major war. Clark’s well-researched narrative is an easy read, packed full of insights and anecdotes from 100 years of Army history, and should be on every professional’s bookshelf. 

Maj. Joe Byerly is an armor officer and the executive officer for the 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo.

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Tet Lives On for One Soldier and His Unit

The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle to Survive the Vietnam War. Doug Stanton. Scribner. 336 pages. $30

By Col. Steve Patarcity

U.S. Army Reserve retired

In the midst of the centennial commemoration of World War I, we might lose sight of the fact there are other significant anniversaries in the history of America’s armed forces that will occur this year. One of them is the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War, which began on Jan. 30, 1968.

This campaign of surprise attacks in South Vietnam against American and Vietnamese forces drew its name from the Tet holiday, or Vietnamese New Year, when the attacks were initiated.

While Tet resulted in some initial successes for the North Vietnamese Army, the campaign was a tactical victory for U.S. and South Vietnamese forces that inflicted huge casualties on the enemy. However, Tet signaled the beginning of the end of support for the conflict by the American populace.

Doug Stanton’s most recent work, The Odyssey of Echo Company, is a well-written and powerful account of the tale of the reconnaissance platoon of Echo Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, during Tet. It focuses on Stan Parker, a young soldier from Indiana and his coming of age in war and its profound, and lasting, effects on him. 

Stanton, the author of the New York Times bestsellers In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors and Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, weaves an engaging and at times gripping story the reader will find hard to set aside. I read the book in less than two days. What makes the story so enthralling is that it is not just a recounting of the Tet Offensive, but the storyline of the young Parker.

It traces his life from his humble beginnings in middle America as one of four sons of an ironworker, and as a high school athlete with a burning desire to serve. It chronicles his close relationship with his mother and the effects of her death upon him, to his passage through training and deployment to Vietnam (after an initial tour in Germany), to and through Tet and its aftermath. It continues to Parker’s (and fellow troopers’) attempts to reintegrate and reconcile themselves at home with society, friends and family, and finally, to a cathartic visit by Parker and a former fellow soldier to a village northeast of Hue where Parker was wounded in February 1968. 

One thing that makes The Odyssey of Echo Company compelling is how Stanton met Parker—on a helicopter at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, in 2005 while researching another of his works. Thirty-seven years after Tet, Parker was a command sergeant major with multiple deployments as a special operator all over the world. Interestingly, of all the stories Parker could have told Stanton, the one he wanted (and needed) to tell was of his recon platoon in Vietnam in 1968.

As the tale progresses, the reader is drawn ever closer into the life of Parker and his friends and their close personal bonds with each other. The harrowing stories of close combat and the actions of men under fire are captured by Stanton in a well-written and well-researched story that literally puts the reader on the ground in the fight. I can’t make that claim about many of the books I’ve read on Vietnam, but I can with this book, as Stanton has accomplished this so effortlessly.

Stanton did an excellent job researching this story. He used multiple methods including personal interviews, reviews of official government reports and reviews, previous works on the Vietnam War, and published and unpublished diaries and letters, noted in an extensive bibliography. He also spent hundreds of hours traveling and interviewing unit survivors and even journeyed to Vietnam with Parker to revisit the scenes of battles and firefights, a trip that resulted in perhaps the most effective and poignant scene of the book.

An excellent collection of photographs and maps effectively supports the telling of the story. I wholeheartedly recommend The Odyssey of Echo Company as a worthy addition to any personal library and as a thoughtful and thought-provoking story—and study—on the life journey of a great American soldier and his teammates in war and in peace. 

Col. Steve Patarcity, USAR Ret., is a civilian strategic planner on the staff of the Office of the Chief of Army Reserve at the Pentagon. He retired in 2010 after 33 years of service in the active Army and Army Reserve, which included military police and armor assignments in the U.S., Kuwait and Iraq.

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A Riveting Account of an Improbable Victory

Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny. Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. Sentinel. 288 pages. $28

By Col. Cole C. Kingseed
U.S. Army Retired

Two hundred and fifty years after his birth in 1767, Andrew Jackson remains one of America’s most controversial generals and presidents. In an exciting new book that chronicles the birth of the Jacksonian legend, co-authors Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger explore the future president’s role in the Battle of New Orleans. Though highly readable and masterfully told, Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans is more popular history than serious scholarship, more hagiography than comprehensive biography.

This is not the first time Kilmeade and Yaeger have collaborated in producing a riveting narrative of America’s early national period. They are the co-authors of George Washington’s Secret Six and Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, both New York Times bestsellers. Kilmeade co-hosts Fox News Channel’s morning show Fox & Friends and hosts The Brian Kilmeade Show on Fox News Radio. Yaeger has written or co-written 26 books.

What attracted Kilmeade and Yaeger to Jackson is their assessment that the Battle of New Orleans is a “story of a highly factionalized society coming together at a time of crisis and uniting their skills” to productive ends. Considering the current turmoil of the domestic political environment and the challenges the Army faces on the international scene, a study of Jackson’s role in one of this nation’s pivotal battles seems instructive in demonstrating how ordinary citizens may carry out a charismatic leader’s vision.

To their credit, the authors are masterful storytellers. The rise of Jackson from his American Revolutionary roots to his arrival in New Orleans on Dec. 1, 1814, dominates this narrative. The authors opine that Jackson overcame monumental obstacles before he emerged “as the best general in service to the American cause.” Victories against the Creek Indians in the aftermath of the massacre at Fort Mims, Ala., in 1813 and Jackson’s swift action to deprive British forces of Gulf of Mexico ports to launch their campaign against the Mississippi River Delta convinced the James Madison administration that Jackson was the ideal commander to entrust the safety of New Orleans.

Kilmeade and Yaeger’s narrative is highly one-sided—Jackson’s forces are frequently portrayed as a “brave ragtag array of volunteers” against the “King’s battle-hardened veterans, the finest fighting force in the world.” The authors posit that the only advantages the Americans possessed in the upcoming battle were “divine intervention” by the Ursuline nuns and the “devout women of New Orleans,” a “frontier general and the American commitment to victory.” 

The actual conduct of the battle on Jan. 8, 1815, occupies a scant 10 pages of the narrative. Far more pages are dedicated to Jackson’s surprise attack against the encamped British regulars on Dec. 23. Jackson’s pre-emptory night assault actually paved the road to victory on America’s “day of destiny” two weeks later. Fortunately, superb battle maps enhance the text and provide readers with a more comprehensive understanding of both engagements.

How then did Jackson and his multiethnic, multigenerational army consisting of people from every American social class and occupation come together to do what Napoleon had failed to do? The authors attribute the improbable American victory to the combination of “Jackson’s military instincts, his impeccable planning, and his ferocious leadership.” Though Jackson played the most pivotal role in the American victory, other factors contributed to the British defeat, not the least of which was an unimaginative tactical plan.

With victory secured and the receipt of the news that the Treaty of Ghent concluded the war, Jackson returned to his home in Nashville, Tenn. The victorious general had become a national hero. In the process, “Mr. Madison’s War” evolved into “Gen. Jackson’s War” because Jackson had restored America’s honor following the burning of the nation’s capital. Equally important, the Battle of New Orleans would later propel Jackson to the presidency. Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans may not be an untold story, but it is a well-told story in the hands of Kilmeade and Yaeger.

Col. Cole C. Kingseed, USA Ret., a former professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, is a writer and consultant. He has a doctorate from Ohio State University.

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Moving Men, Animals, Materiel During Civil War

Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transportation. Earl J. Hess. Louisiana State University Press. 280 pages. $45.95

By Lt. Gen. Roger Thompson
U.S. Army Retired

“Nothing happens until something moves!” This current U.S. Army Transportation Corps adage also applies to the American Civil War experience. In the war’s last fiscal year (which ended in June 1865), the North moved almost 3.4 million soldiers, over 716,000 animals and 9.4 million tons of supplies including food, fodder, ordnance and medical supplies.

In Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transportation, Earl J. Hess, the author of 18 books on the Civil War, gives us this first comparative analysis of transportation for the North and South, underscoring the indispensability of transportation for combat success. He relies on military and news reports, personal accounts, analyses of the time and more recent studies. His work is somewhat limited by a dearth of Confederate reports and records, but he extracts cogent facts from the plethora of detail on federal operations.

Hess starts by summarizing the American transportation heritage in the Mexican War and the European experience in its wars. He describes existing conditions in the North and South at the war’s beginning and how their leaders attempted to leverage them for success. This war began without existing war plans. Hess analyzes the transportation systems available to the North and South: river, rail, coastal shipping, wagon trains, and the lesser systems of pack trains, cattle herds and foot power. He pays special attention to examples of large troop transfers (unit moves) and targeting of the railroads, coastal shipping and wagons.

The key transportation leader was the quartermaster general of the Army. We learn that while the Confederacy failed to appoint a strong and competent one, Union Maj. Gen. Montgomery Meigs fulfilled expectations for this crucial position. Confederate transportation failures in large part stemmed from weak leadership and the inability to overcome problems, starting with its president, Jefferson Davis, while the Union organized and operated from a position of centralized power.

Meigs established policy and procedure and coordinated the budget to procure cost-effective, reliable assets and services from commercial providers. Seizure of commercial assets was a tool for compliance. A U.S. Military Railroad was established. Its linkages to road, river and the coastal transportation systems were strengthened and exploited as the war spread far and wide.

The South had meager rail and highway systems and its leaders, reluctant to interfere with normal commerce, took much longer to attain some small modicum of control. The North used its own commercial rail lines in the earlier years of the war, achieving strategic troop and materiel movements east and west before pressing southward on captured lines, roads or riverboats in the South. Confederates had no real freedom to operate coastal shipping due mostly to Union blockades. The North made great use of its commercial coastal shipping.

Northern Gens. William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, having served in the river-laced West, were likely the most experienced users of military transportation. Sherman preferred riverboat resupply, which was generally unavailable in his march to Georgia and beyond.

He boldly relied upon a single 350-mile rail line of communication (LOC) from Louisville, Ky., to Atlanta. He suffered supply shortages resulting from attacks on the railroad despite diverting combat troops to prevent them. When he later attacked eastward from Atlanta, he abandoned that LOC, living mostly off the land supported by wagons that generally kept pace with his advances.

Both sides used rail or steamboat to move reinforcements. Planning and execution included amounts of trains, railcars, vessels and time consumed. There are Union and Confederate accounts of unit moves by combinations of rail, steamboat and foot to participate in battle. We learn the why and how of these moves. Hess analyzes whether and how Sherman could have moved his 60,000 soldiers more rapidly from Atlanta to Petersburg, Va., by rail to support Grant. Could it have ended the war sooner?

Hess could have discussed in greater detail procurement, supply and maintenance of the forces, but he convincingly asserts this complex topic requires a study of its own. Little is written about the operational and tactical transportation command-and-control structure. Also, it would have been instructive to learn about allocation and management of supporting transportation for the huge number of casualties.

Nonetheless, Hess has given us a study that awes as it educates. He casts  revealing light on Civil War leadership, systems and means to move massive amounts of men, animals and materiel over great distances. Today’s thoughtful commander can gain valuable insights about logistics success in battle and obstacles to achieve it. We are reminded that winning decisively depends upon a robust, highly competent team of transportation leaders, units and commercial capability to deliver and concentrate cross-domain combat power and support.

Lt. Gen. Roger Thompson, USA Ret., served for 34 years commanding field artillery firing batteries and transportation units up to the Army’s Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command and completed his service as deputy commander of the U.S. Transportation Command. Earlier, he was assistant chief of staff, G-4, of the 3rd Infantry Division and commander of the 37th Transportation Command, U.S. Army Europe. Upon retirement, he became vice president of Membership and Meetings for the Association of the U.S. Army. He currently serves as chairman of the board for AUSA’s Charleston, S.C., chapter.