May 2020 Book Reviews

May 2020 Book Reviews

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Visual Guide to Winning a Worldwide Struggle

World War II Infographics. Jean Lopez, Nicolas Aubin, Vincent Bernard and Nicolas Guillerat. Thames and Hudson. 192 pages. $40

By Col. Kevin Benson, U.S. Army retired

World War II Infographics is an example of the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The four authors skillfully use pie charts, graphs and pictures to communicate data related to the effort required for the Allies to prosecute operations and win World War II. This book contributes to the body of knowledge about this globe-spanning conflict.

The aim of the book, as written in the preface, “is to create a better understanding of World War II.” The authors succeed. The table of contents is organized into four sections: The Context of the War, Arms and Armed Forces, Battles and Campaigns, and Aftermath and Consequences. The principal challenge for the authors clearly was what information to incorporate and what to omit, given space and page limitations.

Chapters within the sections were chosen with obvious care and are artfully presented. The first section, The Context of the War, covers everything from mobilization and manpower utilization decisions, to the issues of oil, economic forces and arms production from 1939–45, to the fall of democracy in Europe and Allied conferences planning for the post-war world. The material provides accessible and informative frames of reference for the conflict. The scope of the other sections is equally powerfully presented.

There are 19 selected Battles and Campaigns in that section. These range from “China: The Unrecognized Ally” to “US Logistics in Europe.” The infographics tell superb stories at a glance. The depiction of the theater of war highlights the difficulties both sides faced. The chapter on logistics in Europe adds depth to an understanding of the U.S. as the Arsenal of Democracy. It is clearly linked to the “Economic Forces” chapter and “The Battle of the Atlantic” chapter. The reader can see what it took to go from the factory to the front. The presentation of the data is detailed and informative.

In the preface, co-author Jean Lopez writes, “Looking at the illustrations here ... you might well answer the question of whether World War II was ‘a close-run thing’ differently.” Perhaps. Carl von Clausewitz described war as a contest of will, and adherence to will can sustain even a losing effort for some time.

World War II Infographics, presenting data as powerfully as it does, also reinforces the notion that warfare is conducted in the domain of chance. The weight of materiel may hasten the end of a war, but another conclusion drawn from this masterful presentation of data is that skilled use of physical and moral material is as necessary as courage to win a war.

This is a good book that makes you think.

Col. Kevin Benson, U.S. Army retired, served in armor and cavalry assignments in Europe and the U.S. He is a former director of the School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and has a doctorate in history from the University of Kansas.

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A Green Beret Fights for His Life and Limb

Tip of the Spear: The Incredible Story of an Injured Green Beret’s Return to Battle. Ryan Hendrickson. Center Street. 320 pages. $28

By James Jay Carafano

“Look at the bright side,” the doctor said. “If this works, we will rewrite limb salvage medical history.” An IED had left then-Staff Sgt. Ryan Hendrickson’s foot and lower leg hanging by a few bloody strands of muscle. Though the chances of successfully reattaching them were small, two dozen surgeries later, Hendrickson not only walked, but he returned to active duty and multiple combat deployments. Tip of the Spear: The Incredible Story of an Injured Green Beret’s Return to Battle is his story.

Thanks to Hendrickson for writing a frank and unvarnished memoir of his life. After a hardscrabble upbringing by a single parent who had trouble keeping a job and staying sober, Hendrickson joined the military, first serving in the Navy and the Air Force before qualifying for the Green Berets as a counter-IED specialist. His personal life had highs and lows, including multiple failed marriages, his own drinking problems and anger issues.

Then, in 2010, Hendrickson touched off an IED while on a combat patrol in Afghanistan. After a long, chancy and painful recovery, he determined to not only stay in the Army and return to active duty, but to wear his green beret again.

“For years,” Hendrickson wrote, “I had used my difficult childhood as a crutch. …  Everything was always someone or something else’s fault. I did not have control of my life; life controlled me. … That’s when I determined that I would use this near-death experience to make myself a better man.”

Hendrickson volunteered for the 7th Special Forces Group’s Thor III program, a rehabilitation and testing program for wounded and injured soldiers to qualify for a return to combat duty. It was an experience as grueling as it was to qualify for the Green Berets to begin with. He qualified to again deploy with Special Forces. In 2016, Hendrickson received a Silver Star for action against the Taliban fighting in Baghlan Province, Afghanistan. Still, there is no easy end to this story. Like about a quarter of his fellow combat veterans, Hendrickson suffered traumatic brain injury, which created new obstacles. Hendrickson retired from the Army in 2019.

Personal narratives of this kind of war are valuable, not just for understanding life at the tip of the spear but also for their insight into those who have strength for the fight.

The resilience, endurance and mental toughness of soldiers is remarkable, and also remarkable is how these attributes of great soldiering are unchanged from the days when warriors fought with bows and arrows.

American military services will undoubtedly rely on all-volunteer forces for the foreseeable future. The statistic that over two-thirds of American youth are unqualified for military service is well known. America will always need people like Hendrickson, not just for battle, but for their grit and determination. A worthy national goal would be to not only increase the percentage of youth qualified to serve, but also to expand the number of those who have a propensity for service. Every generation should have the commitment to serve, sacrifice and put in the work.

As Hendrickson’s painfully honest biography reminds, it is not about socioeconomic status and education. It’s a matter of character, conviction and faith. From Sgt. Alvin York to Audie Murphy to Hendrickson, a strong, determined heart is foundational.

James Jay Carafano is a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, responsible for directing the Washington, D.C., think tank’s research into matters of national security and foreign relations. He served in the Army for 25 years.

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Act of Defiance Kick-Started Sports Career

The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson: The Baseball Legend’s Battle for Civil Rights during World War II. Michael Lee Lanning. Stackpole Books. 296  pages. $29.95

By Maj. Joe Byerly

For those of us serving today, it is hard to imagine a time when discrimination and segregation were accepted on Army posts throughout the United States—even as we fought a world war in Europe and the Pacific. However, the Army reflected American society and, unfortunately, racial equality came much later in our history.

In The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson: The Baseball Legend’s Battle for Civil Rights during World War II, historian Michael Lee Lanning follows the life of Jackie Robinson from his childhood, through his time in the Army that ended with a court-martial, and eventually his Hall of Fame-worthy baseball career. The author argues that while Robinson’s two years in the Army is only a footnote in his life story, his service and subsequent court-martial played a significant role in Robinson making the transition from second lieutenant to professional baseball player.

The book is a short biography, coming in at only 148 pages; however, the author includes over 100 additional pages of historical perspectives to help frame the time period in which Robinson lived, a transcript of the court-martial, and sworn statements taken from witnesses at the time of Robinson’s arrest. The biographical chapters are only a few pages each, breaking the book into easily digestible chunks.

Even though the title suggests the meat of the book will cover the court-martial, it’s only a few chapters. The court-martial lasted only four hours, ending with Robinson’s acquittal. The charges stemmed from Robinson refusing to move to the back of the bus while serving in a tank destroyer battalion at then-Camp Hood, Texas. His act of defiance came 11 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama.

So why name a book after an event of such short duration? Lanning argues that without the court-martial, we may have never heard of Jackie Robinson. This event soured his outlook on the Army, and he got orders to leave the service three months after the court-martial. Otherwise, he most likely would have deployed to Europe in World War II to fight alongside his fellow soldiers in the 761st Tank Battalion.

The book itself is well researched and is based on over 450 pages of Robinson’s official Army service records, declassified FBI documents, published biographies and periodicals. Additionally, Lanning is a 20-year combat veteran and applies his own Army experiences to his analysis.

The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson serves as a reminder of an Army where soldiers weren’t treated fairly because of their skin color. It’s also a story of one man overcoming what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles to become a national hero. Finally, it’s an example of how minor turbulent episodes in our lives can have strategic impacts on our life trajectory.

Maj. Joe Byerly is an armor officer and recently served as a special adviser with the U.S. Special Operations Command. He is a Non-Resident Fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute and is the founder of the website From the Green Notebook.

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Former Soldier Brings Storied Regiment to Life

The Blackhorse in Vietnam: The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam and Cambodia, 1966–1972. Donald Snedeker. Casemate (An AUSA title). 336 pages. $34.95

By Lt. Col. James Willbanks, U.S. Army retired

The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment was one of the most distinguished U.S. units to serve in the Vietnam War. In The Blackhorse in Vietnam: The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam and Cambodia, 1966–1972, Donald Snedeker, historian for the 11th Armored Cavalry’s Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia, seeks to provide a comprehensive history of the unit’s service in Southeast Asia. As the unit historian, he had access to a wide array of after-action reports, first-person accounts, maps, photographs and other primary source material.

His research is also informed by his own service in the regiment in Vietnam and later in Germany. The result is a readable and informative story of a unique unit in combat.

Before going to Vietnam, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment was reorganized and equipped for a new mission during a time when there was little doctrine on the employment of armored cavalry units in a counterinsurgency environment like Vietnam. Snedeker describes how the unit was formed and trained for the new mission, overcoming a number of obstacles in the process. In September 1966, the 3,000-plus troopers of the combined arms force, along with over 400 armored vehicles and almost 50 helicopters, were deployed to the war zone.

The author notes there was more than a little resistance among the senior officers who ran the war in Vietnam about the use of an armored cavalry regiment in a jungle environment. However, the author describes in great detail how the Blackhorse overcame this institutional bias, essentially developing its own doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures while engaged in combat.

Initially assigned the mission of opening and securing National Highway 1, the regiment established a base camp near Xuan Loc and immediately commenced combat operations. The troopers from the unit were involved in four major combat operations in the first four months of their deployment; three more major operations followed before the rainy season began in 1967. The Blackhorse quickly proved its worth.

Snedeker goes into great detail regarding the regiment’s participation in Operations Attleboro, Cedar Falls and Junction City. He also describes how the regiment’s second squadron was detached for duty in I Corps and how that diluted the overall strength of the regiment. Snedeker continues to describe the regiment’s operations, including its significant role in turning back the Tet Offensive in 1968, the bloody fighting that followed in 1969, and the role of the regiment in the 1970 Cambodian incursion.

The result is a detailed, vibrant account of the regiment in combat, told through the experiences and words of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment troopers who were there. The author is adept at weaving these individual and personal stories with the larger tactical, operational and strategic contexts to construct a narrative that grabs the reader’s attention. The book includes a number of good maps and is extensively illustrated with excellent photographs.

Snedeker concludes the book with a discussion of the legacy of the Blackhorse, which, after Vietnam, patrolled the East-West German border for 22 years, then redeployed to the U.S. and became the opposing force at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California.

He points out that the Blackhorse also had an influence on the modernization of the post-war Army thanks to key senior officers who had served in the regiment in Vietnam, including Gens. Donn Starry and Frederick Franks Jr., as well as Brig. Gen. Thomas White, who went on to become secretary of the Army.

This is a well-written, extensively documented unit history of a regiment with an enviable combat record that will interest both military historians and Vietnam veterans, particularly those who served in the Blackhorse during the war and after.

Lt. Col. James Willbanks, U.S. Army retired, is professor emeritus of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is a Vietnam veteran and author or editor of 20 books, including Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War and A Raid Too Far: Operation Lam Son 719 and Vietnamization in Laos. He holds a doctorate in history from the University of Kansas.