November 2017 Book Reviews
Examining the Wax and Wane of Military Force
Drawdown: The American Way of Postwar. Edited by Jason W. Warren. New York University Press. 310 pages. $30
By Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano
U.S. Army retired
It should come as no surprise that drawdowns and the hollowing out of America’s military are endemic parts of the American military experience. Alexis de Tocqueville did warn us. “We have seen … that among a democratic people the choicer minds of the nation are gradually drawn away from the military profession, to seek by other paths distinction, power, and especially wealth,” he wrote in Democracy in America. “After a long peace—and in democratic ages the periods of peace are long—the Army is always inferior to the country itself. In this state it is called into active service; and until war has altered it, there is danger for the country as well as for the Army.” Unless there is a compelling force pulling democracies in the opposite direction, their tendency is to drift toward unpreparedness.
Maj. Jason W. Warren, an assistant professor at the U.S. Army War College, shows that history has proven de Tocqueville right with an edited collection of historical studies that examine aspects of how military drawdowns have impacted America’s capacity to defend itself. Drawdown: The American Way of Postwar includes chapters that range from the mustering of militias for King Philip’s War (1675–76) through the post-Cold War drawdown from the fall of the Berlin Wall to post-9/11.
One of the values of collecting these essays into a volume is how clearly they illuminate threads of continuity in American military practices. A particularly dominant trend has been the strength of civil-military relations in good times and bad.
De Tocqueville warned that “democratic armies are often restless, ill-tempered, and dissatisfied with their lot.” He remained perpetually concerned that too strong a military would usurp power from its political masters. This concern was a reflection of common wisdom in Anglo-American thinking that drew heavily from the British historical experience. The notion of “no standing armies,” drawing down forces when they were not needed for war so they could not be exploited by the sovereign for domestic suppression, was accepted by the Founding Fathers as a matter of doctrine.
On this point, de Tocqueville was off-target. American soldiers may get grumpy and dissatisfied, but they rarely get rebellious. Civil-military relations in the U.S. never reached the crisis point that they did in Britain when Oliver Cromwell made war on the king and then turned on Parliament in the mid-1600s.
American drawdowns, as several chapters in Drawdown make clear, never seriously strained civil-military relations. U.S. Military Academy professor Samuel Watson notes in a study of reductions of the Army officer corps between 1783 and 1848 that politics was largely kept out of the process of deciding who would stay and who would go. “Surprisingly, given the fierce partisan divisions of the time,” Watson writes, “neither partisan nor sectional considerations dominated the reductions.” While politics controlled the military policy, in the U.S. tradition, American politics don’t transcend military practices.
Rather than becoming the point of tension in a drawdown, the military, and the officer corps in particular, helps see the country through the drawdown and lays the foundation for the next buildup. As former Army colonel and distinguished historian Peter Mansoor writes in the foreword to this book, “the most important requirement during drawdown periods … is the maintenance of the human intellectual capital of the military.” Rebuilding a military without a military is hard.
Drawdown presents no easy answers to preventing drawdowns. As de Tocqueville got right so long ago, in democracies, military policies are driven by politics. The good news is that military force remains responsive to political will. The downside is that drawdowns driven by politics can leave a military insufficient to protect the vital interests of the nation it serves.
Nor does this collection of historical case studies offer simple solutions for how to endure or recover from hollowing out the force. Rather, together these examples remind us that historical context matters, not just in understanding the past but for living in the present as well.
That said, what Drawdown ought to do is help stimulate the critical thinking of those interested in considering the current military malaise and how to deal with it.
Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, USA Ret., is a Heritage Foundation vice president in charge of the think tank’s policy research in defense and foreign affairs.
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There’s More to Korea Than MacArthur
MacArthur’s Korean War Generals. Stephen R. Taaffe. University Press of Kansas. 278 pages. $34.95
By Cmdr. John T. Kuehn
U.S. Navy retired
With MacArthur’s Korean War Generals, historian Stephen R. Taaffe has written an excellent study of operational leadership in modern war. Although Gen. Douglas MacArthur serves as the organizing principle behind this study, he is not its main focus. His generals are, and their combat leadership under his command in the first, crucial year of the Korean War.
Taaffe’s primary arguments center on these men, how they were selected—before and during the war—and especially their performance in combat as generals from the regimental up to the Army command level.
Taaffe argues that an existing Army promotion system focused on “ticket-punching” at regimental, division and corps levels ended up placing quite a few officers in command, especially at the division level, when better, more veteran combat leaders were available. He introduces this idea for those in command at the start of the war:
Although all the division and regimental chiefs had served in World War II … very few of them … had much experience leading these units in action. … Some of these officers successfully made the transition and provided good service in Korea, but others did not. The pity was that the Army had plenty of officers who had successfully run regiments and divisions and were therefore familiar and comfortable with the responsibilities such jobs entailed, but they were not on hand in Japan at the war’s start.
Taaffe criticizes MacArthur for settling for what the Army sent him instead of being more proactive about who led his divisions in Japan before the war’s outbreak in June 1950. He revisits this thesis at the end of the book, with the entire narrative now under the reader’s belt to support his claim that the leaders early in the war were “mediocre placeholders.”
Taaffe does make clear that the leadership improved, but perhaps not as quickly as it might have due to the Army’s dynamic for selecting and promoting generals. The reader also gets good snapshots of the more senior leaders such as Gens. Walton Walker and Matthew Ridgway and Lt. Gen. Ned Almond. Accounts of Marine general officer leadership—especially that of then-Maj. Gen. Oliver Smith—are somewhat in contrast to those of the Army’s generals, but the data set is so much smaller that making any systemic conclusions is difficult—and to his credit, Taaffe does not.
In the interim, the reader gets a good operational history, and history of tactical and operational-level leadership for the key first year of the war, the year that really decided the conflict, as campaigns swept up and down the contested Korean Peninsula. The book is worth the effort just for these leadership narratives and is unsparing in its judgments as well as its praise, when deserved, for these officers, most of whom are not familiar to American military history audiences unless they are Korean War buffs.
The scope of the book, which ends with the stabilization of the front north of the 38th Parallel for the last two years of the war, is just right. After all, the book is about MacArthur’s generals, not Ridgway’s nor those of his successor, Gen. James Van Fleet.
There is room for minor criticism. First, although Taaffe supports his claims about the leadership, he never goes into much detail about what other general officers were out there who could have been plugged in quickly into the Korean leadership in the midst of combat. This second part is also problematic and mitigates what happened. As former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said, “You go to war with the Army you have,” and the same is true of generals: You go to war with the generals you have. The skill sets in peacetime are often different than those most valuable in war.
A second criticism involves the joint nature of the conflict. Simply put, it might have been nice to get a better feel for the role of the Navy’s flag officers and, especially, the Air Force’s and their relationships with their Army counterparts. Air power played an immense role in helping U.N. forces in Korea offset their numerical weaknesses on the battlefield, initially, and then again when the Chinese entered the fray. A similar critique also applies to the South Korean generals in the fight. There is far too little on their backgrounds and role in the narrative.
Finally, some of the portraits of these leaders are so compelling that the reader may want to see some photographs. But there are none. Even a dozen or so photographs would have added value to the book. On the other hand, the book is well-supplied with good maps, which are essential for a narrative that resides mostly at the operational level.
MacArthur’s Korean War Generals is an excellent operational study of the first year of the Korean War and the American generals who fought it. One hopes Taaffe might apply his considerable skills in doing a study of MacArthur’s World War II generals in a similar manner, another set of men who deserve a study such as this.
This book is highly recommended for any military professional’s reading list.
Cmdr. John T. Kuehn, USN Ret., is professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. His newest book, to be published by Naval Institute Press, is America’s First General Staff: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the Navy, 1900–1950.
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Motley Crew Morphed Into Courageous Officers
Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Stephen W. Sears. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 912 pages. $38
By Col. Cole C. Kingseed
U.S. Army retired
In the foreword of his monumental four-volume biography of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Southern historian Douglas S. Freeman pondered this question: “In holding the light exclusively on Lee, had one put in undeserved shadow the many excellent soldiers of his Army?” To answer that question, Freeman wrote Lee’s Lieutenants, a sweeping narrative of the high command of the Army of Northern Virginia. No comparable study of the Army of the Potomac, Lee’s major adversary through four years of bloody conflict during the Civil War, existed. Until now.
Acclaimed historian Stephen W. Sears corrects this imbalance by providing the most comprehensive analysis of the high command of the Army of the Potomac. With Lincoln’s Lieutenants and 15 other books to his credit, including campaign histories of Antietam, the Peninsula Campaign, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, Sears cements his reputation as the pre-eminent historian of the Eastern Theater.
The task confronting President Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of the Civil War was more difficult than he and then-Secretary of War Simon Cameron imagined. Said Cameron: “I found the nation without an Army; and I found scarcely a man throughout the War Department in whom I could put my trust.” Yet an Army eventually emerged when General-in-Chief Winfield Scott prepared volunteers for battle under then-Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell in defense of the capital. McDowell’s Army of Northeastern Virginia met defeat at First Bull Run in July 1861, which paved the way for a name change and a new commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan.
The late historian Bruce Catton, to whom this book is dedicated, labeled McClellan’s tour of command as the Era of Suspicion. Given a relatively free hand by Lincoln, McClellan selected his senior commanders for his newly christened Army of the Potomac. With few exceptions, these corps-level commanders mirrored their chief and seemed reluctant to fight the aggressive Lee. Under McClellan, the Army of the Potomac commanders, from headquarters down to brigade level, “indulged themselves in the politics of war,” Sears writes. Intrigue, petty bickering, and what critics called “bad blood and paralysis” characterized the high command during the Era of Suspicion.
The Era of McClellan lasted until November 1862 when Lincoln replaced him with Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Though “the Army of the Potomac would see no more of McClellan … the mark he left on that Army proved indelible.” Following defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Va., the high command of the Army of the Potomac reached “comparatively sunny uplands” when Maj. Gen. George Meade took command of the Army and then-Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of the war effort.
In analyzing why certain commanders succeeded or failed, Sears provides detailed summaries of the Army of the Potomac’s commanders following each of the Army’s major engagements. Though his corps commanders’ performances at Gettysburg ranged from “brilliant to abysmal,” for example, he assigns high marks to Meade for “commanding his commanders.” Sears opines that among the most distinguished commanders in the Army of the Potomac was Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who Sears says “was everywhere and did everything.”
Not surprisingly, the high command of the Army of the Potomac that closed the war in April 1865 was far different from the Potomac Army that went to war in the Virginia Peninsula in spring 1862. Twenty generals were dead and scores were removed from command. Sears writes, “The list of ex-Potomac Army generals was unimaginably long.”
When he became general-in-chief in March 1864, Grant pondered what was wrong with the Army of the Potomac. Thirteen months later, he had his answer. When he received Lee’s sword at Appomattox, Va., on April 9, 1865, Grant proudly proclaimed, “This Army has now won a most decisive victory and followed the enemy. That is all it ever wanted to make it as good an army as ever fought a battle.”
Lincoln’s Lieutenants is the best account yet written on the commanders of the Army of the Potomac. In short, Sears has produced a tour de force that is destined to be a classic of Civil War historiography.
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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In WWI, Middle East Was More Than a Sideshow
The Great War and the Middle East. Rob Johnson. Oxford University Press. 400 pages. $34.95
By Maj. Timothy Heck
U.S. Marine Corps Reserve
Rob Johnson’s masterful The Great War and the Middle East is a well-written examination of the periphery of World War I and its strategic impact. Reaching beyond the traditional narrative of the Gallipoli Campaign, Lawrence of Arabia or Palestine, the book is a “strategic study, which concentrates on the higher level of war rather than on tactics and operations.”
Using an ends-ways-means analysis, Johnson frames the war from Libya eastward to Afghanistan and north into Turkey and the Caucasus as one that truly represented the imperial nature of World War I. The battles of the Masurian Lakes in present-day Poland or the Somme in France are better known, but to deny the strategic implications of the Middle East, Johnson argues, is to miss a broader context of the conflict.
Johnson’s writing focuses on British diplomatic and military calculations, as well as the need for empires to play to their colonial possessions and homefront audiences when it came to the Middle East. These often-conflicting interests came to a head, be it at Kut in modern-day Iraq or Gallipoli or in Palestine. Furthermore, the ever-lengthening war “produced differences or disputes between the civilian governments and the Generals in the field,” which impacted strategic objectives and operational planning. His inclusion of Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian strategic objectives is not as thoroughly explained but does help elucidate the choices these participants made.
Victory in the Middle East presented an opportunity for the Allies and the Central Powers to upset the balance of power and break the deadlock in the fields of France and Belgium. The British campaign in the Dardanelles and at Gallipoli, now maligned and “synonymous with defeat, futility, and incompetence,” when viewed in a strategic context of Russian weakness and German overreach, appear less hopeless and as posing more benefits than have been commonly echoed since then.
Johnson’s analysis astutely places Gallipoli as an opportunity for the Allies to defeat the Ottomans, expose the vulnerable Austro-Hungarians and provide a “chance to fulfill the common purpose against Germany by ‘knocking the props from under her.’ ” The Dardanelles, like much of the war in the Middle East, make more sense when viewed through a strategic lens rather than an operational one.
Johnson’s ability to clearly frame the campaigns in a larger picture is the strength of the book. By 1916, Allied leaders recognized the center of gravity for the Central Powers was the German Army in the field in Europe. As a result, the Middle East’s war became less about upsetting strategic balance and more about maintaining “the indefatigable image of empire” that “could be achieved partly through bluff [but] also required a willingness to demonstrate raw power.”
The result was a British Army that was “under-resourced, overextended and in too few numbers” but that nevertheless continued to pressure the Ottoman Empire, take up the slack left by the collapsing Russian forces and prevent German allies from bolstering armies in Europe in a meaningful way. Its activity played to military and imperial audiences, reinforcing the strategic importance of the Middle East. This British Army was in place at the end of the war to support post-conflict negotiations and delineations.
The imperial impact of World War I was perhaps no more clearly felt than in the Middle East where the British Empire lived on while the Russian and Ottoman Empires collapsed. The successor states to the Ottoman, Russian and British empires remain front-page news and the settings for the past 15-plus years of American military operations. The Great War in the Middle East does excellent work in framing the larger context for what is traditionally regarded as a tragic sideshow.
Maj. Timothy Heck, USMCR, is a graduate student at King’s College London in the Department of War Studies. An artillery officer by training, he is a graduate of several military command and staff schools.
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First Dragoons’ Tales Are Brought to Life
Kearny’s Dragoons Out West: The Birth of the U.S. Cavalry. Will Gorenfeld and John Gorenfeld. University of Oklahoma Press. 466 pages. $34.95
By Col. Kevin C.M. Benson
U.S. Army retired
The historian’s art—the historian’s duty—is to find untold stories and tell them well. There also must be professional and educational worth to the story, what it means for us today and how will it inform the performance of our duty.
Will Gorenfeld and John Gorenfeld mastered the art and fulfilled this duty. Kearny’s Dragoons Out West, named for Brevet Maj. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny, is a superb story of the birth of American cavalry, the opening of the Western plains and of long, hard rides into unknown lands. There is mystery and majesty in the tales as well as the plain, hard life led by cavalrymen, known as Dragoons from the 1830s to the 1850s.
Will Gorenfeld is a writer who specializes in the pre-Civil War Regular Army in the American West. He and his son John, also a writer, have crafted a deeply researched book. Extensive notes cover a number of original source materials from which the Gorenfelds drew their history, including morning reports and scouting reports. The bibliography consists of 15 pages with information about where to find sources, from archives to university libraries. The similarly lengthy index assists any scholar who chooses to use this book as a starting point for more history of the American West. This thorough work alone recommends the book.
The Gorenfelds bring to life the months-long scouting missions undertaken by the First Regiment of Dragoons. This force had to explore new land—new to Americans, anyway. Each scouting party had to deal with different Native American tribes and express the will of Washington, D.C., without any contact with the government. There were shows of force and demonstrations of power, accompanied by talks through interpreters and exchanges of gifts.
Limited to what their horses could carry and dependent on pack trains facing equal difficulties resupplying the troops and squadrons of the regiment, the officers knew they could not engage in extensive combat. Officers looking for examples of “Phase 0” and “Phase 1” operations can find plenty of material in this book.
Of course, there is much more to the book. The stories range from experiments with the Grimsley and the Ringgold saddles to the alcohol consumption in the First Dragoons (no General Order No. 1 in that era). The Gorenfelds bring life to the soldiers of the First Dragoons, whose extensive reminiscences were clearly a treasure trove.
The First Regiment of Dragoons played a significant role in establishing the American West. The regiment protected settlers who were moving through truly uncharted lands. The Dragoons protected Native Americans from unscrupulous traders. Before the war with Mexico, the Dragoons protected Mexican traders from Texans who would raid into the U.S. The same regiment then participated in the war and fought those same Mexicans.
Complexity is in the eye of the beholder, and the privates through the colonels of the First Regiment of Dragoons faced situations no less complex in their age than our soldiers and troopers do today. This is a story well-told and worth reading.
Col. Kevin C.M. Benson, USA Ret., served in armor and cavalry assignments in Europe and the U.S. He is a former director of the School of Advanced Military Studies and has a doctorate in history from the University of Kansas.