Warrior Pays Heavy Price in Mogadishu
With My Shield: An Army Ranger in Somali. James Lechner. Osprey Publishing (An AUSA Title). 288 pages. $32
By Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, U.S. Army retired
With My Shield: An Army Ranger in Somalia is a riveting first-person account of the Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia. But it is more than that. It is also the origin story of an American warrior, James Lechner, who marched to the sound of America’s guns as often as he could and paid a heavy price for his courage.
Many of us are familiar with the story of Black Hawk Down from the hit movie, if not the excellent book by Mark Bowden. As good as these accounts were, they lacked the perspective of an author who had fought in the battle, killing and nearly being killed at close range in his first combat experience. Lechner was one of the Rangers on the ground when the mission shifted from a raid to capture Somali insurgents to the rescue of a downed helicopter’s crew.
The spectrum of emotions he felt on that blood-soaked day infuses his narrative, adding a powerful and deeply human dimension to the story. Although he takes pains to describe the incredible heroism of the elite American soldiers who fought by his side against overwhelming odds, Lechner’s own grit and loyalty to his comrades are apparent as he also describes his struggle to live up to the tenets of the Ranger Creed. His greatest fear was not death but letting his buddies down.
In a rapidly deteriorating situation, Lechner ensured that his fellow soldiers received the air support they needed to offset their lack of heavy firepower and numbers, until a severe wound incapacitated him. Far from letting them down, he and his team were why many of their buddies survived.
Throughout U.S. history, there have been Americans who have stepped forward and put others’ lives ahead of their own. Too often, they’ve died in remote and forgotten battles. At the end of James Michener’s novel about the Korean conflict, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, a commander asks, “Where do we find such men?” Lechner’s book helps answer this question by tracing one such man’s journey from a middle-class childhood in upstate New York to Mogadishu.
Full disclosure: I have known the author a long time. Although he only alludes to it in the epilogue, he played a crucial role in the Sunni Awakening in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006. As my deputy brigade commander, then-Lt. Col. Lechner led our brigade’s effort to organize the Sunni tribesmen who turned against al-Qaida. Once again, he faced brutal urban combat and lost more comrades in arms. Nevertheless, he remained true to the words of the Ranger Creed. I saw Lechner again in Afghanistan in 2012, as always, in the midst of the action.
Where do we find such men? Read With My Shield and find out.
Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, U.S. Army retired, served 37 years in the Army, with his last job as deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. He had multiple combat tours and commanded the 1st Armored Division as well as III Armored Corps and Fort Hood, Texas, now known as Fort Cavazos, during which time he commanded Operation Inherent Resolve. He is a senior fellow of the Association of the U.S. Army.
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When the Best and Brightest Leaders Go Bad
Generals and Admirals, Criminals and Crooks: Dishonorable Leadership in the U.S. Military. Jeffrey Matthews. University of Notre Dame Press. 432 pages. $38
By Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, U.S. Army retired
Leader development is a touchstone of Army professional development. We as a profession are recognized by other branches of service and even private-sector organizations for our doctrine, our efforts and the results we achieve in nurturing and promoting those who will lead soldiers and contribute to the public trust.
At the strategic level, all new brigadier generals attend the Army Senior Leaders Course (known colloquially as “charm school”) and the CAPSTONE General and Flag Officer Course, and some move on to the Joint Flag Officer Warfighting Course and the PINNACLE curriculum. These programs focus on command at the highest levels, where decisions can alter the fate of the nation.
Historian Jeffrey Matthews appropriately asks a simple question in Generals and Admirals, Criminals and Crooks: Dishonorable Leadership in the U.S. Military, a well-researched and masterfully written book: With all this focus on leadership, why do some of the military’s best and brightest dishonor themselves and erode the confidence of their countrymen through misconduct?
Matthews provides seven fascinating and in-depth case studies, using famous names and historical events, as a means of warning leaders about the common pitfalls of power. His work is an interesting and beneficial read on what to avoid when advanced promotions come along—such as the potential for stroking of egos and flaunting of professional standards.
The case studies are linked to what some might call the “seven deadly sins” of unprofessional behavior. We all know what things get military leaders in trouble, but the author still lists them in broadly titled chapters: War Crimes, Insubordination, Moral Cowardice, Toxic Leadership, Obstruction of Justice, Sex Crimes and Public Corruption. Some of the characters selected to represent these shortcomings already wear the descriptor of “horrible leaders,” but just as many are revered as being part of a pantheon of heroes who many of us would describe as our nation’s greatest role models.
These stories of dishonorable leadership have been etched into our military histories: the Fat Leonard scandal; the contributions of a future chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the obstruction of justice; the increasing and unchecked insubordination of a former chief of staff of the Army and war hero against his president; the aching moral cowardice of a conflicted Army chief of staff who fails to provide his best advice; the effects of extreme toxic behavior by someone charged with developing one of our nation’s most important military acquisition programs; and the war crimes committed (and encouraged) by a division commander. Even when the broad outlines of the stories may be known, details of the actions and people involved offer additional insights.
For example, the riveting chapter on sex crimes—relating the criminal and crude behavior of junior and midrank naval aviators during the now mostly forgotten Tailhook scandal—shows how admirals refused to hold their subordinates (and themselves) accountable. That story provides topical lessons on a subject that continues to plague the services, including the Army.
This is one of the most enlightening books I’ve read in years. It’s one that must be on any professional reading list, but it most certainly should become a staple at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the war colleges, and in all general officer courses.
Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, U.S. Army retired, commanded U.S. Army Europe in 2011–12. He also commanded the 1st Armored Division and Task Force Iron in northern Iraq during the Surge.
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Soldier Spent Decades in the Shadows
By All Means Available: Memoirs of a Life in Intelligence, Special Operations, and Strategy. Michael Vickers. Knopf. 576 pages. $35
By Robert Seals
Michael Vickers had a career that most can only daydream about. Vickers’ resume is impeccable, including service as an Army Special Forces soldier, a CIA operations officer and multiple roles in DoD. He also holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia and a Ph.D. from John Hopkins University, Baltimore. Few have such an impressive record.
Now, a “duty to history, the American people [and] intelligence professionals, future operators, and strategists” has compelled Vickers to write his autobiography. By All Means Available: Memoirs of a Life in Intelligence, Special Operations, and Strategy is his account of winning against the Red Army, al-Qaida and others.
Vickers was a self-described underachiever until a teacher passed along a New York Times article about CIA operations that excited his imagination and planted the seed for an intelligence career. In 1973, he enlisted in the Army in the hopes of making it in Special Forces and rose through the ranks. After receiving his commission, he was assigned to Panama in 1980, where he gained valuable experience in counterterrorism operations.
After 10 years, the appeal of greater autonomy and responsibilities drew Vickers to the CIA. Older and more experienced, he was selected for Operation Urgent Fury, the 1983 invasion of Grenada. This was a watershed event leading to a plum assignment to Ground Branch, the CIA’s paramilitary arm. In 1984, he was assigned “the job of a lifetime” in Afghanistan against the Soviets, with responsibility for the covert program supporting resistance forces.
This was Vickers’ moment in history. Then-President Ronald Reagan made the “strategic decisions that would win the war” with increased support. Vickers believes this support to the mujahedeen led to “the decisive battle of the Cold War,” a secret CIA operation that led to the Soviet withdrawal. While historians will probably argue for decades whether this “battle” was decisive, it was certainly a factor in the downfall of the Soviet Union.
With his “great war” now won, Vickers broadened his strategic horizons at a think tank. In 2007, he returned to public service as the senior civilian overseeing special operations forces for President George W. Bush. Vickers was a tireless advocate of “more” for America: more intelligence-gathering, more Predator drone strikes and more counterterrorism raids. He was selected in 2010 as undersecretary of defense for intelligence for President Barack Obama, serving in that role until his retirement five years later.
By All Means Available is written in a cogent format. After a prologue, the book is organized chronologically and thematically into four parts and 25 chapters. The chapters are short, and the work is well referenced. The book’s main strength is the author’s account of how he went from underachiever to senior Washington official.
However, this reviewer finds Vickers’ strategy for “Winning the New Cold War,” as one of the last chapters is titled, more problematic. Most would agree that an effective grand strategy is needed. However, his proposals stray at times into partisan territory. Readers should find his concluding “ten core principles” more pragmatic.
Additionally, the book would have benefited from additional editing and fact-checking. For example, the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command was not activated in 1981, it was activated in October 1980; and U.S. Army Special Forces were authorized to wear the green beret by the Department of the Army seven months before President John Kennedy’s famous April 1962 note calling the beret “a badge of courage, a mark of distinction.”
Vickers is to be commended for his service and the task of writing his memoirs given his extensive career. This book will appeal most to readers who are interested in Special Forces, intelligence or national policy.
Robert Seals served 22 years in the Army as an infantry and Special Forces officer, retiring in 2004. Currently, he is a command historian living in Raeford, North Carolina.
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‘Big Red One’ Sustains Combat Prowess
No Sacrifice Too Great: The 1st Infantry Division in World War II. Gregory Fontenot. University of Missouri Press. 616 pages. $39.95
By Col. Cole Kingseed, U.S. Army retired
The 1st Infantry Division, the fabled “Big Red One,” holds the distinction of being the longest-serving active-duty division in the U.S. Army, having been on continuous service since 1917. In No Sacrifice Too Great: The 1st Infantry Division in World War II, retired Col. Gregory Fontenot provides a gripping narrative that traces the division’s three assault landings in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy, France; the encirclement of Aachen, Germany; the bitter fighting in the Hurtgen Forest on the Western Front; the Battle of the Bulge; and the march across Germany to Czechoslovakia.
Having served two tours with the 1st Infantry Division in various command and staff assignments, Fontenot, who has written for ARMY magazine, is uniquely qualified to compile the division’s history in the bloodiest conflict of the 20th century. His previous works are On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom; The 1st Infantry Division and the US Army Transformed: Road to Victory in Desert Storm, 1970–1991; and Loss and Redemption at St. Vith: The 7th Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge.
This new book explores how the 1st Infantry Division maintained its tactical expertise amid high turnover rates over the course of World War II. To his credit, Fontenot includes a superb photo essay to tell the story of the 1st Infantry Division as it learned to fight, wage war and sustain excellence. Numerous maps are sprinkled throughout the text to enhance the reader’s understanding, though the casual reader may have difficulty deciphering the more-detailed maps depicting high-level operations.
Fontenot’s take on the transition of leadership of the 1st Infantry Division, from Maj. Gen. Terry de la Mesa Allen to Maj. Gen. Clarence Huebner following combat in Sicily, is particularly riveting. The new commanding general immediately assessed that the Big Red One relied too much on division artillery.
Second, Huebner and his assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. Willard Wyman, believed the division’s infantry had not employed small arms effectively. This new emphasis on physical conditioning, rifle marksmanship and small-unit training proved instrumental in the division’s success when the 1st Infantry Division next waded ashore at Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day.
Fontenot is at his best when he repeatedly returns to his thesis on how the 1st Infantry Division incorporated lessons learned from previous operations. The problem, Fontenot states, is that the unit was exhausted. By the end of January 1945, the 1st “had been fighting with [only] two eight-day rest periods in eight months.” By V-E Day, the division had served in nine campaigns, with some 21,023 of its soldiers killed, wounded or gone missing, so the Army had to provide it with 28,892 replacements.
How did the Big Red One maintain its combat prowess? Fontenot posits that the 1st Infantry Division’s leaders and soldiers “adapted to dynamic battlefield conditions” through creative innovation and adaptation of tactics, techniques and procedures. Moreover, the division did so “in concert with supporting arms and within the corps and army formations.” Despite the high casualty and turnover rate, the 1st Infantry Division could justifiably claim to be an expert infantry division.
Fontenot’s masterful history of the Big Red One may be the finest book in a generation detailing how a combat division prepares and executes war. We are in Fontenot’s debt for bringing the 1st Infantry Division story to life some 80 years after the end of World War II. No Sacrifice Too Great deserves wide circulation among today’s leaders in the Army.
Col. Cole Kingseed, U.S. Army retired, a former professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, is a writer and consultant. He holds a doctorate in history from Ohio State University.