September 2019 Book Reviews
September 2019 Book Reviews
Future Warfighting Requires Agile Training
Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture. Donald E. Vandergriff. Naval Institute Press (An AUSA Title). 320 pages. $49.95
By Col. J.P. Clark
A “significant difference between what mission command should be versus what actually happens exists,” the commanders of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and the Mission Command Center of Excellence wrote in a Military Review article earlier this year. This admission by the generals is only the most notable example of years of institutional soul-searching regarding the readiness of our leaders for both current and future challenges.
Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture by retired Maj. Donald E. Vandergriff is, therefore, a timely contribution. Few individuals have thought more than Vandergriff about Mission Command, defined in the forthcoming new doctrine as “the Army’s approach to command and control that empowers subordinate decision-making and decentralized execution appropriate to the situation.” His books and countless articles relate to some facet of attracting, retaining, refining and employing talent. Vandergriff also has extensive experience as an instructor helping U.S. and foreign military and law enforcement organizations improve leadership and tactical decision-making.
Vandergriff draws on two inspirations. The first is 20th-century military theorist and Air Force Col. John Boyd, who is most famous for the “OODA loop,” for observe, orient, decide and act. The other is the German practice of mission-oriented tactics underpinned by a complete system of education, training, doctrine and personnel policies. For Vandergriff, adopting a similar system of complementary “peacetime practices” would create the tactical dexterity preached by Boyd and exemplified by World War II German leaders such as Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel.
Yet many works, including existing doctrine, tout the importance of Mission Command. Vandergriff goes beyond exhortation to offer detailed recommendations as to how to achieve it. The bulk of his volume discusses the philosophy of outcomes-based training and education, the attributes of outstanding instructors, assessing students, tactical decision games, war-gaming and force-on-force exercises. Case studies of past wartime command and current best practices in training add further depth.
The essence of Vandergriff’s method can be summarized as follows: build relevant knowledge and true mastery, encourage independence and enable subordinates. Importantly, these tenets are broadly applicable across the ranks. They can be used by commissioned, warrant and noncommissioned officers alike.
In a study of such a wide-ranging topic as Mission Command, there are inevitable gaps. Unfortunately, the historical overview of command in the German and American armies is simplistic and, in some cases, factually incorrect. For instance, Vandergriff attributes many problems to Elihu Root, who served as U.S. secretary of war between 1899–1904, that emerged later and were the work of those in uniform. Affixing these ills requires an accurate understanding of their origins; blaming them on a civilian villain could inadvertently encourage the institutional complacency Vandergriff challenges.
A discussion of the limits of Mission Command would also have been helpful. The forthcoming official definition given previously includes the critical caveat: “appropriate to the situation.” Reason suggests there must be some variation in the application of Mission Command at different echelons or within different missions or operational-strategic settings.
The recent U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028 concept document envisions ground forces with the ability to attack targets hundreds of kilometers away. The concept would also employ cyberspace and/or electronic warfare capabilities to impact not only adjacent ground units, but also the operations of the other services and even civilian populations. How might Mission Command be applied in these different conditions?
Even with these missed opportunities, Adopting Mission Command is an invaluable resource for anyone who leads or trains tactical organizations. Vandergriff notes that the Army has improved in past years. This volume will help further that positive trend.
Col. J.P. Clark is a student at the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. He holds a doctorate from Duke University, North Carolina, and is the author of Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815–1917.
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Memoir Tells Powerful Story of Combat
Taliban Safari: One Day in the Surkhagan Valley. Paul Darling. University Press of Kansas. 190 pages. $27.95
By Col. Kevin C.M. Benson, U.S. Army retired
“0345. My watch starts beeping and I shift to shut it off.” Thus opens Paul Darling’s memoir of a day’s combat during his yearlong tour of duty in Afghanistan. In Taliban Safari: One Day in the Surkhagan Valley, Darling makes a superb contribution to the literature of a soldier’s combat experience and gives professional soldiers and fellow citizens alike a book that encourages thought about what war, on a personal level, demands.
Darling writes in the first person—an effective technique. He does not disguise the raw emotion of the moment. He uses unfiltered language. While some readers might be offended, this is how soldiers speak—especially those who are at war. Close combat and warfare strip away niceties and drive communication to what is most effective and gets across the point. The language throughout the book demonstrates the grinding tension of combat.
This book should be used in educating staff officers. Darling offers why he acts the way he does: He must share the danger with the Afghans to be accepted by them. He also reinforces the moral obligation of general staff and higher-level commanders to not squander this kind of sacrifice and effort. His description of one day during a tour of duty is a reminder to general staff officers to ensure that the constant danger leaders like Darling face is tied to some larger purpose.
I was the Third Army planner at the start of the Iraq War. I had to trust to imagination and memoirs to bring to the fore what soldiers and leaders might endure while executing the plans I wrote. Darling’s book reinforces the adage that no plan can look with certainty beyond initial contact with the enemy’s main body. Darling reminds the military professional of the constant stress a leader lives with each day in combat.
Darling also reminds us, if people need reminding, that in the conduct of warfare, soldiers fight. And fighting means killing. In the chapters “Surkhagan Rules” and “9-Line,” Darling tells the reader in terse prose what defines the combatant and leader’s measure of victory. The combatant’s measure of victory: I am alive. The leader’s measurement of victory: Every one of my men, in Darling’s case American and Afghan troops, is alive. Since the topic of the chapter “9-Line” is the incident causing the death of two of his Afghans, Darling details the painful cost of combat.
This book is not written solely for soldiers. The citizens of our republic, those whose support is needed to sustain the effort of war, will learn from reading and thinking about this book. It is a reminder that warfare may be 99% boredom punctuated by 1% terror, but the 1% in every case has both an immediate and long-lasting effect.
The book closes with an evocative passage: “A giggle is heard. ‘Thanks, Daddy.’ And the phone goes dead.” Another day in a combat zone comes to an end. This is a powerful book, one that brings to life the gut-wrenching pressure of command and leading soldiers in combat.
This book will have a place of honor on my bookshelf, next to Charles MacDonald’s Company Commander: The Classic Infantry Memoir of World War II and Guy Chapman’s A Passionate Prodigality.
Col. Kevin C.M. 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 2history from the University of Kansas.
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How the U.S. Military Got Here From There
In Harm’s Way: A History of the American Military Experience. Gene Allen Smith, David Coffey and Kyle Longley. Oxford University Press. 544 pages. $39.95
By Lt. Col. James H. Willbanks, U.S. Army retired
In Harm’s Way: A History of the American Military Experience, a military history text from Gene Allen Smith, David Coffey and Kyle Longley, provides a highly readable synthesis of the current scholarship on the nation’s experience in war. It covers air, land and sea power, analyzing America’s wars and military policies from Colonial times to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The focus is on the American people at war. Within that focus, each chapter addresses the political and diplomatic aspects, social and economic changes, ideological debates and technical advances for each major period and war in American history.
Each chapter begins with an engaging vignette that puts a human face on the conflict in question, bringing history to life in a meaningful way and demonstrating that war, at its essence, involves human beings.
One of the most useful aspects of the book is that each chapter includes an “Issue in Military History” section that analyzes important controversies and debates in U.S. military history. These issues include the role of George Washington in establishing civilian control of the military, the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II, and women in the military after the Vietnam War. Each of these potentially explosive topics is handled in an objective, nonjudgmental manner that allows readers to draw their own conclusions.
Additionally, every chapter includes a useful timeline and a list of recommendations for further reading. Excellent maps support and amplify the historical narrative.
This book will be of particular interest to ARMY magazine readers for the way it comprehensively demonstrates the evolution of the American way of war and tells the story of the Army’s growth from its earliest days through contemporary conflicts. However, it is important to note that the authors do equal justice to the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force in this comprehensive and sweeping treatment of American military history.
In Harm’s Way is strongly recommended for anyone interested in military history and how the U.S. military evolved from a small Colonial force to the world’s largest global military power. It will also serve as an excellent text for those who might be teaching military history at the high school or college level.
Lt. Col. James H. 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 War veteran and the author or editor of 20 books, including Abandoning Vietnam, A Raid Too Far and The Tet Offensive—A Concise History. He holds a doctorate from the University of Kansas.
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Leaders Unite to Rescue French Capital
The Liberation of Paris: How Eisenhower, de Gaulle, and von Choltitz Saved the City of Light. Jean Edward Smith. Simon & Schuster. 256 pages. $27
By Col. Kevin W. Farrell, U.S. Army retired
It is fitting that many new books focused on World War II are being published during the year that marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Among the innumerable cases of suffering and devastation, there are also many inspirational events, and this new release investigates one not widely known: the rescue of Paris.
Beginning with a concise but solid summary of key events of World War II, and culminating with the Nazi occupation of France, The Liberation of Paris: How Eisenhower, de Gaulle, and von Choltitz Saved the City of Light focuses on key leaders and crucial decisions leading to the liberation of Paris. Charles de Gaulle naturally features prominently throughout the work, and historian Jean Edward Smith does an admirable job of being fair to the notoriously vain French officer who led the French Resistance. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, leery of de Gaulle’s political ambitions, let him visit Normandy, France, barely a week after the Allied landings—whereupon de Gaulle declared himself the de facto leader of France.
Despite the frustrations, Eisenhower worked with de Gaulle more effectively than other members of the American-British coalition. As Smith makes clear, Eisenhower had profound respect for and a deep understanding of French culture, which made him more attuned than most to de Gaulle’s perspective.
Smith does an exemplary job of highlighting how the German military commander of Paris, General der Infanterie Dietrich von Choltitz, was determined to save Paris from the moment he was appointed its commander by Adolf Hitler. Militarily, the situation was hopeless for the Germans in France by August 1944. Choltitz recognized this and was determined to ignore Hitler’s scorched-earth policy mandating the destruction of Paris. Haunted by the harsh reality that his family could be executed if he surrendered too quickly, Choltitz prevented the destruction of the bridges and key landmarks in Paris by retaining personal control over such decisions. He also saved thousands of prisoners from execution. Ultimately, he declared Paris an open city and proved to be a determined ally in the cause to save Paris.
One of the great challenges facing the Allies when it came to liberating Paris was the French Resistance within the city, because if it rose up against the German occupiers prematurely, there would be harsh reprisals. In particular, the leader of the French Resistance in Paris was Henri Tanguy, better known as Col. Rol, a dedicated patriot, veteran of the Spanish Civil War and committed communist. Resistant to demands to delay an insurrection, Rol wanted Parisians to rise up of their own accord and not be subjected to Allied control.
De Gaulle and Eisenhower looked for ways to prevent Rol from upsetting their plans, and The Liberation of Paris highlights the complicated negotiations that ensured communists, nationalists and Gaullists did not undermine their efforts to save it.
The final and perhaps greatest challenge was overcoming the reality that Paris was not critical as a military objective despite its cultural and political importance. Ultimately, Eisenhower prevailed in diverting Allied resources to liberate Paris through skillful communication to his Allied leadership. Smith makes a convincing argument that only Eisenhower could have pulled off such a politically adept maneuver.
Divided into 10 chapters, The Liberation of Paris is a quick read and builds suspense as it investigates key players and decisions and provides context to one of the great “unknown” stories of World War II.
Col. Kevin W. Farrell, U.S. Army retired, is the former chief of military history at the U.S. Military Academy. He commanded a combined arms battalion in Iraq. His most recent book is The Military and the Monarchy: The Case and Career of the Duke of Cambridge in an Age of Reform. He has a doctorate from Columbia University, New York.
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Effect of War Doesn’t End on Battlefield
Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans. Andrew Wiest. Osprey Publishing. 400 pages. $28
By Col. Steve Patarcity, U.S. Army Reserve retired
Families are a source of strength and love that sustain soldiers during war. In Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans, Andrew Wiest captures the “other” side of war—the spouses and families at home. While many stories have been written about the Vietnam War, this work will give readers a different perspective of a key period in 20th-century American history.
Wiest’s book is based almost exclusively on oral interviews, notably with 24 wives and more than 30 families of soldiers from Company C, 4th Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, as well as the soldiers themselves. The book is also informed by personal papers, letters home, unit logs, records from the National Archives, plus other works.
Several factors make this unit particularly interesting. First, its members trained together before deploying rather than being sent as individual replacements. Second, its soldiers were almost entirely draftees. Third, the unit served before the Tet Offensive and before popular opinion back home shifted to opposing U.S. participation. Fourth, Company C was composed of a “slice” of Americans with soldiers hailing from varied economic, educational and racial backgrounds across the nation. This gives a unique perspective about a unit whose soldiers and families are so diverse.
Wiest ably addresses how war changes and affects everyone, from its participants to those close to them. As soldiers experience armed conflict, so do their families and friends. The Company C soldiers who went to Vietnam weren’t the same upon return, if they did return, and neither were their families. For many, the experience of that war continued to plague, influence or inspire. Yet, however the war affected these Americans, there were success stories, as well as sad stories.
This book is poignant, well-written and -researched, and at times both uplifting and depressing. It is not an easy read, but it’s a fascinating one.
This work can be viewed as a companion book to another of Wiest’s efforts, The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam. Writing that book, which focused on the soldiers themselves during their time in Southeast Asia, provided the impetus for the author to ponder the effects of war on wives and families.
This book made me reflect on my experience when I served as a young Army officer with many Vietnam veterans. But my only personal involvement as a youth centered on the son of my grandmother’s neighbor, Spc. 4 John “Jackie” Thomas, who was killed in action in 1966. My grandmother kept a Polaroid picture of Thomas and his mother with the note, “Jackie the day he left for Vietnam.”
I don’t remember Thomas personally but, years ago, I found his name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. This book brought Thomas’ face back clearly into focus.
Col. Steve Patarcity, U.S. Army Reserve retired, 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 the Army Reserve, which included military police and armor assignments in the U.S., Kuwait and Iraq.