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September 2020 Book Reviews

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Swift Narrative Details Prewar Mobilization

The Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940–1941: The Forgotten Story of How America Forged a Powerful Army Before Pearl Harbor. Paul Dickson. Atlantic Monthly Press. 416 pages. $30

By Brian McAllister Linn

Paul Dickson’s new book is an entertaining, anecdotal account of two largely neglected episodes in Army history: the creation of the conscript force and the large-scale exercises in the years immediately before World War II.

Dickson has published some 60 books on topics ranging from baseball to slang to cocktails, and The Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940–1941: The Forgotten Story of How America Forged a Powerful Army Before Pearl Harbor illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of such prodigious and eclectic authorship. On the positive side, it has a clear argument: The Army’s prewar mobilization was crucial in the nation’s victory. He identifies three key factors in this success: the appointment of Gen. George Marshall as Army chief of staff, conscription and military maneuvers. 

The book is enjoyable and informative reading, filled with revealing anecdotes, oversized personalities and often pointed analysis. Dickson moves his narrative forward by deftly interweaving historical events with personal experiences. The book makes a significant contribution in showing just how near America came to dismantling its forces, and how important a few individuals, notably Marshall, were in preventing this calamity.

In particular, Dickson highlights Marshall’s experience with the Civilian Conservation Corps, his willingness to engage with the media and his willingness to risk his own career to push for necessary changes. Dickson also does a fine job of tracking the political debates over the extension of the draft, both in Congress and the media. He shows how the morale of the draftees became a national obsession, including the rumor that thousands intended to desert only months before Pearl Harbor. The chapters on maneuvers—Tennessee, Louisiana, Carolinas—are engaging and filled with humorous anecdotes and compelling human interest stories.

More discriminating readers may take issue with Dickson’s somewhat simplistic summary of complex historical issues, his partisanship and his preference for an entertaining story rather than a strictly accurate one. His reliance on fellow popular writers and contemporary newspaper accounts provides numerous anecdotes, sometimes at the cost of balanced analysis.

The Rise of the G.I. Army is a book very much in “the greatest generation” school of history, with both the strengths and weaknesses of that genre. The narrative is fast-paced, the personalities and events clearly detailed, the role of politicians, the press and public opinion all well developed.

For those who are interested in the prewar mobilization and training of the Army, it is well worth a read. However, as with many popular histories, the emphasis on individuals and events whose importance is only clear with hindsight weakens the book’s usefulness for officers grappling with the far less manifest problems of today.

Brian McAllister Linn is the Ralph R. Thomas Class of 1921 Professor in Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University. His latest book is Elvis’s Army: Cold War GIs and the Atomic Battlefield.

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Time, Cultures May Change but Not Land Power Strategy

Military Strategy: A Global History. Jeremy Black. Yale University Press. 480 pages. $35

By Lt. Col. Nathan Finney

Strategy is a common topic of discussion in the military, which Jeremy Black covers in his newest book, Military Strategy: A Global History.

What makes Black’s approach somewhat unique, however, is his dedicated attempt to eschew strategic theory, instead refocusing the conversation toward strategy in practice.

According to Black, “It is time that strategy as practice was freed from [the] illusions” that the formal language and theorizing of strategy is helpful to understanding it. Much as the late Colin Gray’s approach in War, Peace and International Relations: An Introduction to Strategic History, Black uses historical case studies in his analysis.

Also like Gray, unfortunately, Black overemphasizes European practices, though he consistently grafts in comparative paragraphs nodding to strategy as employed in China, India and Japan. Throughout, he ably addresses the continuity found in strategy across time and space, describing similarities found in diverse strategic cultures and forms of government.

Black’s case studies cover strategy in practice from 1400 to the post-Cold War era. His 11 chapters overlap at times, largely due to each chapter focusing on a dominant form of strategy and his analysis of the nation(s) that most clearly enacted it in practice.

Examples include analysis of land-based strategies as employed by China, Russia, Austria and France; the maritime-focused strategies of Britain; and an insightful chapter on how changes to republican forms of government in the U.S. and France impacted their employment of strategy.

This last approach to explaining “republican strategies” highlights another major theme of Black’s work—the foundation of strategy as a dynamic negotiation between the domestic and international, mediated by national leadership and culture. According to Black, strategy is best understood as a balance of purpose, force, implementation and effectiveness that connects idea, action and effect in practice.

While valuable in attempting to re-center the conversation on strategy from theory to practice, Military Strategy does contain a few deficiencies. Despite the title, it is not really about military strategy, per se, nor is it a global history.

First, Black’s analysis is on the “contest for power” as seen at the national decision-making level; he rarely addresses the unique aspects of military strategy as a subset of the larger concept of strategy, in practice or theory.

Additionally, Black could have expanded on his cases to make them more international, focusing on different strategic cultures and where they fit in the practice of strategy, allowing for a more holistic assessment that connects or compares different peoples, nations and ideas.

Despite these stipulations, like most of Black’s dozens of books, Military Strategy is worth the time invested in reading it. The introduction, essentially a comprehensive literature review of strategic thought in a mere 24 pages, should be required reading for all interested in strategy, especially those who expect to support its practice.

Lt. Col. Nathan Finney is a U.S. Army Goodpaster Scholar and doctoral student at Duke University, North Carolina. He is a founder of The Strategy Bridge and the Military Writers Guild, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations and a nonresident fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

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The Journey From Warrior to Humanitarian

Surviving the United Nations: The Unexpected Challenge. Robert Bruce Adolph. New Academia Publishing. 340 pages. $26

By Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie Spencer, U.S. Army retired

Surviving the United Nations: The Unexpected Challenge is a saga of violence, corruption, betrayal and redemption.

Author and retired Lt. Col. Robert Bruce Adolph started his adult life as an enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army. He volunteered and successfully completed some of the service’s most physically and mentally demanding training. He embraced and internalized the Army Values. Those values later served him well for two decades of service with the U.N. As a soldier and later an officer in Special Forces, his training and assignments around the world helped him endure the hardships that he would face as a U.N. chief security adviser.

Surviving the United Nations is about his experiences in some of the most dangerous places on earth. As a chief security adviser, he was responsible for the safety and well-being of teams from countries with different cultures, mores and languages.

Adolph manages to capture the devastating violence and heartbreaking tragedies that occurred during three assignments. On countless and sometimes terrifying missions, he faced danger armed only with a desire to help.

As a soldier, Adolph dedicated himself to selfless service to the nation. He was trained and prepared to use violence to accomplish the mission, if necessary. As a member of the U.N. team, he served the world with open arms. His job now was to protect the lives of those who sought to assist the most vulnerable members of humanity.

His first assignment with the U.N. was in the West African country of Sierra Leone, where a U.N.-brokered peace agreement was signed by the newly elected government in hopes of ending the atrocities. It was not to be. Drug and alcohol abuse were commonplace. Children were stolen from their parents and forced to take up arms. Rape was a common occurrence; no woman or girl was safe.

Yemen, with daytime temperatures often above 110 degrees, was his next assignment. Armed protests, poverty, kidnapping, refugee camps and bureaucracy were daily issues. But there was one happy spot during the assignment: Adolph met and later married his wife, who was working for the U.N. as the technical adviser on a multimillion-dollar project benefiting poor women in rural areas.

Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Adolph helped establish a U.N. relief effort in Baghdad. His goal was to bring some semblance of order amid the chaos, but some of his requests for additional security were deemed inappropriate for a nonmilitary organization. When a suicide bombing killed 22 and wounded over 150—including him and his wife—Adolph was relieved of duty as chief of security and dismissed by U.N. leadership. The recovery of emails outlining his earlier security requests eventually set the record straight.

Adolph is the epitome of a Special Forces officer: He is intelligent, competent and resourceful. His brutally frank account of his career with the U.N. reads more like an action-packed adventure novel. And that it is all true makes it more remarkable. My only criticism is that there are no photos. I highly recommend Surviving the United Nations to anyone considering a career in humanitarian service.

Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie Spencer, U.S. Army retired, held assignments with infantry, Special Forces and Ranger units during his 32 years of active military service. He is the former director of the Association of the U.S. Army’s NCO and Soldier Programs and is an AUSA senior fellow.

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Citizen-Soldiers Defend Against Annihilation

The 300: The Inside Story of the Missile Defenders Guarding America Against Nuclear Attack. Daniel Wasserbly. St. Martin’s Press, 272 pages. $28.99

By Col. Steve Patarcity, U.S. Army retired

The missile defense system of the United States and its response to an intercontinental ballistic missile attack by a hostile power or rogue state has always been of interest. The 300: The Inside Story of the Missile Defenders Guarding America Against Nuclear Attack, Daniel Wasserbly’s book about the inception, formation and maturation of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade and the 49th Missile Defense Battalion, is an informative account of those units and the Ground-based Midcourse Defense mission. Ground-based Midcourse Defense is an antiballistic missile program to intercept an incoming missile attack in space when the missile is in the midcourse phase of its trajectory.

Wasserbly is eminently qualified to write about missile defense. He has discussed the topic in broadcast and print media venues such as National Public Radio’s Marketplace program and the BBC World Service, and as editor of Janes International Defence Review. The depth of his experience and quality of his research are readily apparent throughout the book.

Most fascinating are the tales of the people who are part of the action, in this case, the 49th Missile Defense Battalion. The 300 has many of these stories, from the problems in getting the designated site for the 49th’s mission, Fort Greely, Alaska, more habitable and serviceable after being closed for years, to the necessity of developing a new joint lexicon. Fort Greely formerly served as the Northern Warfare Training Center and the Cold Regions Test Center. Its location was ideally suited for those missions, with temperatures dropping to 50 degrees below zero some days.

Yet complementary as those conditions were to those missions, they were obstacles to establishing Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD). Soldiers and their families had many issues to deal with, from seasonal affective disorder (a mood disorder subset that occurs mostly during winter) to lodging and services initially over six hours away. There were grueling requirements to maintain high levels of expertise, requiring continuous, ongoing training. However, there were some humorous incidents, such as the soldier who stumbled on a moose late at night and was pursued rather diligently, or the installation’s annual “Latrine on Ice” event, which involves teams racing each other while pushing or pulling a latrine.

GMD is an Army mission for control and execution, with support provided by the Air Force. The citizen-soldiers of the 49th are from the Alaska Army National Guard, with oversight provided by the 100th Missile Defense Brigade supervising other elements and locations of the program in Colorado and California. Constant training is required as time to intercept an incoming attack is one of mere seconds. Though the threat of an intercontinental ballistic missile attack during the Cold War always seemed a possibility, the current aggressiveness of North Korea and the possibility of conflict with Russia or China illustrate the importance of this mission.

The 300 is about a group of dedicated professionals performing a mission of paramount importance to the nation. I recommend this book to readers as a good account of these soldiers who daily live their mission to protect the nation.

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 U.S. Army Reserve, which included military police and armor assignments in the U.S., Kuwait and Iraq.