September 2021 Book Reviews

September 2021 Book Reviews

Monday, August 16, 2021

Put Practical Leadership Principles to Use

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Iron-Sharpened Leadership: Transforming Hard Fought Lessons Into Action. Maj. Gen. (Ret.) John Gronski. Fidelis Publishing. 296 pages. $17

By Maj. Gen. Raymond Carpenter, U.S. Army retired

Retired Maj. Gen. John Gronski’s Iron-Sharpened Leadership: Transforming Hard Fought Lessons Into Action is true to its title as it examines a full range of leadership elements and brings each into sharp focus.

Gronski piques the reader’s interest at the outset with the title of the book. What is iron-sharpened leadership? It turns out that the answer can be found in a biblical quotation: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” In Gronski’s words, “When we are at our best, we make one another stronger and better—‘sharper,’ if you will.” With that as a starting point, the author launches into the simple but complex subject of leadership.

Gronski spent some 40 years in the Army National Guard and the active component, including a combat tour in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2005–06 as a brigade commander. He also has a solid background in private industry, both as an entrepreneur and a corporate consultant. He draws on that rich and diverse background throughout the course of the book.

Character, competence and resilience are the three elements that make up Gronski’s leadership philosophy. He uses these elements to format the book into three sections, exploring underlying principles in separate chapters. The chapters are short, succinct and to the point, making the book a quick read. Gronski reinforces the material with examples, some biblical, some historical, and many from his personal experience.

At the conclusion of the chapter, he tells the reader how to implement that leadership attribute by calling out actions to be taken. The result is a practical leadership primer waiting to be put into use by the reader.

Gronski discusses dozens of leadership principles throughout the book. Many of these leadership attributes not only have application in the military and corporate world, but also can be applied to the daily lives of individuals. For example, as he discusses resilience, he makes the point that dealing with adversity will happen to everyone in the course of their lives.

So, how is one to overcome adversity and the associated challenges? Gronski advises the reader to “Face tough situations with a pragmatic view but also be hopeful and optimistic.”

Another example that will resonate with leaders, especially military leaders, is the discussion about remaining calm in times of crisis. As Gronski puts it, “When a leader remains calm, even the most frantic begin to get their feet beneath them. When people lose their heads, matters get exponentially worse.” And his suggested action is to “Work on skills that improve … self-control.” Good advice to anyone in crisis, military or otherwise.

As I read this book, I found myself comparing the words on the page to my leadership and life experiences. In each case, I found the descriptions of the leadership attributes to be consistent with my experiences, and the actions suggested to be solidly on target. The subtitle of the book, Transforming Hard Fought Lessons Into Action, describes Gronski’s purpose and motivation, and that is to genuinely improve the performance of others.

Anyone who is serious about leadership should add Iron-Sharpened Leadership to their library.

Maj. Gen. Raymond Carpenter, U.S Army retired, is a senior fellow at the Association of the U.S. Army. He is a Vietnam veteran who served nearly 45 years in uniform, with his final assignment as acting director of the Army National Guard. After retiring, he served as executive director of the National Commission on the Future of the Army.

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Army Couple Builds Healthy Life Together

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Beautifully Broken: An Unlikely Journey of Faith. Paige and Josh Wetzel. Worthy Books. 320 pages. $26

By Kayla Williams

Beautifully Broken: An Unlikely Journey of Faith, by Paige and Josh Wetzel, offers an intimate portrait of a young couple struggling to recover in the wake of a catastrophic wartime injury. The book alternates between sections written by each of them separately, and the earlier portion includes entries from the journal then-Spc. Josh Wetzel kept while deployed to Afghanistan.

Perhaps most striking is how young and immature they both are at the beginning of their journey. Paige Wetzel, like most civilians, knows virtually nothing about the military. She writes repeatedly that she considers the rigorous standards of the Special Forces Qualification Course to be unfair and bemoans her then-new husband being held to them, cut from the program and sent to a regular unit. She undergoes a wrenching transition from a young bride complaining that her Wednesday-night “Christmas leave wedding” was “not ideal” to an experienced military spouse and dutiful caregiver as Josh finds his way to a new normal as a double amputee.

This volume brilliantly captures the superlative lengths our nation will go to to support those who have made extraordinary sacrifices while serving the nation. On the medical side: dozens of surgeries to maximize Josh Wetzel’s ability to function independently, physical and psychological therapy, advanced prosthetics that allow him to walk again, even adaptive sports programs.

The couple is supported as well by an outpouring of community support: a hero’s welcome from their small town, free game tickets from sports teams, encouragement from online followers, the welcoming arms of church members, retreats, even a free home from nonprofit organizations, and prayers with President Barack Obama in Josh Wetzel’s hospital room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

The Wetzels are generous enough to show the hard and perhaps embarrassing elements of their struggle toward a healthy and whole family life as parents together, admitting to moments of selfishness and immaturity as they grow into their adult selves as a couple. Ultimately, they put much of the credit for their survival and success in the hands of God and their religious faith, and this volume will doubtless be inspirational to many fellow Christians.

As both a fellow veteran and spouse to a wounded warrior, much of what they went through resonated with me, particularly the importance of feeling supported and understood by others with similar experiences.

For all who have wondered what life is like for a double amputee and their family, the Wetzels offer an unvarnished look into their world, with moments both arduously painful and beautifully tender.

Kayla Williams is the author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army and Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War.

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Memoir Offers Leadership Lessons in Modern Combat

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Marathon War: Leadership in Combat in Afghanistan. Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Jeffrey Schloesser. Knox Press. 400 pages. $28

By Lt. Col. Mark Reardon, U.S. Army retired

Retired Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser’s memoir of Operation Enduring Freedom provides the first detailed division-level command memoir from the 21st century wars waged by the United States.

His account, Marathon War: Leadership in Combat in Afghanistan, offers more than an individual perspective by examining a variety of factors, some within Schloesser’s control and others outside his remit, that shaped and defined the experiences of American and international soldiers serving in NATO’s Regional Command-East during a 15-month period ending in June 2009. It represents a worthy addition to a rich genre of similar reminiscences dating to the American Civil War.

Schloesser’s book centers on how he sought the tools needed to achieve mission success in an economy-of-force environment. The struggle to obtain more resources for Regional Command-East, an area described as tactically and geographically inhospitable, forms a central thread in Marathon War. The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) headquarters and one of its maneuver brigades deployed to Afghanistan while its other three maneuver brigades participated in the Iraq Surge. Such disparate deployments show that DoD viewed Afghanistan as a secondary mission rather than a fully resourced effort to protect the population or bring about the enemy’s defeat in short order.

In addition to his own soldiers, the units that rotated through Regional Command-East during Schloesser’s tour of duty included an airborne brigade combat team based in Italy, a mechanized brigade (minus its armored vehicles) from Fort Riley, Kansas’ 1st Infantry Division, a maneuver enhancement brigade from Fort Polk, Louisiana, and Task Force Cincinnatus, a collection of battalions overseen by a combat support headquarters. While Polish and French contingents were also present, Schloesser had limited authority over them.

To obtain resources to battle opponents who were keenly aware that American attention remained focused on Iraq, Schloesser made it a point to ensure that the steady stream of important visitors—including Sen. Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen—were apprised of the evolving situation in his area of operations.

Although the focus on visitors seems peripheral at first glance, Schloesser’s interaction with policymakers reminds us that decisions made in conference rooms affect campaigns just as dramatically as battlefield events. The author’s subtle lobbying alleviated not only near-term issues, but also ensured his successor did not face the same challenges.

Combat operations are not neglected in Schloesser’s account. While small-unit combat accounts from the perspective of a general officer lack some tactical detail, Schloesser’s focus on decisions by leaders at all levels ensures most key developments are covered.

One of these engagements, involving a surprise attack against a platoon at Wanat in Nuristan Province, ultimately led Schloesser to retire in protest when that brigade’s chain of command received reprimands following a series of investigations.

Many people find it difficult to relive painful decisions, but Schloesser does not hesitate to delve into these issues in his quest to impart leadership lessons on the complexities of modern combat. In fact, the deeply introspective and candid narrative not only sets this book apart from others in the genre, but it also makes Marathon War especially worthy of reading.

Lt. Col. Mark Reardon, U.S. Army retired, transitioned from armor officer to professional historian after 26 years of military service. He is the author of several books, including Victory at Mortain: Stopping Hitler’s Panzer Counteroffensive. His upcoming publications include a history of the post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi Army and a two-volume account of Operation Enduring Freedom.

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A Deep Dive Into the Philippine Campaign

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Return to Victory: MacArthur’s Epic Liberation of the Philippines. James Duffy. Hachette Books. 352 pages. $31

By Col. Gregory Fontenot, U.S. Army retired

James Duffy is a first-class storyteller with an eye for stories that have not had the attention they merit. He is eclectic in his interests. His books cover a broad spectrum ranging from Lincoln’s Admiral: The Civil War Campaigns of David Farragut to War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight for New Guinea, 1942–1945, which covers the complex and difficult campaign for New Guinea. Return to Victory: MacArthur’s Epic Liberation of the Philippines is his second study of a World War II campaign led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

This is an excellent narrative of a complex, 3D campaign spanning years in the planning and months in final execution. Duffy’s insights reflect thorough research of secondary sources, including accounts from the other side.

Duffy explores the lesser-known exploits of American and Filipino soldiers. In particular, he sheds light on Filipino soldiers who retired into the hills and jungles rather than surrender. They assisted in their liberation first by reporting on the Japanese and later by guerrilla warfare. Ramon Magsaysay, who fought the Japanese, survived and later became the seventh president of the Philippines. Capt. Guillermo Nakar, the first of the holdouts to make radio contact with MacArthur, did not. He was captured in September 1942 and later executed. The heroics of Filipinos have been forgotten—until now.

The campaign to liberate the Philippines required careful sequencing of naval, air and amphibious operations over several months. This was both a joint and combined campaign involving the U.S. and Australia. Adm. William Halsey led the naval component, while Lt. Gen. George Kenney led the air forces. MacArthur, as commander of the Southwest Pacific Area, served as the unified commander and commander of the land component. Two field Army commanders reported to MacArthur: Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger and Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger commanded the Sixth and Eighth U.S. Armies, respectively. All these officers worked well together and with rare exceptions, loyalty up and down was the rule. All understood control of the air and sea were essential to the land operation.

By contrast, Japanese officers did not serve their empire well. Unity of effort, let alone unity of command, was ephemeral between the Japanese army and navy. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, allegedly in command of all Japanese forces, took command in October 1944, less than two weeks before the landings on Leyte. He found himself unable to assure obedience to his orders. The “Tiger of Malaya,” who had vanquished the British in a brilliant campaign in Singapore in 1942, found himself in an untenable position.

Duffy shows that MacArthur managed the approach to the islands, the various stages of the land campaign on Leyte, Mindoro and finally, Luzon, with skill. This is no hagiography, but clearly, Duffy believes MacArthur was brave, effective and sensitive to what he felt the Filipinos deserved from the U.S. MacArthur, with all his flaws, was an effective commander who employed all the means at his disposal adroitly and treated the Filipinos with respect.

Return to Victory offers valid insights into the complexity of joint and combined operations over enormous distances that merit thought today.

Col. Gregory Fontenot, U.S. Army retired, commanded a tank battalion in Operation Desert Storm and an armor brigade in Bosnia. A former director of the School of Advanced Military Studies, his most recent book is Loss and Redemption at St. Vith: The Seventh Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge.