Marlantes says he wrote the book to come to terms with his combat experiences and in doing so, to help other veterans in their search for meaning following war. He tells profoundly personal and unsettling stories. He takes the reader from his first encounter with mortal fear as a youth caught in a storm on his grandfather’s fishing boat, to his education at Yale and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, to leading a rifle platoon in Vietnam and his private postwar struggles. He describes the adrenaline rush of combat, the act of killing, and its aftermath. He recounts years of guilt and denial associated with no-quarter fighting, which he says “fit the disastrous and stupid notion of body count” on which he and his fellow comrades in arms were judged—a method of score-keeping that now seems callous to him.
Marlantes also confesses that lacking guidance on how to cope, he succumbed to self-destructive behavior, including drug use and random sexual encounters, from one of which he contracted a venereal disease. But make no mistake: this is not in any way an apology for serving in Vietnam. Throughout his cathartic tale we witness his efforts to reconcile with the past. He was and remains proud of leading Marines, for which he earned the Navy Cross, even though it was a time in which many of his fellow countrymen publicly disowned those serving in Southeast Asia.
The author packs a lot into this relatively short work. He writes that he hopes it may serve two additional purposes: to prepare young men and women to handle the psychological, physical, and spiritual stresses of combat and to help citizens and politicians better understand their responsibilities to those who do the fighting and what they are asking of them when they send them off to war. Both are ambitious goals, and it is the author’s energy and realism that make his case all the more compelling.
Marlantes calls the book his “song,” a word in tune with the works of other members of his generation, such as James Webb’s Fields of Fire and Robert Timberg’s The Nightingale’s Song . He has a bold voice, and nothing is off limits as Marlantes ventures into physical, psychological, sociological, and metaphysical realms. He comes across as a man aware of the dark side in his nature but is vague when describing the source of evil or its opposite, goodness. From his point of view combat is a sacred experience in which participants assume a role reserved for God. In search of absolution, he tries everything from counseling to a Mass for the Dead, in which he describes communing with spirits.
One criticism: he writes as if he were addressing solely a male audience. He briefly discusses female combatants, and his analysis of both sexes flows from his masculine perspective. He does not consider the commonalities between men and women when they fight and their similar needs on returning home.
It is encouraging to know that a combat veteran who has achieved much in his life also survived traumatic times and the jarring readjustment to everyday life, an adjustment he aptly compares to “asking St. John of the Cross to be happy flipping burgers at McDonald’s after he’s left the monastery.” As a former Air Force Security Forces officer, I found his thoughts on deployment preparation, fighting, and the struggles to reintegrate into life back home to be as true for my generation of veterans as it has been for his. I remember learning how to go to war, but there was little discussion about what it was like to go to war and its place in the human experience. Marlantes does more than talk about it, and what he proclaims is a compelling testimony for the contemporary warrior.
The Age of Airpower
Martin van Creveld. New York: Public Affairs, 2011. 512 pp. Pref. Index. Notes. $35.
Reviewed by Sterling Michael Pavelec
Martin van Creveld is an established military historian with an impressive catalog of widely acclaimed scholarly books on military affairs and technology. In 2008 he was named professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he has taught since 1971. The Age of Airpower is his 19th book.
It was eagerly anticipated by the academic community. Van Creveld’s books have invariably been well-written and wonderful analytical treatises on military technology and culture. They have been controversial and have set the bar for argument and analysis. Technology in War , Supplying War , and Transformation in War are still considered fundamental in military history and security studies circles. That said, The Age of Airpower is not up to his previous standards of excellence. The book is fraught with inaccuracies and inconsistencies.
Van Creveld’s thesis is that manned aircraft are quickly reaching the end of their usefulness in military affairs, especially with respect to strategic bombing. He parses his argument further, explaining how costs, increasing numbers of female service members, and a lack of decisiveness in counterinsurgency are further degrading the “power” of air power. With the exception of transport, which he argues can and should be done by non-military carriers, and an increase in drones and unmanned systems for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, he maintains that air forces (specifically the U.S. Air Force) are superfluous.
His arguments would be better, and ultimately more influential, had they been more carefully prepared. Unfortunately, van Creveld’s book suffers from multiple levels of incoherence. First—and this is not entirely the fault of the author—there are far too many spelling errors, syntactical and grammatical mistakes, and convoluted sentences. The text needs a good edit.
Second, van Creveld relies exclusively on secondary sources; he cites no primary documents. Third, he frequently lacks citations where his argument would be well-served by a source. Unfortunately, a number of the sources he does cite are dated; the author did not make use of many excellent recent works on his topic. In some places he argues that “the numbers aren’t available” or “that the evidence is unclear.” In most cases, a modicum of primary research would have provided pertinent clarification. Especially infuriating is his frequent use of Wikipedia (nearly 50 citations) and other marginal Internet sources.
Finally, van Creveld’s analysis suffers from a fundamental lack of understanding of the U.S. Air Force, its planes, missions, and doctrine. He confuses aircraft designations, which detracts from his argument. He misunderstands Army Air Forces organization and chain of command during World War II and the transition to the U.S. Air Force after 1947. In fact, the only mention of the National Security Act of 1947 (the decision to create the independent Air Force, among other things) is that the Navy “got its way and was allowed to build the carriers it wanted” after the “Revolt of the Admirals.”
Paradoxically, van Creveld devotes three-quarters of the book to explaining how air power historically has been useful, supportive, and even necessary for effective campaigning. But he claims that when the focus shifted to strategic bombing during World War II, theory was perverted, faith was misplaced, and air power began its eventual, if not inevitable, decline. He maintains that even today, while command of the air is essential, air power has little beneficial influence on counterinsurgency or irregular warfare (what he calls “subconventional”). Thus, van Creveld concludes that declining effectiveness, fewer aircraft, higher unit cost, and nuclear proliferation are responsible for air power’s eclipse.
In his conclusion, the author attempts to argue that future air power will be defined by remotely piloted vehicles and space, but offers no further explication. Indeed, all of the arguments in the book are interesting and controversial but ill-defined and poorly supported. His book will be read and disputed because of van Creveld’s reputation, but analysts will be better served by reading James S. Corum and Wray R. Johnson’s Airpower in Small Wars (University Press of Kansas, 2003), and Mark Clodfelter’s Limits of Airpower (Free Press, 1989).
Because of its shortcomings both in content and style, I am reluctant to recommend this book. There are a number of fine air power histories, both specific and general; unfortunately, van Creveld’s The Age of Airpower is ultimately disappointing.
Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the Secret Special Forces War in Iraq
Mark Urban. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011. 320 pp. Pref. Maps. Index. $25.99.
Reviewed by Captain Alexander S. Martin, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve
I read Task Force Black on a bone-white beach in Mykonos, Greece, peacefully drinking cold white wine and absorbing Mark Urban’s gripping work as rioters burned Athens just 100 miles away during that country’s debt crisis. I took strange pleasure in the irony that I was in the very land that inspired the literary canon of the Western world, just out of the reach of a contemporary, anarchic drama in the Peloponnese to the northeast, while reading about the high drama of U.S. and British Special Forces prosecuting a highly lethal, secret war.
While I drank and read and Athens burned, it struck me that at this moment things were just as they had been during the long years of fighting in Iraq and as they have always been and will be: topsy-turvy.
The second Iraq war was no different in many ways than any other war. It began amid political confusion. It was culturally divisive. It involved gross miscalculations and brilliant victories. Risks were taken; death was dealt; sacrifices were made. Compromises were arranged. Some at home protested while others fought. Most went about their lives quietly, with the heavy-hearted feeling all free citizens of warring states possess when their soldiers are in harm’s way. It was, on one hand, as most wars have been throughout antiquity: a costly, mistake-ridden chaos. And on the other hand, it was, as President Barack Obama himself has said, “a shining success” that has completely altered the landscape in the Middle East.
What turned the tide? The answer to this question is complex and cannot be understood without reading Task Force Black . Mark Urban takes the reader inside the culture of the British and U.S. Special Forces units that performed “black” or covert operations during the Iraq war. He blends detailed personal accounts, interviews, and the surrounding (and pervasive) political atmosphere into a stirring history that sheds light on the bravery of these quiet warriors and on the creativity and intelligence of certain critical leaders at all levels of command in special and regular forces.
The book is grounded in the story of then-Major General Stanley A. McChrystal’s secret war from inside Baghdad, in which he integrated hard-hitting Special Forces units, air assets, and the most advanced surveillance technology with the express purpose of mowing down the enemy faster than they could grow back.
While the foundation of this story is certainly strategic, the book gets its pulse from a refreshing blend of operational art and tactical science. We follow these men as they conduct dozens of offensive actions and special reconnaissance missions, support counterterrorism operations (including captivating missions against Iranian intelligence operatives), and disrupt logistics nodes, to name a few.
Urban’s book tracks British Special Air Service and Special Boat Service operators as they work alongside their American Delta Force counterparts. It exposes the political agendas of some Green Zone bureaucrats who too often stood in the way of operational decisions, and brings to attention to some unlikely heroes who saved lives and daily affected the battle space for the better.
Task Force Black is more than just a book about the Coalition’s elite shooters in Iraq. It is a riveting story of the Iraq War that too many experienced only looking through the clouded lens of the nightly news cycle. Urban has succeeded in telling a gritty tale of the war whose reporting is too often skewed by politics and emotion. His story reflects the true essence of what the Iraq war was from beginning to end. Topsy-turvy, indeed.
Grab Their Belts To Fight Them: The Viet Cong’s Big-Unit War Against The U.S., 1965-1966
Warren Wilkins. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011. 282 pp. Intro. Maps. Notes. Bibliog. Index. $35.95.
Reviewed by Brigadier General Thomas V. Draude, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
This book covers an area often neglected in Vietnam histories: early engagements that took place shortly after the United States’ commitment of forces. With a confidence bordering on arrogance and led by commanders whose combat experience, if any, was acquired in Korea, we eagerly took on the Viet Cong. The author devotes much of his book to the lessons learned in these initial contacts.
It is sometimes risky for a book reviewer to have participated in the events the book describes. I wondered, How would the battles of 1965-1966 against the Viet Cong, three of which I participated in, be portrayed? Too critically? Too generalized? In too much detail?
Warren Wilkins strikes the right balance on this question and on others as he reviews the early days of major U.S. battles and events leading to them. His notes are thorough, but he doesn’t allow the details to slow the pace. His background is not as complete as Douglas Pike’s The Viet Cong (MIT Press, 1967), but it doesn’t have to be to set the stage for understanding the strategy, debates, and battles that follow.
The reader has no doubt about the Viet Cong leadership’s intentions: to seek big-unit battles against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces as soon as conditions permitted and thus induce a negotiated withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam. Their operations were guided by “One slow, four quicks”—slow planning, quick advance, quick attack, quick battlefield clearance, and quick withdrawal.
Their preparation also included the thorough indoctrination of every soldier concerning the reason for his actions—the “Why.” Here I was reminded of psychiatrist Victor E. Frankl’s famous work, Man’s Search for Meaning : “If you can explain the ‘Why?’ most people can live with the ‘How?’” But how many of our forces understood the “Why”?
The Viet Cong’s tactics—raids, ambushes, sapper raids, stand-off attack, and defensive warfare—are described in sufficient detail for the reader to understand the battles that are later related. The book’s title repeats the slogan the Viet Cong used while fighting U.S. forces to reduce or eliminate the effect of supporting arms. They learned during their 1965 battles—Starlite and Ia Drang especially—the way Americans fought and won (although their after-action reports gave distorted and inflated favorable reports of the outcomes, despite suffering huge losses.) The Viet Cong believed the United States’ advantages in firepower, mobility, and combined arms competency could be overcome only by “grabbing our belts.”
This difference in fighting methods, our liberal use of supporting arms in conjunction with more than just infantry skills, leads to interesting but disturbing revelations by various Viet Cong veterans. Some held U.S. forces in contempt for using external (not organic to the unit) supporting arms. One of their generals inferred that the quality of American soldiery did not match the quality of American technology. (As a rifle company commander, I relied on any supporting arms I could bring to bear, but never felt my Marines were not up to the task of “closing with and destroying the enemy.”)
Whether this was an attempt to justify the horrendous losses they sustained in combat with U.S. forces or just their envy about the firepower we could apply, these assertions are beneath a foe I truly respected on the battlefield. This seeming aversion to the use of supporting arms was forgotten in the major ground offenses against South Vietnamese forces in 1972 and 1975 and in the 1978-1979 invasion of Cambodia.
I eagerly add Wilkins’ book to my professional library. It answers questions I’ve had since 1965 and puts our first battles in perspective. It is also an almost eerie reminder of a war in which we fought with a long logistics tail, supporting a shaky, corrupt government that fielded a checkered quality of armed forces, as we tolerated sanctuaries for our enemies and engaged in combat operations and pacification—simultaneously, with waning U.S. public support. Draw your own conclusions and predictions after reading this fine book.