New Glory: Expanding America's Global Supremacy
Ralph Peters. New York: Sentinel, 2005. 304 pp. $24.95.
Reviewed by Michael S. Neiberg
Ralph Peters' dust jacket biographical statement says that the author relies on "firsthand observation of the world's trouble spots to shape his views." This book leaves one wondering whether the author is simply looking in the wrong trouble spots or if he needs a new prescription for his eyeglasses. The problems in this book are far too numerous to elaborate here, but the central flaw is a view of the world full of oversimplifications and generalizations. These generalizations are no substitute for actual research. This book does not contain a single footnote; it has no intelligent and insightful quotations; and it lacks grounding in the recent work of others who have entered into debates on America's role in the world. We are thus left with an inchoate rant that places the blame for the world's problems entirely outside American borders.
It comes as no great surprise that Peters reserves particular vitriol for France, the favored target of so many commentators who like to reduce the world to simple stereotypes and generalizations. Peters dismisses the French Revolution as having "literally talked itself to death," whatever that means. The Revolution, in his eyes, appears as yet another French trick designed to make the world hate the United States. Not coincidentally, he brackets his discussion of the Revolution with two discussions of Osama bin Laden, as if to suggest that bin Laden's main influence was Robespierre. At least Peters divvies up his hatred equally. In a typical passage he describes Germany as "a country with all the self-righteousness of France, but without the table manners." In another part of the book he simply waves away both France and Germany as "sick inside." Comments such as these are as unhelpful to his argument as they are facile and stereotypical. Most importantly, they call into serious question the author's claims to credibility as a keen observer of the world scene. Such blithe dismissals of French and German motives need to be replaced by a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of European history, culture, and society, but Peters is unwilling (or unable) to provide them. In their place comes the bizarre statement that "when it comes to self-examination, the heartlands of Europe are simply the Middle East lite."
New Glory is an example of a particular type of muscular neo-conservatism that purports to be patriotic. Ignoring the costs, both financial and human, of the ongoing war in Iraq, the book nevertheless claims that the world and the United States would benefit from a massive expansion of American power. Ironically, this argument gives him more in common with the French revolutionaries he vilified than he seems willing to recognize. Thus he can write without a trace of irony that "The great struggle of the twenty-first century will rage between those, led by America, who believe that men and women have the right to shape their own lives, and those who believe themselves entitled to shape the lives of others." However one feels about a statement such as that one, it is sheer folly to imagine that the United States is not currently engaged in shaping the lives of Iraqis. The distinction he actually draws is between Europeans, who don't know how to shape the lives of others, and the United States, which somehow does. Given that his understanding of the Middle East is even shallower than his understanding of Europe, the reader can be forgiven for reserving doubts.
There might very well be a case for the expansion of American power worldwide, but this book is not it. At base Peters suggests that the Europeans had their chance to colonize the world and they blew it. Now comes America's chance, and because we suffer from none of the pathological faults of decadent Europeans like France and Germany, we can only make the world better the more we influence it. That logic might give comfort to those, like Peters, who don't wish to face up to the fact that America's similarities to Europe far outweigh its differences. The only way for this country to avoid making the mistakes the Europeans made is to understand their history for what it was.
Peters is wrong to suggest that America's foreign policy mistakes were rooted in cleaning up European messes. It is more accurate to state that America's foreign policy mistakes were a function of an unwillingness to learn from Europe. New Glory is a stark reminder of the foolishness of doing so in the future.
Dr. Neiberg is professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and co-director of the school's Center for the Study of War and Society. He is the author of Making Citizen Soldiers: ROTC and the Ideology of American Military Service.
Tracy Kidder. New York: Random House, 2005. 208 pp. $24.95.
Reviewed by William Thomas
Tracy Kidder's My Detachment offers a glimpse of the warrior we don't read about in novels or see in films: the REMF, or "rear echelon mother . . .," well, you know the rest. As a brand new second lieutenant, Kidder found himself shipped off to Vietnam in 1968 where he commanded a signals intelligence detachment. The book examines his life before the war, his year in-country, the battles with higher command and the military mindset, his missteps with his NCOs, and the contrast between his anti-war views and his wartime experience.
The book's strength is that it highlights the rear echelon efforts when the concept of "rear echelon" is starting to fade. Kidder faced infiltrations through the wire, frontal assaults on the camp, an unsecured town nearby, and locals who might be trustworthy and might not-sound familiar? Anyone headed to Baghdad's Green Zone or a base in Afghanistan might want to read it simply for that reason. Kidder and his troops might not have been going out on patrols but they faced the dangers and the stress of combat anyway. There was no safe area in Vietnam, a change of pace from earlier wars. Today, in conflicts where the enemy is once again all around us, it's helpful to learn from those experiences.
Kidder's war isn't just against the Viet Cong; it is against the U.S. military bureaucracy entrenched in Vietnam at this point in the war. He shows us field-grade officers out of touch with reality, more concerned with the tidiness of his tent in the middle of a war zone than with the number of enemy units his troops have identified. There is the battalion commander who is not sure what he wants but knows he wants it now, the outgoing commander who has been detached for too long and left a mess for Kidder to clean up, and the ever-present fear of inspections. The rapid turnover of personnel leaves Kidder wondering what is required of him and his men today that is different from yesterday-again, sound familiar?
Unfortunately, the story doesn't go very deep. A lot of worthwhile strands of his story appear but Kidder often blows through them, not giving them the attention they deserve. He comes to rely heavily on his senior NCO, a good lesson for any junior officer, but why are that sergeant's departure and the effects of his absence barely noted? Why doesn't Kidder tell us how he got himself ready for that event, and how he knew he was ready to take over on his own? In addition to the almost comical commanders he works for, he gets a good one, but only for a few months-why don't we learn more about this relationship? There are important positive lessons in this story but they are hidden in the background. That is a shame as there is so much that could be taken from this book and applied to modern events. The reader's appetite is whetted but left unfilled.
That is the weakness of My Detachment. The author draws us in but doesn't follow through. Just as Kidder criticizes the inspector who focuses on things that are easy to spot, such as the cleanliness of tents, rather than going for the hard to see things, so too does Kidder emphasize the obvious stories without exploring all the other aspects that affected him during his year. The slightly crazed sergeant always threatening to kill everyone and the NCO losing his heart to the call girl on R&R, are obvious stories. What about the other troops-how do their lives affect him? Perhaps his recollections after almost 40 years are a bit fuzzy, and that is definitely the reader's loss.
The book is a fast read. It's easy to get through it in a couple of hours, and for that reason it is worth checking out, especially for those who went through similar experiences and want to compare notes, or for those preparing to deploy to current conflicts as modern-day REMFs. The reader shouldn't have high expectations, though, as the return on investment is appropriate for that small amount of effort. It's a shame the author chose not to go more in depth-many readers would have been willing to put in the time.
Dr. Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Military Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy and Deputy Director of the USAF Institute for National Security Studies. During 2004-2005 he served in Baghdad's "Green Zone" as a strategic planner in Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq.
The Longest Night: The Bombing of London on May 10, 1941
Gavin Mortimer. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2005. 368 pp. Ill. $24.95.
Reviewed by Robert S. Bolia
The Longest Night is historian Gavin Mortimer's attempt to describe the circumstances and aftermath of the most destructive of Germany's raids on London during World War II. Ordered by Hitler in retaliation for RAF raids on Bremen and Hamburg, this last major raid on the British capital-the Luftwaffe had already begun moving its assets east for the attack on Russia-left more than 1,400 Londoners dead and 1,800 wounded, and destroyed more than 11,000 homes, churches, businesses, and public buildings. Yet despite the death and destruction it wrought, the raid failed to break the back of the British people, the continuation of whose struggle against Nazi aggression planted the seed of the eventual Allied victory.
Almost as interesting as the story of the raid is the tale of Mortimer's unique approach to the writing of The Longest Night. He began his research by advertising in magazines and local newspapers for survivors of the raid willing to discuss their memories of it. To his surprise, he received nearly two hundred responses, all from men and women in their eighties and nineties who were anxious to describe their role in the Blitz. Mortimer wove his narrative around these letters, and subsequent interviews, into a story that is at the same time haunting and engaging. It is not a story about Heinkels and Junkers, Hurricanes and Spitfires; it is not an account of politics in London and Berlin; and it has little to do with strategy or tactics. Instead it is a story of people dealing with the worst possible circumstances in the best possible ways.
The composition of the cast of characters is largely driven by the responses to Mortimer's queries. Many of the men and women interviewed served in the fire service, so much of the narrative focuses on the emergency response to the bombing. In addition to the extraordinary "heroes with grimy faces" who fought the fires, we read about the women who took the calls at the command posts, those who provided refreshment for the firelighters, and one who drove a petrol lorry from fire to fire within the burning city. We also hear from, among others, a bomb disposal expert, a doctor, an anti-aircraft gunner, two pilots, two journalists, several clergymen, and a young footballer from Preston North End who played in a cup final at Wembley against Arsenal just before the bombs began to fall.
The author presents his dramatis personae in the context in which they lived and worked, beginning with a tour of the London neighborhoods that would be affected by the bombing. He starts in Southwark at the Elephant and Castle and moves on to Waterloo Station, across the Thames to Westminster, down the Strand to the City and Whitechapel, and back across the river to Bermondsey and Peckham. At each stop on the tour he introduces the characters who will appear there during the raid, providing just enough biographical information to establish a connection before moving on to the next locale. In this way he is able to use geography to provide a sense of continuity to an otherwise discontinuous, chaotic series of events.
The Longest Night can perhaps best be described as a valiant effort to impose order on the chaos created by the Luftwaffe on the night of 10 May 1941. If the author does not succeed, it is only because he has attempted the impossible. The fog and friction operating in London that night were at least as great as on any battlefield. What Mortimer does exceptionally well is to try to characterize it, to convey at least a hint of the feeling, through firsthand accounts that vividly describe the sounds, the smells, the colors of what was at once an exciting, frightening, and heartbreaking experience. He is aided in this endeavor by a series of suitable photographs, portraying the people, the event, and the aftermath.
Although The Longest Night is a good book, it does have its faults. One of these is a lack of maps. The action described is geographically situated, but for most readers-those not having an exquisite knowledge of the geography of London and its immediate environs-the information will not be meaningful. A good map of London, as well as neighborhood maps showing the locations of the buildings depicted in the narrative would add immensely to the book. In addition, a bibliography and footnotes would be useful to professional and amateur historians for whom The Longest Night will serve as a reference as well as an enjoyable read.
Despite these minor caveats, The Longest Night is a fascinating book. It tells a story that is of interest to students of World War II, but also to the reader for whom the historical context is lacking, because it is fundamentally a human story, not about war per se, but about man's extraordinary ability to adapt to circumstances to which adaptation would appear inconceivable; in other words, to derive triumph from tragedy.
Mr. Bolia is a researcher at the Air Force Research Laboratory's Human Effectiveness Directorate at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.