The Gift of Valor
Michael M. Phillips. New York: Broadway Books, 2005. 192 pp. $19.95.
Reviewed by David J. Danelo
During the past fifteen years of conflict involving Iraq, two books by or about Marines emerged that American popular culture christened as particularly authentic: Anthony Swofford's Jarhead and Evan Wright's Generation Kill. Although these works are impressive, Swofford's self-loathing portrayal of his post-warrior life can be distasteful and Wright's emphasis on the seamier details of officer-enlisted clashes emerges as garish. In contrast, The Gift of Valor by Michael M. Phillips, a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, stands head and shoulders above previous Iraq books, and will also quickly assimilate into the mainstream as a "must read."
Phillips, who went to Iraq four times with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines (317), provides readers with the most significant gift a reporter can offer-he gets his story right. Valor tells the tale of Corporal Jason Dunham's sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty in Husaybah, Iraq. Dunham's decision to absorb the blast of a hand grenade with his Kevlar helmet has already earned him a posthumous nomination for the Congressional Medal of Honor. Phillips' initial Journal article generated such extraordinary responses from readers that he expanded it into a truly exceptional book.
The storytelling in The Gift of Valor succeeds for three reasons—Corporal Jason Dunham's stalwart character, the unique institution and culture of today's Marine Corps, and Phillips' relentless pursuit of accurate detail.
Dunham is a typical Marine grunt—a jock from a small town in upstate New York who wants to be a tough guy, serve his country, and maybe even score a few chicks with the uniform. Having "missed the war" in 2003 while guarding a submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia, Jason initially struggles to fit in with the veterans in his unit. His company commander, Captain Trent Gibson, sees leadership potential, and gives the young corporal command of a squad. Although some of his team leaders disagree with his decisions and question his laid-back leadership style, Dunham ultimately earns both the affection and respect of his men.
By narrating the lives of the people and places one degree of separation from Dunham's training, heroism, and journey home, Phillips captures the Marine experience fighting the insurgency in Iraq better than any author to date. Phillips misses nothing with his colorful portrayal of Twenty-nine Palms, the warrior culture of Marines, and the luxurious chow hall in Al Asad Air Base-one of the only true rear areas in western Iraq. His profile of the two neurosurgeons in Baghdad's 31st Combat Support Hospital (31st CSH, or "the Cash") who labor to keep Dunham alive is riveting and poignant. The doctors, who were the only two neurosurgeons in Iraq, developed a sardonic motto: "If you take a round to the skull from Damascus to Tehran…you come see us."
As Phillips describes Dunham's journey from Baghdad to Landstuhl to Bethesda, he explains how the Navy-Marine Corps team goes about taking care of it's own. Alone among the services, Marines have a liaison officer stationed to care for the specific needs of their wounded. Even when Jason Dunham lies unconscious and near death, a Marine or sailor always remains close to his side. When the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Michael Hagee, learns that Dunham's parents have made the gut-wrenching decision to remove Jason from life support, he skips out on an important meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Hagee awards Corporal Dunham his Purple Heart moments before he dies and tells Jason's mother, "You will always be part of the Marine family."
Phillips also offers humor amidst the tragedy. Lieutenant Colonel Matt Lopez, the 3/7 battalion commander, inspires near-fanatical devotion from his Linguist, Lance Corporal Akram Falah. Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, Falah absorbs bullets that, he believes, might otherwise have hit his beloved Colonel. Amidst the chaos of triage, Falah winds up several times with wounded enemy prisoners because of his ethnicity. Awakening in a morphine stupor, Falah swears violently and sings the Marine Hymn, all the while proclaiming his unending love for the colonel.
The Gift of Valor—thetitle comes froma Carl Sandburg quote about not knowing valor until the test comes—grips readers with the warrior's journey without falling into a Henry V cliché. Phillips has given the Infantry Squad Leader's Course a new textbook while immortalizing a future hero of the Corps. Corporal Jason Dunham will get his medal someday. For his efforts and skill, Michael Phillips also deserves one.
David J. Danelo served as an operations officer and convoy commander with the I MEF Headquarters Group at Camp Fallujah from February-September 2004. A former USMC captain and infantry officer, Danelo left active duty in November 2004. He is a 1998 Naval Academy graduate currently at work on a book about Iraq.
Michael A. Palmer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. 233 pp. Maps. $29.95.
Reviewed by Vice Admiral James Stavridis, U.S. Navy
Michael Palmer's newest volume takes on what is perhaps the fundamental question in the long history of naval warfare: how can a commander best position his warships to effectively and efficiently engage the enemy? In seeking an answer to the question, Palmer walks the reader briskly through some four centuries of war at sea. Using an entertaining and informative style, he provides multiple examples from key battles to help the reader understand the complexities of command at sea.
His essential thesis is that as time and technology have advanced, naval commanders have been afforded the opportunity to exercise ever tighter centralized control of fleets at sea. Yet Palmer's research demonstrates that a commander who over-tightens the leash will only crush innovation and initiative in hi s subordinates, leading to micro-management, less-than-swift responses, and the possibility of ending up with rudderless forces who won't make a move without approval from higher authority.
In the course of making his case, Palmer provides a first-rate walk through the world of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson's 19th century navy in particular, opening Command at Sea with an illuminating discussion of the Battle of Nile in 1798, where Nelson crushed the French fleet under Vice Admiral Francois-Paul Brueys. Nelson had gathered his sea captains, famously known as his "band of brothers," aboard the flagship before the engagement. While there, he emphasized to them his view that signals were not particularly useful and each captain should follow his instincts, keeping in the fore front of his mind Nelson's "ideas and intentions." As Nelson said, "in battle, signals would either be misunderstood, or, if waited for, very probably from various causes, be impossible for the commander-in-chief to make." As he said after the victory at the Nile, "I had the happiness to command a Band of Brothers; therefore, night was to my advantage. Each knew his duty and I was sure each would feel for a French ship." That, in a nutshell, is the heart of Palmer's thesis—let the individual ship captains follow their instincts and "go right at the enemy" when they thought appropriate.
Palmer discusses many more battles, both before and after the Nile, drawing a series of examples that support his central idea. The battles range from the famous—Cape St. Vincent, Jutland, and Leyte Gulf—to the relatively obscure. The Saintes, Lissa, and Cape Matapan. Each is meticulously discussed and presented as an exercise in command and control at sea. The text helpfully includes maps that show the key maneuvers.
As he turns the corner into the Cold War-era and the present day, Palmer seems a bit less sure-footed in his theorizing. For example, he discusses the "push for jointness" and decides that it "caused, and continues to cause, problems for the world's major Navies." He hypothesizes that "the work of 20th century unifiers to achieve jointness often met with failure and on occasion led to a measurable decline in fighting power." He may be mixing apples and oranges, confusing "jointness" with "centralized command and control." In today's military, and indeed over the past two decades, the push to jointness has in fact increased the United States' combat power quite dramatically by allowing scarce resources to be used without duplication in procuring jointly used systems; by improving tactics, techniques, and procedures as the services share them back and forth, and by creating a culture of innovation and a creative market place for ideas to compete. There is no discernable push for centralization in military operations, but rather a growing ability for commanders to better see through the fog of war and thus validate and support the innovation and creativity of their subordinates. There will always be a debate as to the right level of centralization, but my sense is that today's U.S. military is getting it about right in this regard, both in increasing jointness and in fostering the ability of the commander at sea (and ashore) to take action as desired.
The strength of this book is clearly its view of the past. This is a volume full of gorgeously told history that does a fine job helping stir the debates of today such as jointness and centralization. It also does a marvelous job illuminating the ongoing questions of command at sea, and offers some salient thoughts for command ashore and in the air as well. In the search for the right balance in centralized command, and in determining how far what Palmer terms "the crucial paradox of knowledge" can help pierce the fog of war, the author provides a highly readable and most enjoyable volume.
Vice Admiral Stavridis is Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense. He commanded the USS Barry (DDG-52), Destroyer Squadron 21, and the Enterprise (CVN-65) Carrier Strike Group.
The Confident Hope of a Miracle: The True Story of the Spanish Armada
Neil Hansen. New York: Knopf, 2005. 429 pp. Map. Ill. Notes. Bib. Index. $35.00.
Reviewed by Daniel M. Masterson
Inspired by the anticipated invasion of England by German forces in June 1940, Garrett Mattingly was moved to consider writing a history of the grandest failure of any previous invasion of England, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Even more than six decades ago, Mattingly who along with Geoffrey Parker, are considered the foremost scholars of the Armada, hesitated to proceed with the project because of the huge body of scholarship that already existed on the topic. What, then, does Neil Hansen contribute to our historical understanding of this pivotal event in naval and world affairs with his Confident Hope of a Miracle: The True Story of the Spanish Armada?
First, the plight of the 16th century sailor—whether British, Dutch, Spanish or Portuguese—is told in such compelling detail that many of the clichéd images of romantic life on the sea are completely dispelled. Hansen notes the English seamen in particular, were ill paid, if at all. Their commanders often struggled in vain to secure proper "victuals," medical care for the wounded, or temporary housing for the dispossessed.
Thus, the English commanders, Francis Drake, John Hawkins, and Charles Howard, were compelled to rely on a corps of Elizabethan sailors who were "sea wolves who lived off the pillage of the world." Perhaps this was appropriate because Hansen notes in compelling detail that Queen Elizabeth showed a complete lack of concern for the sailors who were the first, and very likely the last, effective line of defense against the superior military forces of Spain.
Indeed, one of the most compelling parts of this narrative is Hansen's scathing portrait of Elizabeth. The Queen is depicted as miserly, petty, and quite vain. She imprisoned an English captain in the Tower of London for merely expending more than his meager allowance for his hungry sailors. Hansen draws a devastating picture of "starving, disease-ridden seamen" littering England's east coast seaports after the Royal Navy defeated the Armada. If the seamen complained, they were subject to stiff punishments ordered by Elizabeth. In the end, they were told by the Crown to return to their villages and take up vocations other than a life at sea for England's financial status was precarious. Nevertheless, Elizabeth found the money to maintain a wardrobe containing 3,000 gowns and 628 pieces of jewelry.
In a clear effort to balance this study, Hansen contrasts Spanish monarch Phillip II's treatment of the small number of Armada survivors once they returned to Spain. He notes Phillip insisted that the seaman's needs be taken care of and they be paid in full for their service to the crown. There are no details showing that these orders were ever carried out. Here, as in a number of other key arguments in this book, Hansen's lack of Spanish sources proves to be a significant handicap.
Ultimately, this book should be read as a sea story, and, in that context, it is a remarkably well-told tale. Hansen's intricate discussion of gunnery techniques in the late 16th century is quite impressive. Here his attention to detail is remarkable. We are shown, for example, how the English use of a new gunpowder compound called "corned powder," which was far more stable than the older, traditional "serpentine powder," gave the their navy a decided advantage. English methods of attaining this gunpowder ranged from collecting the "urine from people who drink strong drink," to trade with the Sheriff of Fez on the Barbary Coast for prized saltpeter stores. In a broad, tactical sense, Hansen credits English superior technology for the smashing defeat of the Armada. Manning slower, less maneuverable vessels, the Spanish could never catch the fleeter, better designed warships in order to board and defeat the English with their superior infantry. English vessels fought in home waters, where they knew the winds and tides well and disabled Spanish galleons with superior gunnery and fire ships.
For the English seaman, there was a deep irony in the defeat of the Armada. Their nation required them to destroy the Spanish fleet and prevent the invasion of their homeland. Yet these men, most particularly their leaders, were at heart privateers who sought prizes above all else to secure their livelihood and that of their men. Most English seamen from commanders to the lowest deck hands came away empty from their glorious victory over the Armada. Such is often the case in war, but scant attention has been paid to this aspect of the Armada story. This is perhaps the most important contribution of this highly readable study.
Daniel M. Masterson is a Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy. He has published widely on the Latin American military and immigration to that region.
Julian Stockton. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2004. 329 pp. L16.99.
Reviewed by Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Acting Lieutenant Thomas Kydd waits, with trepidation , his examination confirming his temporary promotion to lieutenant. One of a number of examinees, his confidence is sorely tried by several of those ahead of him who come out shaking their heads in disbelief at their failure. Fortunately for Kydd, however, when his turn comes the board chooses to grill him on navigation and shiphandling, both areas in which he has had considerable experience. He is no longer "acting" as he heads back to his ship, the old 64-gun Tenacious, and deployment to the North American Station.
Kydd's first rude awakening occurs upon reporting to his captain. He is informed that, as he has "come aft through the hawse," he is unwelcome. For better or worse, the ship's imminent sailing for the North American Station negates the captain's desire to be rid of him, and Kydd finds himself fifth lieutenant and signals officer—a duty about which he knows nothing. A bumbling presentation at the conference of convoy captains confirms Kydd's realization that he has entered a world far removed from his past service. The transatlantic crossing becomes a low period in his life as his fellow wardroom officers, without malicious intent, make it plain through the topics of their conversation and rituals at dining that their newest member is an outsider. Kydd experiences moments of doubts about remaining a commissioned officer, but strives to broaden his horizons while finding solace in his technical competence.
He arrives at Halifax, after a crossing that provides Kydd an opportunity to display his boathandling skill. When the admiral commanding takes the squadron out on maneuvers, Kydd gets another lesson in signaling. As the squadron turns back toward Halifax from a position east of Cape Cod, a large French privateer is encountered and Tenacious is sent after it. Unable to shake its pursuer, the Frenchman gains sanctuary in a Connecticut port. Kydd is sent in under a white flag to demand the locals evict the visitor after 48 hours. Initially rebuffed by the town's principal citizens—all of whom have profited by the Frenchman in the past—when higher authority sides with the British, Kydd hits upon a plan to insure the privateer will not elude Tenacious.
Subsequent to the return to Halifax with the prize, Kydd is chosen to go to the United States in response to a request for a naval observer. He spends a few uncomfortable days aboard the newly commissioned frigate Constellation that redound to his benefit when, with a daring decision, he thwarts a night fight between that ship and its British counterpart.
Kydd has a final escapade on his return to Halifax when he inadvertently does the governor, a prince, a favor that outweighs all his previous social shortcomings and places him at the top of everyone's invitation list.
This "voyage of (self) discovery" lacks the hellfire and gunsmoke of most works of this genre, but is interestingly handled by the author through his attention to historic detail and inclusion of "ways of the sea" now gone from popular memory. A very satisfying read.
An American edition will be published by McBooks Press in October 2005.
Commander Martin is a naval historian and author of A Most Fortunate Ship: A Narrative History of Old Ironsides. He was the 58th Commanding Officer of USS Constitution and commanded two destroyers on tours of duty off Korea and Vietnam.
Brotherhood of Heroes
Bill Sloan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. 400 pp. $26.00.
Reviewed by Colonel Jon T. Hoffman, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve
Brotherhood of Heroes is the story of the 1st Marine Division's amphibious attack on Peleliu in 1944, but it is not a narrative detailing the plans of commanders and movements of units. Instead, it focuses on the views of the young Marine enlisted men and junior officers who carried the fight to the Japanese defenders.
It fits squarely in the genre of veteran recollections popularized by Stephen Ambrose in Band of Brothers and is a worthwhile contribution to the literature of the Pacific war on that level. The author, a former investigative reporter for a Dallas newspaper and Pulitzer Prize nominee, does an artful job weaving interviews of about thirty veterans with material from contemporary letters, news articles, and two of the classic first-person combat narratives of World War II—Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa and George Hunt's Coral Comes High.
The book is at its best when describing the reality of war for individuals and small units. The hardships of the spartan rest area at Pavuvu, the stench of decomposing bodies, and uncovered excrement on the sun-baked ridges of Peleliu, the impact of a buddy's death, and the onset of mind-numbing fatigue and fatalism are presented to the reader in a manner seldom achieved in a work of military history.
Casualties are not mere statistics mentioned periodically throughout the narrative, but human beings with personalities, loved ones at home, and hopes for the future shattered by war. The reader will come to know Marines who never made it into the history books such as Lieutenant Ed "Hillbilly" Jones and Private First Class Seymour Levy. Jones was a talented guitarist who knew how to motivate his men and lead them in battle. Levy was a prankster fond of quoting long passages of Kipling poems. He had voluntarily returned to duty on the lines after a serious neck wound, only to die from a sniper's bullet later in the battle.
The book has a number of weaknesses that detract from its value. One is hyperbole, starting with the claim in the subtitle that Peleliu was "the bloodiest battle of the Pacific war." Whether by total losses or casualties per square mile, it was exceeded by a number of other operations before and after. Sloan asserts that it was the costliest battle for the 1st Marine Division during the war, a dubious distinction that belongs to Okinawa. His statement that the Corps never "faced a darker, more desperate period than the first two and a half days on Peleliu" ignores other costly battles such as Belleau Wood and Tarawa where victory seemed even less likely in the early going.
The author has an eclectic group of a dozen books to his credit ranging from fiction to business histories. Although he has published a well-received account of Wake Island, he clearly lacks expertise in the field of World War II, resulting in frequent errors. They include wrong ranks or billets for key individuals, mistaken equipment descriptions (e.g. a 37-mm. howitzer on a Sherman tank), and inaccurate statements of fact. Among the latter, the division supposedly spent time in Melbourne before Guadalcanal (rather than Wellington, New Zealand) and encountered the main Japanese defenses on Okinawa in the north rather than in the south.
Thus, when he ventures into analysis of the tactics of the battle and criticism or praise of senior leaders, his effort rests on a limited understanding of military operations and the personalities involved.
Finally, the very nature of the work—built around the recollections of survivors—skews it toward the story of those who happened to be available for interviews sixty years after the battle. Thus the reader gets a fairly detailed look at the 5th Marines, less on the 1st Marines, little on the 7th Marines, and practically nothing on any of the supporting units.
Brotherhood of Heroes captures the human element of combat well, but its shortcomings keep it from being a solid account of Peleliu. Read it for the enduring portraits of men at war, but pick up another volume if you want to understand the course of the battle itself.
Colonel Hoffman resigned earlier this year from his civil service position as the deputy director of the Marine Corps History and Museums Division. His three books and numerous articles have won more than a dozen writing awards.