Blood Stripes: The Grunt's View of the War in Iraq
David J. Danelo. Mechanicsburg. PA: Stackpole Books. 2006. 335 pp. Illus. Notes. Index. $29.95.
Reviewed by Colonel Keith Oliver, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
Too rare today is that crackerjack athlete who plays his heart out for the old-fashioned love of the game. In word and deed, he pays homage to the greats who have gone before him; and he personifies all that is noble about his sport, very carefully and publicly crediting those whom he would emulate.
That's how it is with Daniel J. Danelo, combat writer.
Openly saluting a tradition that spans ancient Sparta, James Webb's Fields of Fire, and his own Operation Iraqi Freedom contemporaries, Danelo's non-fiction tribute to 21st century Marine Corps corporals and sergeants is destined for college required-reading lists.
Blood Stripes is named for the red felt that adorns the trouser legs of the Marine dress blue uniform-a scarlet distinction reserved for those serving in the non-commissioned officer ranks and higher. The only dress blues readers will find in this tome, however, are worn by recruiters-and stateside casualty assistance officers. Danelo's tale is of urban combat in Iraq: of nasty, dry-mouthed, heart-pumping actions in places such as Fallujah and Ramadi and a deadly night maneuver on the river Euphrates.
The author tactically limits his book in time, place, and scope, concentrating on operations in Western Iraq from February to September 2004. Sticking mostly to the NCO level, Danelo does offer some context in the operational and, rarer still, the strategic level. But, by design, the big picture gives way to a small-unit documentary into the lives of real-world Leathernecks named Sergeant Dusty Soudan, Corporal Link Milinkovic, and Lance Corporal "Dirty Steve" Nunnery.
One exception is a peek inside the command tent of Lieutenant General (then-Major General) James N. "Mad Dog" Mattis, arguably the Corps' best-known combat general of this young century.
While Blood Stripes is clearly a tribute to the infantry—the Queen of Battle—the crusty NCOs whom Danelo describes do not discount the contributions made by Iraqi translators, the women Marines of Team Lioness assigned to frisk local females, or gutsy convoy drivers. "Infantrymen hold other jobs in high respect," Danelo writes, "so long as they are 'hard.'"
Like Martin Russ in Breakout, the tine non-fiction work on the Chosin Reservoir, Danelo devotes several meaty paragraphs to the chaplain (Commander Bill Devine) and the corpsmen ("Docs" Tivy Matthews and Jared White). Still, he reserves his best vignettes for the warfighter-leader, the men with guns from fire-team to company level, the ones who say things like Dusty Soudan: "Let's go do what Marines do."
Since the book's subtitle promises a grunt's view of life in combat, the language is plenty salty (go figure). For the uninitiated, Danelo probably overloads Blood Stripes with F-bombs and trips to the field head (often armed with the latest issue of Maxim). If his take on a warrior's hierarchy of needs is gritty, he paints it squarely within context—and with ringing authenticity.
Technically, Danelo does a couple of things that aid the reader tremendously. He offers a good glossary of terms (as did Webb and others), he often repeats full identification of his main characters and he has fun with capitalization to drive home a sparse handful of important themes, e.g., The Lance Corporal Network, Disorder and the Highest Good. Helpful, too, is a dramatis personae at the front of the book; and a back-home epilogue is unusually satisfying in its detail.
The titles of Blood Stripes' 15 chapters, and even more so the eclectic quotes that accompany each, let the reader know he is in for an interesting ride. Rudyard Kipling meets Rolling Stone. Three dozen photos—mostly depicting the same martial poses found in Vietnam and World War II scrapbooks—illustrate Danelo's work with a simple "I was there" quality. Included also is a compelling pen and ink drawing commissioned by Marine Gold Star mother Nina Schrage.
His footnotes are value-added, never getting bogged-down in acadamese: and he is refreshingly unselfish in citing fellow chroniclers of the Iraq War, including Nathaniel Fick (The Making of a Marine Officer), Michael M. Phillips (The Gift of Valor), and veteran Philadelphia Inquirer photographer, David Swanson.
Danelo's admiration for war correspondents comes naturally. A former Marine captain who served in Iraq, the Naval Academy graduate traded sword for pen two years ago, getting one of his first bylines in this magazine for his Hurricane Katrina coverage. His direct, sometimes sardonic prose evokes a proprietary protection of his subjects, as if he is allowing readers backstage privileges—but only for a little while. What comes across is respect, as in his Ernie Pyle-styled description of Lima Company commander, Captain Richard J. Gannon II, killed at Husabyah.
It's that same respect that causes Gates of Fire author Steven Pressfield to call fellow warrior-scribe Danelo "an NCO at heart."
Colonel Oliver is public affairs officer at Defense Information School, Ft. Meade, Maryland. The former sergeant is national vice-president of the U.S. Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association.
The 33 Strategies of War
Robert Greene. New York: Viking Press. 2006. 496 pp. Index. $25.95.
Reviewed by Vice Admiral Jim Stavridis, U.S. Navy
This is an interesting book culled from the pages of the history of war that purports to offer a variety of strategies "for winning the subtle social game of everyday life." Robert Greene has combed through the history of warfare and distilled his 33 strategies into short, punchy chapters, each illustrated with at least one and often two or three vignettes taken from famous battles or campaigns.
A glance at the titles of a few of the strategies serves to provide a sense of the text: "Trade Space for Time: The Non-Engagement Strategy," "Overwhelm Resistance with Speed and Suddenness: The Blitzkrieg Strategy," "Envelope the Enemy: The Annihilation Strategy," and "Do Not Fight the Last War: The Guerrilla War-of-the-Mind Strategy." Each strategy is packaged with a catchy title, a main story line, and—on the margins of the text in a somewhat difficult to-read red ink—additional examples taken from history that illustrate the main points of the strategy.
While dutifully laying out a full 33 strategies, it is clear that in the end the book serves up a group of variants on the two main approaches serious scholars have always dealt with: attrition and maneuver.
Attrition warfare is at the heart of the Western way of war, having been passed along since at least the times of the ancient Greeks and Persians. It has been classically applied through history by strong, powerful states that seek to destroy their enemies by wearing down the enemy's ability to make war through direct, destructive combat. War of attrition generally causes significant losses on the part of both warring sides, and usually results in the side with the most resources winning. It is most frequently associated with the doctrine of unconditional surrender. The United States, in such conflicts as its Civil War and World War II, has practiced war of attrition.
Maneuver warfare, on the other hand, tends 10 come from Eastern influences, and has been most famously codified by the fourth-century Be Chinese General Sun Tzu. It seeks to minimize loss, maximize the movement of forces, apply exactly the right level of force to win the battle, and develop clever physical and psychological advantages. Through maneuver warfare, it is possible for a state to win victory with far less blood shed and treasure lost. Some western strategists—Napoleon, for example, and some southern generals in the Civil War—employed maneuver strategies brilliantly. The U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq stand as good examples of maneuver warfare.
Virtually all 33 strategies fit under one of these two headings, as do the historical examples that range from the well-known (Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Mao, Sherman, Grant) to the less-studied (Shaka the Zulu King, Musashi, Hannibal, Bunkuro, Westmoreland). Each is well presented and certainly a quick read.
Greene also provides and explains "six fundamental ideals you should aim for in transforming yourself into a strategic warrior in daily life: Look at things as they are, not as your emotions color them; judge people by their actions; depend on your own arms; worship Athena, not Ares (the Greek goddess and god of strategy and brute warfare respectively); elevate yourself above the battlefield; and spiritualize your warfare." Fair enough, although they tend to have the ling of modern self-help as opposed to providing any serious thought about war.
Structurally the book is well organized, although a map for the key battle or campaign associated with each of the strategies would have been very helpful, and the red text along the margins—sort of a sotto vocce addendum—is somewhat distracting.
The main problem with The 33 Strategies is the superficiality of the discussion. While breezy text and easy-to-understand concepts fit the normal 21st century self-help book style, for the study of war they come across as a bit jejune. As a result, this book is not quite up to the mark for a serious student of the art of war; nor is it breezy enough for a casual reader. While the author has done a commendable job in covering the breadth of thinking about war, the lack of depth is ultimately unsatisfying, and it is hard to see exactly who the audience for this book will be. It functions best as something to dip in and out of, and as an occasional bit of light reading on strategy, it succeeds well enough.
Vice Admiral Stavridis commanded the USS Barry (DDG-52), Destroyer Squadron 21, and the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group. Ashore he has held a variety of strategic and long-range planning jobs in the Pentagon. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations.
Fire At Sea: The Tragedy of the Soviet Submarine Komsomolets
D. A. Romanov, K. J. Moore (editor). Dulles, VA: Potomac Books. 2006. 248 pp. Illus. $35.
Reviewed by Rear Admiral T. A. Brooks, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Fire at Sea is the tale of a "perfect storm" submarine casualty and loss. What began as a probably controllable fire led to a series of ill-advised decisions, which compounded the problem rather than solving it, and resulted in the loss of the Mike-class submarine Komsomolets on 7 April 1989. Of the 67 or 69 men on board—accounts vary—42 died.
The Mike class was an enigma to the West. Known to the Soviets as Project 685, she was a large-8,500 tons submerged displacement-titanium submarine of typical Soviet double-hull construction. She obviously was designed to operate at extreme depths, but was she a one-of-a-kind experimental boat or an operational submarine? And, if operational, what weapons would she carry and how many of the class would be built?
In fact, she was designed to test several new technologies and also used for operational patrols. U.S. antisubmarine warfare weapons would be ineffective at her operating depth of almost three times the test depth of Western submarines. She was testing weapons and sensors that could be used from these great depths. Highly automated, Komsomolets had only 57 crew members, all but two of whom were to be officers or warrant officers. As a one-of-a-kind technology demonstrator, this crew required unique and specialized training. It is here that things began to unravel. Conscripts were substituted for experienced warrant officers, a key warrant officer became ill and missed the patrol, and the second crew obviously never received the same level of training that the successful first crew had received. The shortfalls in damage control and survival training, and the general lack of familiarity with some of the systems, when added to poor operational decisions on the part of the commander, resulted in the loss of the boat.
D. A. Romanov, the author, had been the deputy chief designer of Komsomolets. He reconstructs the disaster in exquisite detail, complete with schematics of electrical, air, and hydraulic systems. But he can hardly be considered an objective observer. The Soviet Navy almost immediately blamed the design bureau for the loss, and Romanov takes great pains to prove that it was lack of training and poor operational decisions that truly were to blame. Editor K. J. Moore, a former U.S. Navy submariner and acknowledged expert in submarine engineering, carefully ensures that Romanov uses the results of official investigations and interviews to prove his points and avoids interjecting personal opinions. Thus, the case he makes is quite compelling.
If the loss of Komsomolets had been an isolated case, one might wonder where the blame really lay. But there are eerie similarities between what happened in April 1989 and what happened in October 1986 when the Yankee-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine K219 suffered an on-board missile explosion and fire and sank off the U.S. East coast. Like Komsomolets, K219 was able to come to the surface, but the crew was unable to save the ship. And then in August 2000 the Oscar-class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine Kursk (also being manned by her second crew) sank in the Barents Sea. The problems the Russian Navy had in providing assistance and rescue paralleled the problems with Komsomolets.
There are literally dozens of other instances of losses and near losses of Soviet and Russian submarines over the years. Commanders of the modern-day Soviet and Russian Navy have publicly stated that their submariners are just as well-trained as U.S. submariners and, furthermore, that their technology is superior. Indeed, they have fielded some very interesting technologies over the years, but the record would not appear to support a claim of equality in crew quality and training. Fire at Sea utterly demolishes their argument. As an example, the technology of the integrated escape chamber appears to be excellent, but the crew did not know how to use it. Ultimately, despite a lot of fumbling, the chamber worked and brought five men to the surface. But because they didn't know how to operate it properly, the chamber almost immediately sank, carrying three of the men back down with it. Likewise, rafts were available in containers external to the pressure hull, but the crew did not know how to release them.
You do not have to be a nuclear submariner to be able to understand and learn a lot from the narrative and analysis of the loss of Komsomolets. Anyone with an abiding interest in naval warfare, and submarine warfare in particular, will find this book to be fascinating reading. Those who have served in submarines may find it more than a little horrifying as well.
Rear Admiral Brooks was serving as the Director of Naval Intelligence at the time of the loss of the Komsomolets.
Marines in the Garden of Eden: The Battle for An Nasiriyah
Richard S. Lowry. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2006. 448 pp. III. Appen. Bib. Index. $24.95.
Reviewed by David J. Danelo.
In Marines in the Garden of Eden, the fearless, brave author Richard Lowry tries valiantly and boldly to chronicle the efforts of Task Force Tarawa during the battle of An Nasiriyah in March 2003. If the excessive use of adjectives and adverbs was jarring in the previous sentence, try reading 80 pages where every Marine is "hard-charging," every wife is "loving," and every enemy is "a terrorist insurgent." Striving for colorful prose, Lowry falls back on clichés ("he was a Marine's Marine;" "they said their tearful good byes") that will torture readers and leave them wondering if the book has any merit or hope.
It does, but only after the first three chapters. Once Lowry leaves Camp Lejeune and Kuwait, taking us through the breach and into Iraq, the narrative starts to hum. The author's research on Task Force Tarawa was comprehensive and noteworthy. His damning account of the Army officer who led the ill-fated convoy in Private Jessica Lynch's 507th Maintenance Company should become a standard in the antithesis of leadership. His technique of illustrating the points of view from separate units works well once the battle begins, but is awful in the first few chapters because he makes each battalion sound exactly the same.
Readers familiar with the events of Task Force Tarawa might feel that Lowry hasn't printed the full story. At key portions of the battle, responsibility for several decisions was either poorly researched or obfuscated to protect the careers of officers in uniform. At least three times, major decisions are attributed to "the MEF commanders" rather than individuals, or not attributed at all ("They were told to seize the eastern bridges."). This leaves readers feeling that Lowry wrote his book to give sycophantic praise to the Marine institution rather than to investigate and give the full story.
But that's the bad news. The good news is that Lowry's descriptions of combat are readable and well done. He is stronger in Nasiriyah, providing readers with good mental pictures-a Marine company gunny is "like a mobile 7-Eleven." His descriptions of a friendly tire attack involving an A-10 and a column of amphibious assault vehicles accurately depict the fog of war. Likewise, he chronicles the actions of Marines of all ranks during the battle with the rhythm of a good storyteller.
Marines in the Garden of Eden is at its best when Lowry just tells the story. It is weak when the author is editorializing or preaching. Didactic political tangents about the contemptibility of Saddam Hussein and the strategic justifications for war devalue the narrative, making it appear much less objective and serious as a work of military history.
Much like company commanders who know when to rein in overaggressive lieutenants, so do good editors work with authors. Although Lowry is ultimately responsible, the fact that the first three chapters are in the book at all indicates that his editors served him poorly. Students of war should read Marines in the Garden of Eden, but it should not be viewed as the last word on An Nasiriyah. For the time being, however, it is probably the best.
Mr. Danelo, a 1998 Naval Academy gradual and former Marine Corps captain and infantry officer, served with the I MEF Headquarters Group at Camp Fallujah from February to September 2004 . His first book, Blood Stripes: The Grunt's View of the War in Iraq (Stackpole Books), is reviewed in this column.