Henry J. Hendrix. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009. 230 pp. Illus. Notes. Bib. Index. $34.95
Reviewed by Douglas Brinkley
Every student of U.S. naval history knows that President Theodore Roosevelt was a zealous cheerleader for American sea power. Ironically, he preferred horseback riding the Great Plains to traveling the Seven Seas, getting terribly sick even when feted on board luxury liners headed from New York Harbor to European ports. The son of Dutch merchants, young Roosevelt understood that ship armadas made countries great. One of his favorite boyhood books was Captain Frederick Marryat's Mr. Midshipman Easy. Given his predilection for open-seas adventure in literature, it's little wonder that TR wrote his Harvard University honors thesis on the impact oceans have on national power. TR gleefully rifled through well-organized boxes of nautical materials in the Library of Congress, the Department of the Navy, and the British Naval Archives to better inform his War of 1812 study.
Before long, TR had written The Naval War of 1812 (1882), the seminal general study of sea power written eight years before Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote his masterpiece, The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1600-1783. TR used Great Lakes history in effect to agitate for modernization of the puny American Fleet. The New York Times called TR's book "excellent. . . in every respect." Because of the narrative's encyclopedic thrust, reviewers were stunned to learn it was the work of a precocious 24-year-old. Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce, for example, president of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, wrote TR that, "Your work must be our textbook."
Henry J. Hendrix, a commander in the U.S. Navy, uses the publication of The Naval War of 1812 as his jumping off point in Theodore Roosevelt's Naval Diplomacy, a landmark study about the evolution of our 26th president's naval strategic philosophy. It is among the best books ever written on this topic. Hendrix follows Roosevelt's halcyon career chronologically as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1898 to his sending the Great White Fleet around the world. He makes excellent use of all the relevant archives at Record Group 45 of the U.S. National Archives. And, amazingly, he unearths new materials from the Naval History & Heritage Command and the Marine Corps Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard.
Hendrix is a first-rate researcher. He ably recounts Roosevelt's handling of the Venezuelan Crisis of 1902-03 and the often-overlooked Perdicaris Incident of 1904. TR was always for enforcing the Monroe Doctrine as if it were a constitutional amendment. While Roosevelt was a progressive on such issues as conservation and women's suffrage, he was iron-fisted when it came to military affairs. The term "coercive diplomacy" was practically invented for him. As Hendrix makes abundantly clear, Roosevelt believed in Oliver Cromwell's maxim that "a man-of-war is the best ambassador."
Hendrix argues that Roosevelt's realpolitik attitude, even with its imperialistic overtones, was strategically correct. For example, there is no debating the morality of Roosevelt's pet project, the Panama Canal, in these pages. Hendrix treats the building of the canal as a strategic and economic triumph. According to Hendrix, TR negotiated with Colombia in "good faith," even when presenting the controversial Hay-Herran Treaty to the Colombian senate. The story of how TR finagled getting a 10-mile-wide canal zone for America is riveting. "Roosevelt remained true to his peaceful inclinations and guaranteed through the coercive diplomatic pressure of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps the permanent independence of Panama," Hendrix writes. "The ultimate result was the creation of the Panama Canal, one of the great engineering achievements of the modern world and the cornerstone of American naval policy throughout the 20th century."
My only complaint with Theodore Roosevelt's Naval Diplomacy is Hendrix's connecting the current war on terrorism with Roosevelt's 100-year-old diplomacy. The concluding chapter, in fact, has Hendrix using TR as Big Stick to beat up on al Qaeda. This makes the book seem more like a war college white paper. Nevertheless, I highly recommend it for college course adoption. It's impossible to understand TR's military-diplomatic accomplishments without carefully reading this all-around excellent book.
The Majestic Twelve: The True Story of the Most Feared Combat Escort Unit in Baghdad
Jack W. Lynch II with Rick Lynch. New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010. 320 pp. Illus. $25.99.
Reviewed by Captain Alexander S. Martin, U.S. Marine Corps
The Majestic Twelve is not just another book about Iraq. It doesn't defend the invasion or criticize the occupation. It's not about grand strategy, politics, or counterinsurgency. It's neither self-promoting nor politically charged. Master Sergeant Jack Lynch's book instead tells the poignant story of aggressive, hands-on, blue-collar leadership in combat and how the dedication, skill, bravery, and aggressiveness of a few can turn the tide of a seemingly lost and implacable war. It's a book about earning respect and the crucial difference between "team" and "family."
In 2004, in the opinion of many, the war in Iraq was lost. Even some in the ranks of the military were critical of the undertaking. But in the eyes of Jack Lynch—veteran infantryman, seasoned leader of Marines, and political agnostic—Iraq was a battle-space. It was the physical terrain that allowed him and his combat escort unit to maneuver, close with, and destroy the enemy and accomplish the mission. That was that. Iraq was the place where, as Lynch writes, one learned the difference between "the fear of death" and the "awareness of death."
Jack Lynch draws the reader away from the politics of war and introduces the people fighting and enduring it. He gives a name, face, and a story to the misunderstood tribe of the American warrior. Lynch explains the nature of their fight in a way that only a veteran infantryman and master sergeant can: honestly, directly, and without sentimentality. For this reason alone the book is worth reading.
His book also brings to life the sights, smells, devotions, horrors, and at times, the comedy of life during wartime. Lynch spreads his anger and discontent equally. He's tough on the Army, women, politicians, officers, Iraqis, and even his fellow staff NCOs. But that's what a good master sergeant does: he puts his finger in your chest and tells the truth. He's especially hard on himself. He gets the job done, inspecting everything in his unit from vehicles and weapons to uniforms and haircuts.
After first contact with the enemy, respect and trust become love. Lynch understands this, and did for his combat escort unit what all leaders must but few can achieve: he created not a team, but a family. Teams play games. They throw balls, wear jerseys, sweat, and feel pain-until the time on the clock runs out. They know they'll probably walk off the playing field in one piece. There's nothing wrong with any of that, except that Soldiers don't play a game with their team-they fight battles alongside their families.
This is where Lynch's work shines. He reminds us that a family is a cohesive group of individuals with different personalities but a shared culture and ethos. He tells colorful tales of his military family (stories familiar to anyone who's led a unit): a dysfunctional, argumentative, unruly bunch of unlikely heroes who daily depend on one another for survival. This is a beautiful phenomenon of the warrior culture that many will never understand, but one well articulated in The Majestic Twelve. Lynch chronicles their experience honestly in the hope that they will receive what all warriors wish from their fellow countrymen on the other side of the fault-line between protectors and protected, between families and teams: not sympathy, not praise, but respect.
Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War
Michael J. Allen. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 448 pp. Intro. Notes. Bib. Index. $30.
Reviewed by Michael Krenn
In his wonderfully insightful and thoughtful new book about the approximately 2,500 Americans classified as prisoners of war and missing in action (POWs and MIAs) after the Vietnam War, Michael Allen convincingly argues that never before in this nation's history has "a group of American war dead" been so "obsessively remembered." In essence, the political, cultural, and diplomatic battles over the POWs and MIAs have been contested over the issue of memory—how the Vietnam War is remembered and why.
By unraveling and revealing the various strands of memory created since the late 1960s by the U.S. government, POW/MIA activists, special-interest groups, political parties, and the Vietnamese, Allen clearly establishes his main theme: that the battles between those memories came to dominate postwar analyses of the only war America ever lost, imbuing the conflict with its "unending" quality that continues to frustrate, befuddle, and galvanize so many Americans.
The basic framework of Allen's study will be familiar to those who have examined the POW/MIA issue. It begins with the numbers: 591 POWs, 1,338 MIAs, and 1,113 killed in action/body not recovered by the end of the war. Allen notes that these figures are startling for how small they are: 78,000 U.S. servicemen are missing from World War II, and the bodies of 170,000 Union troops remained unrecovered or unidentified in 1865. Despite their small numbers, however, these men quickly came to dominate much of the discussion of the Vietnam War, particularly after President Richard M. Nixon conflated the quite separate casualty categories to use the idea of "thousands" of American personnel held captive by vicious Asian communists as a pretext for continuing the conflict. Groups such as the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia alternately praised the government's efforts, condemned it for not doing enough, and clung to their own illusions of "live POWs" long after evidence and logic suggested that the missing Americans had been dead for years.
For Allen, the constant theme throughout the sometimes sordid story (replete with unscrupulous politicians, Vietnamese officials who were quite willing to trade American remains for diplomatic concessions, League members driven by profit and status-seeking, wives and relatives of the POWs/MIAs squabbling over money and benefits, and world-class blowhards like POW "rescuer" Bo Gritz) is the contest over memory. Each group sought to use the missing men, and even their repatriated remains, to define the Vietnam War.
For many of the POW/MIA activists, the missing men were symbols of a loss that extended beyond life and death; they were examples of a lost war (with blame often directed at anti-war "traitors"), a lost America, and the loss of trust by the American people in their own government.
Throughout the post-Vietnam War period, the battles continued. Gradually, most of the MIA family members quietly accepted the reality of their loss. Others, however, could not—or would not—let go so easily. The League and its supporters became ever more militant, engaging in conspiracy theories and nearly pathological denials of facts in their increasingly vicious assaults on anyone who opposed them or questioned their motives. Politicians hemmed and hawed, with some, like Ronald Reagan, actively courting and enabling the League's outlandish programs and others, such as John McCain, incensed over its wild accusations and cruel manipulation of hopeful families.
Today, reminders of the issue remain with us. At the post office in my town, a POW/MIA banner flies beneath the American flag, emblazoned with the words, "You are not forgotten." In Allen's estimation, they are not likely to be forgotten for years to come. Too much anger, blame, grief, and national trauma has been invested in their tragic fates for them to receive the dignified rest they deserve.
SEAL Warrior: Death in the Dark-Vietnam 1968-1972
Thomas H. Keith, U.S. Navy (Retired) and J. Terry Riebling. New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books, 2009. 320 pp. Pref. Gloss. Index. $25.99
Reviewed by Captain John Burnham, U.S. Navy
Navy SEALs operated in Vietnam from 1962 to 1973, a full-speed indoctrination after they were created from the Navy's underwater demolition teams on President John F. Kennedy's orders in 1961. Retired SEAL Master Chief Thomas Keith's book provides a window into that time. It is neither autobiography nor sweeping historical essay, but it is a solid read. It focuses on Keith's three deployments from 1968 to 1972 to My Tho, Nha Be, and Ca Mau in South Vietnam's Mekong Delta.
The book begins with Keith's training as a frogman. His instructors were veterans of the Korean War and World War II; the combat lessons that he learned from them served him in Vietnam, just as his transferred experiences were the foundation of knowledge for those SEALs called to serve after 9/11.
Keith arrived at SEAL Team Two in January 1968 (where Command Master Chief Rudy Boesch was another legend). The reader's perspective widens along with Keith's experience level during the accounts of his three trips overseas. The first deployment is a blur of events, tactical lessons, and frank realizations about the nature of combat. His firefight descriptions are candid and brutal but refreshingly free of hyperbole. During his second deployment his platoon suffered three casualties, and he was put into a squad leader role; the challenges for the platoon will be familiar to anyone who has served in a small unit. By his third deployment every platoon member had had at least one combat tour, but at this point the end was near for direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam. His platoon departed country without a relief.
Readers who have deployed and operated in Iraq and Afghanistan will recognize common themes in Keith's deployments. The Vietcong maintained a substantial presence in the Mekong Delta, hiding among the population and ruling by intimidation. Keith's platoons preferred ambushes as their primary way to strike the enemy. Anyone who has patrolled Anbar or Helmand provinces at night will identify with his descriptions of operating in the Rung Sat Special Zone, the large tidal mangrove swamp southeast of Saigon.
At the same time, the platoons knew they needed to infiltrate the local population—interact with them at the local bar, discriminate in their application of firepower, and provide needed security—to gain trust. Keith realized that "money got us some intel, but money alone rarely got us any good intel. . . the only currency that worked was trust."
Finally, the platoons worked operations and intelligence across the interagency spectrum, staying close with the provincial reconstruction units (PRUs) operating in their areas—usually led by a fellow SEAL adviser. These combined operations, small numbers of Americans with larger numbers of South Vietnamese commandos, were critical augments to the platoon's unilateral operations.
Keith's book is not perfect. Though it flows well (and the hand of the co-author is only occasionally noticeable), he refers to few outside events to give the reader context or a sense of what was happening in the combat theater. The lack of dates and maps eventually becomes confusing. The story ends abruptly after his third deployment; I wish there had been at least a chapter that described how Keith had used his experiences through the remainder of his career.
But these details are not essential to the story Keith wanted to tell. The focus is on his Vietnam, and the reader experiences the deployments from his perspective. As those who have been in combat know, that view is tactical, ground-level, almost existential. SEAL Warrior delivers on those counts, and for that reason it is a worthwhile read.