The Unforgiving Minute
Craig Mullaney. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. Maps. Author's Note. $27.95.
Reviewed by John T. Kuehn
Former Army officer Craig M. Mullaney's memoir is a journey of discovery that leads from West Point to "a forgotten corner" of Afghanistan. What sets it apart from other strictly military memoirs is its intensely personal tone.
There is a saying that one's life does not make sense until one looks back on it. Then it resembles a unique story with major themes and even a sort of logic to it. One gets the feeling that Mullaney does not see, as others do, the clear promise that he holds, including Soldier-scholars John Nagl and Paul Yingling and the Rhodes' Scholar Selection Committee. Mullaney gives the impression of military life as a sort of checklist: West Point, airborne school, Rhodes Scholar, Ranger Tab, infantry platoon leader, and later teacher of history—yet throughout he constantly questions himself and his motives.
The early chapters of The Unforgiving Minute address how the U.S. military education system—which is superb—continues to produce some of the best junior officer combat leaders in the world. Mullaney also presents a fascinating insider's view of how the elites in the United States select and groom prospective members of their ranks. There's an especially telling account of the Rhodes Scholar selection process, by which, as he describes it, "they" refresh the gene pool, metaphorically and perhaps literally, with this talented kid from a blue-collar working-class background.
The later chapters, however, are the pay dirt of the memoir, in which we follow Mullaney to his appointment with "the unforgiving minute" of the title to a corner of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan. He deploys with his battalion from the 10th Mountain Division to Afghanistan in 2003. A particularly disturbing anecdote involves how ill-prepared his unit was in terms of cultural and political understanding for the deployment to that part of the world. They were better prepared to go to Iraq, despite our having been at war in Afghanistan since 2001. Mullaney and his platoon deploy right to Gardez, in Paktia Province, in the shadow of the infamous Tora Bora Mountains. His descriptions of both the tension and boredom of combat, in a campaign that has no visibility back home except to the Soldiers' loved ones, are the most powerful of the book. Mullaney truly finds his voice as his platoon loses its first Soldier in a firefight along the Pakistan border.
Mullaney, who left the Army and later served on President Obama's transition team, does not use this book to grind a political ax. His one terse comment near the end is tentative and nonjudgmental: "The best thing we could have done for Afghanistan was to get out of our Humvees and drink more green chai. We should have focused less on finding the enemy, and more on finding our friends." As for his main point—"take care of your men" is the insight he keeps coming back to as the most important of those gleaned from a ten-year experience in the Army.
On the downside, at times his prose is clichéd and sophomoric, especially in the book's early chapters. There are occasional factual errors (e.g., the French army defeated in Spain at Baylen in 1808 was not defeated by guerrillas, but by a combination of militia and regular Spanish forces), but Mullaney does warn readers in an author's note that his memories are sketchy and prone to error. He sometimes leaves the reader in the lurch about the dates of actions, or drops in an un-introduced name. A chronology appendix at the back of the book would have been useful.
This book, while not on the level of E. B. Sledge's With the Old Breed (which Mullaney cites as a formative book), is still no slouch. I recommend it to anyone considering serving their country.
One Minute to Midnight
Michael Dobbs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. 448 pp. Maps. Afterword. Notes. Index. $28.95.
Reviewed by Admiral James G. Stavridis
Everyone thinks he has already read the story of the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis. But after spending a delightful weekend in the hands of master storyteller and journalist Michael Dobbs, the reader of this instant classic will come away with dozens of new and fascinating discoveries about an event that we should continue to harvest for its profound lessons on national security.
A well-regarded reporter and a gifted writer, Dobbs provides the best single-volume treatment in print of the events leading up to the crisis, as well as its resolution. It includes, among the events and discoveries that it highlights, the revelation that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had a detailed plan to knock out the Navy's base at Guantanamo Bay early in the crisis; CIA agents were active throughout the island of Cuba before and during the crisis, and a crash landing of a U.S. fighter carried a live nuclear weapon. It also provides full details on the incredible coincidence of a "stray" U2 flight over Russia.
After one particularly jarring meeting of the Executive Committee that handled the crisis for President John F. Kennedy, the President took his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and Special Assistant Ted Sorenson out on the balcony of the White House, looking across the mall at the Washington Monument. "We are very, very close to war," he told them gravely, then added in his "mordant Irish wit" that "there is not room in the White House shelter for all of us."
Another fascinating aspect of the book is the well-crafted portrait of the young Fidel Castro. Full of revolutionary fervor and furious after the Bay of Pigs attack, he advocated a very confrontational course with the United States, often clashing with Khrushchev and advising him to push Kennedy ever harder.
Today so many of the actors in that drama are gone, including of course Kennedy and Khrushchev; yet Fidel Castro sails on, carrying within himself the certain knowledge of those conversations that led the world so close to the edge of nuclear annihilation.
Dobbs is also particularly good on the details of the confrontation at sea. He provides sharply crafted stories set on ships "from the blockade" as well as scenes in the Pentagon, where the Admiral George "Gorgeous" Anderson, Chief of Naval Operations, angrily pushed back verbally on Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's detailed questions, saying "We know how to do this. We've been doing it ever since the days of John Paul Jones, and if you'll just go back to your quarters, Mr. Secretary, we'll take care of this."
Impossible to imagine an exchange like that today; it stands as an example of the incredible tension all the actors in the drama felt. In the end, of course, a nuclear exchange was averted, and hundreds of millions of lives saved. The world indeed was poised at "one minute to midnight" and on the edge of nuclear war. As we watch this era of "sacred terror" unfold, this volume serves as a timely and stark reminder of the need to maintain statesmanship and diplomacy, while doing all we can to strengthen non-proliferation regimes.
October 1962 was a minute to midnight indeed. The question today is, how much time is still on the clock?
The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U. S. War Crimes
Deborah Nelson. New York: Basic Books, 2008. 296 pp. Bib. Index. $26.95.
Reviewed by Robert S. Bolia
The fact that U.S. forces committed war crimes in Vietnam will not come as a revelation to anyone. The March 1968 massacre at My Lai, for example, is covered in most high school American history texts. Nevertheless, My Lai is generally regarded as an aberration in the American conduct of the war, the type of episode that happens rarely, as opposed to a symptom of war itself. And yet, according to the testimony of dozens of Vietnam veterans, both during the war and in recent interviews with Pulitzer-prize-winning investigative journalist Deborah Nelson, this perception is completely divorced from reality.
Nelson deflates several common myths about atrocities committed by U.S. Soldiers in her book, The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes, which chronicles her investigation of a U.S. Army archive of alleged war crimes cases, most of which were never tried. One myth is that these crimes were uncommon. This is belied by the fact that the number of war crimes that made the Army's list between 1967 and 1971 totaled 245, excluding My Lai. This, presumably an underestimate since not all war crimes are reported, is an average of four a month, not a small number by any standards.
Another myth is that war crimes were committed by only a small number of units. In fact, the allegations in the Army archive suggest a uniform distribution of culprits, with representatives from every major combat formation in Vietnam, regulars and conscripts, from all ranks—including a high percentage of officers.
A third myth is that Soldiers were so desensitized to violence that no one spoke out against the atrocities. In fact, many Soldiers refused to participate in violence against civilians; others risked their careers by informing the Army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID); still others waited until they were out of the Army and then contacted CID. In nearly every case, the Army rewarded their courage by halfheartedly investigating the case, then failing to act on the results of the investigation.
Finally, there is the myth that American atrocities committed against Vietnamese civilians were always random or incidental—the culmination of insufficiently trained or shell-shocked troops trying and failing to cope with the stress of war. Yet the testimony of the veterans suggests a more insidious cause in some cases. In some units, especially the 9th Infantry Division, the pressure to increase the tallied "body count" led to the massacre of entire villages, with civilians—including dozens of children—being counted as Vietcong for the purposes of the Army's metrics.
The War Behind Me shatters these myths as it follows Nelson's investigation through the 9,000 pages of evidence the Army collected—and mostly ignored—during the last three years of the war in Vietnam. Her narrative unfolds like a detective novel, with each veteran interviewed leading to more heartbreaking facts, a few dead ends, and some unlikely confessions. The book is gripping from the first page to the last.
If there is a problem with The War Behind Me, it is with what has been left out. There is almost no context. Ultimately, we are left knowing much more about the frequency of war crimes in Vietnam, but little about how this compares with other wars. We are also left wondering about the book's purpose. Nelson has not written a serious indictment of the Army, which comes across as bureaucratically inefficient rather than villainous. She draws no conclusions. She tells us that war crimes were not an uncommon practice in the jungles of Vietnam, but that is all we are left with.
Despite these shortcomings, The War Behind Me is well worth reading, and should be read by every Soldier and Marine before being sent into a combat zone.
Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story
Ricardo S. Sanchez with Donald T. Phillips. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. 494 pp. Index. $26.95
Reviewed by Major Christopher Parrish, U.S. Air Force
In just six years, Operation Iraqi Freedom has spawned a shelf of books seeking to give meaning to, illuminate, pontificate on, and justify (or not) American involvement in the conflict. Retired Lieutenant General Ricardo S. Sanchez has entered the fray with his memoirs (with help from author Donald T. Phillips), focusing on his tenure as Commander, Coalition Forces Iraq. In doing so, he seeks to rehabilitate a reputation tarnished by the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and the deterioration of the security situation on his watch. He is only partly successful.
Lieutenant General Sanchez begins with a fairly comprehensive, if brief, summary of his life up until Operation Iraqi Freedom. He describes his dirt-poor upbringing, his early patriotism, and how the Army allowed him to transcend his humble origins. This is the strongest and best-written portion of the book. Sanchez is frank about the role of his family and faith in his life and the impact tragedy played in both, especially the death of his son, Marquito. Along the way, he gives the reader a passing nod to lessons that would serve him later. While many civilian readers will be intrigued by this rags-to-riches tale, military professionals can point to thousands of servicemen and women with similar experiences.
Sanchez's story begins in April 2003 with his consideration for command of V Corps and his elevation two months later to Commander, Coalition Forces Iraq. He takes pains to portray himself as being "set up for failure." Specifically, he complains that his joint force headquarters, built from the V Corps staff, was never designed to handle the situation it faced, nor was it manned at the appropriate levels for operations in Iraq. Sanchez contends that General Tommy Franks' decision to withdraw the Combined Forces Land Component Commander staff back to the United States was a decisive factor in the deterioration of the situation in Iraq after the fall of Baghdad. He further chronicles the often-fractious relationship between his headquarters and the Coalition Provisional Authority, the lack of attention from Washington, and the turf battles between and within the departments of State and Defense as factors in Iraq's deterioration during his command, from June 2003 to July 2004.
While Sanchez builds a convincing case, readers will learn nothing new here. The factors he cites have already been widely recognized and accepted as fact. What Sanchez fails to do in any depth—and which only he can—is to discuss in meaningful detail what he did and should have done to overcome these problems.
Sanchez also spends a great deal of Wiser in Battle laying out how he was not responsible for the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison during his command. He concurrently lays blame on those above him in the chain of command (President George W. Bush; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; the Army) for not providing sound guidance on detainee operations, and on those below him in the chain for not following his guidance, exercising appropriate leadership, or having the common decency to treat prisoners humanely. In short, he blames the policy makers for creating an environment ripe for abuse and those below for actually abusing. However, he accepts precious little responsibility himself. He did not order or condone abuse at Abu Ghraib (and he is clear that no one higher did either) and he believes his actions to promote humane treatment—as unsuccessful as they proved to be—absolve him of all culpability.
This points to the book's key failing. The narrative often seems to be that of a disinterested observer of rather than principal participant in the chain of command. While Sanchez spends paragraphs on what everyone else was not doing (manning, policy, support, a "free-hand"), he devotes little time to explaining what he did, why he did it, and what he thought he could have done better. Wiser in Battle does not measurably add to our understanding of the Iraq War or to our understanding of Lieutenant General Sanchez's role in it.