My Nuclear Family: A Coming-of-Age in America’s 21st Century Military
Christopher Brownfield. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. 320 pp. Intro. Appens. Notes. Bib. Index. $26.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Joel I. Holwitt, U.S. Navy
Christopher Brownfield graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2001 with a degree in English and then entered the submarine force. He reported to the USS Hartford (SSN-768) around the same time as the invasion of Iraq and was on board when she went aground off La Maddalena, Italy. Brownfield subsequently volunteered for an individual augmentation to Iraq, serving there from 2006 to 2007 in a civil-military unit tasked to fix Iraq’s energy infrastructure. He converted his experiences into My Nuclear Family, which has already achieved a fair amount of attention.
Brownfield’s experiences on board the Hartford take up only the first third of the book. He does not discuss any cheating at Nuclear Power School, but does focus on lapses in the integrity of exams on board his ship and at the Prospective Nuclear Engineer Officer course, similar to those that occurred recently on board the USS Hampton (SSN-767) and the USS Memphis (SSN-691). Brownfield’s recounting of his submarine experience is best when he describes the challenges of leading brilliant but wildly immature nuclear-trained Sailors. Although he occasionally discusses some of his experiences driving the ship, he does not paint a similarly vivid picture of the challenges in conning a 6,900–ton submarine.
My Nuclear Family gets interesting when Brownfield volunteers to go to Iraq. He is astounded by the focus of his duties, which are not actually to restore energy or provide security, but mostly to collect data from Iraqis terrified of being murdered for cooperating. He then turns this information into a mind-numbing daily PowerPoint presentation, presenting the commander of the multinational force with far too much data and no recommendations for change. Brownfield argued vehemently with his superiors to take chances, but most demurred. In frustration, Brownfield worked on two pet projects, regarding energy-efficient lightbulbs and massive power generators, neither of which ever reached fruition.
Brownfield is an entertaining narrator. His descriptions of standing watch in the Hartford’s maneuvering room, being on the bridge during the grounding, a Panama Canal transit, and working in the Green Zone are dramatic. But he frequently brings his story up short with breathless exaggerations—often coming across as self-serving—and makes some snide observations about his fellow servicemen, many of whom do not measure up to his standards. According to Brownfield, virtually none of his superiors in his civil-military unit went to Iraq for any other reason than to make money and land lucrative contracting jobs afterward. He lambastes almost everyone in his chain of command for moral cowardice, duplicity, and an inability to see the big picture. Perhaps Brownfield did serve with some of the worst officers ever to don our country’s uniform, but one begins to sense that perhaps he is leaving something out.
The author’s penchant for exaggeration applies to many of his conclusions, which often seem unsupportable. After making a single deployment of only one mission along the coast of South America in the eastern Pacific, Brownfield concludes that the U.S. submarine force no longer serves any useful purpose. He scoffs, “[W]e didn’t bump into any Russian or Chinese or axis of evil submarines (does the axis of evil even have any)?” This statement seems curious, considering North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan (PCC-772) in March 2010. Similarly, Brownfield asserts that the United States’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty motivated North Korea and Iran to seek nuclear weapons, without any supporting documentation. And after having an epiphany in Strasbourg, France, he concludes, “[N]o longer could I believe that the awesome force of the U.S. military was even relevant to keeping America safe and protecting our freedoms.”
My Nuclear Family makes some good points, however. Many former submarine junior officers will identify with the frustrations that Brownfield experienced on board the Hartford. His blistering critique of some leaders’ obsession with endless PowerPoint briefs in lieu of strategy, tactics, or plain action is spot-on. But many of those moments are overshadowed by overheated prose and questionable conclusions. There is a terrific book waiting to be written by a 21st-century submarine officer who has also had the unusual experience of serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. My Nuclear Family, regrettably, is not that book.
The Politics and Security of the Gulf: Anglo-American Hegemony and the Shaping of a Region
Jeffrey R. Macris. New York: Routledge, 2010. 336 pp. Intro. Illus. Maps. Notes. Bib. Index. $42.25.
Reviewed by Shaheen Ayubi
This comprehensive work presents an in-depth analysis of how Britain since the 19th century, and more recently the United States, have influenced and shaped the politics and security of the Persian Gulf region. Writing in a clear and engaging style, Jeffrey Macris, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis who spent three years in the region, provides a historical background of British involvement and a detailed examination of the post-World War II period. He also covers the increase in the United States’ involvement after the British decision to withdraw in 1971, when the Americans filled the vacuum created and then built up their military presence following Desert Storm and the invasion of Iraq. The region was of enormous interest to both powers, which pursued identical goals: to maintain interstate order and safeguard their priorities, protect the commerce (that later included petroleum), and keep other undesirable foes (Russia, Germany, and later the Soviet Union) out of the gulf.
This study is markedly innovative in that instead of having a narrow concentration on specialized topics such as the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis or the 1973 oil crisis, it focuses on the broader issue of how two major powers and their armies and navies have shaped the Persian Gulf.
The opening chapter examines Britain’s legacy in the region. Initially, the British found themselves involved in the untidy affairs and the inhospitable terrain of the gulf somewhat against their will. Lacking order, the region fostered conditions in which piracy flourished, threatening the lucrative sea trade on which the British Empire thrived and prospered. Moreover, the gulf’s strategic location connecting Europe, Africa, and Asia made it imperative to protect vital sea lanes. Britain also signed treaties with local sheikhs offering protection against external attack, and in turn, gulf leaders recognized London as the sole sea arbiter of international relations in the region.
The discovery of oil in the early 20th century increased British involvement. Thus, for more than a century, Britain maintained order, not colonizing, but shaping the region. Britain used relatively little force—mostly naval—to impose its will, but when necessary it also drew on its vast reserves of Indian troops. The growth of the oil industry and the use of petroleum for military operations turned the gulf into a major theater of operations during World War I. After the war, Britain reigned supreme throughout the Middle East.
The author then traces the history of America’s involvement in the region during World War II. Initially, America assisted the British in delivering Lend-Lease supplies to Russia. During the war 60,000 Americans, civilian and military, served in the region. They built roads and railroads to the Soviet republics through western Iran, as well as aircraft and truck assembly plants. At the end of the war, the troops promptly returned home. However, a small number of American military advisers gained the trust of the Iranian and Saudi monarchs who were interested in modernizing their militaries to bolster their own defenses. Hence, the presence of American military advisers and military aid looms large in the postwar era.
Macris also focuses on the early Cold War, the loss of India, and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s defiance of the British. The beginnings of the Cold War erupted in Iran in 1946 as Soviet troops refused to withdraw despite war promises to the contrary. Washington also came to the realization that London should play a major role in maintaining order in the greater Indian Ocean region and encouraged it. But India’s independence in 1947 would adversely affect Britain—as without India the British lost the rationale for continuing their presence in the gulf, a large portion of their military forces to defend it, and the financial wealth of pay for it.
India’s independence had an impact on others within the empire. In 1956, the British suffered a major setback as Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and chased the British from Suez, which had served as a major repository for the region after the loss of India. Eventually, London chose Aden as a site for its strategic military reserve to defend the Persian Gulf.
Macris discusses at length how the British position in the region came under attack from 1958-1967 and then explores the period from 1968-1971, during which British supremacy came to an end and a new political order in the Persian Gulf emerged. The British financial crisis of the late 1960s forced Britain to terminate most of the security commitments east of Suez, including the Persian Gulf, before the end of 1971. The Nixon Doctrine that emerged called on local powers to police their own backyards. Thus, Washington announced its “Twin Pillars” policy, according to which Saudi Arabia and Iran would safeguard America’s interests in the region. The United States could no longer fulfill the role of an international policeman because of its involvement in Vietnam.
Macris then studies the period from 1972 to 1991 after Britain’s departure and the power vacuum that ensued, leading to several setbacks for Western interests in the region. Each crisis was marked by a gradual increase of U.S. military deployment to the area. Indeed, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Carter Doctrine called for an active U.S. military opposition against any outside force that threatened the gulf. Similarly, following Operation Desert Storm, the United States was prepared to adopt a permanent presence there—and indeed assumed the role of the new security guarantor of the Persian Gulf.
Finally, Macris analyzes the U.S. military and diplomatic presence there since 1991. He concludes that it remains a politically fragile region. Were it not for the British and later the Americans, stability and security in the gulf would not have been achieved. As for the immediate future, Anglo-American military forces are likely to maintain their presence there for a very long time.
This is a truly remarkable book of major importance that crosses several disciplines. It is a must-read for those interested in Middle East history, strategic studies, military history, and American and British diplomatic history.
How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle—A History of American Intervention from World War I to Afghanistan
Gideon Rose. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. 432 pp. Notes. Index. $27.
Reviewed by Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, U.S. Navy
American arms have reached their military offensive apex, capable of defeating entire armies. The United States rightly invests and develops increasingly precise means of neutralizing a variety of threats. However, the war on terrorism and America’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a re-examination of how to end a war, or, typically restated, how to “win the peace.” Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs and former associate director of Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council (NSC), has given us a thought-provoking book that addresses these very questions.
Rose’s book takes us through seven conflicts the United States has in from World War I to the present and places us in the minds of leaders attempting to rationalize how to end a war. The author argues that America’s leaders have a tendency to misread the past, whether in applying the appeasement of Adolf Hitler in Munich to such conflicts as Vietnam or comparing the Vietnam conflict with Operation Desert Storm.
Rose criticizes President Woodrow Wilson, not for having a naïve view of world affairs during World War I, but because he refused to leverage America’s great economic advantage to persuade the Allies to accept a just peace for the Germans. The author also highlights how the United States and its allies failed to understand that Germany had functioning democratic institutions from which to build a new polity and instead focused on doing away with all vestiges of the old regime.
He begins his chapter on World War II with Frederick the Great, who in 1762 was on the brink of defeat until he learned that Russian Czarina Elizabeth had died and was replaced by the pro-Prussian Czar Peter III. Hitler, who worshipped Frederick the Great, saw in Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945 a sign that he was saved from ultimate demise. This is a fascinating glimpse into the use of history to justify fantasy, something at which Hitler was a master. Furthermore, while World War II’s victors understood international trade and global security to be necessary for stability, there was a complete lack of planning for what would occur if the United States and Britain’s alliance with the Soviets broke down.
Rose’s book provides a controversial analysis of the Vietnam War and in its final chapters focuses on the Middle East and claims that the administration of President George H. W. Bush never forced itself to decide how much it wanted Saddam Hussein gone in 1991. Rose postulates that the histories of the Vietnam and Korean wars crept into the administration’s strategic thinking. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the administration of President George W. Bush expected war to be quick, cheap, and successful, and Rose criticizes the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the method of de-Baathification.
While this book is an excellent read, particularly for those with a passion for national security issues and strategic planning, there are some troublesome passages. First is the author’s statement that President Wilson understood or cared little about military affairs. This is an unfair generalization. Wilson was a child of the Civil War Reconstruction era and as President intervened militarily in Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, Panama, and Nicaragua, and occupied the Dominican Republic. In addition to the American intervention in World War I, Wilson deployed forces in a failed attempt to aid in stopping the Bolshevik takeover of Russia. He was more than engaged in exercising the military option.
Second, in his analysis of Operation Iraqi Freedom, although the author argues that the Bush administration took several years to address the chaos in Iraq, and refers to such volumes as War and Decision (Harper, 2008) by former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, he does not reveal the 15 October 2002 memo known as “The Parade of Horribles,” which provided the President and the NSC with worst-case scenarios should U.S. combat forces enter Iraq. Feith acknowledges in his book that he regrets not having pushed harder to plan for order in Iraq immediately after Saddam’s fall. But the strategic environment was more complex than that portrayed in the book. Finally, Rose should have derived more recommendations on how to conduct postwar planning from his experience in the NSC and from what he learned in interviews for the book.
Despite these criticisms, however, this is an excellent volume to begin the process of postwar planning and to consider how to use history as a model to address the complex issues involved in ending a war.