Front Burner: Al Qaeda’s Attack on the USS Cole
Commander Kirk S. Lippold, U.S. Navy (Retired). New York: Public Affairs, 2012. 416 pp. Illus. Notes. $27.99.
Reviewed by J. Furman Daniel III
On 12 October 2000, the USS Cole (DDG-67) was attacked by an explosive-laden boat in the Yemeni port of Aden. In an instant, a routine refueling stop became the single most deadly suicide attack on an American warship since World War II. The incident killed 17 sailors, wounded 37 others, and could have been a warning to the dangers of al Qaeda, yet has been largely forgotten since 9/11. In Front Burner, the Cole’s former commanding officer, Commander Kirk Lippold, directly addresses the causes, consequences, and controversies of this incident in an easy-to-follow first-person narrative.
From the first pages of the introduction, it is clear that Commander Lippold’s book is unsettling. He generally avoids personal attacks, but repeatedly states that the events surrounding the Cole attack represented a series of systemic errors at every level of the defense and intelligence communities. These failures began before the ship embarked on her fateful mission, when the crew’s training for in-port security focused primarily on land-based infiltration, with no mention of the possibility of suicide attacks from the sea. With the benefit of hindsight, that training was an unrealistic Cold War relic that did little to prepare the crew for the specific type of threats it would encounter.
That lack of preparation was exacerbated by a complete intelligence failure. The Cole sailed into the port of Aden under “Threat Level Bravo,” which required additional security measures, but when Lippold inquired about potential threats, he was given no specific information regarding impending attacks or updates to his security briefing. Although U.S. warships had been refueling in Yemen since 1997, analysts had ignored many terrorist activities and potential warnings. According to FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan, who investigated the incident: “Yemen was well known in the intelligence community to be full of radical Islamists, including al Qaeda members,” and the security situation in Aden was “tenuous” at best. Despite these known dangers, the Cole was not provided with any actionable intelligence that could have helped her avert the disaster.
The technical details of the attack have been public for more than a decade, but the author does an excellent job of bringing to light the human elements of the story. The most powerful feelings he describes were those of physical and emotional shock. The force of the suicide bomb striking amidships lifted the Cole out of the water, destroying a main engine room and killing crew members who were in the galley for an early lunch.
They did not know the cause of the explosion, but one thing was clear to all on board: The Cole was in mortal peril. Lippold and his crew rapidly regained their senses and fought valiantly to save their ship and fellow crew members. The success of the ensuing efforts underscored the leadership skills of the Cole’s commissioned and petty officers, as well as the excellent training the crew had received in damage control.
In the days following the attack, numerous U.S. agencies, with cooperation from French, British, and Yemeni authorities, did an admirable job of consequence management, including casualty evacuation, identification of deceased service members, crime-scene investigation, psychological counseling, and the management of a host of diplomatic issues. Despite this extraordinary push, Lippold and his crew felt that many higher authorities did not comprehend the severity of the situation.
The Cole crew believed the attack was an act of war—now being treated with bureaucratic detachment. The belief that policy makers did not fully appreciate the gravity of the terrorist threat haunted Lippold even after his tenure as the Cole’s commanding officer ended. In a cruel twist of irony, he was at CIA headquarters on the morning of 11 September 2001. While discussing the dangers of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, Lippold claimed: “I believe that it is going to take a seminal event, probably in this country, where hundreds, if not thousands, are going to die before Americans realize that we’re at war with this guy [bin Laden].”
Ultimately, the author concludes that the biggest tragedy of the Cole incident was that it did not serve as a catalyst for decisive action against al Qaeda. “Politics prevented doing what was right,” he says. The book is a personal testament to the value of leadership and to the sacrifice and dedication of American servicemen. Despite its occasionally bitter tone, its well-written style makes it appropriate for general audiences as well as enlisted personnel and junior to mid-grade officers.
Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power
Rachel Maddow. New York: Crown, 2012. 288 pp. Notes on sources. Index. $25.
Reviewed by Michael S. Neiberg
Whether you get your news and editorial opinions from the MSNBC network, where Rachel Maddow is a star, or you have blocked the channel from your television set, you should read this book. The author paints a picture of a military system that has, as her subtitle suggests, become “unmoored” from the system of checks and balances that the Founders established. She is careful to argue that she sees no conspiracy in these developments. And while she is undoubtedly harsher on Republicans, she criticizes the Clinton and Obama administrations as well for offering no compelling alternatives.
The drift, in her vision, has come from a series of seemingly rational decisions designed to address immediate problems. They include the increased use of private military contractors under the Clinton administration to (theoretically) reduce personnel costs; political shifts that resulted in Congress basically abnegating its responsibility to act as a check on the executive branch’s warmaking capability; and the erosion of the post-Vietnam Abrams Doctrine that tried to make wars more difficult to prosecute by linking the politically sensitive issue of the call-up of the National Guard and Reserves to any decision to go to war.
Many of the faults Maddow finds will be familiar to those who have carefully watched American defense issues. She notes the astonishing waste of money caused by members of Congress using the Homeland Security and Defense budgets to funnel millions of dollars of “pork” to their districts. Such waste, she argues (including unnecessary security for a tiny wastewater facility in her Massachusetts hometown), ultimately makes the nation less safe.
Tensions in the executive-legislative relationship are also at the root of many of these problems, although they reach further back than the 1973 War Powers Act where Maddow places them. In focusing on the changes since the 1983 Grenada operation, the author underplays Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous 1961 warning about the military-industrial complex, which only grew more powerful and pervasive after 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghan wars.
Individually, the decisions and policies that accelerated the drift that Maddow illustrates were rational and defensible; together, they have led to a dangerous pattern of wasteful spending and endless war-making. By strengthening profit motives for warfighting, she argues, the turn to private military contractors has made war both more expensive and more enduring. Such contractors are also harder for the government to oversee and therefore less accountable to the people than are uniformed troops.
The government itself has been content to keep the American people almost completely insulated from war, encouraging a supine “support our troops” mentality rather than active and informed participation. A system that discourages dissent, moreover, makes it far easier for a President to resort to American military force than the Founders intended.
All that said, there is no getting away from Maddow’s politics. The book is dedicated to Dick Cheney with the words: “Oh, please let me interview you.” On the other hand, there shouldn’t really be any need to get away from the author’s personal views. Maddow’s voice has a leftist tinge, but her analysis is penetrating and well-informed. Critics across the political landscape have made many of these same points. Partisan politics should therefore not keep readers away. Even Fox News’ Roger Ailes has praised the book for its candor and insight.
At its conclusion, Maddow presents a series of recommendations. They include paying for war directly rather than through borrowing, thereby making the slogan “freedom isn’t free” mean something concrete; eliminating or greatly reducing the reliance on private contractors; returning the Guard and Reserves to something more like their initial citizen-soldier ideal; and restoring some balance to the constitutional imperative that war-making is to be a shared responsibility between the President and Congress.
Maddow is an intelligent observer of the political process and an accessible writer. At times, she strains for user-friendliness. In attempting to make the tone of her book conversational, she sometimes sounds almost snide. She needn’t be. The ideas are worthy of entering the public debate. Her critique is not anti-military. It is aimed at making the military stronger, wiser, and more closely connected to the American people. No matter where you get your news, hers is an argument you should consider and a book you should read.
Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954–1961
William J. Rust. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012. 353 pp. Illus. Notes. Bibliog. Index. $40.
Reviewed by Richard A. Ruth
The United States did not inherit Laos from France in 1954; it chose to adopt it. The masterminds of America’s global strategic plan in the early Cold War decided that Laos needed rescuing if the United States was going maintain its anticommunist bulwark in that part of Southeast Asia. And after deciding to take Laos under its protective wing, U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., and Vientiane, spent the next two decades—through five presidential administrations—struggling to influence and control the country and the people it had chosen to take on. Nearly every American official involved in Laos during this period grumbled at the complexity of its political and cultural landscape, while many of them raged at what they perceived to be the weakness and childlike simplicity of the personalities that made up the Laotian leadership. And throughout this strange and sometimes agonizing chapter in America’s involvement in Laos, none of these officials appears to have considered that America’s problems may have been more the product of its own limitations—intellectual, political, and military—than those of the Lao people it had ostensibly come to rescue.
In Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954–1961, William J. Rust traces the initial stages of this adoption process as U.S. officials from the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA struggled to mentor, cajole, and control Laotian leaders sympathetic to—or at least potentially sympathetic to—the hard-line anticommunist agenda of the Dwight Eisenhower–John Foster Dulles years. Rust examines the limitations of this Americans plan that relied on using large amounts of money and other forms of aid to secure the loyalty and trust of various Lao strongmen and the nebulous factions they claimed to command. He describes in rich detail the frustration and confusion on both the Lao and American sides that was generated by almost every one of these early American initiatives. His study suggests that the United States’ early missteps in Laos resulted in its eventual stumble into the “quagmire” of war in South Vietnam a decade later.
Without belaboring the obvious similarities now evident from our current historical perspective, Rust, nonetheless, outlines striking parallels between the State Department’s and the CIA’s encouragement of coup plots against Laotian leaders they deemed intransigent in 1958 with similar schemes aimed at South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem half a decade later. “The visible divisions among the U.S. missions in Vientiane and Saigon,” Rust observes, “confused friends, emboldened opportunists, and ultimately undercut American objectives.”
As in South Vietnam, the Laos-based American officials in Rust’s study scour the political terrain in search of an elusive figure often labeled as “our boy”—a strong but malleable Laotian leader sympathetic to U.S. policy but independent enough to avoid being branded a stooge of Washington by America’s enemies. Rust captures the sometimes absurd nature of this search vividly in his analysis of the confusing aftermath of the Phoumi Nosavan’s rebellion in 1960. While the Defense Department and the State Department quarrel over how to divide U.S. assistance between deadly rivals in Vientiane, an exasperated commander-in-chief of the Pacific Command sends a cable asking, “Who the hell is our boy?”
This study, along with Seth Jacobs’ recent The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos (Cornell University Press, 2012), is one of a few recent works to bring a new and clearer analytical framework to American involvement in Laos by using recently declassified documents. Rust’s study also makes good use of newly donated personal papers of those American officials directly involved.
In his careful examination of this sometimes bewildering conflict, Rust does not seek to cast blame or render partisan judgment; rather, he affords all of the principal actors—Americans and Laotians of every political stripe—a strong measure of sympathy and understanding when considering the actions they took. He is particularly sympathetic to the challenges that those first Americans faced as they sought to acclimate themselves to a newly independent former colony that lacked nearly all of the basic sanitation and infrastructure comforts of their home country. Disoriented and resentful, these U.S. officials strove to concoct a quick solution—a magic formula with the proper parts military muscle, largesse, and political tutelage—that would deliver Laos to the free world camp while denying it as a sanctuary or staging ground for the Communist bloc forces. Nearly every American in Rust’s study is worried about “losing Laos” without ever considering whether America had ever “possessed” it (in any sense of the word) to begin with.
The author’s careful attention to the backgrounds and early political careers of the Americans sent to Laos—many of whom were educated at pricey boarding schools, Ivy League universities, and European postings—remind us that the U.S. State Department in the mid-20th century was almost as exclusive and hierarchical as the ranks of the Lao elite that so exasperated them.
Rust’s eye for human character—its frailties, limitations, and mysteries—adds depth and sophistication to this compelling study of the people who implement abstract geopolitical strategic policy on the ground. His lucid, energetic, and fair-minded book is a useful contribution to our understanding of American efforts in Southeast Asia during this pivotal period.
Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century: Theory, History, and Practice
Thomas G. Mahnken, ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford Security Studies, 2012. 340 pp. Notes. Index. $29.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Commander Thomas Bodine, U.S. Navy
This book represents Thomas Mahnken’s ambitious endeavor to initiate a serious dialogue regarding America’s long-term competition with China. The text opens with an estimation of the most influential challenges to America’s future security: terrorism; nuclear-armed regimes; and the rise of China, which he ranks as the “most consequential” of the three. From this assertion, the author/editor implores U.S. leaders “to develop a well-thought-out strategy for competing over the long term,” listing the military, political, diplomatic, and economic attributes such a stratagem should include if it is to be successful. Using historical examples as a baseline, the author seeks to convince the reader that the steadfast implementation of a competitive strategy (CS) theory—based on manipulating an adversary’s entrenched political bureaucracies and deep-rooted cultural tendencies to one’s own advantage—will ensure America’s strategic preeminence over China in the coming decades. The book closes with a broad CS framework for future Sino-American contests that Mahnken concedes is “a strategic straw man for subsequent consideration, blueprinting, and planning.”
Unabashedly, the editorial framework of the book is heavily influenced by the “Developing Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century” conference in 2010 at the U.S. Naval War College. Mahnken, who wrote the first and final chapters, employs many of the conference’s attendees as contributing authors for the book’s remaining 16 chapters. This construct provides an unfiltered and expert insight into each chapter’s focus area but unfortunately creates a disjointed collection of essays marred by irregular transitions, diverse writing styles, and unnecessary repetition. For example, conscientious editing within the Cold War competitive strategy initiatives and potential Sino-Japanese stratagems chapters could have provided significant opportunities to expand upon each segment’s primary subject matter. Instead, both introductions contain overly detailed discussions on foundational competitive strategy theory, needlessly repeating ground already explored in the first four chapters. At 318 pages, the body of the work is already pressed to supply meaningful depth to the subject matter; duplications such as these hamstring the book’s ability to deliver substantive material.
In an effort to add validity to its thesis, Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century draws from a variety of U.S.–Soviet interactions during the Cold War. While most of these examples add weight to the competitive-strategy argument, several seem only tangentially related. Daniel Gouré’s chapter, which covers the strategic defense initiative, is a prime example. Gouré himself acknowledges this criticism. “Although U.S. defense policy never made the explicit connection between CS and the Strategic Defense Initiative, many analysts have suggested that the Reagan-era initiative was based on ‘CS-like’ thinking.” The book’s eagerness to revise history through the lens of this “thinking” is applied too liberally, negating the term’s usefulness as a tool to reinforcing effective competitive-strategy concepts. Rather, its overuse could be mistaken as an attempt to usurp credit for several American successes that resulted from other strategic frameworks.
Mahnken is to be applauded for his enthusiastic treatment of the subject matter, his herculean effort to bring together the works of so many experts, and providing a platform from which further discussions may take root. Undeniably, the author has identified an area of academic study that desperately needs additional exploration—coherent strategies for future Sino-American competition. Rather than serving as a unified thought-piece, however, this book is a disjointed collection of competitive strategy essays. Mahnken champions a theory requiring close coordination and strict structure, yet this book, ironically, falters under the weight of its own organization. Thus it never fully convinces the reader that a competitive strategy model is the premier method of securing America’s long-term dominance over China.
Lieutenant Commander Bodine is a naval flight officer assigned as the strike-fighter placement officer at Navy Personnel Command in Millington, Tennessee. He is a 1998 summa cum laude graduate of the University of Mississippi, and holds an MA in national security and strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College.