Contractors & War: The Transformation of U.S. Expeditionary Operations
Christopher Kinsey and Malcolm Hugh Patterson, eds. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. 352 pp. Notes. Index. $29.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Curtis Nickel, U.S. Navy
As anyone can attest who has visited an overseas war zone during the past decade, the striking number of civilian contractors working alongside uniformed soldiers makes it more like an American town than a military installation. Although little known outside a small segment of the military, in wartime these contractors have a long history in the United States, dating back to the nation’s fight for independence. But our reliance on them in the 21st century is unprecedented. In theater there are just as many as there are troops. In this book, Kinsey and Patterson’s collected essays aim to introduce readers to this established and growing trend.
With contributors ranging from distinguished academics to notable public servants, Contractors and War is organized in four parts that guide readers through the surfeit of operational concerns accompanying the paradigm shift. Writers were selected for their academic expertise, experience-driven perspective, and ability to enumerate tangible reforms regarding the legality, expanding responsibility, and administrative oversight of contractors for future military contingencies.
Offering a conditional methodology for determining the scope of this type of support, the book then closes with a proposal to create a new agency responsible for organizing the collective efforts of wartime reconstruction. The editors provide a neat summary of each part, presenting an overall conclusion that advocates for a changed military doctrine to ensure, as retired U.S. Army Colonel William Flavin argues, that management is “fully nested in the goals and processes of the U.S. government.”
The anthology includes diverse writing styles, substantive redundancy, and halting transitions—all of which distract the reader. Nearly every essayist recounts the history of those who have supported American conflicts, and many address prevailing legal concerns such as those surrounding the use of private military security contractors (PMSCs). These tangents work against the editors’ stated desire for the book not to be “preoccupied with armed contractors.” A more common and consistent theme woven among the articles would also help to chaperon readers more seamlessly from one piece to the next. Because its subject matter is presented in such a segmented fashion, Contractors and War does not provide a functional roadmap for policymakers; rather, it proposes disparate solutions targeted for consumption by a general audience.
In an effort to capture this topic’s full depth of issues, the second piece detours into the little-documented and -studied realm of military personnel perceptions of contractors. Despite their shared workspace and increasingly overlapping missions, studies show that “soldiers view contractors with a fair bit of ambivalence.” This, because of the book’s limited scope and the nascent nature of such analysis, ultimately diverts attention from the editors’ goal of providing “practical means” by which the government can take action.
Contributors to the book generally approve of the size and scope of contractor support in military operations, save one. Middlebury College professor Kateria Carmola argues against the use of PMSCs because of their incompatible risk culture with that of the military. She sees this as a product of a “business contract” rather than a “social contract.” By contrast, the other essayists’ tone is one of inevitability and foregone acceptance of dependence on these civilian workers in military operations. But underlying their approval are continual admonitions that “few attempts have been made to compare the actual costs or performance levels of government and contractor sources.” This dichotomy is unsettling, because it represents a pervasive “neoliberal economic” approach to defense justified by little quantifiable evidence. While the editors mean for this book to stimulate changes in the existing defense framework, the absence of analysis supporting contractor-associated efficiencies leaves the reader wondering whether the contributors’ constructive proposals represent merely improvements in the process rather than a sustainable defense concept.
And yet the book succeeds in evoking further examination from its broad audience by organizing expert analysis and deftly capturing the contractor dynamics that will affect how the nation projects power abroad and how it will be perceived in so doing. Despite the growing trend of this type of support in warfare, concerns abound from legal, organizational, and managerial standpoints. With contracts now accounting for more than half of the shrinking defense budget, Kinsey and Patterson’s work, with its practical scrutiny of persistent difficulties, is a meaningful addition to the literature.
Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare
Stephen Budiansky. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 336 pp. Maps. Notes. Bibliog. Index. $27.95.
Reviewed by Colonel John J. Abbatiello, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
Award-winning writer Stephen Budiansky has delivered a beautifully written history focusing on the intersection of science and military operations. In Blackett’s War, the former journalist describes the important—and at times crucial—contributions of British and American scientists to defeating the U-boat onslaught during the Battle of the Atlantic and the resulting new field of operational research (OR). Although scientists had been assisting in the development of weaponry arguably for hundreds if not thousands of years, operational research was unique in that it harnessed scientific methods to solve tactical problems facing sailors and aviators desperately trying to protect merchant convoys from German submarines. While the assistance that mathematician Archimedes rendered to Syracuse may have been the true first use of OR in battle (ca. 212 BC), the World War II Allies certainly institutionalized the concept for the first time in military history; most major headquarters involved in the Battle of the Atlantic had a small but energetic OR section to help improve operational effectiveness.
Budiansky skillfully provides biographical sketches of the important contributors as well as the historical context of the issues they wrestled with on a day-to-day basis for the Allied navies and air forces. Chief among the group was Patrick Blackett, a Cambridge-educated physicist who had fought at Jutland as a young naval officer and later became a leading scholar in atomic-particle and electromagnetic-force research. As was typical of the British scientific community of the time, Blackett was stalwartly socialist, pro-Soviet, and anti-Nazi in his political views. Beginning in 1935, he served on the Aeronautical Research Committee, where he was a strong supporter of radar technology for air defense and played an important role in convincing the Royal Air Force to further invest in radar development. After serving as scientific adviser to Anti-Aircraft Command early in the war, Blackett became the Director of Operational Research for Britain’s Admiralty, where defeating U-boats became his primary focus.
World War II’s longest battle, raging from September 1939 to May 1945, simply had to be won as a foundation for defeating Germany. Budiansky carefully and thoroughly describes most of the important aspects of the Battle of the Atlantic—from code breaking to weapons technology to ethical implications—in great detail. The author also reviews the major strategic and operational debates, such as American pre–Pearl Harbor involvement in the Atlantic, the resistance of airmen to allocating very long-range aircraft to antisubmarine warfare, and the ineffective practice of bombing U-boat bases in western France. He highlights the important disputes among the operational researchers themselves, such as a significant disagreement between Blackett and F. A. Lindemann—the Oxford physicist who served as Winston Churchill’s scientific adviser, also known as Lord Cherwell—over the effectiveness of RAF night area bombing.
But most important, Blackett’s War provides concrete examples of how British and American scholars applied scientific principles, especially in the areas of statistical analysis and probability, to tactical problems and then used their science to convince leaders to make the necessary changes in the field. Close analysis of operational data led to changes such as air-dropped depth-charge settings and release intervals; aircraft maintenance procedures; the ideal size of convoys and their escort forces; areas selected for nighttime hunting patrols; and even the paint schemes of sub-hunting aircraft. Initiatives like these normally resulted in immediate increases in the numbers of U-boats attacked and destroyed. Without the contribution of operations researchers, the Battle of the Atlantic would certainly have lasted significantly longer.
The author makes superb use of the personal papers and memoirs of the OR scientists of the period. His archival research from the Public Record Office adds to the scholarly credibility of the book, and he consults most of the important secondary works covering the Battle of the Atlantic. Readers familiar with the latest scholarship about this important battle may, however, notice a few minor gaps in Budiansky’s story. For example, the recent public release of a number of admiralty staff histories on the battle would have better informed the lengthy contextual passages about aircraft suitability, convoy tactics, and weapon technology.
But this gripe is relatively minor. This book is important because it provides a case study of how a specific community in society can make a significant contribution to total warfare. Proceedings readers will appreciate Budiansky’s skill in synthesizing important themes and providing historical context. Blackett’s War will also be of interest to sea service officers involved in lessons learned and assessment functions—endeavors that in many ways can trace their roots to operational research in World War II.
State of War: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1945–2011
Paul A. C. Koistinen. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2012. 336 pp. Maps. Notes. Bibliog. Index. $27.95.
Reviewed by Manley R. Irwin
This is the last volume of a five-part series that examines the relationship between the U.S. economy and military expenditures. Author Paul A. Koistinen asserts that the U.S. economy is burdened by excessive defense spending. In making his case, the author extensively cites government documents, personal and presidential papers, oral histories, personal interviews, and congressional hearings and reports supplemented by a reading of related periodicals and books. Future historians can ill afford to ignore Koistinen’s intellectual achievement. State of War represents the culmination of a long academic journey.
The author first reviews the U.S. economy in a post–World War II setting. What he finds is disturbing. He argues that military spending imposes a debilitating cost on the economy’s health. Since 1970, for example, the United States has experienced tepid growth, funded military research and development of minimal commercial value, and delivered gold-plated arms systems at enormous cost. Key sectors of the economy—auto, steel, and machine tools—have experienced deindustrialization. In the meantime, the nation continues to run a persistent trade imbalance. Industrial mobilization, the logistic miracle of World War II, has evolved into a permanent military-industrial complex. In short, the country has become a warfare state. Dwight D. Eisenhower was indeed insightful.
Next addressed is the accountability issue. Who is responsible for damaging the U.S. economy? Koistinen first concentrates on the executive office of the President. From 1945 to 1991, the United States engaged in the Cold War, accepted an alleged missile gap, and then backed into a Vietnam quagmire. The author contends that U.S. presidents are prone to embark on military ventures with little thought of cost, and even worse, no thought of an exit strategy. In a post–World War II economy, the author is less than inspired by presidential leadership.
If executive leadership is found wanting, surely the legislative branch can serve as a countervailing power against presidential misadventures. Not so, according to Koistinen. Congress passively funds wars without so much as voting a formal declaration. It underwrites the cost of 800 overseas bases located in 34 countries, and solicits that military contracts be directed toward congressional districts where military expenditures mean jobs and jobs translate into votes. The author concludes that in any contest between the legislative and executive branch, Congress is a pushover.
Another issue turns on the role of the military in a post–World War II setting. Here Koistinen observes a decline of the government arsenal in supplying military ships, tanks, and ordnance. Outsourcing is the name of the game, and military contractors reign supreme.
Given this bill of particulars, what is the prescription for corrective action? On this, Koistinen is silent. It is almost as if the U.S. capitalistic system is so inherently flawed that it will collapse of its own weight.
This study is thus an indictment of an overburdened economy beset by uninspired presidential leadership, governed by a feckless Congress, relying on corporate and military elites, who collaborate in export arms sales abroad. The author’s assessment is somewhat reminiscent of Vladimir Lenin’s response to Karl Marx’s prediction of the pending collapse of capitalism. (Lenin argued that the capitalist can purchase time from the inevitable by tapping into export markets.)
State of War invites three observations. While U.S. production accounted for 50 percent of the world’s output in 1945, it is half that today. Although U.S. firms see opportunities in new markets and customers, they also confront new competitors and hungry rivals. If American companies are so politically pervasive and overriding, why has Congress elected to impose a double taxation on U.S. capital? And more to the point, why are domestic corporate tax rates higher than those of our competitors in the industrial world? Perhaps Congress merits instruction on the consequences of economic disincentives.
Second, the structure of the U.S. labor market has similarly experienced a seismic shift. In 1970, 24 percent of private-sector workers were unionized. Today that figure stands at less than 7 percent. In the same period, public-sector unions have grown from 23 to 37 percent. Translated into political power, public-sector unions rank near the top of congressional lobbying expenditures.
Finally, as Congress and the President struggle with answers to chronic deficits and a growing debt, the general consensus is that U.S. spending is driven by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Fanny Mae, government pensions, student loans, disability payments, the Federal Benefit Pension Corporation, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These liabilities reside off, rather than on, the U.S. budget. No one knows the total dimension of unfunded federal liabilities. Congress assumes the number is $16.4 trillion. Some scholars place the figure above $87 trillion. Other studies suggest it is closer to $200 trillion. A former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff observed recently that the compound debt interest payments are likely to exceed DOD budgets in the near future. Put differently, Congress faces a daunting agenda.
State of War posits an underlying theme of class warfare, a struggle between a capitalist-military elite and a weary proletariat. A question now pending is whether the public-sector union has emerged as a new elite specie, the new capitalist, if you will. If such is the case, perhaps Paul Koistinen may find that he is fighting the wrong war at the wrong time.
Islands of Destiny: The Solomons Campaign and the Eclipse of the Rising Sun
John Prados. New York: New American Library, 2012. 416 pp. Illus. Maps. Notes. Bibliog. Index. $26.95.
Reviewed by Richard B. Frank
In this thought-provoking work, John Prados dissents from what he characterizes as the “almost entrenched conclusion among participants and historians” that the Battle of Midway was the “decisive event” of the Pacific War. To the contrary, Prados argues with considerable persuasiveness (but not quite the originality he implies) that the approximately 18-month long campaign in the Solomon Islands beginning with the landing on Guadalcanal was the real “moment of decision” of the Pacific War.
He acknowledges that many factors contributed to this outcome, including the quality, technology, and training of forces as well as “the wisdom and determination of individuals.” But he singles out the importance of what he refers to as “the pillars of intelligence.” These included not only radio intelligence but also particularly the Australian-led “coast watchers” and photo reconnaissance. Prados is strong on Japanese leaders, particularly senior naval officers. While the Solomons Campaign featured battles in three dimensions, he apportions by far his most searching scrutiny to sea encounters. He deftly deals with the attrition character of the air struggles with overviews and a few illuminating examples. Compared with the naval encounters, the land engagements, particularly after Guadalcanal, get very terse coverage. While Prados argues for the significance of the whole Solomons Campaign, approximately 60 percent of the text covers events through the end of the opening six-month-long Guadalcanal Campaign.
The author is at his best providing insightful comments on strategy and operations. He is sharply critical of Japanese strategists, including Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, for choosing to make the South Pacific a major theater, yet declining to commit major forces for decisive results. Instead, the Japanese were sucked into a grinding attrition campaign they could not control. At the operational level, Prados unfolds some stimulating arguments about the Battle of Santa Cruz Island and the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. He notably includes at least a brief discussion of the impact of the war on the Solomon islanders. Even if one does not agree with all of his propositions, they merit reflection.
While it is impossible to work on such a huge canvas without the occasional misstep, the text is marred by well over 60 factual errors. Light relief is inadvertently provided by one curious leitmotif: rising from the dead. After correctly reporting that Colonel Kiyoano Ichiki was “wiped out” with his command in August 1942, the text has Ichiki greeting a newly arrived Japanese officer two weeks later. The USS Atlanta (CL-51) is sunk in November 1942, but Prados has her going down again in mid-1943. Serial mistakes cluster about American commanders. For example, he has Frederick—not Forrest—Sherman commanding the carrier Wasp (CV-7) at the Guadalcanal landings and Major General J. Lawton Collins presented as the commander of the Americal Division instead of the 25th Infantry Division. Numerous factual errors pile up in a short section on the U.S carrier strikes on Rabaul in November 1943, where the author confuses the roles of light carriers Princeton (CVL-23) and Independence (CVL-22), wrongly has Douglas Dauntless SBDs in their air groups, and misstates damage and casualties on various Japanese vessels. Further, the near universal use of the term “Jap” by Americans in that era should not be glossed over, but in my opinion it has no place in the language of a scholar writing in his own voice in the 21st century.
Some mistakes are more than minor. Guadalcanal was the first American, but not the first “allied” offensive in World War II. Various earlier episodes fit that later title, perhaps starting with the late 1940 British, Australian, and Indian offensive in North Africa. Another error is unsettling as to his research. A young officer, Forrest R. Biard, served with a mobile radio intelligence unit with Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Biard (whose name is consistently misspelled) later published scathing charges that Fletcher grossly mishandled Biard’s communications intelligence information. Prados states in his notes that Fletcher’s leading defender, John L. Lundstrom, “completely fails to take Baird’s [sic] recollections into account.” In fact, Lundstrom provides a meticulous rebuttal of Biard’s tirades, but stows this where it belongs, in the notes section of Black Shoe Carrier Admiral. Prados is entitled to dispute the merits of Biard’s charges with Lundstrom, but to claim that Lundstrom failed to address them is patently wrong and grossly unjust.
In sum, this volume is recommended to anyone interested in the Pacific War. It provides an important argument about the “decisive event” of the Pacific War. It has a number of vigorous contentions regarding strategy and operations as well as the role of intelligence in the Solomons. Unfortunately, it is blemished by an excessive number of factual errors, mostly but not exclusively about details.