Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy
Seth Cropsey. New York: Overlook Duckworth, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc., 2013. 336 pp. Map. Illus. Index. $29.95.
Reviewed by Commander T. J. Zerr, U.S. Navy
Athens, Venice, Spain, and Britain all dominated the sea lanes and leveraged their maritime might to become the undisputed unilateral power of their day. None, however, survived at the top. In Mayday, Seth Cropsey—part history professor, grand strategist, military expert, policy wonk, soothsayer, and realist—asserts the cause was a diminution of sea- power supremacy. The United States, he claims, is trending toward a similar fate. A Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy for two administrations, his insight gleaned from experience is reinforced through extensive research punctuated with 20 pages of endnotes. In Cropsey’s view, world superpower status is inexorably linked to a country’s ability to dominate the high seas. He details in exceptional clarity this Mahanian argument with a litany of historical examples.
Cropsey argues forcefully that the status quo is eroding American naval power and, consequently, threatens the United States’ preeminent stature on the world stage. Importantly, it is this status that enables the United States to shape and influence the world order on every issue, including trade, international norms, freedom on the seas, human rights, liberty, rule-of-law, self-reliance, and self-determination.
In clarifying the term “naval supremacy,” Cropsey emphasizes that it is not simply about numbers of ships but rather about maintaining a quantitative and qualitative advantage that competitors can’t conceive it to be in their interests to contend. With potential threats contained, waterways—key enablers of both commerce and security—remain free for all mariners assuming a benevolent hegemony.
Cropsey bluntly states the requirement for a clear-eyed and holistic review of our national, military, and supporting naval strategies that addresses the proverbial elephant in the room: China. Here, the author’s realist bonafides shine through the pages as China’s growing naval power takes center stage. “If we continue down the path we are on,” he writes, “we will be unable to tangibly demonstrate our commitment in the Asia-Pacific and ultimately this will result in a loss of influence and relationship with partners and allies in the region as any shrinking of our bonds in the region will create space for Asia to slip into Chinese hegemony.” While the United States supplanted Britain as the world’s leading sea power, Crospey emphasizes that this transfer occurred between countries that embodied the same world view, principles, and ethics. The same could not be said for a Chinese ascent.
The author may be the first to succeed in moving the military discussion on China away from the unending debate about its long-term naval ambitions and into the realm of our policy priorities and commitment. The question is not one of whether we want to retain the ability to fight and win a specific kinetic naval engagement with the Chinese—which we must—but whether we want to preserve the ability to shape events and deter such an engagement. By investing in a Navy worthy of a first-rate superpower, the United States will retain its influence in the Asia-Pacific region and create windows of effective diplomatic engagement when tensions rise.
To build his case, Cropsey makes a series of assertions that some policy professionals might challenge: that the military relationship with China is, in fact, competitive; that China’s push to naval supremacy, evidenced by facilities buildup around the Indian Ocean (the so-called “string of pearls” theory) is real and progressing; and that the Chinese are committed to a zero-sum game of influence and power in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. However, Mayday’s broad and consequential conclusions hold despite any of the well-worn arguments against these assertions.
Though he stops short of sounding alarmist, the conclusions Cropsey draws are significantly concerning. To reverse current trends, two facts must be acknowledged. First, that American naval supremacy can still be restored, though doing so requires bold choices and funding levels beyond anything currently debated. Second, the American public must consciously decide that it wants to remain a global leader worthy of the investment. Civilian and uniformed leadership should openly debate not only what it takes to be a naval superpower but what such power provides: stable security environment, freedom of trade, international norms and the rule of law, deterrence from aggression and military adventurism, and assurance to our allies. Likely, most citizens who now enjoy the benefits that resulted from peace and prosperity as a result of the world order secured in World War II are unaware of the foundational role naval supremacy played in establishing and maintaining that world order. How ironic that this same peace and security has facilitated the rise of America’s latest challenger.
Thank You for Your Service
David Finkel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. 256 pp. $26.
Reviewed by Lieutenant (junior grade) Katherine E. O’Donnell, U.S. Navy
After more than a decade of armed conflict, one of the great challenges facing academics, policy-makers, and the American citizenry has been how best to support and care for U.S. military veterans returning from war. In his new book, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel examines the struggle of veterans and their families as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan only to face a new kind of war. Though not all veterans carry with them physical manifestations of their pain, many returning servicemen and women bear the weight of mental wounds.
Finkel’s first book, The Good Soldiers, released in 2010, is a best-selling account of soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 2-16 Infantry Battalion during the “surge” in Afghanistan. Finkel reunites with that same group of soldiers and their families in Thank You for Your Service, chronicling their return from the 15-month deployment and recounting the intimate, sometimes-tragic stories of their reintroduction to American society and life after war.
In this effort, Finkel spent nearly two years interviewing, observing, and researching. For the instances when he did not personally observe an event, his depictions are gleaned from interviews, Army records, and personal letters, among other sources. Throughout the book, it is clear that Finkel spent a great deal of time with each soldier and their family—all members of the same small Kansas community near Fort Riley—and was privy to many personal moments.
The book opens with story of Adam Schumann, an infantry sergeant who was medically evacuated from his third deployment to Afghanistan as a result of PTSD and suicidal thoughts. Back home with his family (his wife, a newborn son, and a school-aged daughter) he finds himself out of work and depressed. Finkel reveals Schumann’s innermost thoughts—about how he has put a gun to his head, threatening to pull the trigger on more than one occasion. His wife is frustrated, overwhelmed, and at a loss. “Where did my husband go?” she often thinks.
The narrative continues with the story of Amanda Doster, widow of James Doster, Sergeant Schumann’s platoon sergeant who was killed by an improvised explosive device on a day he was supposed to stay in the office and Skype with his family. Instead, he offered his comfortable spot to Schumann and went on patrol, revealing much about his character. Amanda cannot let go of James. She keeps his ashes close to her at all times, and with two children to care for, finds re-building her life and adjusting to her “new normal” exceedingly difficult. She relies on support from a few friends and surviving members of James’ platoon.
Moving from the deeply personal narratives to the political side, Finkel explores the Department of Defense’s role in treating wounded warriors and preventing suicides. Readers are a “fly on the wall” during a monthly meeting held at the Pentagon by General Peter Chiarelli, then-U.S. Army vice chief of staff. The meeting is held to review the suicides that have occurred in the past month and chart a way ahead for treatment and prevention. In one such meeting 29 suicides are discussed. Chiarelli has a personal connection to these meetings—he lost 169 soldiers while serving as the commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq in 2004–05. A monument was erected to honor those lost, but only 168 names are represented. The omitted 169th name is of a soldier who had taken his own life. The surviving soldiers in the division did not feel he deserved the recognition, because his “wounds” were not “real.” The general later recognized his horrible mistake and became passionate about supporting wounded veterans and preventing suicides.
The reader is present for many aspects of the soldiers’ return home, including in some cases a variety of treatments through the Army such as counseling, medication cocktails, transfer to a special wounded warrior battalion, and inpatient PTSD treatment. There are many avenues for help, but there is no silver-bullet solution. Even receiving treatment can pose challenges. Inpatient treatment means no work or paycheck for the soldier; it also means being away from home for weeks or months at a time. The family struggles are real and deep, and the reader shares in them first hand.
Thank You for Your Service is personal, vivid, and painful. However, the book would benefit from a few suggestions from the author on what our government can improve in future policy changes. As it is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, the book is focused on the anecdotes and stories of soldiers and their families and does not present a pragmatic way ahead. That notwithstanding, Finkel movingly demonstrates the scope of this challenge, and his writing is an important addition to the current literature on the topic of care for those who have sacrificed so much. Through his effort we learn that we can, and must, do more than just thank them for their service.
Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo
Jack Cheevers. New York: NAL Caliber, 2013. 431 pp. Illus. Notes. Biblio. Index. $27.95.
Reviewed by William A. Taylor
In Act of War, Jack Cheevers (former political reporter for the Los Angeles Times) tells the captivating chronicle of the spy ship USS Pueblo (Ager-2), her capture by North Korea in 1968, and the ensuing ordeal of her captain and crew. The U.S. Navy transformed the Pueblo, formerly a 176-foot cargo vessel, into a clandestine electronic-intelligence platform. Inside her rusty exterior lurked a treasure-trove of high-tech spying equipment concentrated in what was known as the Special Operations Department. The craft’s many shortcomings did not go unnoticed. Cheevers reveals that “A subsequent inspection by Navy experts counted no fewer than 462 mechanical and design deficiencies. . . . By the time the Pueblo completed its sea trials, the steering engine had failed 180 times.”
Commander Lloyd M. “Pete” Bucher, a former submarine officer, commanded the Pueblo. In January 1968, North Korean gunboats attacked and commandeered the vessel near the North Korean port of Wonsan. During the enagement, North Korean forces killed one American sailor and injured ten others. They took the entire crew prisoner, tortured them, and repeatedly used them for propaganda purposes. Cheevers illustrates the dilemmas of covert intelligence and portrays the human dimension of such challenges. He makes a compelling case for the importance of the episode: “The loss of the Pueblo—which was jammed with sophisticated electronic surveillance gear, code machines, and top secret documents—turned out to be one of the worst intelligence debacles in American history.”
Cheevers found initial inspiration for his book in Pete Bucher’s personal report entitled Bucher: My Story (Doubleday, 1970). In Act of War, Cheevers uses a wide array of sources. Especially useful are his interviews with over 50 participants in the saga, including multiple interviews with Bucher and other members of the crew. He also analyzes recently released government documents from the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Navy Department, State Department, and administration of President Lyndon Johnson and delves deeply into archival material from Eastern Europe and South Korea. Cheevers even requested a personal interview with Kim Jong-il to discuss his father’s motivations in capturing the Pueblo, a request that was quickly denied by the North Korean dictator.
The book is organized into 19 chapters framed by a prologue and epilogue. Much of the content explores Operation Clickbeetle, a U.S. Navy effort to use freighters for covert intelligence. The initial ambitious plans for 70 vessels actually materialized into only three spy ships, one of which was the Pueblo. Her cover mission was to conduct oceanographic research in the Sea of Japan. Cheevers explores the event at multiple levels. He moves seamlessly from diplomatic efforts in Washington and Pyongyang to the personal struggles of the sailors at a prison facility they dubbed the Barn to those of their distressed families back home in the United States. At times the mistreatment of the captured sailors involved tedious labor, such as when the crew had to cut the grass of the entire prison compound equipped only with penknives. More often, the abuse escalated to outright torture, such as when North Korean captors used scissors to slash large swaths of skin off fireman Steve Woelk without any anesthetic.
Cheevers employs humorous anecdotes to good effect, such as the imprisoned sailors’ clever use of Morse code and references to the fictional acquaintance “Garba Gefollows” to indicate respectively “this is a lie” and “garbage follows” in forced propaganda letters. Act of War is international in scope, well written, and an enjoyable read. It is highly recommended to anyone interested in the Pueblo story specifically or covert intelligence generally. Most important, Act of War recounts the gripping account of personal service, tragedy, sacrifice, and perseverance of the crew that played out within the heightened international tensions of the Cold War.
Soviet Naval Aviation 1946–1991
Yefim Gordon and Dmitriy Komissarov. Manchester, UK: Hikoki Publications, 2013. 368 pp. Illus. $56.95.
Reviewed by Norman Friedman
This book is a testament to the different approach to sea power employed by the old Soviet Union during the Cold War. From the late 1950s on, Soviet land-based naval bombers, armed with stand-off missiles, were at least as great a threat to U.S. carriers as were Soviet submarines. Most of the U.S. Navy’s surface-to-air armory, and all of its interceptors and radar-surveillance aircraft, were designed to deal with this threat. Words like “outer air battle” and slogans like “kill the archer, not the arrow” will remind anyone involved in the Navy of that era of what was happening. Only at the end of the Cold War were the Soviets beginning to deploy carriers and carrier-borne aircraft, and they had not begun to hit their stride when the Soviet Union and its navy collapsed. If all of this sounds like dry history, remember that the Soviets taught the current Chinese navy its trade and that the Chinese naval air arm is not too different in principle from its Soviet-era predecessor.
Yefim Gordon has demonstrated a remarkable ability to sift former Soviet records and current Russian-language literature to describe the former Soviet air arms in great and apparently very accurate detail. The book thus takes its place alongside extensive descriptions of the other air arms, all by the same British publisher: Soviet Strategic Aviation in the Cold War (2009), Soviet Air Defence Aviation 1945–1991, and Soviet Tactical Aviation (both by Gordon and Komissarov and published in 2012).Gordon and Komissarov first sketch the organizational history of Soviet naval aviation, which was difficult because some of its elements were drawn off by other components of the multiple Soviet air establishments. For example, the navy lost its land-based fighters in 1957, and for a time in the 1940s and early 1950s the navy itself had no independent bureaucratic existence. They then describe its elements: reconnaissance, antiship strike, antisubmarine warfare.
These chapters include descriptions of missions and their difficulties. The authors add an account of the largely abortive Soviet carrier program, and a substantial chapter describes Cold War incidents (illustrated by both Western and Soviet photos). The book ends with an extensive catalog of aircraft and weapons. A great deal of what Gordon and Komissarov provide is new, at least to this reader. As in Gordon’s other books about the Soviet military air arm, the photographs are excellent.
Gordon and Komissarov are so good that the reader yearns for more. No Russian has yet described or explained the structure of Soviet programs, for example the trade-offs between different types of equipment and between different services. Nor has there been any published reference to the development of the big land-based (or space-based) sensor systems created specifically (it seems) to guide aircraft and ships. For example, during the 1960s the U.S. Navy learned through experience that Soviet naval bombers were directed to its carriers by big land-based high-frequency (HF) direction-finding nets and thus learned to evade attack by shutting down its HF communications.
It seems nearly certain that the anti-Polaris antisubmarine aircraft (the Il-38 May in particular) were conceived as part of a larger system that included a long-range seabed system somewhat analogous to the Western sound surveillance system, but far less successful. One wonders how these systems and the naval strike aircraft were linked, both in terms of planning and in practice. Clearly that sort of detail is either still classified or is of so little interest to writers (who generally began as enthusiasts) that it is not available. It would, similarly, be very interesting to gain insight into the trade-offs between ships and long-range aircraft, particularly now that we know something about the difficult gestation of the Soviet carrier program.
One also yearns for accounts of canceled aircraft and missiles. Again, it is not clear whether such information is still classified (or is now becoming more rather than less restricted), or whether no interested author has yet emerged. All of this is of more than academic interest, because a good account of what the Soviets wanted to build would likely offer valuable insight into the way the current Chinese navy and its air arm have been and are being shaped. It would also give insight into the sorts of systems the Russians are now offering for sale, almost all of which can be traced back to Cold War forebears.