Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS
Joby Warrick. New York: Doubleday, 2015. 368 pp. Map. Notes. Index. $28.95
Reviewed by Admiral James G. Stavridis, U.S. Navy (Retired)
In June 2006, I was concluding a demanding two-year assignment as senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Good news was scarce in the Pentagon in those days, and Iraq was in flames, spiraling down toward chaos. A significant part of the failure of the mission, which had begun so hopefully with the successful invasion in Iraq and the defeat of Saddam Hussein in 2003, could be laid at the feet of the brutal inter-religious conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, which burst into the open after the United States failed to put in place an effective post-conflict structure and foolishly disbanded the Iraqi Army in toto. The key to inflaming that crucial Sunni/Shi’a fissure was the work of the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a terrorist mastermind and psychopathic thug and torturer.
Zarqawi was the top U.S. military target in Iraq by 2006. Led by then-Lieutenant General Stanley A. McChrystal, U.S. Army, the Joint Special Operations Command forces relentlessly pursued him across Baghdad’s explosive terrain. We had several near misses, and frustration was growing in Washington. Then we hit pay dirt: Our commander in Iraq, U.S. Army General George W. Casey, Jr., called on a secure line and said simply, “Mr. Secretary, we got him. We killed Zarqawi.” While not exactly a turning point, it was an important inflection point. Combined with the surge, it moved the needle in a positive direction in Iraq—a situation that has, sadly, unraveled again today with the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011 and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State.
The perplexing question to many is: How did the Islamic State rise so meteorically, seizing significant tranches of territory in Iraq and Syria as well as conducting a series of globally significant terrorist strikes in Lebanon, Turkey, France, Belgium, and here in the United States? Big doors swing on small hinges, and we must understand how this medieval force has emerged with such power, proselytizing and recruiting throughout the Western world with impunity, ensuring that its trademark black flag—which no one could have picked out of a lineup three years ago—is now the most downloaded image on the Internet.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, reporter Joby Warrick of The Washington Post brilliantly connects the string of events that have led to the striking success of the Islamic State. He describes how it is possible to essentially drop an intellectual plumb line from the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq more than a decade ago to the present situation, with supporting fires from other tragic events: suicide bombings in Jordan, the burning alive of a Jordanian fighter pilot, the repeated beheadings of Westerners—and on and on. The theater of barbarity and cruelty built by ISIS, all operating under the now ubiquitous black flags of the cult-like organization, is now part of the landscape of the war-torn Middle East.
What makes Warrick’s book so compelling is its style—fresh, powerful storytelling clearly backed by deep sources. The story of ISIS is a bitter tale, and many in government want the policy failures preceding it clearly addressed. Warrick also manages to convey a sense of personality and local color as he piles episode upon troubling episode. While the book offers no policy prescriptions or solutions for dealing with the Islamic State, it is still mandatory reading for anyone involved in the now-global effort to find, fix, and kill ISIS. The real challenge, of course, is not simply to understand where this organization came from; but far more important, how we can reverse-engineer its success and destroy it. That is the subject for another book, and it cannot be written too quickly.
Admiral Stavridis served for seven years as a four-star admiral, including nearly four years as the first Navy officer chosen to be Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. He is currently Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
U.S. Navy Codebreakers, Linguists, and Intelligence Officers against Japan, 1910–1941
Captain Steven E. Maffeo, U.S. Naval Reserve (Ret.). Colorado Springs, CO: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. 538 pp. Index. Notes. Append. $120.00.
Reviewed by Elliot Carlson
Many historians have argued that Japan lost the Pacific war the day its naval forces bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. But according to intelligence analyst Steven E. Maffeo, the seeds for Japan’s defeat may have been planted as early as 1910. The research in this thought-provoking volume supports his contention. That year, Lieutenant (junior grade) Fred Rogers and two other junior lieutenants showed up in Tokyo for a three-year “full-immersion” course in Japanese language and culture. Sponsored by U.S. naval intelligence and approved by the Japanese government, the same program would attract, over the next 30 years, another 48 Marine and Navy officers to study in Tokyo. When hostilities between the two countries finally erupted, nearly all of those “students” did what they were trained to do—use the skills and knowledge they acquired in Japan against their former hosts.
They also joined forces with another obscure band of warriors: U.S. Navy codebreakers, cryptologists, and radiomen charged with compromising the Imperial Japanese Navy’s formidable codes and ciphers. These disparate U.S. Navy groups formed a powerful team. Their joint efforts to decode and translate Japan’s naval messages played a significant role in the outcome of the Pacific war. Unfortunately for those who did this work, the role of signals intelligence during World War II was suppressed for many years. Even when authoritative chronicles of the war were published, many failed to mention the contributions from the U.S. Navy’s intelligence virtuosos.
Maffeo here sets about rescuing these men from obscurity. Having served in naval intelligence for more than 28 years and commanding three reserve intelligence units, he is well qualified to tell their stories. U.S. Navy Codebreakers, Linguists, and Intelligence Officers against Japan, 1910–1941 appears to be the first of its kind—a biographical dictionary containing 59 profiles of the key people who shaped American naval intelligence and cryptanalysis during the 1920s and 1930s. Maffeo’s sketches cover the prewar, wartime, and postwar lives of his subjects. He focuses on those active in intelligence before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Maffeo also has produced a history of Navy cryptology and intelligence during the interwar period, when these pioneers faced severe obstacles: tight budgets, limited staffing, and frequent skepticism from much of the Navy’s top brass. He documents how this tiny cabal took tentative steps that seemed to lead nowhere but ended by achieving momentous results. Maffeo’s themes are repeated in the stories of nearly all his subjects, whom he gathers into four distinct, if rather fanciful, categories: “Scanners,” “Book Breakers,” “Blue Sky Merchants,” and “Hybridists.”
Maffeo’s sobriquets bear no resemblance to their official classifications, but they serve a purpose. They suggest the dizzying range of intelligence activity while giving a feel for the characters who practiced the craft.
Not everyone is well served in Maffeo’s rendering. The Scanners, for example (Maffeo’s term for radio traffic analysts), were often undervalued in the cryptologic field, and they are here as well. This, despite the fact that nearly as much useful information could be gleaned from the context of an intercepted message—sender, intended recipient, time of dispatch, length, call sign—as from its contents.
The Book Breakers emerge as Maffeo’s heavy-hitters, accounting for nearly half of his subjects: the cryptographers, cryptanalysts, and codebreakers. Under this heading readers will find such giants as Agnes Meyer Driscoll, a brilliant civilian cryptanalyst recruited in the mid-1920s to hasten the Navy’s entrance into this arcane world. Known as “Miss Aggie,” she successfully trained a young lieutenant, Laurance Safford, a mathematics wizard considered to be the “father” of Navy cryptology. In 1924 Safford launched the fabled Research Desk, a euphemism for its actual role: codebreaking.
Safford was named head of the Navy’s larger communications security group, OP-20-G, and deployed key officers and radiomen to intercept sites in Asia and around the Pacific region. Maffeo also tells the story of Lieutenant Thomas “Tommy” Dyer, the gifted cryptanalyst who set up the decrypt unit at Pearl Harbor (Station Hypo). Dyer would give Navy codebreaking its signature quote: “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps a lot.”
Few intelligence officers proved more consequential than Hypo’s officer in charge, Joseph Rochefort (Tokyo, 1929–32), whom Maffeo calls “perhaps the iconic figure in the U.S. Navy’s early cryptologic, translation and intelligence history.” One of the Hybridists—officers both multiskilled and multiproficient—Rochefort is known for his prodigious effort against Japan’s naval code (the famed JN-25b) before the Battle of Midway, which was crucial for the success of that battle and helped turn the tide of war against Japan in the Pacific.
Maffeo has accomplished what he set out to do. Using oral histories, Navy records, and relevant secondary sources, he has assembled a bountiful cache of material about his subjects. He has not included every deserving intelligence officer but has covered the principal players, those whose legacies are now restored to public view. Maffeo’s book fills a long-standing gap in the literature of Navy cryptology. This volume will remain the standard reference for information about the Navy’s intelligence personnel before and during World War II.
Court-Martial: How Military Justice Has Shaped America from the Revolution to 9/11 and Beyond
Chris Bray. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. 398 pp. Intro. Notes. Index. $28.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Commander Dave Melson, U.S. Navy, Judge Advocate General’s Corps
Chris Bray’s Court-Martial fills an important gap in American legal history with an accessible survey of notable courts-martial and military legal affairs. In an account that encompasses Revolutionary War-era militia protests, 19th-century military tribunals, and contemporary military commissions, Bray, a historian and former U.S. Army sergeant, illustrates legal dramas previously found only in academic or professional works. While imprecise use of legal terms and some curious omissions detract from an otherwise engaging narrative, Court-Martial is recommended reading for anyone interesting in learning how military law has shaped American history.
Legal proceedings provide fertile ground for study and entertainment. However, courts-martial, with a few notable exceptions, remain an unexplored area of law. Bray’s study presents a valuable illustration of the military legal system’s contribution to American jurisprudence. While military law might bring to mind images of decisive action within a structured, authoritarian society, Bray notes that military legal controversies have “never been that easy.”
Court-Martial is a misleading title. The book is not simply a chronicle of criminal law or courtroom dramas, but rather a study of how military legal affairs have exposed broader debates about fundamental social issues. Race and equality before the law, for example, are recurring themes throughout Bray’s story—and throughout American history. As befits a former Army noncommissioned officer, Bray writes with particular sensitivity of Americans who served under diverse military codes. His perspective is “the story of millions of moments of personal choice, decisions between people who are cold and tired and far from home.” Those decisions, Bray argues, were as complex and nuanced as any other momentous legal decisions in American history.
Beginning with the formation of the U.S. military legal tradition during the Revolutionary War, Bray presents a series of vignettes that recount individuals’ experiences of serving under military authority and political controversies about the proper place of such authority in a republic. These stories analyze the intersection of social values with the military’s need to create cohesive, effective units. For example, Revolutionary War militiamen and Civil War volunteer soldiers sue to leave military service at the end of their terms of service; 19th-century naval officers rely on harsh and arbitrary punishments to keep order on board ships; and World War I generals carry out summary executions to compel order in the face of machine-gun fire.
But the struggle to impose order on military units met a contrasting force: the desire of Americans in uniform for civil rights. Corresponding to each draft or influx of volunteers into the armed services came calls for reform of military law from many short-term soldiers. Bray’s writing shines when he describes the average American’s struggle to accept military authority and to challenge that authority when faced with injustice. Whether reacting to arbitrary legal rulings, racial prejudice, or cruel punishments, the story of the reform of U.S. military law is the story of Americans’ experience of military authority and the process of challenging it through legal protest and civil disobedience.
Bray also addresses instances of military courts extending their authority to civilians during armed conflict. Relating some relatively obscure episodes, he discusses the application of such authority to Native Americans, American civilians, and others. The diverse population of New Orleans chafing under General Andrew Jackson’s occupation of the city in 1815 and Native American groups engaging the U.S. Army in the 19th century receive sensitive examinations. Readers familiar with contemporary controversies over the use of military tribunals will benefit from the historical perspective provided by these narratives.
While generally well written, Court-Martial suffers from some curious omissions and inaccuracies. The investigation and adjudication of war crimes receive scant coverage. While Bray analyzes the My Lai massacre and subsequent trials, he omits other allegations of war crimes. Given Court-Martial’s focus on the soldier’s experience under military authority, an analysis of recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan would have improved the narrative.
Legal practitioners will note the author’s loose definition of “military justice.” Bray uses the phrase to refer to criminal law regulating service members’ conduct as well as laws imposing martial law or regulating military commissions. Perhaps lay readers will not care, but it raises unanswered questions. Are the cases he mentions part of a continuous narrative? While the history of court-martial regulations follows a definite pattern in evolving military regulations, is it fair to compare courts-martial to the occupations of New Orleans in 1815 or the Philippines in 1898? Do these events form part of a single legal tradition? Unfortunately, Bray addresses general historical questions by paraphrasing other historians, which hinders an otherwise engaging account.
Despite these flaws, Court-Martial is a valuable and accessible record of a story hidden in specialist works until now. Men and women in uniform—or anyone interested in the U.S. military—will benefit from discovering how military law has developed and been influenced by civil and military leaders and by efforts of those in the ranks. Perhaps Bray’s book will encourage the next wave of reflection, analysis, and reform in the military legal system.
Why I Read Morison
By Captain T. R. Williams, U.S. Navy
As a junior officer I read naval history to complement my professional pursuits as a surface warfare officer. One of the most influential books to shape my early views was Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Later, as a graduate student of strategic studies, I walked Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Today, I need walk no battlefields to appreciate the tactical, operational, and strategic problems our Navy’s greatest leaders faced in war.
As the sea combat commander for a carrier strike group, I recently set a course to read through Morison’s entire 15-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II to better prepare for combat at sea. I mentioned my plan to a former mentor, a retired naval officer and fellow naval history fan. He thought Morison, while entertaining, was not as relevant to the 21st century as histories by recent authors, such as Ian Toll (author of War in the Pacific Islands) and James Hornfischer (Neptune’s Inferno). While acknowledging Morison’s limitations, I still find his tactical, operational, and strategic observations relevant to today’s operational problems, particularly in the Indo-Asia Pacific regions.
Reading Morison with a critical eye reveals several weaknesses. First, he was too close to events to write an entirely objective history. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Harvard historian before the war commenced, he was given a personal commission from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and carte-blanche access to the fleet during wartime operations. Like today’s embedded journalists, Morison was both observer and participant and had an affinity for the U.S. Navy—which the narrative reflects. While critical of tactical, operational, and strategic decisions, with appropriate documentation of primary sources to support his judgment, Morison’s goal is to show the U.S. Navy in a generally positive light.
A negative bias with racial overtones against the Axis powers, particularly the Japanese, also runs through his text. Primary-source documents, including interviews and translated reports from the Imperial Japanese archive, were important contributions to his analysis of naval operations. Yet he lapses into stereotypes of the enemy, reflecting mid-20th century popular opinion. Similar attitudes led America to underestimate Japan and cost the United States dearly during the opening stages of the war.
A third flaw is his focus on leaders’ decisions and anecdotal evidence when evaluating outcomes of critical battles and campaigns. Again, like some historiographers of his time, he meticulously catalogs commanders and fighting formations and interviews those same leaders after reviewing their operational reports. He accepts senior leaders’ accounts as factually correct. He sometimes critiques reports or interviews, but inconsistently omits his own potential bias favoring a commander’s narrative. This leaves his analyses open to skepticism. In some cases, he shows favoritism toward leaders who share his educational or social background and exposes a weakness as an unbiased arbiter of naval commanders’ capabilities.
These criticisms aside, many contemporary historians still consider him an excellent guide, and his books remain useful source documents for contemporary historians.
Morison’s history is replete with observations that are relevant today. The same creativity, resourcefulness, and time required to develop the logistics to win the naval war at sea and on shore in the Pacific in 1944–45 will likely be required should war at sea occur again. Before U.S. logistics were capable of sustaining massed sea, air, and land forces, our naval forces were often isolated from mutual support and faced defeat. This resulted in lost ships, sailors, and opportunities. When, early in the Pacific war, the enemy used reinforcing lines of logistics communication and combined land, sea, and air forces in the southwest Pacific, the United States was caught in a grinding and costly campaign. Despite taking Guadalcanal in the winter of 1943, at the cost of more sailors lost in ships sunk in “Iron Bottom Sound” than Marines on shore, it took until mid-1944 to “break the Bismarck’s barrier,” as Morison recalled in his volume of the same title. Many hard lessons were learned during the intervening years to refine the synchronization of U.S. forces to defeat the island fortress of Rabaul—but not by frontal assault. Having determined that avoiding costly battles was a risk with positive operational effects, naval leaders and strategists took a theater-wide view of the naval war.
Morison’s survey of issues pertaining to U.S. naval policy decisions throughout the war are also valuable. He describes the transition from single fleet to global navy, operating seamlessly from shore to the mid-oceans, through rapid growth in personnel and training organization. These were among many other necessary organizational changes that supported critical tasks, including convoy processes, coastal surveillance, research, development, and test-and-trial processes to rapidly build out a fleet capable of combat far from home. He also keenly discerns the operational implications of a Germany/Europe first choice by the Combined and Joint Chiefs Staff, and Admiral Ernest King’s direction to roll back the German U-Boat campaign of 1940–43. If the U.S. Navy failed in the Atlantic against German U-boat campaign, it would prevent the Allies from being resupplied in Europe, and the Pacific Navy would lose the industrial strength of Northeastern and Gulf Coast shipyards and Atlantic training grounds to prepare for offensive combat operations in the Pacific.
A first-person observer and participant in the first amphibious campaign of the war in North Africa, Operation TORCH, Morison traces the arc of Marine Corps and Army amphibious warfare throughout the war. His focus on land warfare from the sea is superb. He reveals Navy and Marine Corps leaders furiously refining amphibious doctrine, which ultimately results in the successful invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. It is a remarkable record of growth showcasing the value of combined naval, air, and land operations—the first true joint operations—in the Pacific. He also documents the shift of the Navy’s big-gun, battle line to the fire-support line, a critical tactical evolution at the end of the war.
Among the many battles he records, Morison’s treatment of the Battle of the Philippine Sea artfully demonstrates the maturation of U.S. naval operational thinking and the tactical brilliance of naval forces, which had strategic consequences for the conduct of the war. He describes the final offensive plan of the Imperial Japanese Navy, “A-GO,” designed to overwhelm U.S. forces in the southwest Pacific. By choosing to push through the central Pacific and execute the Marianas Island campaign, U.S. commanders pulled Japanese forces to the edge of their logistical support. The timing and sequencing of amphibious operations and fleet carrier air strikes led to the successful invasion of Saipan, Tinian, and eventually Guam, while simultaneously overwhelming Japanese air forces during the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” Furthermore, Pacific Fleet anti-submarine surface forces held off supporting Japanese fleet assets approaching from the south and west, including the exploits of the USS England (DE-635), which sank six submarines in 12 days.
Why read Morison today? Morison’s treatment of losses on both sides of the Pacific war is sobering and worthy of recounting to a new generation of military and political leaders. His history should be studied by naval commanders and leaders, not just naval historians and academics. I continue to glean insights as a tactical commander interested in winning naval battles in the Pacific.
A review of Morison’s history is a worthy task for dedicated professionals, both naval and scholarly, in light of growing naval and military competition in the 21st-century Indo-Asia-Pacific. Therefore, I suggest a fresh analysis, and that we invite our allies, both old and new, to a series of inter- and intra-War College conferences and discourses to consider how, as a Navy and a nation, we took immature interwar concepts to victory in the Pacific in four years. I marvel at the challenges the U.S. Navy overcame in the Pacific. Although the costs and the challenges were great, we accepted them and won once before. For leaders considering how to win a war at sea, reading and studying Morison is an excellent resource for considering ways to do so again.
Captain Williams is Commander, Destroyer Squadron 23 and Sea Combat Commander for the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group.
New & Noteworthy Books
A Shau Valor: American Combat Operations in the Valley of Death, 1963–1971
Thomas R. Yarborough. Havertown, PA: Casemate, 2016. 311 pp. Notes. Biblio. Index. $32.95.
This study documents nine years of American combat operations in the crucial frontier valley and a 15-mile radius around it—the deadliest killing ground of the Vietnam War.
So Close to Home: A True Story of an American Family’s Fight for Survival during World War II
Michael J. Tougias and Alison O’Leary. New York: Pegasus Books, 2016. 238 pp. Notes. Biblio. $27.95.
The authors provide a fascinating nonfiction account of the ordeal of the four-member Downs family, who survived 18 hours in the water after a May 1942 German U-boat attack that sank the freighter Heredia in the Gulf of Mexico, killing more than half of her passengers and crew.
Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage
Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, with Annette Lawrence Drew. New York: PublicAffairs, 2016. 432 pp. Notes. Illus. Maps. Appends. Index. $17.99
This is a newly released reprint of the riveting investigative account of American submarine espionage throughout the Cold War, first published by in 1998 by PublicAffairs.
The Supply Side of Security: A Market Theory of Military Alliances
Tongfi Kim. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016. 239 pp. Notes. Index. $55.00
The author argues that as China strengthens and the U.S. military budget shrinks, the two powers should be understood not only as competing threats but competing security suppliers.