Book Reviews

That is understandable, but also it is unfortunate, because Keefer’s background as an editor of 25 volumes of Foreign Relations of the United States apparently did not equip him to narrate or analyze the two most historically significant aspects of Brown’s tenure at the Pentagon. Both are important factors of the offset strategy referenced in the book’s title. The first of those was the decision to stick with the nascent all-volunteer force and build it into an enviable military. The other, perhaps even more important, was Brown’s embrace of the technological revolution built around computers and stealth. A military historian knows that those two developments shaped the U.S. armed forces for the following half century.

On the first, it was not a given that the struggling all-volunteer force, then in its infancy, would survive to adulthood. Indeed, as Keefer notes, the transition to it was so rough that there were calls to abandon the effort and to resume the draft. Under Brown, the Army especially improved its recruiting efforts, laying the groundwork for the well-trained, professional military we have today. Keefer does a workmanlike job of covering the discussions, but the overall story of the creation of the new force seems beyond his reach. This was the section of the book I was most eager to read—and the one that disappointed me most.

On the second, Brown, who received his PhD in physics at the age of 21, rejected calls for a cheap, low-tech military (advocated, most notably, by James Fallows in his book National Defense) and instead plunged into the digital revolution then emerging in Silicon Valley. It is no accident, by the way, that both Brown and his brilliant acquisition chief, William Perry (who would become the Secretary of Defense in 1994), came to Washington from jobs in California. The computer revolution they emphasized changed everything from how targets would be hit (with precision weapons) to how U.S. aircraft would avoid being hit (stealth technology meant making some U.S. jets almost invisible to radar). Unfortunately, Keefer seems flummoxed in his attempts to describe that revolution.

Despite my disappointments, this is an important book. I enjoyed reading it, especially because the Brown years at the Pentagon have been neglected by most historians. I am not aware, for example, of a good biography of Brown. To that end, this book makes a needed, if uneven, contribution to our understanding of U.S. military history.

Mr. Ricks  covered the armed forces for two decades as a reporter. He is the author of five books about the U.S. military, as well as, most recently, Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom (Penguin Press, 2017).

Their Backs Against the Sea

Bill Sloan. Boston, MA: DaCapo Press, 2017. 278 pp. Sources. Index. Photos. Maps. $27.

Reviewed by Colonel James McDonough, U.S. Army (Retired)

Bill Sloan, a military historian who has written several books on World War II, offers his final one (he tells us), focusing this time on the battles for Saipan and Tinian in the summer of 1944. The taking of these twin islands (only three miles of sea separated them) in the Marianas marked the penetration of Japan’s inner defense lines by putting its home islands within range of the newly developed B-29, forced a change in Japan’s government, and set it up for its final defeat. It was a strategic turning point in the war in the Pacific. It also was a bloodbath of the first order.

Sloan dedicates his book to the valor and sacrifice of the Americans who fought and died there. Indeed, one of his stated goals was to capture the stories of the dwindling number of survivors before they passed from this earth. Though he focuses on close infantry fighting on the islands themselves, he does not neglect individual tales of valor in the air and at sea. Indeed, so intent on capturing their stories, he often sacrifices the pacing of the narrative and sequencing of the battle in the telling. Although he intersperses chapters on broader issues—submarine disruptions of Japanese attempts to reinforce their garrisons, the Marianas “Turkey Shoot” in the Battle of the Philippine Sea that slaughtered significant numbers of Japan’s experienced pilots and with them Japan’s air power, the interservice brouhaha of Marine Lieutenant General Holland Smith’s relief of Army Major General Ralph Smith, and the fire-bombings and eventual use of the atomic bomb on Japan—Sloan centers his book on individual stories of heroism amid horror.

The author leaves no doubt there was much of both. From the initial landings on Saipan by the 2nd and 4th Marine divisions, through the fighting of the Army’s 27th Division up the central valley of Saipan, to the final suicidal banzai attack of the surviving Japanese attempting to trade lives at a 7 to 1 ratio (an attempt that failed), the book drives home the terrible casualty rates of units in direct contact with the enemy. In fighting that annihilated most of the 30,000 Japanese defenders, caused thousands of Saipan’s civilian population—egged on by Japanese propaganda—to commit suicide, and killed more than 3,000 Americans and wounded more than 13,000, it was six weeks of pure hell. The subsequent invasion of nearby Tinian was less of a grind, but it cost another 1,800 U.S. casualties to virtually take out its Japanese garrison of 9,000.

While a great tribute to U.S. combat veterans, this is not a book that sets the fight for Saipan and Tinian in clear strategic, operational, or even tactical context. Too often it departs from the battle narrative to tell the reader about individual sagas. The storyline becomes mixed in a multitude of digressions. The where and why of the maneuvering on Saipan is obscure and nonexistent on Tinian. The larger context asides are just that—too broad to give someone with no other background on the Pacific war an understanding of the big picture. And the book itself could use more editing: Marines move against the town of Garapan on the east coast (it is on the west coast); Lieutenant Mulhern becomes Lieutenant Mulhorn on the same page (it is Mulhern); the story of Medal of Honor recipient Harold Hagerholm is told twice; and a photo of General Curtis LeMay has a caption identifying him as “the father of the atomic bomb.”

But if you wish to learn how tough the fighting was for American servicemen, and how great a sacrifice they were prepared to—and often did—make, and gain insight as to the savagery of war, the book does that and more.

Colonel McDonough is the author of Platoon Leader: A Memoir of Command in Combat (Presidio Press, 2003), The Defense of Hill 781: An Allegory of Modern Mechanized Combat (Presidio Press, 1993), and The Limits of Glory: A Novel of Waterloo (Presidio Press, 1991).


The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost 

Cathal J. Nolan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 402 pp. Notes. Index. $30.  

Reviewed by Major Barret F. Bradstreet, U.S. Marine Corps

Cathal Nolan’s ambitious historical work provides a modest recommendation to students and practitioners of war: do not expect too much return from decisive battles or brilliant captains. Like the investment advisor who counsels diversification or the nutritionist who recommends a balanced diet, this author works to debunk tempting falsehoods on the conduct of warfare. His counsel is sober and makes few novel claims on any specific campaign, battle, or leader. Nonetheless, he is audacious in gathering so wide a collection of historical material and then assembling it to make a loud call against any short war delusion.

The argument in The Allure of Battle is that decisive battles are rare in fact but prominent in the imagination of leaders. To understand the outcome of wars—especially those major wars between great powers—the capacity to endure matters more than operational art. When one big power confronts another, expect a long and painful war of attrition. Even though this record is plain to see, histories are full of examples—because historians seem eager to record the examples, says Nolan—of brilliant stratagems by clever leaders. He traces an arc from antiquity to 1945. In chapters that might form an excellent framework for an undergraduate course in the conduct of warfare in Europe, the author spots a recurring sort of magical thinking adopted by revisionist powers: an expectation that decisive battlefield victories will produce durable political results.

Those chapters are sturdy stones in a formidable wall. Nolan is a good craftsman with the historical record. His craftsmanship leads him to fault other historians for hero worship. He builds from Marathon and Canae (neither of them decisive) to Austerlitz and Sedan (not decisive and then maybe decisive once but not twice) to make the case. One problem with this project is the question of how far to generalize the results. What else might we build with other stones? Although Nolan covers a wide span of time, his selections step outside western Europe only by exception. He makes only meager gestures to the world after 1945, and that leaves a reader wondering whether an atomic exchange would be decisive. In all, that reader might ask whether a narrower historical focus might have produced a more powerful case.

For readers of Proceedings in particular, The Allure of Battle might be most useful as a critique of current U.S. Marine Corps doctrine as expressed in MCDP-1 Warfighting. That document fits squarely into the intellectual tradition that Nolan traces, from Frederick II, to Napoleon, through Clausewitz, to Moltke. Nolan sees that tradition as flawed and pernicious. Marines mine that very same tradition to instruct aspiring Marines leaders to seek battle and exploit opportunities to impose terms on an adversary. Marines still believe that battles won can translate into durable strategic results. It would be useful to have new Marine officers in Quantico confront Nolan before they go on to face other challenges.

Major Bradstreet is serving as an exchange officer at the École Militaire in Paris, France.



By Captain Bill Bray, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Striking Power: How Cyber, Robots, and Space Weapons Change the Rules for War

Jeremy Rabkin and John Yoo. New York: Encounter Books, 2017. 236 pp. $25.99.

In Striking Power , Jeremy Rabkin and John Yoo put forth this tendentious proposition: 21st-century military technology should make democratic governments no longer consider war the last resort, for it offers low-cost solutions to everything from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction proliferation to humanitarian catastrophes like genocide. William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous observation that “war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it . . . the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over,” has gone from axiomatic to anachronistic, all in the space of a few decades. Surgical, robotic warfare is at hand and often is a more humane foreign policy tool than economic sanctions. Moreover, the highly evolved law of war is inhibiting the bountiful promise of high-tech warfare. This book is a thought-provoking contribution to an important debate. In reading it, however, one should be attentive to whether the authors occasionally confuse the means of war with its ends. For it is far less clear that technology has made achieving the latter easier or less costly in terms of time and treasure.


Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude

By Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. 188 pp. Index. $27.

Who knew that embracing solitude for quiet, disciplined thought each day not only cultivates the mind, but is essential for a leader’s character development? Well, for one Aristotle, who believed a life well lived requires a healthy balance between virtuous action and theoretical contemplation. For Aristotle, humans by nature strive to think rationally, thus contemplation, or the “activity of intelligence,” is an end in itself because it makes us sublimely happy. Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin are, knowingly or not, borrowing from this philosophical tradition. Leaders in today’s hyperconnected and ever-distracting daily milieu need to unplug regularly to think clearly, for this will help them be more creative, courageous, empathetic, and so forth. That this might be news to many is disappointing. But if Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics isn’t your cup of tea, Lead Yourself First, with many excellent examples of how great historical figures owe a debt to solitude, certainly will do.


Clash of Fleets: Naval Battles of the Great War, 1914-1918

Vincent P. O’Hara and Leonard R. Heinz. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017. 313 pp. Append. Biblio. Index. Illus. $34.95.

As the authors note in the opening lines of the introduction, aside from a few memorable battles in the North Sea and Germany’s strategic decision to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare, naval warfare as an important, if not critical, factor in the outcome of World War I has rarely received the comprehensive historical attention it deserves. With this excellent volume, containing an almost perfect blend of detail and context, Vincent O’Hara and Leonard Heinz take an important step in rectifying this unfortunate fact. They deliver a carefully constructed chronological examination of all 144 naval engagements, which include not just those in European waters, but ones as far off as the Far East and the Caribbean as well. Each engagement is subjected to diligent research and analysis, making the book a superb reference. The final chapter compares in several important ways World War I naval action to that of World War II. How much of World War I was fought at sea will surprise most readers.


Warrior Pups: True Stories of America’s K9 Heroes

Jeff Kamen with Leslie Stone-Kamen. Guilford, CT: Global Pequot, 2017. 167 pp. Illus. $19.95.

This slim, informative, and entertaining book provides a well-illustrated look inside the military working dog program run from Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. In 28 short chapters, we meet puppies born into the program and full-grown graduates serving U.S. troops and sailors overseas in a variety of ways, including extremely dangerous assignments in war zones helping detect improvised explosive devices. We also meet the trainers and dog handlers, including some who made the ultimate sacrifice, like Sergeant Zainah Caye Creamer, the first female working dog handler killed in action during the war on terror. Many dogs end up serving outside the Defense Department. For example, Noel had a serious allergic reaction to a spider bite and for more than a year was too sick to be trained. She was ultimately adopted by the San Marcos, Texas, police department, where she serves today. The book has many interesting and heart-warming stories such as this, and it’s not just for dog lovers.

Captain Bray  served as a naval intelligence officer for 28 years before retiring in 2016. Currently, he is a managing director in the Geopolitical Risk practice at Ankura.


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