By Hampton Sides, New York: Doubleday, 2018. 394 pp. Notes. Biblio. Index. $30.
Reviewed by Commander Ward Carroll, U.S. Navy (Retired)
General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman met face-to-face only once, on 15 October 1950 on Wake Island. During their brief time together, Truman asked the supreme commander whether he was concerned that China would enter the nascent Korean War to counter the rush of U.S. forces toward the Yalu River. MacArthur, flush with confidence after a successful landing at Inchon and underwhelmed by the capabilities of the Chinese Army, told the President he was “no longer fearful of [Chinese] intervention” and that he was confident he would rout the North Korean Army by Thanksgiving. Before boarding his DC-6 to begin the long flight back to Washington, Truman awarded MacArthur a fourth oak-leaf cluster for his Distinguished Service Medal and lauded the general for his “indomitable will and his unshakable faith.”
And then 300,000 Chinese Army troops crossed into North Korea. This immediately put the 20,000 Marines and soldiers in-country “on desperate ground,” as the book’s title states, a reference to a Sun Tzu tenet that there are nine types of “ground” in war, the ninth being the most desperate, a situation that demands savage fighting to avoid annihilation. The 1st Marine Division went from charging across North Korea to retreating—or, as the man in charge of the campaign, Marine Corps General Oliver Smith, put it, “advancing in the opposite direction.”
But the Chinese deftly set their trap, and getting out wasn’t going to be easy. The fight set up around the Chosin Reservoir, a man-made body of water that already had frozen solid in the bitter cold of late fall. The reservoir was bordered by a bumpy dirt road and surrounded by mountains. U.S. units quickly found themselves cut off by superior Chinese numbers and running low on food, water, and ammo. Their parkas were no match for temperatures that approached 25 below zero on the windy ridgelines at night. The wounded died of hypothermia as soon as blood loss.
Smith’s ability to deal decisively with the tactical problem was complicated by his immediate superior, U.S. Army General Ned Almond, a MacArthur wannabe who insisted that his intelligence sources indicated Smith was overblowing the threat. It wasn’t until the casualty reports began pouring in that Almond allowed that maybe they should think about getting out of there.
In Sides’ narrative, heroism abounds as the Americans fight their way back to Hamhung and the Sea of Japan. Lieutenant Colonel Ray Davis, a veteran of several bloody campaigns in the Pacific theater during World War II, leads a daring mission across the mountains to rescue a pinned-down Fox Company, ably assisted by platoon leader First Lieutenant Kurt Chew-Een Lee, who trailblazes his way overland through hostile territory while wearing orange panels so his men know where he is at all times. Lieutenant Thomas Hudner, a carrier-based Corsair pilot, intentionally crashes his fighter into a snowy plateau to attend to his downed and wounded wingman, Ensign Jesse Brown, the first African American naval aviator, an action for which Hudner is later awarded the Medal of Honor. Countless C-47 pilots brave the harrowing approach into a rudimentary runway barely carved into the ice and rock at the southern end of the Chosin Reservoir in an effort to resupply the troops with the basics they need to attempt to make their way out. Combat engineer Lieutenant Colonel John Partridge figures out how to rebuild the destroyed Koto-ri bridge along the only way out using sections airdropped from transport planes and, in an example of how grisly the conditions became, the dead bodies of Chinese soldiers.
Hampton Sides is among the best historians writing today in terms of accuracy, pacing, and detail, and On Desperate Ground is a worthy telling of a crucial battle in the Forgotten War.
Commander Carroll is the Naval Institutes’s director of outreach and a retired naval aviator (F-14 RIO). He was the Naval Institute Press Author of the Year in 2001 for his debut novel, Punk’s War.
Nathaniel Philbrick. New York: Viking, 2018. 366 pp. Notes. Biblio. Index. Illus. $30.
Reviewed by Admiral James Stavridis, U.S. Navy (Retired)
When you walk through the gates at Annapolis, the first truly nautical course you take is called “Sea Power.” It is a survey course in global naval history, and over the course of plebe year, a midshipman will encounter dozens of battles that changed history, beginning with the epic Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. Lepanto, Trafalgar, Jutland, Midway, and many other conflicts at sea demonstrate again and again the importance of ocean battles in shaping history. All are important; but it is hard to pick a sea battle with bigger impact than Yorktown, where the United States—at that point in the Revolutionary War flailing badly—won its independence. In the Hurricane’s Eye takes readers both ashore and to sea in the hands of Nat Philbrick, an experienced oceangoing sailor/author, and tells the story in bold, readable prose.
As he has in several of his best-selling and prize-winning earlier books (notably, In the Heart of the Sea, a National Book Award winner about the whale attack that inspired Moby Dick), Philbrick writes with verve and occasional flash. His portrait of George Washington, who grew up around small boats and in a strange, parallel universe could have become a British admiral, is particularly vivid. He quickly sails the reader through the first several years of the war, and correctly lays out the stalemate. With dwindling support both domestically and overseas, Washington knew he needed to shift his strategy and correctly assessed that he had to have help on the oceans to defeat the Royal Navy or slowly be choked into submission. He was down to a few thousand volunteers, and the end of the revolution was in sight. He turned his eyes to the sea.
The French—the first formal U.S. allies—stepped into the breach, and the snapshots Philbrick provides of the key French leaders are sharp and logically presented. Each of the French leaders—Lafayette, De Grasse, Bougainville, Rochambeau—understood the global stakes at play. By helping wrench the continent-sized nascent United States away from Britain, France would significantly enhance its global position. So the race was on to beat the British at sea off the Virginia coast and allow the hapless British general Cornwallis to be surrounded and forced to plead for surrender.
Philbrick’s best passages describe the Battle of the Chesapeake (sometimes referred to as the Battle of the Virginia Capes or the Battle of Yorktown) on 5 September 1781. The French defeated the British, and the jaws of the trap clamped shut on Cornwallis. An accomplished lifelong sailor himself, Philbrick’s writing here sails particularly close to the wind, snapping like a tight sail in a gale. His description of the French ships forming a “ligne de vitesse,” literally a line of speed, to engage the British is superb.
But it is the big three strategic lessons of the book that are very applicable today. First, that having allies is the best insurance policy a nation can underwrite. Even today, as the United States remains the dominant superpower globally with the most capable Navy, it should continue to rely on allies such as France, the United Kingdom, the rest of our NATO partners, Japan, Australia, and many others. Second, the United States tends to underestimate the importance of the oceans in its national strategy, a tendency that sometimes is called, appropriately, “sea blindness.” Washington’s genius was his ability to overcome his own sea blindness at a crucial moment. As a nation, the United States must continue to see the importance of the oceans in every dimension—from trade to the environment to strategic deterrence. And finally, this country seemingly must relearn the most basic of lessons: that leadership matters, all the more so when the stakes are high and the odds are long. The United States has been lucky over the centuries to produce a handful of other leaders such as Washington; and it will continue to need men and women of courage, honor, commitment, and creativity to win the nation’s battles.
Indeed, in today’s turbulent world, it can sometimes feel as though the nation sits in the center of a vast hurricane. And like a true hurricane’s eye at sea, there is not a path out of the storm except through very turbulent waters. Having allies, knowing the vitality and importance of the sea, and empowering the best and truest leaders among us will help our nation’s voyage out of the stormy present. There is much wisdom in Nat Philbrick’s tale, and it deserves a place on the shelf of any serious mariner, historian, or strategist.
Admiral Stavridis is dean at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he earned his PhD. A former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, he is author of The Leader’s Bookshelf (Naval Institute Press, 2017) and Sea Power (Penguin Press, 2017).
The Gathering Pacific Storm: Emerging U.S.-China Strategic Competition in Defense Technological and Industrial Development
Tai Ming Cheung and Thomas G. Mahnken, eds. New York: Cambria Press, 2018. 290 pp. $109.99.
Reviewed by Captain Dale C. Rielage, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Tai Ming Cheung and Tom Mahnken have assembled a series of essays on what they characterize as an emerging strategic competition in defense technology between the United States and China. As is clear from their title, they are not sanguine about the strategic situation, both in the Pacific and beyond. As China grows increasingly adept at its own high-technology development, does the military landscape change—and are those changes decisive for strategy?
Mahnken, whose résumé includes groundbreaking works on the role of technology in military competition and in U.S. defense strategy, opens the volume with a framework for thinking about long-term strategic competition between major powers. The “fog of peace,” he argues, inherently creates uncertainty about the effects of military innovations, both technological and doctrinal. Absent combat experience, every military is placing bets against an unknown future from limited resources. Competitive strategies, in Mahnken’s view, seek to leverage these uncertainties to influence how a competitor bets.
Cheung, likely the foremost scholar on People’s Republic of China (PRC) defense innovation today, follows by explaining how the PRC defense industry has moved from a “predominately absorptive developmental model” to producing true innovation. Succeeding authors then consider defense competition across the various warfighting domains. Kevin Pollpeter does excellent work organizing the often fragmented realms of space, cyber, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance under the construct of “Reconnaissance-Strike Competition,” a moniker that echoes the Soviet “Reconnaissance-Strike Complex” of the Cold War era.
Considering naval competition, Bryan Clark and Jordan Wilson thoughtfully try to describe the medium- and long-term advantages each side brings to the table. While a useful effort, their assessment that the United States enjoys an enduring geographic advantage against PRC sea power does not allow enough imagination for how overseas basing and overland access could mitigate or even shift that dynamic. In considering emerging technologies, Daniel Alderman and Jonathan Ray take artificial intelligence (AI) as a case study to compare how the Chinese and U.S. systems engage both with new technologies and with each other. While insightful, neither this essay nor the balance of the book fully considers the larger issue of technological surprise —the rare but critical black swan that changes the strategic landscape.
Distinctive to this volume are two essays by Russian and Chinese defense academics, each offering a view of U.S. defense innovation efforts as seen from their respective nations. Retired PLA Senior Colonel and Academy of Military Science Researcher Fan Gaoyue focuses on the differences between the Cold War defense competition between the United States and Soviet Union and the strategic environment today. China, he asserts, recognizes the danger of “a defense technological competition trap” and “will adopt asymmetric methods” to avoid the Soviet Union’s failures. His Russian counterpart notes that Chinese and Russian defense industries “have already reached a significant level of interoperability and have pools of trained professionals with deep knowledge of the other side’s strengths, weakness, and capabilities.” These ties lay effective groundwork, he suggests, for growing defense industrial cooperation between the two nations.
By design, The Gathering Pacific Storm addresses only the defense technology and industrial elements of the strategic dynamic between the United States and China. While that limitation keeps the volume manageable, the editors conclude with the assertion that “the U.S. should seek . . . asymmetric advantages in geography, alliances, technology, and doctrine,” only obliquely noting that the book addresses just one of these four areas. Further, because of the heavy influence of Cold War strategic competition on the contributors, the work sometimes obscures the reality that “defense technology” is in many cases now simply “technology.” How to think about technological advantage when groundbreaking technology is driven by commercial needs may require a different and thoughtful reconsideration of these historical examples.
That said, The Gathering Pacific Storm is an ambitious effort to address a complex, controversial, and challenging issue. While advanced readers likely will want to consult Mahnken’s Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century (Stanford Securities Studies, 2012) and Tai Ming Cheung’s Forging China’s Military Might (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) for a longer treatment of the underlying research, these essays will be a useful introduction for Naval War College students and readers who want a brief case study in applied strategic thinking.
Captain Rielage is a senior civilian with the Naval Intelligence Activity, assigned as the U.S. Pacific Fleet Director for Intelligence and Information Operations. He retired from the Navy in 2018. He is a frequent contributor to Proceedings and the winner of the U.S. Naval Institute’s 2018 General Prize Essay Contest.
David Horner, et al.; foreword by Max Hastings. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2018. Biblio. $35.
The collective product of a team of distinguished historians and military professionals from the United States, Great Britain, and Australia, Osprey’s The Second World War is an attractive, readable, and humbling survey of the world’s greatest conflict. An effective top-level narrative of the lead-up to, conduct of, and conclusion to the war complements the myriad vibrant pictures.
Particularly striking throughout the book are the pictures that capture the faces of the surprisingly young-looking men directly involved in combat. Other strong points of the book are the pictures and tales of the impact of the conflict on civilians—from Russian noncombatants digging antitank trenches along the Eastern Front to the complete devastation of Hiroshima. I highly recommend this book as a primer on World War II and its lasting effects on world history.
Charles Cleveland, Benjamin Jensen, Susan Bryant, and Arnel David. New York: Cambria Press, 2018. 260 pp. Refs. Index. $109.
Retired Army Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command from 2012 to 2015, and his team of national security professionals have produced an excellent treatise on the strategic mismatch of ends, ways, and means inherent in the current organizational structure and operational practices of the U.S. national security apparatus. Military Strategy in the 21st Century: People, Connectivity, and Competition makes a compelling argument that modern warfare, is fundamentally concerned with the broad and rapidly expanding network of personal interactions between individuals and local groups rather than great power contests using advanced weapon or sensor systems of varying capabilities.
While the Pentagon remains fixated on procuring advanced weapon systems in preparation for the high-end fight that may or may not materialize, Cleveland argues, the U.S. military remains structurally stagnant, which forces commanders to adapt conventional organizations and capabilities in an ad hoc fashion to meet the realities of current day irregular warfare. The book makes an effective case for systemic change to our nation’s defense framework.
New & Noteworthy
By Lieutenant Brendan Cordial, U.S. Navy
A. Denis Clift. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018. 336 pp. $27.95.
A. Denis Clift’s page-turning thriller is a pleasure to read. Informed by the author’s considerable expertise in national security affairs (Clift having previously served as a senior staffer on the National Security Council, as National Security Advisor to the Vice President, and as chief of staff of the Defense Intelligence Agency), The Bronze Frog is not a layman’s take on the world of national security.
The protagonist, former Navy SEAL Commander Linc Walker, is seeking vengeance after a beloved teammate is wantonly sacrificed on an ill-fated secret mission. Treachery is afoot up to the highest rungs of the U.S. national security ladder, and Linc will use his considerable “skills” to help put things right. Linc is a likeable and virtuous character who is complemented well by a diverse supporting cast. The Bronze Frog is a very satisfying way to relax with an engaging book.
Spy Pilot: Francis Gary Powers, The U-2 Incident, and a Controversial Cold War Legacy
Francis Gary Powers, Jr. and Keith Dunnavant. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2019. 312 pp. Notes. Index. $25.
An incredible tale written by the son of the late U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, Spy Pilot seeks to set the record straight regarding an integral event in declining U.S.-Soviet relations that helped propel the Cold War. Powers’ stealth CIA U-2 aircraft was shot down in 1960 while performing photographic reconnaissance over Soviet airspace only a few weeks before a much-heralded East-West summit between the great powers.
The greatest strength of the book is the visceral humanity of Powers’ decisions during his fateful flight and the author’s sincere defense of his father’s actions and legacy. Recommended for readers seeking to delve deeply into the clandestine world of Cold War intelligence.
Lieutenant Cordial is attending Surface Warfare Officers School and is slated to serve his first department head tour on board an Arleigh Burke–class destroyer.