Joseph Arthur Simon. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2019. 368 pp. Maps. Photos. Notes. Biblio. Index. $44.95.
Reviewed by Mark Folse
Joseph Simon’s The Greatest of All Leathernecks is a biography of one of the U.S. Marine Corps’ most significant leaders. Based on extensive archival research, Simon’s book joins Merrill L. Bartlett’s 1991 account as one of the only monographs based on John A. Lejeune’s professional life. Simon argues that Lejeune provided the strongest force behind the modernization of the Marine Corps by shifting the Marines from their traditional roles as ships guards and colonial infantry toward the amphibious assault mission.
Simon reveals how young Lejeune’s fascination with Civil War heroes helped guide him toward a military education. He excelled at the U.S. Naval Academy, finishing sixth in the Class of 1888. Lejeune chose the Marine Corps over the Navy, not solely because a typhoon nearly killed him while on his two-year cruise in 1889. Lejeune believed his future lay in leading men, not handling machinery.
Lejeune’s early years in the Marine Corps coincided with major shifts in U.S. strategic and naval thinking. Simon shows the significant implications changing U.S. views on overseas empire and technological advances in the Navy had for the Marines. They clung to their old missions as ships’ guards and small landing parties at a time when naval progressives increasingly considered Marines outdated and useless. The Spanish-American war, Simon argues, helped Lejeune realize that amphibious landings with the Navy were the Corps’ path toward renewed relevance and purpose.
The years between 1900 and 1920 were crucial for Lejeune’s career. He led a Marine battalion in Panama in 1903 and served on Commandant George Elliot’s staff in 1905. His time at the Army War College (1909–10) provided Lejeune valuable education in military strategy. It also earned him the respect of many Army officers, which Simon asserts was instrumental in Lejeune getting command of the Army’s Second Division in France. Simon argues that the Marine Corps’ experience in the Great War “served as a major catalyst in moving the corps from its old mission to its new.”
Simon contends that Lejeune’s commandancy laid the foundations for the Marine Corps’ later adoption of the amphibious assault mission. He kept the Corps manned enough for its missions in Hispaniola and the Marine expeditionary forces trained and equipped to carry out War Plan Orange if needed. He created the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, which offered company and field grade officer courses. He sent Earl “Pete” Ellis to the Pacific to gather intelligence for future advanced base operations. He engaged Marines in amphibious exercises with the Navy at Culebra in 1924 and Hawaii in 1925. The purpose of all of this, according to Simon, is clear: To “develop and demonstrate the new mission and new doctrine.”
Simon has crafted a persuasive history of Lejeune and his impact on the Marine Corps, but several problems exist. By asserting that “to Lejeune’s credit . . . race relations never became an issue in the Marine Corps during his service,” Simon misleads readers away from the Corps’ white-men-only policy at the time, which may have precluded racial tensions within the ranks. He also glosses over Marines’ racist attitudes toward Haitians and Dominicans, which reflected deep institutional problems that existed under Lejeune. In addition, Simon does not define “modern” adequately and assumes that Lejeune’s broadly configured “mobile force on shore in support of the Fleet” equates to the more specific “amphibious assault,” which is not necessarily true. As a result, Simon appears to project post–World War II understandings of amphibious landings backward in time, often haphazardly.
Focusing only on Lejeune’s professional life attenuates the book’s value the most. Simon barely mentions the role Lejeune’s wife, daughters, and other personal relationships played in his career. Exploring that would have made a great comprehensive biography of a fascinating man. What readers get instead is another “Making of the Modern Marine Corps” story about how Marines prepared for World War II.
Dr. Folse is the current Class of ’57 Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the U.S. Naval Academy’s History Department, where he researches and teaches Marine Corps history.
Kenneth M. Pollack. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2019. 676 pp. Notes.
Biblio. Index. $34.95.
Reviewed by Captain Walker D. Mills, U.S. Marine Corps
“What’s wrong with the Arab armies?” This is the blunt question that begins Kenneth Pollack’s new book, Armies of Sand, and the one that he has been trying to answer for much of his career. The book is voluminous at more than 600 pages, and reveals both Pollack’s strong academic background in the Middle East and its dissertation ancestry. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has made his career studying the Middle East working at the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council. Armies of Sand is not his first book, and, in fact, it borrows heavily from his 2002 book, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948–1991 (University of Nebraska Press). Arabs at War is the investigation and research while Armies of Sand is the indictment of Arab performance with a temporal extension into the 21st century to account for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State.
Pollack focuses on four major factors—the use of Soviet doctrine, politicization of the military, underdevelopment, and culture. But ultimately, he lays the bulk of the blame for Arab ineffectiveness in conventional combat on Arab culture—a proposition that is uncomfortable but less so after readers understand Pollack’s reasoning. He spends almost twice as many pages explaining the cultural roots of the deficiencies he has found in Arab militaries as on any other subject. It is clear that Pollack himself is somewhat uncomfortable with his conclusions, not because his scholarship is weak but because it seems ignorant to argue that cultural forces can cripple an entire region’s militaries.
Pollack argues his points with the precision of a surgeon and places them in a broader context that leaves readers with an enhanced understanding of the Arab world beyond the military. Understandably wary of trying to define what Arab culture is and is not as an outsider and amateur anthropologist, Pollack uses Arab thinkers and academics to describe and dissect Arab culture. The book looks deeply at the way social groups are structured in traditional Arab societies and how that affects military organizational structures. He also debunks arguments about cultural cowardice or poor generalship. Instead, he focuses on specific cultural characteristics, such as how different understandings of shame and honor affects command relationships and how biases against skilled labor create a deficiency of highly trained mechanics and technicians. He looks at how strong, patriarch-centered family structures degrade initiative and mission command.
Some of the most interesting and valuable arguments Pollack makes are about the role Arab culture has played in stifling the initiative of subordinates in combat and creating a rigid hierarchy. Pollack quotes a study that found 90 percent of Arab bureaucrats interviewed thought “their subordinates were simply unqualified to innovate.” Reports from the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development overwhelmingly support this argument, placing Arab nations in the bottom tier of nations globally for worker productivity, effective management, and organizational flexibility. If nothing else, this section is a resounding call for decentralized management in military and nonmilitary organizations.
Even in a work of this length, Pollack is forced to choose certain examples and ignore others. While the work is about Arab militaries since 1948, the book excludes interesting case studies such as the Algerian War for Independence (1954–62). But Pollack also does not ignore the few, scarce examples of well performing Arab militaries—the Jordanian military in 1948 as well as Hezbollah and the Islamic State in the 21st century. The arguments are strong enough that these outliers are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Overall, Pollack provides a convincing and thorough argument for why Arab militaries historically have underperformed. While the book is a must read for any serious scholar of the 20th-century Middle East, it also would be invaluable for anyone working alongside, or against, militaries in the Arab world. Complicated and easily botched subjects are dealt with deftly and clearly in a way that will leave even a more casual reader with a much deeper understanding of the history and military culture of the Arab world.
Captain Mills is a Marine Corps infantry officer currently serving as an exchange officer in Colombia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history and is working toward a master’s in international relations and modern war.
Jim Sciutto. New York: Harpers-Collins Publishing, 2019. 308 pp. Notes. Index. $28.
Reviewed by Dustin League
Author Jim Sciutto attempts to frame more than a decade’s worth of national security challenges within a unifying narrative: the United States is the target of both Russian and Chinese “shadow wars.” Sciutto’s use of shadow war over the less-dramatic “gray zone operations” or “hybrid warfare” reveals his goals. This is not a book that delves deeply into any of the incidents it covers, and it does not spend time wrangling with the definition of terms, but instead seeks to place myriad challenges into a single context. It is intended to serve as a wake-up call to the general U.S. population, not as a campaign history. For the most part, Sciutto’s narrative is compelling, though he leaves a few implications unsupported.
The author’s background as a journalist is front and center throughout the book, often to its benefit. Each chapter is centered on a specific operation in China’s or Russia’s anti-West campaign—South China Sea island building, cyber espionage against the U.S. defense industry, “little green men” occupying eastern Ukraine—and Sciutto excels at finding the right interview subjects to flesh out these events. Whether an Estonian journalist whose newspaper was targeted by Russian hackers in 2007 or the leader of the first international monitors to investigate the crash site of MH17, the author uses eyewitnesses to great effect. Without overshooting into sensationalism, he highlights the damaging effects of these attacks as well as the confusion on the ground over their source and meaning. That confusion, elevated up to U.S. policy makers, is one of the core themes Sciutto explores.
The U.S. failure to recognize and respond to Chinese and Russian aggression is a major throughline of the book. Sciutto touches on cognitive challenges such as “mirror imaging” that have plagued the intelligence and defense communities for decades. U.S. administrations too often have assumed that China and Russia, like the United States, are interested in being responsible partners in the global economy and rules-based order. China and Russia have used this delusion against the United States, calibrating their aggressions so as not to fatally wound U.S. hopes for rapprochement and cooperation. The Shadow War is at its best showcasing U.S. failures to punish aggression or impose a cost for these operations, but there are instances in which Sciutto overreaches.
Each of the cases Sciutto explores is described as an act of war by one of these two adversaries. Sometimes this overstates the case at the expense of muddying just what is meant by “shadow war.” These less successful chapters focus on battlefields to which China and Russia may extend their respective campaigns but where they have not yet conducted aggressive acts. Developing new capabilities, even demonstrating them, as Russia and China have done in space, is not the same as using those capabilities for aggression.
Jim Sciutto has created an excellent overview of Chinese and Russian aggression against the West. Each chapter covers, in a few dozen pages, topics worthy of entire books themselves. In some instances those books already exist—Peter Sanger’s The Perfect Weapon (Crown, 2018) on cyberwar or James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara’s Red Star over the Pacific (Naval Institute Press, 2018) on Chinese naval ambitions—but the value in The Shadow War is in combining and contextualizing these challenges. Hopefully this book is not needed as a wake-up call for U.S. leaders, but what it should provide is just such a wake-up to the general population.
Mr. League is a military operations analyst and former U.S. Navy submarine officer. He studies submarine warfare issues for the U.S. and Australian navies.
Ladson F. Mills III. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. 180 pp. Appx. Notes. Biblio. $35.
Reviewed by Harry M. Covert
Captain Ernie Blanchard enjoyed a distinguished career in the U.S. Coast Guard. However, his 30 years of service was destroyed in what is described by some as “death by political correctness.”
How and why a military man could succumb to such tribulation is the detailed subject of a book that brings to light a sad chapter of the Coast Guard.
The story is unveiled in Abandoned Shipmate, subtitled The Destruction of Coast Guard Captain Ernie Blanchard. Author Ladson F. Mills III has written an incredibly researched 188 pages that seafaring professionals of all services will find a must read. Mills is a retired Navy Reserve captain who served four years assigned to the Coast Guard. His credentials are impeccable as author, columnist, and theologian.
Captain Blanchard was a U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduate, later a faculty and staff member, and commanding officer of the USCGC Sweetbrier (WLB-405).
Blanchard was “a gifted and much sought-after speaker,” Mills writes. The captain was well known as the public face of the Coast Guard, “the official spokesman.” He was invited to the Coast Guard Academy to speak to a cadet company experiencing lots of turmoil. Considering himself a humorous speaker, he began his speech with a few “corny jokes.” The “time-tested laughs” did not work. Ernie Blanchard’s remarks were not well received during the 10 January 1995 event. He was criticized for inappropriateness and sexual harassment humor, even as being racially insensitive. Taken aback by the criticism, he apologized to all in attendance. Coast Guard leadership investigated the incident and continued with threatened court-martial proceedings.
Political correctness attitudes were on the move in military circles in the 1980s. Media attention was aroused by the Blanchard plight. Gender inclusion in the armed forces was a hot topic.
As Mills describes point by point, the unsavory sides were unleashed. It is not a pretty story. The bottom line is a career officer was destroyed. In the author’s words, “there are two Coast Guards. One is the public face, brave and reassuring. But the private Coast Guard can be an exacting and unyielding mistress.”
Ernest J. Blanchard IV died on 15 March 1995, from a self-inflicted gunshot at his Fairfax County, Virginia, home. The stress and strain from the pending court-martial led him to end his life. “He feared he would bring disgrace on his family, and to the Coast Guard he loved.”
As one journalist asked, did Captain Blanchard die of murder by political correctness or suicide? In either description, this book shows the way to right and wrong.
Mr. Covert is a nationally syndicated columnist and editor of The Covert Letter. He writes often on national maritime topics, especially the Navy, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, and yachting.
New & Noteworthy
Reviewed by Lieutenant Brendan Cordial, U.S. Navy
Magnus Nordenman. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019. 244 pp. Notes. Biblio. Index. $38.
A thoughtful and comprehensive work on the current state of affairs in the North Atlantic, Magnus Nordenman’s New Battle of the Atlantic is an excellent primer on the strategic importance of this vital bridge between the United States and Europe. In an era when much attention is focused on rising powers in Asia, Nordenman makes a convincing argument for the need to remain vigilant against a growing Russian threat in the Far North.
Beginning with a geographic and historical overview of the body of water and chokepoints of the North Atlantic, the author weaves together common themes of previous periods of conflict. While no war was won by controlling the North Atlantic, many decidedly could have been lost. An excellent and thought-provoking book on the ongoing need for strong alliances, a comprehensive and long-term antisubmarie warfare strategy, and a convincing public affairs strategy to ensure needed resources for a contest that must be won to ensure the maintenance of the standing world order.
Philip K. Allan. Tuscon, AZ: Penmore Press, 2018. 295 pp. $19.50.
The fifth book in a series detailing the fictional exploits of Napoleonic-era Royal Navy officer Alexander Clay, The Distant Ocean is a satisfactory addition to the genre best known by the novels of Patrick O’Brien and C. S. Forester.
A three-ship squadron is formed to deter a powerful French squadron harrying vital British trade in the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, bad blood exists among the Royal Navy ship captains and the main storyline revolves around the intrigue surrounding the commanders competing nearly as much against one another as with the French. In contrast to other more well-known writers of the era, Allan fully develops secondary storylines of supporting characters, particularly on the lower decks, with complete chapters devoted to the exploits of Clay’s coxswain and shipmates. This provides an engaging snapshot of life on the lowerdeck and relates an underrepresented aspect of life on board fighting ships of the era. Recommended to fans of the genre.
To My Dearest Wife, Lide: Letters from George B. Gideon Jr. during Commodore Perry’s Expedition to Japan, 1853-1855
M. Patrick Sauer and David A. Ranzan, eds. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2019. 255 pp. Notes. Biblio. Index. $49.95.
This compilation of letters from assistant engineer officer George Gideon on board the USS Powhatan to his wife in the United States provides a unique insight to life on board a ship of Commodore Perry’s famous squadron that “opened” Japan to the wider Western world. Missed in historical surveys of the great event focused on the principal actors, this recently discovered collection grants readers a view into the private thoughts, feelings, and desires of a junior officer desperately trying to remain emotionally connected to his bride over nearly two years and thousands of miles of separation.
A snapshot in time of a U.S. officer’s perspectives on a truly foreign culture and people, Gideon’s letters also serve an instructive role in understanding how mid-1800 Japanese mores and practices were viewed by many Americans. Particularly recommended for those on or preparing for service in Japan.
100 Turning Points in Military History: The Critical Decisions, Key Events, and Breakthrough Inventions and Discoveries that Shaped Warfare Around the World
Alan Axelrod. Lanham, MD: Lyons Press, 2019. 356 pp. Index. $26.96.
From the “birth” of organized warfare at the 1457 BC Battle of Megiddo to the genesis of cyber warfare in the early 2000s, author Alan Axelrod provides a comprehensive overview of the pivotal people, events, and inventions that demonstrably influenced military and world history. Organized in small chapters focused on one of 100 “turning points,” the book is a surprising page turner, as the chronology of warfare’s development serves as an enlightening, and in ways disheartening, tale of humanity’s capacity to harm one another in ever more efficient and effective ways. On display are the best and worst of our species—heroic tales of influential martial leaders such as St. Joan of Arc and the stomach-churning horrors of the My Lai Massacre.
An excellent gift for students of military and world history.
Lieutenant Cordial is a surface warfare officer serving in his first department head tour on board an Arleigh Burke–class destroyer.