Daniel Wasserbly. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020. 272 pp. Notes. Index. $28.99.
Reviewed By Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger, U.S. Navy
Hitting a bullet with another, smaller bullet is extraordinarily hard. It gets even harder when it involves missiles moving at hypersonic speeds trying to do the same in space, halfway around the world from the launch site. Yet that is the mission of the Missile Defense Agency, now at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Daniel Wasserbly weaves together the story of people, technology, and international politics in the quest for missile defense, a capability forged in a remote area of the Alaskan wilderness, and eventually into the U.S. Navy.
The 100th Missile Defense Brigade is little known in the Army, and less so in the broader defense establishment. The secretive unit recruits the best people it can to perform a mission it hopes will never come. Wasserbly gives voice to the people, the young officers and soldiers, and their arduous task to rebuild a facility at Fort Greely, Alaska. When they started, their families had to live more than 100 miles away in Fairbanks. There was no base housing. No commissary. No recreation. Not even a perimeter fence line. Moose encounters were frequent and dangerous. The contractors could work only a few months out of the year to dig the holes needed for the missile silos. Security patrols often operated outside their vehicles in temperatures reaching minus 60°F or colder. The soldiers often had to work around the clock to bring the post and its operational capabilities to life. Their life was hard, but with classic American grit, they endured and built such a tight-knit community that many requested orders back to Alaska, or requested to stay. They loved the mission and the camaraderie that came with it.
The soldiers suffered through numerous setbacks, technical failures, and flight-test intercept failures. They were the ones charged with defending the United States against a limited nuclear attack—such as an attack from North Korea. It took years for the defense contractors to solve the issues that seemed to plague the kill vehicles mounted atop the interceptor missiles. Many in the public criticized the Missile Defense Agency for the string of flight-test and intercept failures, but few will understand how hard it is to run a complex engineering program to solve an immensely difficult physics problem. The soldiers took the failures personally, even though there was nothing they could do.
Today, however, from their collective hard work, the Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Northern Command, and the 100th Missile Brigade stand ready to deploy a system that performs quite well for the challenging problem confronting it. That system today includes the Navy’s Aegis ballistic missile defense, a mission many sailors do not fully understand. Yet, Aegis fills a critical role in the system and brings greater flexibility and options for U.S. Northern Command to defend the United States. The 300 makes that mission more accessible and relatable for today’s sailors.
Wasserbly writes in a candid, easygoing style that allows the people, more than anything, to be heard. Their stories define the successes and failures of the missile defense program. Readers will feel the same emotions as those soldiers, understanding what it is like to be part of something bigger than themselves. Even though The 300 is simply the history of the program and the people in it, everyone will find something to take away from it, whether it is leadership lessons, the challenges of new and different operational environments, or building a program from scratch—and so much more.
Lieutenant Commander Hilger is an engineering duty officer stationed in Washington, D.C.
Stanton S. Coerr. Self-published, 2019. 386 pp. $17.75.
Reviewed By Chief Warrant Officer Charles “Sid” Heal, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)
War has always been a crude way of settling differences, but over the millennia about the only thing humans have improved on is the efficiency of how it is conducted. It is little wonder that most books about war are focused on how to do it better.
In an age of cruise missiles, target-acquisition radar, remote-controlled drones, and satellite imagery, it is easy to overlook the common thread that transcends the ages—the lifelong bonds that develop among those who fight together. This book relates a side of combat and perspective of war seldom shared beyond those who were present. The author describes the unspoken sense of duty and intensely personal feelings of men who have shed any façade or semblance of social decorum, revealing the essence of their souls. As such, Coerr makes no attempt to explain the unexplainable. He merely describes it.
The author is a Marine Corp Cobra pilot and air naval gunfire liaison (ANGLICO) forward observer who was recalled to active duty for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Written from his personal journal, the book describes the events on the “other side of the news.” Readers will have no trouble recognizing the historic events that chronicle all wars, but the backstory is what this book focuses on. With a poetic but often crass perspective, he delves into the mystery of the lasting bonds that develop between men who fight for something greater than survival; something they are hard put to define but that is accepted among them without explanation.
The book is written in the first person, and so the reader is allowed to experience firsthand the excitement, confusion, frustration, disgust, and fear that pervade all deadly conflicts. Because Marine Corps ANGLICO units fight with U.S. allies, the author’s observations of the identical emotions and behaviors of the Irish and Gurkha soldiers fighting alongside them are especially poignant. Full of tradition and humor, the assimilation of culture, customs, and language make them virtually indistinguishable from their American counterparts by the end of the tour.
Perhaps even more startling is that the greatest appreciation for this book undoubtedly will come from those left behind—the friends, parents, spouses, children, brothers, and sisters who are at a loss when comparing the soul who left for war with the one who returned. The reader quickly becomes immersed in the feelings of doubt, uncertainty, and malevolence that insidiously test the character and is required to struggle with the soldiers to emerge a better, wiser, and more honorable person. This struggle is as close to war as one can get without actually living through it and provides insight for beginning to understand troubled loved ones at a loss to comprehend, much less explain, what changed.
The text has no photographs to lessen the impact of the visual image created with prose and poetry. The imagination of the reader is left unfettered in trying to understand the unfathomable. Understandably, many will experience feelings of angst and fear as they wonder what they would do in such situations and how they might cope. More important, they will gain appreciation and insight into the minds and souls of their loved ones who left in response to duty and pursuit of something greater than life.
Chief Warrant Officer Heal retired from the Marine Corps Reserve after 35 years of service and four tours of combat, and as a commander from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in 2008 after nearly 33 years of service. He has been teaching at U.S. war colleges for more than 20 years.
John T. Kuehn and David W. Holden. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2020. 389 pp. Index. $97.
Reviewed By Captain Walker D. Mills, U.S. Marine Corps
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every great victory and decisive battle there is an equal and opposite defeat. These defeats are the focus of John T. Kuehn and David W. Holden’s new book, The 100 Worst Military Disasters in History. Kuehn and Holden have created an extensive survey of military defeats across the globe, choosing 100 to present to the reader. The authors are a pair of professors at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Kuehn is a retired Navy officer and Holden is a retired Army officer, and both hold PhDs.
The book is organized as advertised, with a short introduction and exactly 100 chapters on disasters that range from Megiddo to Tsushima. The authors make clear in the introduction they intend to include a broad range of disasters from cultures around the world and to include naval and air battles as well. However, they recognize that they are constrained by their Western and English language biases—which show in the text despite their desire to include a more diverse range of material. Some of their examples are not just battles, but whole campaigns, such as the Vicksburg campaign of the Civil War or German U-boat campaign of World War I, and a few are whole conflicts, such as the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War or the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
Each chapter contains background leading up to the disaster and putting it in context, a section on what actually happened, and a conclusion that ties the disaster to its impact and answers the question “Why was this important?” Kuehn and Holden emphasize this point and use a Clauswitzian justification. Every disaster has to have a clear political result or consequence tied to it. Each section also ends with recommended titles for “further reading.” This is particularly helpful in an age when nearly unlimited information is available on the internet, and it gives the reader a concise point of departure for further research and study.
The book is first and foremost a reference work. The authors do not explicitly express this intention, but by using ABC-CLIO, a well-known reference publisher, such an outcome is all but inevitable. This also is a key failing of the work, whether intentional or not. Kuehn and Holden notably do not provide a conclusion or lengthy introduction that would tie their list of disasters together, provide a coherent framework for analyzing them, or even a concrete rationale for their inclusion on the list. This also makes it difficult to discern why the authors chose to leave out some consistently cited military disasters, such as Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the Nazi’s failure to prevent the British evacuation of Dunkirk, or the German encirclement at Stalingrad. The other side of any defeat or disaster is a decisive victory. So, absent a strong narrative perspective or editorial commentary, their work reads no differently than a list of 100 decisive battles or important victories. And constrained by their reliance on Western language sources, the chapters themselves do not always read from the perspective of the defeated but from that of the better recorded and remembered, which often is that of the victors.
The book also is critically short of maps. Some of the most important disasters have battle maps depicting the military scheme of maneuver or a photo of a key leader, but the vast majority do not. This can leave even a well-versed student of military history lost in abstract descriptions of battles or looking online for maps. But this may be a consequence of the book being a reference publication.
The 100 Worst Military Disasters in History is a book best suited for a command library or the personal collection of a researcher. It will serve well as a first stop on the way to a deeper study of any of the 100 disasters and battles it covers. But it is not intended for cover-to-cover consumption, and it does not contain a narrative or central argument linking the disasters in a clear way and driving at any sort of conclusion.
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.
Richard H. Shultz Jr. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2020. 287 pp. Notes. Index. Figs. $34.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant (j.g.) W. Kirk Wolff, U.S. Navy
Task Force 714 (colloquially known as “The Task Force”) counts notable military figures among its leaders, including Admiral William H. McRaven, General Stanley A. McChrystal, and Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. Its efforts were critical to the successful destruction of al Qaeda’s nodal organization in Iraq and beyond, and its initiatives permanently changed the intelligence community.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it was determined by numerous committees and postmortem analyses that the intelligence community was configured exclusively for operations against nation-states, not the modern irregular and asymmetric threats facing the United States. In Transforming U.S. Intelligence for Irregular War: Task Force 714 in Iraq, author Richard Shultz, a preeminent figure in the field of intelligence studies, covers the crucial transition from the Cold War, Industrial Age intelligence practices, to the modern information age intelligence community. In just over 250 pages, the author shows the study of the Task Force is the best way to grasp this transformation, and Shultz’s expertise exudes from every page as he traces the intelligence community’s evolution. The text is not a Zero Dark Thirty edge-of-your-seat thriller; it is, however, a useful guide through the tough lessons that had to be rapidly learned and implemented to effectively combat al Qaeda.
This would be a good textbook or reference in an irregular warfare class at the Naval Academy or in Reserve Officer Training Corps military studies courses. It was written by an eminent scholar in the field, who pulled from myriad relevant documents and first-hand sources, yet I still found the book approachable and readable. Through this case study of the Task Force, I gleaned a more than adequate grasp of the intelligence field. The book’s concise chapters explained concepts that are key to building foundational knowledge of security studies, including Title 10 versus Title 50 roles, various types of intelligence (human intelligence, geospatial intelligence, etc.), and relevant presidential decision directives.
In addition to students of intelligence and irregular warfare, non-intelligence professionals who deal with intelligence products daily, such as junior surface warfare officers and aviators would find this text valuable. The introduction provides good background for someone who may not have been in or around the military at the time of the invasion of Iraq and by itself would be useful for junior officers to get their bearings on the different history and roles of the intelligence community. The book does not proceed chronologically, but topically—chapter 3 is about intelligence collection and chapter 5 covers covert operations. Intelligence professionals may find this text a bit basic, as it breaks down different forms of intelligence and the methods intelligence professionals use in collection and analysis. The book’s figures are Spartan, but it still effectively conveys concepts such as the find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, and disseminate (F3EAD) cycle.
The book does not focus solely on Task Force 714; rather the author opted to develop the reader’s understanding of the intelligence community’s modern roots, stretching back to the 1947 National Security Act and late 20th-century developments. If readers are looking for a gripping account of different operations and the conduct of individuals of the Task Force, this is not the book for them. Rather than focusing on specific actions, Transforming U.S. Intelligence for Irregular War details the much-needed structural changes at the outset of the Iraq War, and it does so well.
Ensign Wolff is a surface warfare officer serving on board the USS Paul Hamilton (DDG-60). He is the recipient of the Thompson-Ravitz Award for Public Affairs Excellence and the Naval Academy Political Science Research Award.