Writing Wars: Authorship and American War Fiction, WWI to Present
David F. Eisler. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2022. 253 pp. Notes. Biblio. Index. $92.50.
Reviewed by Commander Graham Scarbro, U.S. Navy
The first time I read Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 in high school, I thought it was a funny critique of the wastes of war (“What’s good for M & M Enterprises is good for the country!” Major Major Major, and the eponymous catch spring to mind). When I reread it as a lieutenant commander on air wing staff, it was as though I was reading my own handwriting, if perhaps slightly less fatalistic.
The same general idea persists for books such as Stephen Coonts’ Flight of the Intruder and Ward Carroll’s Punk’s War, among others. Reading them as a young midshipman, for example, I enjoyed them as entertainment: adventurous stories about young aviators trying to overcome various challenges. But as an experienced FA-18 aviator, I cared less about the action and more about how those authors captured something of the feel of being an aviator in a squadron at sea. Heller, Coonts, and Carroll, veterans all, connected with me because I found their descriptions so relatable, from Major Major’s absurd promotion, to Cool Hand’s relationship with his enlisted sailors, to Punk’s travails with prickly senior officers.
Army veteran David F. Eisler takes a metaview of my (and others’) feelings on war literature in Writing Wars, an examination of the history of American war fiction in the 20th and early 21st centuries. What characterizes American war fiction? Why do these authors write, what attitudes inform both their writing and the critiques surrounding their writing, and what does all of that have to do with the relationship between American society and its military?
Eisler presents an interesting history of a fascinating body of literature beginning primarily with the World War I novels Three Soldiers and One of Ours, each of which sparked debates and set the tone for military fiction in the century that followed.
The book examines a form of gatekeeping in military storytelling that Eisler calls “combat gnosticism,” the idea that “if you weren’t there, you can’t weigh in.” It is the kind of credentialism we see in the military all around us: Who has the right to have an opinion and why? If you weren’t on the front lines, can you even write about war?
It is a challenging question that American society is struggling with in matters of representation, appropriation, and cultural sensitivity more broadly. That Eisler connects it with war novels is an interesting turn and one that he explains well through the history of American war literature.
The book’s central tension is: Does the narrative around war belong only to those who have been there? And if so, does that mean the same thing for the military in general? And if so, what does that mean for the relationship between American society and its military when the ranks of the armed services constitute an ever-smaller proportion of the population?
Eisler discusses the trend of military writing toward the exclusive domain of veterans from World War I through Vietnam, but he highlights the post-9/11 veterans who are trying to remove barriers to war literature for civilian authors. In a society in which civilians control the military, their feelings on war matter too.
“If only those who have experienced war can understand it,” Eisler writes, “then, in an all-volunteer military, only those who choose to serve are condemned to bear the burden of that experience while the rest of the country carries on.” In his closing chapters, Eisler explores the trope of the broken, pitiable veteran who joined the military because he was too dumb or poor to do otherwise; the “thank you for your service” culture that characterizes so many veterans’ sense of disconnectedness from the citizens; and the potentially negative impacts to public trust in the military and civilian control of the military that result.
Writing Wars is an interesting look at the literary portrayal of war and service. It is a short but dense read that pulls from a vast library of literary works, but it does not require the reader to be familiar with them. It is a thoughtful, serious work that may raise more questions than it answers, but the questions are essential to understanding how war and service affect the relationship between service member and citizen in the age of the all-volunteer military.
Commander Scarbro is an active-duty naval flight officer.
Diplomats & Admirals: From Failed Negotiations and Tragic Misjudgments to Powerful Leaders and Heroic Deeds
Dale A. Jenkins. New York: Aubrey Publishing Co., 2022. 365 pp. Biblio. Index. $32.50.
Reviewed by Commander Matt Wright, U.S. Navy
Dale Jenkins adds to the historical literature of World War II with Diplomats & Admirals, which focuses on the political and military exchanges between the United States and Japan from July 1941 to June 1942. This period began with the Roosevelt administration’s economic response to the Japanese invasion of southern Indochina and ended with the reversal of Japanese fortune at the Battle of Midway. Jenkins tells a story of poor decision-making by U.S. and Japanese political leaders as they stumble into a war that neither wanted before transitioning to a recounting of Pacific naval battles during the first six months of the war.
Diplomats & Admirals serves as both a title and rough outline for the book. The first half includes an engaging history of the failed efforts of Japanese political leaders to maneuver the hawkish elements in their military away from a war with the United States they would likely lose. On the U.S. side, Jenkins details the failures of the State Department to understand the Japanese threat despite insight from the ambassador to Tokyo, Joseph Grew, and diplomatic intelligence from decoded Japanese communications. Japanese Foreign Minister Yōsuke Matsuoka and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson are shown to be particularly culpable. The diplomatic portion of the book concludes with the doomed efforts of Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe as he struggles to arrange the face-to-face meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt he believes will preserve peace, only to be foiled by State Department bureaucracy, distracted from Roosevelt, and stonewalled by Secretary of State Cordell Hull.
The book’s transition from diplomats to admirals occurs around the attack on Pearl Harbor and its immediate aftermath. Jenkins does a good job describing the chaos in post–Pearl Harbor Oahu and Washington, including the finger pointing and bungled efforts to save the American garrison on Wake Island.
The second half of the book focuses on the U.S. Pacific Fleet and moves chronologically from the carrier raids of early 1942, to the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, the Battle of the Coral Sea, and ending with the Battle of Midway. General Douglas MacArthur’s defeat in the Philippines, the demise of the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) Command, and the Japanese rampage through the western Pacific and Indian Oceans are hardly mentioned as the book focuses on Admiral Chester Nimitz and his efforts to reverse the course of the war. Jenkins’ focus produces a cohesive story and is especially useful in showing the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway as parts of one continuum. The book hits the wavetops of each battle and skips discussing details such as the poor performance of the USS Hornet’s (CV-8) air group at Midway.
Jenkins accomplishes his goal in Diplomats & Admirals: to offer a historical perspective that connects the political run-up to World War II in the Pacific with the initial military confrontations that result. He does especially well to detail the mistakes of U.S. and Japanese statesmen in 1941 and presents their failures as effective warnings to future leaders.
Commander Wright currently serves with Navy Personnel Command in Millington, Tennessee. A 2002 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, his previous tours include command of HSC-22, and service in seven different H-60 commands, an air wing staff, and the Joint Staff.
West Point Admiral: Leadership Lessons from Four Decades of Military Service
Rear Admiral Michael W. Shelton, U.S. Navy (Retired). Sikeston, MO: Acclaim Press, 2022. 366 pp. Notes. Gloss. Index. $29.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Colonel Dillon Fishman, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve
As a boy growing up in the home of a Navy chief, coming of age in the shadow of World War II, Michael Shelton developed strong firsthand respect for the ingenuity and devotion of enlisted sailors. During a 40-year military career, in which he rose to two-star admiral as a Seabee, Shelton carried this appreciation, along with values shaped by men from his father’s era. In a memoir abounding with practical leadership insights, Shelton also raises concerns about the wisdom of military cultural trends. Though ultimately his alarmism seems overwrought, his critiques—remindful of what some call “wokeness”—merit consideration.
Shelton’s naval career improbably began as a cadet at West Point in 1963. As a student there, he forged a firm foundation in personal leadership and developed a keen eye for service differences. Shelton extols his formative years at West Point, especially its emphasis on integrity. But because the Army had few spots for engineers, Shelton’s father encouraged him to pursue the Navy Civil Engineer Corps.
Commissioned as a Seabee in 1967, Shelton rose through the ranks as a junior naval officer in Vietnam, serving two tours alongside Seabees who were in the thick of fighting on the front lines. The story follows his steady ascent through levels of leadership as he served in Europe, Japan, Guam, and other places.
The book especially succeeds in informing readers about the Seabees, contrasting the Vietnam era with today, and communicating candid leadership lessons within the context of the last four decades of the 20th-century Navy. Salient stories feature bad leaders whose misdeeds offer cringeworthy examples. Shelton intersperses memorable stories of run-ins with those who inverted the familiar mantra that “officers eat last”; a commander who claimed the coveted lone Christmas leave spot out of combat for himself; and a boss who lambasted Shelton for submitting his enlisted sailors for awards. Particularly before the all-volunteer force, naval officers perpetuated a caste system that Shelton rightly exposes. Worse, parochialism and self-interest extended beyond the wardroom and daily routines. Constant infighting among surface warfare officers, submariners, and aviators led Shelton to describe the service as three navies.
Shelton’s avuncular voice—stable, gritty, resourceful—conveys a grim note at points like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. He laments the military’s supposed decline through attritive interference and social engineering. But because Shelton hung up his uniform before 9/11, his cynicism about the military’s purported erosion may ring hollow to those who have observed the professionalism, adaptability, and character of the force over the past two decades. Fights in Fallujah, Sangin, and Ramadi showcased U.S. might and resolve. Thus, perhaps Shelton’s admonitions are best treated as a challenge: to prove that the military remains capable and powerful.
While the work’s copyediting oversights are tolerable, at points Shelton is strident and tone deaf. Through lenses of rosy retrospection, often devoid of nuanced discussion, Shelton seems to long for simpler days: especially before civilians imposed female integration in the military. His attempt to insulate his views by highlighting his wife’s service as a Navy nurse falls flat. He takes aim at Admirals Elmo Zumwalt and Hyman Rickover for reforms they instituted without fairly acknowledging the lasting benefits of their legacies.
On the other hand, some of Shelton’s points warrant examination. While framed in terms of social experimentation, his underlying concerns involve discipline, readiness, and lethality. Shelton spotlights politicization, which might dissuade qualified people from joining, staying in, or supporting today’s military. Similarly, the pressure of public expectations for comfortable deployments—perhaps exemplified by ubiquitous internet, Burger King, and Green Beans coffee shops on forward operating bases in Afghanistan—suggests that Shelton’s point about a softening force may have merit. How militarily strong can a sensitive, entitled, and physically unfit citizenry be?
As a text likely to engender disagreement and discussion regarding leadership, the book is worthwhile reading. Uniform members of all ranks, and civilian policymakers, will confront challenging topics Shelton covers. Beyond providing a window into Shelton’s unique career and occupational field, his provocative social commentary implicates core issues affecting military readiness and viability.
Lieutenant Colonel Fishman has deployed three times and is currently completing a PhD in leadership studies, with research focused on combat-injured military veterans.
Take Charge and Move Out: The Founding Fathers of TACAMO (True Believers and the Rise of Navy Strategic Communications)
Lewis F. McIntyre. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2022. 228 pp. index. $34.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Commander Michael Axel, U.S. Navy
For most naval aviators, TACAMO (Take Charge and Move Out) is a big unknown. The possibility of operating land-based aircraft out of an Air Force base in Oklahoma is, of course, appealing to some, but for most, the TACAMO community is a little-known and rarely-interacted-with sliver of naval aviation, far removed from ball calls and tailhooks.
Lew McIntyre brings to life the history of TACAMO’s founding and integration into naval aviation, presented via the oral histories of the “True Believers.” These men and women represent the first success stories of the TACAMO community they built from the ground up. From its humble beginnings as an experimental communications test bed, the TACAMO aircraft, its critical strategic mission, and the maintainers and operators quickly developed the community into a critical node of the U.S. strategic response mission, distinct from every other part of naval aviation.
The oral history is compiled from the many figures of the early TACAMO community, charting the faith these officers placed in the mission at risk to their own career prospects. Rather than a one-and-done tour for maritime patrol aviators that was the norm at the time, the junior officers who would eventually become the first homegrown leaders of TACAMO made the decision to return for second TACAMO tours, a calculated risk in an unproven platform and mission that had yet to produce even a single lieutenant commander. Through their faith in the mission and a unifying drive to prove the worth of their aircraft, they rose through the ranks to eventually run the community they built.
The early chapters of the book seem to reflect the motivated but disorganized standup of TACAMO. With so many short snippets of history bouncing back and forth between coasts and characters, the first third is at times challenging to keep up with. By the time the first true believers established themselves as the vanguard leaders of TACAMO, the history becomes more cohesive and tells a unified tale.
There are plenty of parallels to today’s acquisition and development environment that make this book a good read for anyone fielding new technologies to the fleet. The stories of creativity, flexibility, and sheer force of will are motivating reminders that new technologies and missions have been introduced to the fleet before with great success; perseverance and belief in the value of the mission go a long way. Those in the burgeoning unmanned air vehicle communities would do well to make this book readily available for incoming maintainers and operators; not necessarily for any technical wisdom, but to provide a philosophical blueprint for bringing an entirely new aircraft and mission to the fight. It will take a level of belief in the mission and dedication to its success similar to that exhibited by the TACAMO founders 50 years ago to make today’s new platforms, manned and unmanned, successful. McIntyre’s timely contribution to the history of naval aviation is a reminder of past successes fielding new capabilities and is an inspiration to those in uniform today.
Lieutenant Commander Axel is an E-2 naval flight officer. He is currently serving as training department head at Airborne Command and Control Squadron 120.