'87 Sir

Thirty years of service ----USNA Class of 1987 '87 Sir

Friday, March 15, 2013

Different look at World War II

So, this book really intrigued me when I first saw it on Amazon...as the splash page says:
The story of World War II is often told as a grand narrative, as if it were fought by supermen or decided by fate. Here Kennedy uncovers the real heroes of the war, highlighting for the first time the creative strategies, tactics, and organizational decisions that made the lofty Allied objectives into a successful reality. In an even more significant way, Engineers of Victory has another claim to our attention, for it restores “the middle level of war” to its rightful place in history.
This was an interesting concept to me...not the who, or what, but the how of eventually allied victory.  Kennedy, who teaches Grand Strategy at Yale University, (and he provides a link to the syllabus to his course...WOW, what a fantastic course...almost makes me want to attend Yale....ALMOST)....breaks down five operational problems the Allies faced in early 1943 at the time of the Casablanca Conference and then shows how all five of them were solved by the time of the D-Day landings 18 months later.  The first two problems, winning the U-boat war and defeating the Luftwaffe were the most fascinating.  Kennedy does an excellent job of laying out how technology, tactics, organization, and industrial might combined with bravery and persistence  to solve the two major problems the Allies faced...getting enough troops and material across the Atlantic to make an invasion of France possible and then destroying the Luftwaffe to ensure air supremacy over the invasion beaches.  Although I knew bits and pieces about each situation, Kennedy taught me a lot...especially the story of how Allied naval and air units were able to defeat the U-boats by fighting their way across the Atlantic using weapons and tactics that didn't exist when World War 2 erupted.  The story of the P-51 Mustang and the evolution of Allied bombing doctrine also shed some additional facts on a tale I was roughly familiar with and showed how one or two persistent and passionate people can change history.

I will say his chapters on defeating the German blitzkrieg tactics and developing amphibious warfare were not as well developed, in my opinion.  On the one hand, Kennedy does lay out how faulty German strategy ultimately rendered their operational prowess moot, particularly when fighting against Britain, Soviet Russia, and the United States, but he doesn't really make a convincing case for how the Allies bested the Wehrmacht operationally, other than in huge set piece battles like Kursk and El Alamein where Allied material preponderance simply ran the Germans over.  In fact, even as late as September 1944, after a crushing defeat in France, the Germans were able to turn back three elite Allied airborne divisions, stop three British corps in their tracks (albeit with a little help from geography), and still launch a devastating, but futile, counter-offensive in the Ardennes in December 1944.  This logical conflict that the Germans were still superior to the Allies tactically, but lost the war is not as well developed by Kennedy, as say, my favorite Wehrmacht author, Robert Citino, in his two outstanding books on the German Army in 1942 and 1943.

The chapter on amphibious warfare does a good job of describing how the Allies developed the command and control to conduct large landings, as well as the tactics and specialized weapons like the British "Hobart's Funnies" tanks, along with specialists like Beach Masters to keep the supplies and troops moving off the beach.  However, the chapter completely glosses over the development of specialized landings ships and craft like the Landing Ship, Tank (LST) and the ubiquitous Higgins Boat, also known as the Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel (LCVP) that became the backbone of Allied amphibious operations.  I think this is a major shortcoming, even if the path to operationalizing these weapons was not as fraught with missteps as the P-51.  It would also have been interesting to discuss why in the world the Army never got onboard with the USMC developed Landing Vehicle, Track which came into wide-spread use after the debacle of Tarawa.  It seems to me that having some of those LVTs would have come in real handy for the first couple waves at Omaha Beach to get those troops some cover up to the first draws up the cliffs.  This seems to be an untold story that needs to be explored.

However, even with these shortcomings, the book accomplishes its purpose of telling the tale of how engineers, sailors, airmen, and soldiers developed the means to overcome German and Japanese strengths and win World War II.  A fine addition to any World War II library.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

An interesting strategic analysis of America's 10 years of war

This is the final book sent by the Society of Military History for my 2nd review essay, and by far the most interesting.

Written by a trio of big thinkers from the National Defense University and the National War College, it fills a real gap that your Grouchy Historian hadn't even considered in my extensive study of the the last 10 years-- How were the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan managed as a whole?

Now this would seem to be the GREAT unanswered question of the last 10 years.  Since both wars were commanded by the same combatant command, US Central Command, and occurred in the same geographic area, there would have to be some coordination between them, right?  Nope, not so much.  The authors make the point that Afghanistan and Iraq were managed as separate wars, and that overall, the fighting in Iraq distracted from the fighting in Afghanistan and made the chances for "victory" there much, much harder.

Now, historically, this is not a new issue--how to manage multi-theater wars.  Historians are still debating the merits of the Italian campaign versus the invasion of France in World War II, and there the arguments still reign over whether the Eastern or Western Theaters were more decisive in the Civil War.  This difference now is that the US no longer has seemingly infinite military resources and patience to see war through, and sometimes resource and attention span trade offs have to be made..either explicitly or implicitly.

The authors are pretty up front with their criticism of the Bush Administration and its military-political team and how they felt attention was needlessly diverted from Afghanistan right when Al Qaeda was on the run and the Taliban nearly defunct.  Their ability to seamlessly bring together the various strategic and operational discussions about waging war in Iraq versus Afghanistan makes this book really come together and the authors spare no one the criticism they feel is deserved.

Building on the previous two books for this review, the authors confirm that both campaigns were equally plagued by convoluted military command structures, a lack of an integrated civil-military COIN strategy, and most of all, in Afghanistan, the utter misplaced US faith in NATO to step up and assume the major role in nation-building and COIN ops.  The discussion of the "win in Iraq and hold in Afghanistan" strategy conducted by the US from 2004-2008 shows how the real limitations of American military resources provided an interesting laboratory experiment in conducting two simultaneous campaigns by a modern Western military...one the authors are clearly not in favor.

Some shortcomings:  given their extensive discussion on issues of resource allocations for troops, SOF units, UAVs and other ISR assets, and all other military resources, I think a more detailed order of battle comparison by year in each country, maybe in an appendix would have REALLY pumped this book up.  The maps provided were, as usual not sufficient for me (but I am very, very picky about maps in military history books), and a book like this would have benefited greatly from some additional comparison charts to show just how much relative combat power was allocated to each country by year.

However, the lessons learned at the end of the book were outstanding.  The authors make the excellent point that the US military tried a little too hard to transfer the "Surge" in Iraq to become the "Surge" in Afghanistan without thinking about the real, distinct, and significant differences between the two cultures and operational environment.  Most of the Iraqi Surge took place within and around Baghdad...with the indigenous Sunnis in Anbar handling a good deal of the heavy lifting to destroy Al Qaeda in Anbar.  There was no corresponding "awakening" in Afghanistan, which will, no matter how much we spend on or bomb them remain stuck in the 9th century.  The Taliban ARE the natives in Afghanistan, unlike Al Qaeda in Iraq, and there is a pretty good chance that once the current Administration beats feet in Afghanistan like they did in Iraq, a decision SOME are now considering may not have been a good idea (DUH), that country will, at best slip into controlled anarchy, or at worst become another Somalia or Mali, with large portions of the country uncontrolled by the "central government" and under the control of either drug smuggling war lords or the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Overall, this is a very valuable book for anyone trying to understand the "grand strategy" or lack thereof of the US during the crucial years of the early 21st century when it was waging two simultaneous campaigns.  Although, like many USNI books, it has a hefty cover price, Amazon will once again come to your rescue and make it affordable.  Which is good, because any serious student of the GWOT, or anyone studying strategy should read this book.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sequestmaggedon...what it really means.

As I finish my final book in the latest round of SMH goodness...and contemplate my own future based on the absurdity of the current manufactured crisis of Barrack Obama and the Senate Democrats, I figured I would investigate why everyone is so upset about the sequester.

SEQUESTER:  Noun:  A general cut in government spending.
So the first question I ask myself is what exactly is everyone in the Obama Administration (or Politburo, whatever) sounding the alarm about planes falling out of the skies, children starving in the streets and old people dying in droves?

Amazingly, the Washington Post has a pretty good article on the nuts and bolts of what it really means.

SO, after digesting all this...here is the money diagram from that article:
How does one interpret that?  WELL, to this Grouchy Historian, one must conclude that Defense is taking it in the shorts...this was the poison pill that Obama and the Democrats assumed would force Republicans into a tax-hike deal which, SO FAR, they have avoided.  Is this bad?  YES. Is it likely to affect your Grouchy Historian?  Maybe?  Is it unbelievably stupid?  Yes...we still have people who don't like us and are ready to go to war with us...but Obama doesn't CARE...all he wants to do is hike taxes, defend Obamacare and try to put as many potential voters on the dole before January 20, 2017...then its golf for the rest of his life at taxpayer expense....PERIOD..
BUT, and here is why I think that Obama and his liberal progressive allies are in a near froth....there is no chance of getting ANY new domestic spending programs off the ground in the sequester environment.  NONE, ZERO...now this does not take into account the already in-place growth in government spending under Obama and his minions, but as far as universal preschool, buying back the youth vote by forgiving college debt, more green energy boondoggles...those are pretty much gone, IN SPITE of record tax revenue..yup, that's right in spite of record revenue...and the evil, greedy rich paying an increasing burden of the taxes...Obama wants MORE...after all we don't have a spending problem...it's those evil, greedy rich people that are causing $1T deficits.

This is what has the Democrats in a tizz...nearly a full blown catatonic state.  With the growth of government slowed down...but not stopped...I mean seriously who in the real world begins their yearly budget planning by ASSUMING a 4-6% growth in their budget?  NOT THIS Grouchy Historian...or anyone else who lives in the real world, but the Federal Government always assumes some growth every year...far above the stated inflation rate...which is bogus anyway.

But the sequester is the beginning of a return to common sense.  $1T deficits are not sustainable...in spite of idiotic comments by idiotic billionaire nanny-state mayors who think the biggest problem their city faces is super-sized sodas.

Do I like how the sequester is done?  No, I think there are smart ways to cut federal spending...including defense spending.  Is it better than nothing?  Well...these days....YES...with Cadaver Harry Reid determined to protect Obama and the Democratic Party from the political consequences of their spending by refusing to pass a budget for 1,400 days.....and counting...sequestration, may finally force their hand...we shall see.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

A NATO view of Afghanistan

The second book of my new tripod of goodness for the Society of Military History provides a fairly neglected viewpoint of the Afghanistan conflict--the role of Coalition and NATO forces in that conflict.

Dr. Sean Maloney, a history professor at the Canadian Staff College, offers a unique perspective as an embedded historian with military forces with a Canadian brigade during the 2006 campaign for Helmand and Kandahar provinces. 

Needless to say, this is a no-holds, but politely Canadian look at the challenges of waging coalition warfare.  Maloney describes not only the command issues with having American, Canadian, British, Dutch, Afghan and Romanian forces operating together, but the Byzantine political issues of working with the competing goals of the Afghan government, the US military command, their own national governments, NGOs, and, of course, the minefield that is NATO and the UN.

Through it all, a valiant group of Canadian soldiers wages pretty high intensity combat on  a shoestring, without the heavy armor, constant air cover, intelligence or reconnaissance support or even logistical support of their better equipped American allies.  Using Light Armored Vehicles and up-armored 4x4s, the Canadians not only fight the Taliban in Kandahar, but are often called to assist the beleaguered British forces in neighboring Helmand province. 

Maloney does a good job of blending history, a little analysis and cogent observation, and first-person reporting to show just how difficult a time the Canadians had and how they were able to accomplish what they could with the resources at hand.

It was also a pretty good scene-setter to understand why the US had to surge the troops into these two provinces during the half-hearted attempt to bring the Taliban to heel before Barrack Hussein Obama retreats from Afghanistan on the eve of the 2014 mid-term elections.

This is the final book of Maloney's trilogy on his embeds in Afghanistan and is the capstone to what is likely to be the go-to books on our allies involvement in what will soon become America's longest war.