Archive for the 'Books' Category
Tomorrow, 11 March 2012, the storied USS Enterprise (CVN-65) will leave home port to ply the world’s oceans for the 22nd, and last time. As she is about to head toward Middle Eastern waters, the Associated Press published a nice piece about her, and the challenges that her crew of 4,000 face in keeping a ship that is older than most of their parents operating and ready.
Since SWMBO reminded me how expensive picture books were to print, I figured I would take advantage of this newfangled internet thing to post some pictures of the Big E, and relate some things about her 52 years in service. A good deal of these pictures will come from familiar places, such as NavSource.org, and DANFS, as well as some others included from various spots.
It is staggering to think of a ship 52 years in commission. How long is that? Here are some facts about Enterprise and her history:
The sitting Secretary of the Navy, William B. Franke, whose wife christened CVAN-65, had been born in 1894. He lived to be 85, and still died 33 years ago.
Enterprise’s first CO, Captain Vincent P. de Poix, Annapolis ’39, had been a World War II aviator, and is still with us at 95!
In February of 1962, Enterprise stood by to assist with the recovery of the first American to orbit the Earth, LtCol John Glenn, USMC, in Mercury 6.
Enterprise was a part of the Second Fleet force that established the “Naval quarantine” of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, October, 1962.
Enterprise was the first nuclear powered warship ever to operate in a combat zone, off Vietnam, December, 1965.
Enterprise remains the longest warship ever to put to sea at 1,102 feet, 2 inches.
On May 24th, 2011, a Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet of VFA-11 made arrested landing number 400,000 on Enterprise.
When Enterprise joined the fleet in October of 1961, she was one of 24 carriers, and the only nuclear-powered carrier, in a Navy of 870 ships. Today she is one of 11 nuclear-powered carriers in a Navy of 285 ships.
Enterprise deployed to Vietnam six times, Operation SOUTHERN WATCH three times, Operation ENDURING FREEDOM four times (about to be five), and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM three times. Her CO, Captain William Hamilton, was not yet three years old when Enterprise was commissioned, her XO would not be born for another five years.
Best of luck to all the Officers and Sailors who crew this venerable old warship. She carries a glorious name proudly. One day you can tell your grandchildren you sailed on her. When you return, she will pass from the Navy list and into history.
But perhaps her name can live on with CVN-80. There always should be an Enterprise in the US Navy.
A two-sport athlete at UCLA, playing in a Rose Bowl with the football team. An all-conference catcher in baseball. He was a teammate of Jackie Robinson in both sports.
A Los Angeles Police Officer, a Detective, and a prosecuting attorney.
In fact, he was the lead prosecutor who was responsible for the conviction of assassin Sirhan Sirhan.
Appointed by Governor Ronald Reagan to the 2nd District Court of Appeals in 1970, retiring in 1990.
Except that Lynn “Buck” Compton achieved his greatest fame at age 80 for his wartime service with Dick Winters’ Easy Company 506th PIR, of the 101st Airborne Division. The magnificent HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” immortalized the men of Easy Company, 1st Lt Buck Compton among them.
Lynn “Buck” Compton died on February 25th, at the age of 90.
Our nation is poorer for his loss.
Yes, Byron, CURRAHEE!
Among the Americans serving on Iwo island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.
-Admiral Chester Nimitz
America lost 6,821 of her sons on Iwo Jima. More than 19,000 were wounded. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor and more than 200 Navy Crosses were awarded for heroism on that island.
Where is USS Michael Strank? USS Franklin Sousley? USS Harlan Bloch?
Last Man Standing, The 1st Marine Regiment on Peleliu
by Dick Camp
Zenith Press, c. 2008
Retired Marine Colonel Dick Camp (Lima-6) whose writing has taken us from the battlefields of the Great War to the August 2004 fight for Najaf, produces with “Last Man Standing” an unvarnished account of one of the most tragic stories of Marine heroism, sacrifice, and bloodshed in the securing of a Pacific island objective in the Second World War.
The author’s duties as Aide de Camp to Marine Corps legend General Raymond Davis allowed Camp to compile a compelling and fascinating inside account of the savage and unrelenting combat on Peleliu. In addition to General Davis’ perspective (Davis was 1st Battalion commander in the 1st Marines under Colonel Lewis Puller), the author interviews Russ Honsowetz, also commander of a battalion (2nd) in 1st Marines, and makes extensive use of Eugene Sledge’s account of the fighting (With the Old Breed) to provide a day-by-day narrative of the unfolding of the near-destruction of Pullers’ First Marines in the coral crags of the Umurbrogol.
Operation STALEMATE, the seizure of Peleliu and Angaur in the Palau Islands of the Caroline Island chain, was intended to shield the flank of Douglas MacArthur’s drive to the Philippines. The airfield on Peleliu was of particular interest to US planners, and was believed to necessitate a major operation to seize it and the rest of the island. Despite the destruction of Japanese air power on Peleliu, and against the pleading of William Halsey to cancel STALEMATE, Admiral Nimitz ordered the landings on Peleliu and Angaur to proceed. Camp’s accounting of the fighting on Peleliu, illustrated with helpful maps and combat photographs, is nothing short of chilling. The airfield seizure was quickly accomplished, but in the rugged, forbidding coral croppings that ran the center of the island, a tragedy of bravery, sacrifice, and failed leadership played out.
The two Marine leaders whose performance, rightly, bear the most scrutiny are 1st Marine Division Commander BGen William Rupertus, and legendary Marine Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller. The reputation of General Rupertus is at best uneven, many of his peers and immediate juniors being somewhat unimpressed with the man, his tactical acumen, and his leadership. On top of his already identified shortcomings, Rupertus had badly injured an ankle in a rehearsal and was nearly immobile. His message to the Division that Peleliu would be a quick three-day affair highlighted Rupertus’ lack of understanding of the tasks at hand.
But it is the performance of “Chesty” Puller, commanding the 1st Marines, that is laid bare by the events on that hot and forbidding coral ridge. Camp’s book brings to the fore the human cost of Puller’s failure to understand the terrain and enemy his Marine rifle companies faced, nor the losses they incurred daily, for little or no gain. Puller was hobbled by a flare-up of the leg wound he had received two years earlier, commanding 1/7 on Guadalcanal, and despite his characteristic penchant for locating his command post within rifle range of the enemy, his lack of mobility prevented Puller from walking the ground with his Battalion and Company commanders. Had he been able to do so, he would have halted his stubborn admonition for wasteful and fruitless attacks against a disciplined and well-dug-in enemy in impossible terrain. In addition, as Camp makes clear, his unwillingness to heed the reports of his superb Battalion Commanders doomed his regiment to being bled white in the coral hills.
Camp also describes the foolishness of Rupertus and Puller all but refusing to accede to the presence of an Army Regiment to relieve Puller’s shattered 1st Marines after six bloody days, until Amphibious Corps Commander General Geiger came ashore and after meeting with both, ordered the relief.
How much Colonel Lewis Puller was affected by the debilitating pain in his leg, or by the death of his brother Sam on Guam some weeks before Peleliu is not known, but the author intimates both were draws on Puller, at a time and under conditions which required his absolute best.
Camp’s matter-of-fact treatment of an otherwise legendary figure in Marine Corps lore is a valuable reminder that perspective is an important component of historical analysis. While many enlisted Marines would revere “Chesty” even after Peleliu, many Marine Officers who understood the tactical situation and had a larger view of Puller’s performance are less forgiving. As an example, Camp includes the perspective of Captain Everett Pope, the lone surviving Company Commander who was awarded the Medal of Honor while leading Charlie Company in Davis’ First Battalion. Captain Pope is quoted in Camp’s book leveling harsh, if justified criticism of Puller’s understanding of the terrain and conditions, and complete disdain for his ordering futile and bloody attacks. “The adulation paid him these days sickens me”. In hindsight, while Rupertus should never have been allowed to command the Division with his physical infirmity, Puller should probably have been relieved of command of 1st Marines.
Thankfully, Peleliu was most decidedly not the end of the Puller legend. His leadership at the front of those same 1st Marines in November-December of 1950 in the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir is a study of inspirational leadership and determination. There, Puller would win a fifth Navy Cross, and earn Brigadier General ‘s stars. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1955 as a Lieutenant General.
Dick Camp’s book is an important work for understanding the history of the Marine Corps, one of its more tragic episodes, and a rather inglorious performance of one of its revered legends. This book should be on the shelf of every serious student of the Pacific War, and of the Marine Corps’s role in that war.
Perspective is important. The ability to see events as others might see them is a talent that is mightily handy when navigating the shoals of international relations. It would seem that NATO and the US did not conceive of a point of view that could not agree with what is defined now as the “international norm” of the Right to Protect (R2P).
The disbelief and outrage expressed at the veto votes of both Russia and the People’s Republic of China over the UN Resolution regarding Syria leads one to believe that our State Department believed a contrary position on R2P did not credibly exist. Au contraire, points out STRATFOR in this morning’s Geopolitical Diary. STRATFOR posits that perhaps a couple of widely held assumptions are not quite as universal as we had believed. To both the Russians and Chinese, the preservation of human life, and prevention of crimes against innocent civilians or mass killings, still needs to be weighed against the spreading influence of potential geopolitical, military, and economic rivals. Responsibility to Protect, R2P, was for the West in reality E2I, excuse to intervene:
The Russian and Chinese view was that this doctrine opened the door to unlimited interventions not in response to mass murder, but in order to prevent mass murder. From the Chinese and Russian perspective, this would allow intervention based on fears. Fears can be feigned and anyone can assert the threat of mass murder and war crimes. Therefore, the Libyan precedent seemed to be a doctrine that justified intervention based on suspicion of intent. Or, to put it more bluntly, the Russian and Chinese view was that the intervention in Libya was designed to achieve political and economic goals, and the threat of impending mass murder was simply the justification.
China and Russia viewed the Syrian resolution as a preface to more aggressive resolutions also based on the doctrine of preventing atrocities much greater than those already committed. They felt that this would set a permanent principle of international law that they opposed. Their opposition was based on the perception that this was merely a justification for interventions against regimes of which the West disapproved.
Also, an America stretched thinner than its shrinking military resources can reasonably secure works to the advantage of both Russia and China. Not only that, but freedom of navigation in the Straits of Hormuz or elsewhere is not necessarily a universal desire, especially when that freedom means possible interdiction or interruption of vital energy supplies.
Iran is in the process of establishing a sphere of influence in which Syria plays a strategic role. If al Assad survives, his regime will be heavily dependent on Iran. Neither China nor Russia would be particularly troubled by this. Certainly, Russia does not want to see an excessively powerful Iran, but it would welcome any dynamic that would tie American power down in a long-term duel with Iran. Creating a regional balance of power would divert U.S. power in directions that would provide Russia with freedom for maneuver.
The same can be said of China, with the additional proviso that the Chinese do not want to see anything interfere with their energy trade with Iran. So there were two issues for China. First, China did not want a precedent set that might allow an American intervention in Iran. Second, China, like Russia, welcomed the diversion of American power from the South China Sea, where it had been planning to shift forces.
None of this should surprise us. Unfortunately, China and Russia continue to play realpolitik at a time when the US foreign policy team seems unwilling to admit that such power politics even exist. Russia’s dispatch of a Naval flotilla (which included an aircraft carrier) last month to the Syrian port of Tartous was a message strongly sent to both NATO and the United States. The Russian vessels comprised an “influence squadron” if ever there was one. The clear signal to NATO, the members of which share the continent with Russia, was a not-so-subtle “HANDS OFF”. With Russian resurgence a distinct possibility amongst a largely disarmed Europe, and Russian control of the natural gas valves that supply the key NATO economies, the message will be heeded. For the United States, that message, and the message of China’s and Russia’s veto, is slightly more ominous:
What we have now seen is that China and Russia recognize the battlefield and for now are prepared to side with Iran against the United States, a move that makes clear sense from a balance of power perspective.
Perspective. Spelled out very well by STRATFOR.
“…now it is time to think!”
This statement, alternately attributed to Winston Churchill and Ernest Rutherford, was the baseline theme of all of yesterday’s speaking and panel sessions here at USNI/AFCEA West 2012.
But is it a fair statement? And is it accurate?
The implication of that statement is that senior military and civilian officials in the Defense Department have been accustomed to throwing money at problems rather than thinking through a solution. And this questionable practice is the reason for “bloated” Defense budgets in the post-9/11 world.
I disagree. While undoubtedly there are inefficiencies in Defense spending, and more can be purchased for the dollars spent, I simply don’t buy into the notion that the statement implies.
Much is made of the “doubling” of the Defense budget between 2000 and 2011, but little is said of the effects of the “Peace Dividend” and the acquisition “holiday” of the 1990s. In yesterday’s shipbuilding panel, of which more will be written soon, Mr. Mike Petters from Huntington Ingalls Industries (the shipbuilder formerly known as Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock, among other names) gave us some interesting insights as to the effects such uneven procurement and “holidays” have on building ships. The cost to the manufacturer of sitting idle, and of sudden restart at a surge level, is considerable. Elsewhere, in the Navy-Marine Corps Team panel, there was also significant discussion of the very real problems experienced by prime and sub-contractors when production drops below minimums for business solvency, or unpredictable dry spells and cancellations occur.
The costs of fighting two wars that represent a level of commitment of a single Major Regional Conflict (MRC) in 1990s parlance undoubtedly drove up Defense budgets, with personnel increases for the Army and the Marine Corps, operating costs, ammunition and fuel, aircraft and ground equipment maintenance and repair, and rapid acquisitions of vital equipment like MRAP vehicles as the dollar drivers. Many of those rapid acquisitions centered on burgeoning technology and unanticipated requirements, and anticipated requirements that had not been met (up-armored M1114 HMMWVs) in anywhere near sufficient numbers over the previous decade.
However, I cannot agree that the services, especially the notoriously tight-fisted Marine Corps, suddenly spent the last decade as profligate spenders without rhyme or reason, as if they had their parents’ credit card on a college weekend. If they did, then such did not occur at the tactical level.
Today, with US military involvement with Iraq at an end, and Afghanistan employing a small fraction of the US Military (90,000 of 1.44 million, just 6.2% of personnel), the “pivot” of the focus of our military to the Pacific region and the execution of the Cooperative Strategy requires meaningful commitment of adequate resources to counter the capabilities of a fast-rising near-peer in China.
While comments from each of the speakers and most panel members were couched in terms of required and critical capabilities, there was acknowledgement of the budget axe that will be the final arbiter of which capabilities we can afford, and which we cannot. Where and when that axe falls will determine this nation’s ability to execute its National Military Strategy, and by extension, its National Security Strategy.
Doing “more with less”, another phrase often heard yesterday, is a hackneyed and trite bit of platitude that is a signal that what we truly have is not a capabilities-based Defense budget, but budget-constrained Defense capabilities. You do not do more with less, you do less with less. That, whether it is a popular sentiment or not, is an inviolate fact of life. To the vast preponderance of the men and women of the US Military, who have always done as much as possible with what was given them through two protracted wars, the idea that thinking only takes place when all the money has been spent is an affront to them and is dismissive of their courage and commitment.
If I don’t hear Churchill’s words applied to our Military ever again, it will be too soon. If there is a ringing of truth in them, it should be in the ears of those who wear stars and wide gold stripes. The rest of us have been thinking all along.
On the warm evening of 17 December 1939, the German panzerschiff KMS Graf Spee glided silently into the shipping channel of the River Plate (Rio de la Plata) at the mouth of the harbor in Montevideo, Uruguay. She cleared the channel at about 1830 local time, and the crowds gathered pierside (and beside their radios in England) assumed she was headed to sea to re-engage Commodore Harwood’s HMS Cumberland and two battered light cruisers, Ajax and Achilles.
Graf Spee had haunting connections to the waters in which she found herself. She was named for Admiral Maximillian Graf von Spee, who, with his two sons, and his Sudseegeschwader of cruisers Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, Nurnberg, Leipzig, and Dresden had met their ends off South America in the Battle of the Falkands, a battle that included an eerie parallel to the events of December 1939, and was fought just nine hundred miles from where Graf Spee now sailed, almost exactly twenty five years before.
What the crowds who watched the drama didn’t know was that Graf Spee was manned by a skeleton crew of officers and senior rates. Her captain, Hans Langsdorff, had made the decision to scuttle his ship. Graf Spee came to a stop at about 2000, when her remaining crew were taken off by tug. Scuttling charges exploded, along with munitions in her magazines, in the fading evening light.
For many, including the leadership of the Third Reich, the move seemed inexplicable, even cowardly. Further examination in the aftermath of events reveals a situation of serious damage to Graf Spee, a touching humanity from her Captain, and a web of British deceit that forced the German Captain’s hand.
On 13 December, Graf Spee engaged in a dawn running fight against Harwood’s force of HMS Exeter, as well as light cruisers Ajax and Achilles. Graf Spee’s six 11-in (28cm) guns wrecked Exeter, and damaged Achilles and Ajax. However, in the exchange Graf Spee was struck no fewer than thirty times. Hits had wrecked her Arado float planes, her foretop rangefinder, and her galley. More importantly, Graf Spee’s oil purifier, required for her diesel engines, was damaged by an 8-in hit from Exeter, leaving her with fuel for just twenty hours’ operation.
In the mean time, British intelligence spread disinformation that heavy Royal Navy units which included battlecruiser Renown and aircraft carrier Ark Royal, lay over the horizon off Montevideo to intercept Graf Spee. In actuality, any Royal Navy units capable of defeating the German were unable to intercept until the 19th at the earliest. But the rumors were convincing enough for the numerous German agents to faithfully report the information to the German consulate, and to Langsdorff.
Captain Langsdorff, his ship crippled by the damage from the fight on the 13th, believed he was facing a greatly superior force. Graf Spee, even at full strength, was four knots slower than Renown, and her 11-in guns, while with comparable range to Renown’s 15-in (38cm) main battery, were markedly inferior in weight of shot and penetration. She certainly was no match for the air contingent aboard Ark Royal.
A gentleman warrior who managed to destroy nine merchant vessels at the outbreak of war without the loss of life, Langsdorff chose not to send his ship and his crew to what he believed to be certain death. Instead, Graf Spee is scuttled in the shallow waters of the River Plate estuary. Two days after his ship is destroyed by her own crew, Captain Langsdorff wraps himself in the colors of the Imperial Navy, and takes his own life. His crew is interned, and the thirty-seven dead among his crew buried with honors in a Montevideo cemetery.
Twenty-five years earlier, British cryptanalysts had broken the German Naval code, and had baited a trap for Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee in the form of generating a fake order to raid the British coaling station at Port Stanley in the Falklands. There, Sturdee’s battlecruisers awaited the Sudseegeschwader, overtaking the worn-out German cruisers and sinking them after a short pursuit.
In 1914, the British deception pushed the German warships into a one-sided battle that led to their destruction. In 1939, it was the ruse of that very threat of overwhelming force that caused the self-destruction of the pocket-battleship named for the commander of that 1914 squadron. Twenty-five years and less than a thousand miles away.
In a great example of “creative friction” at its highest level of practice, we find ourselves with the authors of Red Star Over the Pacific on one end – and a great naval mind, Dr. Norman Friedman, on the other.
I think good people can fall on either side of the arguments presented – and I encourage you to read both articles to decide for yourself even if you have not read the book in question. That isn’t what this post is about though.
In their response to Dr. Friedman, the authors brought up a topic that will have everyone with an Operational Planning background nodding their heads. Especially those who have taught Operational Planning or better yet have had to lead an Operational Planning team – their words will ring true, and might even open up a scar or two – or even trigger a migraine.
Friedman’s worst sin, though, is to succumb to (if not revel in) what the late Michael Handel termed the “tacticization of strategy.” Battlefield commanders and many civilians are prone to become spellbound by technological and tactical wizardry. In so doing, they lose sight of the higher – and ultimately decisive – levels of competition and warfare. Since World War II, observes Handel, “technological means have started to wag the strategic dog.” Andrew Krepinevich strikes a similar note in The Army and Vietnam, faulting the U.S. Army for prosecuting a “strategy of tactics.” U.S. forces seldom lost a tactical engagement with Vietnamese regular or irregular forces, yet they were unable to derive strategic or political gains from these engagements. Conflating equipment and tactics with strategy rendered an unbroken string of battlefield triumphs largely moot.
Knowing your place; a concept even more difficult to accept in the era of the “Strategic Corporal” and all the implications of it. To keep your place takes discipline, knowledge, and better yet a command climate that allows someone to pull you back when you drift away from your proper place.
Strategic planning does not need to concern itself with tactical details (AKA 3,000 nm screwdriver) if all three levels function properly. Not just a Strategic level problem, the temptation is even greater at the Operational level where the tendency to drift down to the Tactical is greatest. People plan where they are the most comfortable, and if you just came back from the Tactical level and haven’t mentally adjusted to the fact you now have to think and plan at the Operational or Strategic – you are setting yourself up for disruptive planning, intrusive direction & guidance, and eventually Tactical level paralyses.
Worse that that – if you are in a decision making position at the Strategic or Operational level – and you are not doing that job from that perspective – who is? The answer is, no one. That is where historians have their fun.
Adding to that problem is the amplifying effect. A poorly constructed or ill-disciplined Strategic guidance results in disjointed and inefficient Operational level direction & guidance. That in turn leads to Tactical anarchy. Where does that lead? Well, not to the “W” column.
Fun stuff … fun stuff. As a side note, if you are interested in hearing the authors discuss their book and China in general, EagleOne and I interviewed them back in Jan; you can hear the archived show here. We’ve also interviewed Dr. Friedman twice, once in 2010, and again earlier this year.
George was a neighbor and friend with a remarkable past. I had lived across the street from George for a number of years, and always enjoyed the times when he would amble across busy Route 5 to talk to me when he’d see me out with the rake or the mower. We’d talk football and a host of other sports. He’d been a magnificent athlete, even as an older man, setting records for his age-group in many track and field events for seniors well into his 70s. He was an icon of the tight-knit community who’d been a high school coach and mentor for more than forty years. Tall and dignified, he had remained in excellent shape until the inevitable ravages of time caught his heels in his mid-80s. Even then, he remained a commanding figure.
Like many his age, George was a Second World War Veteran, serving in the United States Army in New Guinea and New Britain in the South Pacific. (This was the same area my Father served in as an MM2 aboard an LCT.)
What I didn’t know, and found out only after quite some time, was that George had been stationed at Schofield Barracks on December 7th, 1941. After a bit of prompting, I was able to get George to relate the story of that morning to me. George had enlisted in the Army upon graduation from Boston University in 1938, where he had lettered three times in football, and twice in track and field. On that fateful Sunday morning, George, then a Sergeant, was scheduled to play football for his regiment, the famous Wolfhounds of the 27th Infantry, against the arch-rival 8th Artillery. He had slept in and decided to skip Sunday mass, and was just getting up to shave at 0750, when he heard the hum of aircraft engines, lots of them, over the runway at Wheeler Field.
Squinting to see in the bright sunshine, George saw the large red roundels on the fuselages of the green-painted aircraft and knew instantly what was about to happen. He described how, because they had stored a substantial amount of ammunition in the Company barracks arms rooms, the various companies of the 27th Infantry were able to quickly bring several .30 caliber machine guns and BARs to bear against the attacking Japanese aircraft. George could hear the rumble of bombs exploding in the fleet anchorage at Pearl Harbor, and see the sky blackened by smoke. However, he would not get a true view of the carnage until a day later, when his company was moving toward fighting positions to defend against the Japanese attack which everyone was sure was imminent. The wrecked airplanes and hangars of Wheeler Field were a harbinger of a scene of even more complete destruction at Ford Island. George described the fleet anchorage as a “shambles”, and recalled seeing every battleship sunk, or capsized, with Arizona still burning like a torch.
The Japanese invasion never came, of course. The recovery from the attack began, and eventually an uneasy sense of order prevailed. But, as George noted at the end of his tale, every man knew that their lives had changed dramatically, and forever.
George never did get to play that football game against the 8th Artillery. From that day on, everyone was on the same team, and the games were finished.
George eventually received a commission in the US Army, and served in the South Pacific as a Captain and Combat Engineer. After the war, he remained in the National Guard, retiring in 1962 at the rank of Colonel. His vintage “crush hat” is one of my prized possessions. George died in November of 2004, at the age of 89. His funeral was, sadly, held on the same day that news came of the death of an area Marine killed in the Second Battle of Fallujah. I think of George every December 7th, and of the story of his remarkable participation in one of the watershed events in our Nation’s history.
Like Karl Marlantes I was a rifle platoon commander in Vietnam, 1968-69, albeit with the 1st Marine Division. Like Karl Marlantes I was wounded twice, albeit I lost my left eye. Like Karl Marlantes I have been visited by ghosts of the past, and have wrestled demons, and prevailed. Like Karl Marlantes I now struggle to exorcise reoccurring apparitions from the past through writing. I remained in the Marine Corps as an infantry officer, albeit a one eyed infantry officer; and, have commanded, post-Vietnam, an infantry company through a Joint Task Force. I would like to meet Karl Marlantes.
Reading both What It Is Like To Go To War, and Marlantes’ 2010 novel, Matterhorn, can be challenging, at times engaging, yet both are ultimately unsatisfactory. Even allowing for novelistic license certain plot themes in Matterhorn lack authenticity. What is also ignored, certainly within the novelist’s prerogative, is that starting in 1968 under then MajGen Raymond G. Davis, USMC, the 3rd Marine Division shifted from being tied to static defense positions into a coherent helicopter-borne strategic assault force. Davis, no stranger to combat, was the recipient of the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star, and the Bronze Star. Amongst the fifty division commanders then in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, Commander, MACV, rated Davis as his best. What It Is Like Go To War does not tell us what it is like to go war; it does accurately, often with poignancy and with a knowledge borne only by those who have experienced prolonged and fierce ground combat, and often with deep feeling, portray the horrors and diabolically all-consuming attraction of combat. There is an instance of a curious intertexuality between the novel and the non-fiction account for which it is difficult to account. That the writing of the books served therapeutic and cathartic purposes is plausible, even discernible, particularly in What It Is Like To Go To War. Both books capture well the uniqueness, and sheer claustiphobic terror, of mountainous jungle fighting. But so have other books. Leon Uris’ Battle Cry, and Combat Infantry: A Soldier’s Story, by Donald E. Anderson, and D. E. Anderson, Jr., (to name two of many) come to mind.
Near the end of What It Is Like To Go To War, Marlantes cites Robert Graves, the poet, and author of Goodbye to All That. He also diagnoses Graves suffering from PTSD, certainly not a revelation about ground-combat veterans of the First World War, or, for that matter, about the veterans of the siege of Petersburg during our own Civil War Nevertheless, even today PTSD remains little understood and in certain medical circles is controversial. The counter argument in this instance is that the effects of heavy and prolonged artillery shelling of infantrymen were almost unknown and certainly not understood. Combat veterans of that war, like Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, CBE, MC (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man), also an excellent war poet, tried to assuage their afflictions through writing. Though Wilfred Owen was killed one week before the Armistice, read his poems and you see a man grappling to come to terms with the horrors he has borne.
The kaleidoscopic array of subject matter in What It Is Like To Go To War hinders the author in explaining and burdens the reader in understanding what is really going on here. There is throughout the book a series of changing phases and events obliquely supported by cites from classical literature, some rather arcane, and in today’s military environment, anachronistic. In a book whose tone fluctuates between serious thought and banal personal observation recondite purpose results. Marlantes’ striving to sound erudite while switching to vulgar commonalty has a self-cancelling effect. Marlantes has something very important to say; he just doesn’t argue or express it clearly. This is a shame, because he has seen the elephant, something a relatively few military personnel actually do. He just hasn’t adequately described what the trunk, the leg, and the tail all add up to. This reader, upon finishing the book, reflected that Marlantes has taken on a difficult task well worth undertaking, and definitely germane, but an effort that should put aside Oliver Stone-like imagery and metaphors suspiciously tailored for contemporary Walter Mittys who voyeuristically transport themselves into the phantasmagoric orbit of Mars.
What It Is Like To Go To War would have benefited from an index and bibliography. A good editor would have avoided misnomers like mortars having a ”tripod leg;” U. S. infantry mortars have bipod legs.