Archive for the 'Books' Category
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.
The medal above is the “George Medal”, which was an unofficial award commemorating the early struggles of the Marines on Guadalcanal. The image depicts, legend has it, the sleeve of Frank Jack Fletcher, with his hand dropping a hot potato onto the Marines ashore. The inscription is “Facia Georgius“. “Let George do It”.
Let me state that, in my opinion, James D. Hornfischer is unquestionably one of the finest writers of Naval history in the last half-century. His books, especially Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, are iconic works that tell superbly the tales of the US Navy in the Second World War in the Pacific. However, during a recent episode of MIDRATS, Mr. Hornfischer’s assertions about the US Marines’ history of the Guadalcanal campaign are entirely incorrect. The issue at hand in those assertions is the decision of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher to depart the Guadalcanal area on the morning of 9 August 1942, after just two days of supporting the amphibious operations ashore.
Fletcher was concerned with the risk to his carriers, Saratoga, Wasp, and Enterprise, by having them tied to support of operations ashore. While understandable, what Fletcher refused to acknowledge was that with amphibious operations, once the landing takes place and forces are ashore, a commander is all in, and must support the forces ashore. The landings by the Marines were the entire reason for having Task Force 61 in the waters of the Solomons. Admiral Turner (commanding the amphibious task force, TF 62) and First Marine Division Commander General A. A. Vandegrift argued the point heatedly in a conference aboard Saratoga, but to no avail.
Chapter 5 of the splendid History of the First Marine Division, “The Old Breed” (Infantry Journal Press, 1949), begins:
The feeling of expendability is difficult to define. It is loneliness, it is a feeling of being abandoned, and it is something more, too: it is as if events over which you have no control have put a ridiculously low price tag on your life.
When word got around Guadalcanal in the second week of August that the Navy had taken off and left the Marines, the feeling of expendability became a factor in the battle.
“I know I had a feeling” says a man who was there, “and I think a lot of others felt the same way, that we’d never get off that damned island alive. Nobody said this out loud at the time. I was afraid to say it for fear it’s come true”.
“But”, says a Captain, “there was an awful lot of talk about Bataan.”
Even the greenest Second Lieutenant in the Division knew enough to understand that an amphibious operation cannot be sustained without Naval support.
The Guadalcanal Campaign, the official historical monograph published by the USMC History Division, is somewhat more matter-of-fact, but still states:
The withdrawal of the supply ships, therefore, was, from a troop standpoint, little short of a catastrophe, but Admiral Turner’s decision was not changed.
And sums up the situation of the Marines ashore this way:
The withdrawal of the transports had left the Marine forces with only a part of their initially scanty supplies ashore. Ammunition supply was adequate, but the situation in the matter of food was serious. Even with the acquisition of a considerable stock of rice and canned food from the captured Japanese area, supplies were so short that it was necessary on 12 August to begin a program of two meals per day. There was a similar shortage of defensive material, barbed wire (of which only 18 spools were landed), and entrenching tools and sand-bags.
The most serious shortage of all, however, from the point of view of the engineers who were charged with the completion of the airfield, was that of specialized equipment necessary for the task. No power shovels had been landed, nor dump trucks.
So, on 9 August 1942, the day Admiral Fletcher departs with his warships of TF 61, and the cargo vessels of Admiral Turner’s Amphibious TF 62, the Marines of the First Marine Division are ashore. But not all of them. Vandegrift’s reserve, the 2nd Marines, is still embarked. Those that are ashore have barely 96 hours of ammunition. They are short of food. The enemy strength and disposition is largely unknown. Their lifeline, the airstrip, is not yet repaired and has no aircraft. They are all but defenseless against the frequent Japanese air strikes.
Vandegrift and his staff had agreed to come ashore with an initial load plan that represented significantly less than their minimum requirement due to constraints on cargo space, with the promise that the Navy would surge supplies to them. Now, most of even that small amount was out of reach of his Marines, headed to sea in Turner’s cargo holds, as the latter was forced to withdraw when Admiral Fletcher’s warships departed.
But for three absolutely miraculous occurrences in the fortunes of war, the Guadalcanal landings might have been a disaster comparable to the loss of the Philippines just a few months before.
The first occurrence is that the Japanese commander, caught off guard, underestimate both the strength of the landing force (believing only a few thousand ashore), and the fighting spirit of the Marines, and did not move decisively to reinforce the small garrison on Guadalcanal with elements of the 17th Army that were available. (A single reinforced battalion of the 28th Regiment, about 1,100 Japanese, was given the mission of re-taking the island.)
The second was the fortuitous capture, with slight damage, of a single bulldozer, which the Marines used to maximum effect to complete a 2,700 foot airstrip on the Lunga plain. Without that stroke of luck, several weeks likely would have passed before any aircraft could have operated out of Henderson Field.
The third near-miracle was the capture of large stores of Japanese canned fish and rice, which becomes a staple of the Marines’ diet in the absence of rations still in the holds of the Navy ships.
Meanwhile, the arduous task of building of bunkers and of obstacles to defend the Marine positions and the all-important airfield, was done by hand in the searing jungle heat. The Marines, short of wire and sandbags, improvised as best as possible. By the time the 2nd Marines arrived (22 August) and additional supplies were landed, the Marines had been engaged in a number of short, sharp fights with the Japanese, the first of dozens and hundreds of bloody slugging matches in the rotting heat of the jungle on Guadalcanal.
The fight for Guadalcanal has been well-documented, and by the time last of the First Marine Division embarked for good from the island, the Division had suffered nearly 700 killed, 1,300 wounded, and more than 8,000 sick with malaria and other jungle diseases. For veterans of that time on Guadalcanal, men who didn’t have our perspective of inevitable victory either on Guadalcanal or in the Solomons, their resentment of (at the time) the US Navy and of Admiral Fletcher (which persists to this day) is entirely warranted.
Fletcher’s departure with his carriers, claiming the need to fuel (“always fueling”, wrote Morrison) was an exceedingly poorly considered move. His decision to do so infuriated Admiral Turner, commanding TF 62, who understood that his ships and their cargo were they keys to survival for the Marines ashore. While Fletcher’s aircraft carriers were precious commodities, his decision to minimize risk to those units had the effect of placing the entire of Operation Watchtower in considerable danger of failure. The lack of supplies and support which the Marines ashore endured in the opening weeks of the fight for Guadalcanal negated Vandegrift’s plans for immediate offensive operations (with an expanded airfield) to clear the island, left them all but defenseless to Japanese air and naval forces, and prolonged what became a protracted and savage fight under unspeakably miserable conditions.
In his efforts to protect his carriers, Fletcher inexcusably risked something even more precious and irreplaceable. The only trained and equipped amphibious force that the United States had in the entire Pacific. The loss of the carriers would have had severe operational implications, but defeat on Guadalcanal, resulting in an evacuation, or worse, capitulation, would have been strategic disaster.
Attempts at “reassessment” of Fletcher’s decision to pull support for the Marines on Guadalcanal, and justifying that decision six decades hence as “prudent”, are exercises in revisionism mixed with ample doses of 20/20 hindsight. The Marines’ bitterness at Fletcher is well-placed. Asserting differently dismisses the situation the Marines faced in mid-August of 1942 vis a vis the enemy as well as their own logistics. The Marines would gain a new respect for the Navy once Fletcher and the overmatched and timid Ghormley are replaced, the latter by the legendary William F. Halsey, who immediately visited Vandegrift and the Marines on Guadalcanal. Halsey’s “battle-mindedness” and promise of the support of the Navy was a refreshing and comforting change from his predecessor, and was immediately reflected in the morale of the Marines ashore.
Mr. Hornfischer’s goal in his exploration of Naval history, to put himself (and his reader) in the shoes of the commander, is extremely admirable. He would be remiss, however, if the sets of shoes he places himself in do not include the muddy boondockers of a First Division Marine on Guadalcanal. Were Mr. Hornfischer able to interview the First Marine Division veterans of Guadalcanal forty years ago, he would have gotten their perspective on those weeks without Navy support, expressed in the most colorful of language. Which needs no revision.
Interesting comments from the esteemed author, James D. Hornfischer:
I’m delighted to find this colloquy unfolding in this reputable forum between such well-informed service professionals.
As I tried fervently to convey in NEPTUNE’S INFERNO, I’m sympathetic to the plight of the Guadalcanal Marines who were forced to persevere without air cover or full provisions for a period of time that they could not know at the time. Doing their business under these conditions, they were gallant and resourceful as ever. They are entitled not only to their pride, but also their chagrin. The question is whether the study of this history should end there. Is their heat-of-the-moment rage sufficient to serve as the final word on Frank Jack Fletcher and the Navy’s performance in the campaign? This question pretty well answers itself in the asking.
The blogger labels as revisionist any assessment of Fletcher that does not comport with the partisan, Corps-centric assessments formulated during and immediately after the war and abetted by Samuel Eliot Morison (and never rebutted by Fletcher himself).
The Marines’ resentment of Frank Jack Fletcher was well placed in its day. Our burden today is to see it in light of everything else we know about the complex circumstances that attended the campaign. Most of these, of course, were invisible from the beach. In NEPTUNE’S INFERNO I tried to thread that needle without resorting to the kind of interservice partisanship that characterizes many of the Corps-centric accounts of the campaign.
Admiral Nimitz instructed his commanders at all times to operate under the guiding star of “calculated risk,” that is, to weigh the potential benefits of an action against its potential costs and drawbacks. In choosing how long to expose the Pacific’s only three carriers in direct support of the Guadalcanal landings, Admiral Fletcher determined how much risk he was willing to accept in the opening act of Operation Watchtower. He informed his colleagues in advance of the operation and his decision was extensively debated in advance.
Today, it’s all over but the shouting. History bears out the wisdom of his determination. The Marines were left without carrier air support from the carriers’ withdrawal on August 9 until August 20, when the USS Long Island delivered the body of the Cactus Air Force. The consequences of those eleven days of exposure turned out, happily, to be negligible. The Japanese did nothing to seriously threaten the U.S. position on Guadalcanal during that time. The carriers returned in time to fight the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. (His conduct of the battle demonstrated the sincerity of his caution; he ordered one of his three carriers, the Wasp, out of the battle area to refuel.) Fighting with one hand behind his back, so to speak, he used the Enterprise and Saratoga to deflect the Japanese push. He saved his fleet for that moment and the others that followed. One could well speculate that had he left his carriers near Guadalcanal continuously from August 7, they might have been struck, making the close victory of Eastern Solomons impossible and imperiling the Marine position even more seriously.
This, much like Marine partisans’ complaints of “inexcusable risks to the landing force,” is a fruitless exercise in speculation. It’s only proper to damn Fletcher—or say the “risk” he took was “inexcusable”—by assuming an alternate universe of events where his decisions led to disaster. That’s when you ask the question Why and cast the arrows of judgment at the perpetrators.
It seems reasonable to judge the final wisdom of a particular risk by looking at the results that flowed from it. If we do that, there is no compelling basis for labeling Admiral Fletcher anything other than a winner.
As events actually unfolded, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons marked the beginning of the Navy’s sustained commitment to fight in defense of the Marine position on Guadalcanal, risking its most valuable assets the whole way through. By the time it was over, the Navy had fought seven major naval actions in which its KIA outnumbered infantry KIA by a factor of nearly 3 to 1.
It is entirely coherent to sympathize with the authentic anger of the Marines on Cactus, and simultaneously recognize the balance of merit favoring Admiral Fletcher’s controversial decision. The Marines lacked air cover for eleven days, and a large portion of their supplies, and suffered the bracing uncertainty how long those circumstances would attend.
By the time it was over, the three-to-one KIA ratio stood starkly apparent to anyone who was watching, and victory absolves all sins. General Vandegrift remembered the November 13 deaths of Admirals Scott and Callaghan with his famous dispatch “lifting our battered helmets in deepest appreciation.” To wallow in the bile of interservice partisanship, from a tendentious evaluation of a fragment of events, in spite of the actual outcome of history, is little more than a parlor game that negates the final judgment of the 1st MarDiv commander himself regarding the performance of the fleet. Nearly 70 years after events, we can do better than that.
And response from the “blogger”:
The questioning of Admiral Fletcher’s decision to remove the carriers of TF 61 from supporting the Marines ashore at Guadalcanal is far more than “a fruitless exercise in speculation”, or “bile of interservice partisanship”.
To assert that, because the Japanese failed to take advantage of a golden opportunity to interdict the US drive into the Solomons and bring about a potentially crippling strategic setback, that the decision Fletcher made to withdraw was correct, is to assert that “all’s well that ends well”. Such is a singularly dangerous approach to the study of military history, as it goes great lengths toward the already-prevalent tendency to believe that the winners have little to learn from an ultimately successful outcome.
In any amphibious operation, support from the sea is critical to success, irrespective of the service executing the amphibious assault. Nimitz’ concept of “calculated risk” is in no way sufficient to excuse the willful passing of initiative to the enemy in the very place that was the US main effort at the time in the Pacific. Fletcher left Vandegrift without the forces and supplies to execute his plan ashore, in fact with barely enough to defend a thin perimeter against an enemy whose strength and disposition was largely unknown. That the enemy did not seize that initiative is to our eternal good fortune. We have several bloody examples of what happened in amphibious operations when the initial advantage of the initiative is allowed to pass. At Anzio seventeen months later, Army General Lucas dithered in his beachhead while Kesselring acted, reinforcing the threatened area as fast as he could with every available formation at his disposal. The result was a bloody slugging match against what was an enemy well prepared to meet the breakout. We should be grateful that Hyakutake was no Kesselring.
It remains speculation, as well, whether Fletcher represented truthfully to Ghormley that both General Vandegrift and Admiral Turner had stated that 96 hours was the time required for full unloading of the transports. Both had done so, and had argued vehemently against Fletcher’s decision while aboard Saratoga.
No, this debate is not “partisan service” anything. Initiative is among the most precious commodities on the battlefield, to be surrendered only at dear cost. Fletcher did so, and the Japanese did not take it. He was, as were the Marines ashore, fortunate in the extreme.
As stated above, the Marines by and large came to respect greatly the efforts of the Navy in the waters around Guadalcanal. It has been a subject of intense study on my part, and worthy of the highest of admiration for the bravery and tenacity of the American Sailor. However, the anger of the Marines and their contempt for Fletcher is understandable. The loss of the transports and the Division reserve crippled the commander ashore, and prevented the undertaking of immediate offensive operations that could have cleared the island before Japanese reinforcements arrived in significant numbers. Instead, Guadalcanal became a protracted fight that ended only with the evacuation of the Japanese survivors in early 1943.
Fletcher’s decision should be recognized for what it was, a major tactical blunder that could have had severe strategic consequences. That he, and his boss, Ghormley, were removed from command, speaks volumes. That is true, seventy years or seven hundred years after the battle.
A few minutes past midnight on 30 July 1945, the Japanese submarine I-58 fired a spread of six torpedoes at the US heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) hitting her twice on the starboard side. The first impact blew off forty feet of bow, and the second struck under the bridge, detonating a 5″ magazine and breaking the vessel’s keel. The torpedoes killed some 300 to 350 of the 1,196 crewmen aboard Indianapolis. The ship settled quickly by the bow, rolled to starboard, and sank in twelve minutes.
The three and a half days of agony endured by the crew of Indianapolis, and the monumental mistakes made by the United States Navy in not discovering the loss of the ship, followed by the unseemly court martial of Captain Charles B. McVay III, make the tale of the sinking of this gallant ship one of the most compelling and disturbing of the entire of the Second World War.
Indianapolis was a 10,000-ton Portland-class “treaty cruiser” built under the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty. The limits on displacement meant that the entire of the three classes of “treaty cruisers” were very lightly protected for their size, earning them the derisive nickname of “tinclads”. Laid down in 1930 and commissioned in 1932, Indianapolis nevertheless participated in most of the major naval campaigns of the Pacific War, earning ten battle stars and lending her 8″ main battery to bombardments in the Gilberts and the Marshalls, including Tarawa and Kwajalein. She had served as the flagship for Admiral Spruance and the 5th Fleet, present in the Marianas, Palau, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Indianapolis would earn ten battle stars for her service.
Newly repaired from a kamikaze hit that blew holes in her stern and damaged both shafts, beginning on 16 July Indianapolis had raced from Pearl Harbor to Tinian on a highly secret mission carrying components of the atomic bombs that would end the war. Following delivery of her secret cargo on Tinian, Indianapolis was proceeding to Guam at 17 knots when she had her fatal rendezvous with I-58.
When the ship did not appear on 31 July, she was not reported overdue. Nobody searched for her or her crew. In the eighty-four hours between the sinking of their ship and the beginning of rescue operations, more than five hundred sailors died in the waters. Thirst and dehydration, wounds, exposure, exhaustion, despair, all played a part in the story. But it was the sharks who did the real killing. The unspeakable ordeal thinned the ranks of floating men over the three nights and four days until salvation came on 2 August in the form of a PBY which had been alerted by a PV-1 Ventura flying anti-submarine patrols. The PBY pilot landed (against orders) and began gathering the most in danger into the hull and onto the floats of the aircraft. The PBY also dropped rafts and flotation devices for those in what were by then soggy kapoks. The PBY also overflew and alerted Cecil J. Doyle (DE-368), skippered by a future Secretary of the Navy, who (without orders) immediately diverted to begin rescuing the survivors of Indianapolis.
In the end, only 316 men of the nearly 900 who abandoned the sinking Indianapolis survived the sharks. More than 800 crewmen were lost with the ship, one of the largest losses of life for a single US Navy ship in the entire war.
A great injustice was added to terrible tragedy when the US Navy brought Captain McVay (who had been awarded a Silver Star previously for heroism under fire) in front of a Court of Inquiry. The result was recommendation for a General Court Martial on the charges of failing to order abandon ship, and hazarding his vessel with a failure to zig-zag.
The Court Martial convened on 3 December 1945, over the objections of both Chester Nimitz and Ray Spruance. The resulting proceeding is a dark stain on the honor of the US Navy and both Navy Secretary Forrestal and CNO Admiral King. Seemingly ignored by the court were Captain McVay’s request for an escorting destroyer, which was denied, as well as the failure of the staff at Guam to inform Captain McVay properly of Japanese submarine activity. The thoroughly-botched Movement Reporting System, which never listed Indianapolis as overdue, received scant attention. Worse, despite testimony from ship’s crew that visibility on that fateful night was fair to poor, despite the order to zig-zag being at the Captain’s discretion, and in the face of the opinion of the Japanese captain of I-58 that zig-zagging was ineffective and would not have made a difference, Captain McVey was found guilty of hazarding his vessel for failing to zig-zag.
Despite Nimitz’ success in having Forrestal restore Captain McVey to duty, and McVey’s promotion upon retirement to Rear Admiral, Charles Butler McVay III lived a troubled two decades following his retirement from the Navy in 1949. Following the death of his wife from cancer, Rear Admiral McVey died by his own hand at his Litchfield, Connecticut home in November, 1968. In 2001, a bi-partisan effort in Congress officially exonerated Rear Admiral McVay in the sinking of USS Indianapolis. It was, while good news, thirty three years late.
We know the name Indianapolis from some excellent works such as the movie Mission of the Shark, and Dan Kurtzman’s magnificent book Fatal Voyage. But our generation was first re-introduced to the tragedy of the tale from the 1975 movie Jaws, when Quint tells Hooper and Brody of his experience as a sailor who endured the sinking of Indianapolis and the sharks which killed so many. For my money, perhaps the best eight seconds of acting in memory is done by Richard Dreyfus (Hooper), when, in the midst of the laughter and comraderie, his expression and demeanor change so dramatically as the significance of Quint’s missing tattoo hits home.
Sixty-six years on, let us remember those Sailors and Marines of Indianapolis whose lives were lost in the warm Marianas waters, and pray for those whose grief and anguish would not subside. Shipmates, loved ones, and Rear Admiral Charles B. McVay. And let us vow never again allow the US Navy to stain the honor and reputation of brave men whose efforts and courage could not alter the grim equation of war at sea.
This is a very brief review and recommendation for a book that I discovered recently. Admiral Wylie’s short Military Strategy (about 85 pages in the original edition) was published in 1967, but written in the mid-fifties while Wylie was “at sea in a single-screw low-speed amphibious cargo ship.” He remarked these ships were “not demanding of a captain’s attention as is, for instance, a destroyer.”My copy was published in 1989 by the Naval Institute Press as part of their Classics of Seapower series and has an excellent preface by John B. Hattendorf that will give those unfamiliar with Wylie’s life experience a good foundation. This copy also has a postscript written by Wylie “twenty years later” and three related essays published previously in Proceedings magazine.
Given Military Strategy’s brevity, I’ll resist the urge to provide long quotes. Wylie and an associate’s search for articulating the relevance of the navy in the never-ending budget battles brought them in contact with the famed mathematician John von Neumann of Princeton. Wylie used a paraphrase of von Neumann as a starting point: “With respect to strategy as a subject of study, its intellectual framework is not clearly outlined, and its vocabulary is almost nonexistent. These two primary tasks are badly in need of doing…” He sets out to do just that and does a nice job.
Wylie defines strategy as: “A plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment.” He discusses the military mind and strategy, and how often the military focuses on principles to the exclusion of real strategy. Wylie outlines methods of studying strategy that are simple and well thought-out. Wylie makes a compelling case for a general theory of strategy. He says: “A theory is simply an idea designed to account for actuality or to account for what the theorist thinks will come to pass in actuality. It is orderly rationalization of real or presumed patterns of events.” Further, he continually stresses the importance of assumptions being based in reality, and not wishful thinking or the last war/battle.
His chapter on existing theories is worth the price of the book. He provides a type of Cliff’s Notes overview of the four theories he sees as core: the maritime, the air, the continental, and the Maoist. Of the last, he masterfully lifted sections from Mao’s On Guerilla Warfare, Che Guevera on Guerilla Warfare, and Vo Ngugen Giap’s People’s War People’s Army. He observed of the later, “these books are not only theory, the portray a hard reality of contemporary warfare.” To our people in uniform, in particular, unfamiliar with these books, Wylie provides an accessible and informative introduction to the type of war being waged by Islamic jihadists and how they attempt shape the battle field.
He develops a brilliant point that destruction doesn’t necessarily translate into control, and that often destruction is driven more by emotion than strategy.
Wylie goes on to provide a general theory of strategy that, using his words, has “substance and validity, and practicality.” As Seydlitz89 said in a recent comment thread here: “Wylie is amazing. So many ideas in such a small book! He misread Clausewitz and overrated Liddell Hart – which are probably connected, but overall? He comes up with some very basic ideas about strategic theory which are ever sooooo useful. I’ve re-read his small book several times and always come up with something that either I’d forgotten or that I had missed earlier. Wylie’s basic approach to theory is as a practitioner, not as an academic, much like Clausewitz before him.”
Indeed, Wylie provides a nice scaffold for any type of strategy, military or business. For me his approach was refreshing in a genre where, more often than not, dogma and ego walk hand-in-hand. Time and again, he offers that his ideas may be wrong and encourages readers to think and wrestle with the concepts provided. Wylie writes in his postscript: “As far as I know, no one as ever paid attention to it [the book]. I don’t know whether this is because it is so clear and obviously valid that no one needs to, or because it is of no use at all. I suspect it could be the latter, but I really do not know.”
This little book comes with my highest recommendation. If you’re in uniform and just getting started with strategic concepts/thinking, this is an excellent place to start.
Interesting referenced titles:
Cross-posted on Zenpundit.com
If you look to the performance of the US Navy in World War II – the ships that made victory happen came out of the shipbuilding programs of the 1920s and 1930s. At a time with no computers or modern communication equipment – and working through naval treaty limitations as well as the financial challenges of the Great Depression – we saw incredible innovation and steadily improving ship designs. Why?
A lot of the credit is given to something the Navy had then, but does not have now; The General Board.
What was The General Board, what did it do, and is the Navy today suffering for the lack of one?
Join fellow USNI Bloggers CDR Salamander and EagleOne this Sunday, 10 JUL at 5-6pm EST to discuss the issue and more for the full hour with CDR John T. Kuehn, USN (Ret.), PhD – author of the USNI Press book, Agents of Innovation, and and earlier Sterling book Eyewitness Pacific Theater with Dennis Giangreco.
We have, many of us, the image in our heads of Somali pirates as poor, ragged, skinny teenagers with AK-47s and RPGs, crowded into leaky skiffs, somewhat ineffectually attempting the hijacking of merchant ships which pass close enough to the shore to be accessible. The smarter money has known for some time that this is hardly the case. Those “pirates” in the boats represent the very expendable low-cost labor end of an increasingly sophisticated and technologically capable system that has seen its profits soar in recent years, despite international efforts to clamp down on piracy off Africa’s horn. Which brings me to this very interesting article from Neil Ungerleider over at FastCompany.
It seems some of those massive ransoms collected by the pirates off Somalia in recent years is being reinvested in new technology, heavier and more capable weapons, and people with technical and language skill sets that have enhanced the effectiveness of pirate operations substantially. From the article:
In addition to random attacks on cargo and passenger ships, Somali pirates are increasingly relying on the use of GPS systems, satellite phones, and open-source intelligence such as shipping industry blogs in order to figure out the location of ships.
However, the most interesting weapon in the Somalian arsenal to western observers is the use of pirate-operated radar to locate targets at sea. Pirate “mother ships” with radar and advanced weapons capabilities have strayed far beyond the Horn of Africa to locales as far-flung as Madagascar, India, and the Persian Gulf.
Indeed, even with radar from pirate “mother ships”, it is a big ocean, but considerably smaller when you know where to look. Not surprisingly, penetration of shipping company and port operations data bases has been possible with money to pay those who have the capabilities, as well as:
…translators who interpret the bulk of information that filters in through the automatic tracking devices. These men, though not involved in the actual hijacking, decipher and break down information for the team. The ‘foot soldiers’ are given instructions that most often turn out to be successful. The men who call themselves Somali Coast Guards also invest time on the World Wide Web tracking and gathering vital information. For example, the pirate financiers visit the Maritime Bureau Website to check what strategies have been put in place to curtail their activities. They, in turn, feed the gang.
The article’s final paragraph should serve as warning to those whose philosophy is to ignore or pay off the pirates.
According to the European Union, a sharp uprise in Somali pirate attacks is expected in 2011, including the use of machine guns as an everyday weapon. Western governments are, in turn, stepping up their game–Britain is taking steps to provide merchant ships with weapons, which would be the first time since World War II that this has happened.
Such an appraisal, coinciding with US drone strikes in Somalia against Al Shabab targets, is cause for concern. The statement from the New York Times article that “American intelligence and military officials warn of increasing operational ties between the Shabab and the Qaeda franchise in Yemen, known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or A.Q.A.P.” should stand as a warning that those who are gleaning profits from the pirates are more than just Somali warlords.
At last autumn’s USNI Piracy Conference, a number of speakers showed great hesitation in acknowledging any link whatever between Somali pirates, Al-Shabab, and Al Qaeda. However, to many of us in the audience who had watched our enemies for some time, and had in some cases fought actively against them either in uniform or as a part of our national security apparatus, the linking of these entities was a foregone conclusion. If the enterprise of piracy in Somali waters (and now well beyond) were profitable enough to be a major funding source for AQAP (or AQ in Yemen), they would involve themselves whether they were welcome and supported by the Somali pirates or not.
In his remarks at the USNI Piracy Conference, Keynote Speaker Stephen Carmel of MAERSK made a number of assertions to reinforce his notion that the Somali piracy problem was not significant enough to warrant anything but business as usual, which meant paying for ransomed ships and trying to avoid areas of known pirate activity. Some of those assertions have been proven tragically wrong in recent months, including this one:
The Somali pirates are a pure hostage for ransom crowd. That means… that the hostages always get released and generally are not horribly mistreated… I am not making light of the experience of those held hostage by Somali pirates – I am simply noting that the treatment of hostages at the hands of Barbary pirates was infinitely worse.
Which certainly calls into question Mr. Carmel’s entire argument.
So, Somali pirates are not a direct threat to US national interests, nor a significant threat to the international system of commerce. Somali pirates are also far less well funded, and far less capable of evolving into a large threat…
From a strict standpoint of the balance sheet, Mr. Carmel’s arguments may remain valid for some time, though for how long is unclear, and whether it is wise to wait for the tipping point is also a valid question. However, when improvements in capabilities that can exponentially increase piracy’s reach and impact are brought into play, especially when that reach means a greater potential as a funding source for our enemies, then the problem of Somali piracy has long since ceased to be one of the balance sheet. Advocacy of Dane-Geld as a means of minimizing such threats has little track record of success, and plenty of examples of a disastrous contrary result. With an adaptive and opportunistic enemy whose benefit from Somali piracy is becoming increasingly more direct, it is well past time to make serious our efforts to combat piracy in those waters.
Once again, that master of describing the human condition provides us a warning passed down through the millenia:
We never pay anyone Dane-Geld,
No matter how trifling the cost,
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that pays it is lost.
On May 30th, 1916, the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (NOT Beatty! Thanks Alfred!) put to sea to upon hearing that Germany’s Hochseeflotte was preparing to depart Keil, likely headed for a raid or bombardment of the English coast. The German fleet, under Admiral Alfred Tirpitz, had planned to lure the English out of harbor and into an open fight in order to break the stranglehold blockade that was already having serious consequences for the German war effort.
On the afternoon of May 31st, 1916, 95 years ago today, the two fleets sighted each other in the stormy North Sea off the Danish coast. The result was the most famous sea battle of the First World War. Called Jutland by the British, and Skaggerak by the Germans, the battle would be the great test of the massive forces of dreadnought capital ships that each nation had so feverishly designed and built over the last decade.
Accounts of the battle are legion, in superb detail or in overview, and I will not attempt recitation here. Jutland, however, remains a strange case study by Naval historians and enthusiasts alike. The battle itself was a far-flung, confused, brutal slugging match that contained heroism, timidity, skill, incompetence, good information ignored, bad information believed, and heartbreaking loss and sacrifice.
The greatest irony is that, with the entire of the effort expended by hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of sailors, Jutland was entirely indecisive. Neither fleet accomplished their objectives tactically, and the situation strategically remained virtually unchanged, as if the battle had never taken place. However, the examination of the Battle of Jutland is more than a dead academic exercise. There are lessons of command and control, clarity of orders and intent, intelligence and communications success and failure, aggressiveness and passivity. The value and limitation of obsolescent warships, employed by both sides, is pertinent today. Jutland provides object examples of asymmetric warfare in its modern sense, with the torpedo and the vessels that carried it, being feared by the commanders of both fleets. Also, Jutland shows decisively the value of ships designed to absorb punishment as well as mete it out. Indeed, two of the iconic images of the battle in the cold and stormy waters are, respectively, the badly-damaged German battle-cruiser Seydlitz, burned and holed, down by the bows with 5,000 tons of water in her, limping into the Jade, and the grainy image of a massive column of smoke and flame that marked the instantaneous death of the British battle-cruiser Queen Mary.
Jutland was perhaps the culmination of six decades of development of steel warships, and had its roots in the echoes of Tsushima, Manila Bay, Santiago, and even Hampton Roads. Jutland also provided us a harbinger of new and nascent capabilities, aircraft and aircraft carriers, that would come to dominate the next great war and beyond. Technologically, the Battle of Jutland was a watershed whose effects still resonate with navies worldwide. And it was fought 95 years ago this day.
Interesting, if not surprising news from SecurityNewsDaily. Also not surprisingly, the PLA has an innocent explanation:
The elite cyberwarfare unit of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is called the “Online Blue Army,” the People’s Daily Online reported. It is tasked with enhancing Chinese troops’ military training and network security, Ministry of National Defense spokesman Senior Colonel Geng Yansheng said.
Which most in the know are probably not buying:
China’s suspected participation in recent high-profile cyberattacks against, among others, Google, Morgan Stanley and DuPont, however, have security experts doubting the intentions of the PLA’s “Blue Army.”
George Smith, senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, told SecurityNewsDaily the creation of the elite military unit “offers a resource” for more Chinese-borne cyberattacks. Establishing a cyberwarfare military unit, Smith added, “provides a piece of convenient rationalization” for other nations to create similar teams.
Smart money also points to extensive Chinese fingerprints on North Korean network disruption efforts in South Korean and US networks.
The maritime challenge which The People’s Republic of China poses to US interests worldwide is but a portion of a great national effort on the part of the PLA and Red China’s government to gain the oft-stated goal of supremacy. Chinese intentions were spelled out a dozen years ago, in a road map that, with respect to disruption of US critical information infrastructure, the PLA has followed with remarkable fidelity.
Chinese capabilities are far in advance of what is generally acknowledged by either side. As are the resources and intellectual capital being dedicated to the effort. For all of the discussions of China’s new appreciation for Mahan, they have been downright Clausewitzian in developing their “admixture of other means”.
Update: Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal by Richard Clarke, former cybersecurity adviser and National Security Council adviser for three presidents. He makes the point about the US power grid that, before being reported by WSJ in 2009, was only talked about in hushed tones behind closed doors:
In 2009, this newspaper reported that the control systems for the U.S. electric power grid had been hacked and secret openings created so that the attacker could get back in with ease. Far from denying the story, President Obama publicly stated that “cyber intruders have probed our electrical grid.”
There is no money to steal on the electrical grid, nor is there any intelligence value that would justify cyber espionage: The only point to penetrating the grid’s controls is to counter American military superiority by threatening to damage the underpinning of the U.S. economy. Chinese military strategists have written about how in this way a nation like China could gain an equal footing with the militarily superior United States.
With all the debate about “Acts of War” in disruption of the information system realm by an enemy of America, the matter will come down to the yawning chasm between what you can believe with certitude, and what you can prove. Attribution for a “digital Pearl Harbor”, a decade-old phrase making a bit of a comeback, will not be as easy as spotting the red discs on the wings of the torpedo bombers….
This morning, let’s wish Happy Birthday to perhaps England’s greatest and most decorated military hero. No, not the Duke of Wellington. Nor Lord Kitchener of Khartoum. Not Lord Nelson, nor Viscount Slim, Haig, Mountbatten, nor Montgomery. None of them.
Happiest of Birthdays to Colonel Sir Harry Paget Flashman, VC KCB KCIE CdLH MoH, born this day, 1822. The erstwhile bully of Rugby School went on to unlikely fame (if not fortune) in Afghanistan in 1842, the Sikh War, the 1848 revolution, the Crimea (where he participated in the Charge of the Light Brigade), the Indian Mutiny, John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid, both sides of the American Civil War, Maximillian’s Mexico, Little Big Horn, Natal (at Isandlwana), the Peking Legation, and a few other places. The tall, dark, handsome soldier left a trail of accidental heroism, scandal, and empassioned paramours across just about every continent.
Each and every account of his adventures is worth the read.
Happy Birthday, Flashy.
Wargaming, including an extensive simulation by Rand, has shown that the U.S. would generate a 6-1 kill ratio over Chinese aircraft, but the Americans would lose. Even if every U.S. missile destroyed an opponent, there would still be enough surviving attackers to shred U.S. tankers, command and control and intelligence-gathering aircraft, says Andrew Davies, program director for operations and capabilities, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in an interview with Aviation Week.
“The reason [the U.S.] lost was because the Chinese sortie rates and persistence carried the day,” Davies says. “Any American aircraft was operating out of Guam or Okinawa because the airfields in Taiwan were taken out in the first half hour [of the conflict]. So [U.S.] time on station over the Strait is quite limited.”
Another issue is where U.S. Navy aircraft would be based. “The issue that the U.S. has is, can the aircraft carrier get close enough to the fight?” Davies says. “The Chinese have been working since the [Taiwan] Strait crises of 1995-6 to deny the approaches to China to a carrier battle group.
One other very interesting comment jumped off the page.
Boosters of modern airpower hold up operations in Kosovo and Iraq as examples of how successful advanced technology is. But Davies questions whether pitting a handful of modern aircraft against minor military powers is a fair test.
“That’s an awful lot of money being spent to be able to kick around third-rate countries,” he says. “The silver-bullet platforms are fantastic . . . where a small number of them can completely overwhelm a relatively small power. ”
But when up against China, a small, high-tech force suddenly does not look as great.
Uh huh. Quantity having a quality all its own, apparently. Who knew? Read the rest here. The we can discuss how lack of land bases affects our ability to protect our allies and interests in the Western Pacific, how we could perhaps project power ashore to establish those bases, and whether or not we will be willing to risk our smallish number of CVNs to penetrate the Chinese ASBM envelope to get at the enemy. Sound familiar? Well, it should.
What was it Mark Twain said? “History doesn’t really repeat itself. But it sure does rhyme. ”
Oh, and hat tip to Masta G.