Category Archives: Book Reviews

The obvious, reviews of books I have read

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Book Review: Greece, Crete, Stalag, Dachau- A New Zealand Soldier’s Encounters with Hitler’s Army by Jack Elworthy

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Greece Crete Stalag Dachau: A New Zealand Soldier’s Encounters with Hitler’s Army by Jack Elworthy is one of those books written by someone with a very interesting tale to tell.  I had heard of Elworthy before getting this book although he was only named once.  The story of the POW who hitched along with the American unit that liberated him to finish the war is mentioned in several mainstream histories of WWII.

The book itself is 220 pages of text separated into 33 topical chapters with endnotes, selected reading and a list of illustrations.  This is a personal memoir edited by the author’s son.  The narrative focuses on the opening campaign in Greece and Crete, what happened immediately after his capture, and events after his liberation by elements of the US 2nd Armored Division.  He only very briefly covers life in a POW camp in Germany, which actually makes sense because how many different ways can a person describe the same boring things happening day after day?  Life in a POW camp must be boring in the extreme if you are treated according to the Geneva Convention as Western prisoners were by the Germans.  Food was not great and shelter was only adequate but for the most part, Western POWs were essentially warehoused until wars end.

What makes the book so interesting is the description of combat in Greece and Crete at the beginning of the war. It is evident throughout that the author was aware of the disaster in the making that the Greek campaign was.  The author was involved in the advance up the peninsula and sudden retreat when the German blitzkrieg broke into Greece.  He suffered a number of near misses and his descriptions of events are compelling to say the least.

The last part is what most historians discuss.  Mr. Elworthy’ dash across Germany in the company of a self-propelled artillery battery from the US 2nd Armored Division.  He was there at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp and was pulling guard duty when he learned that the war was over.  He finally describes his two year odyssey to get home.

Mr. Elworthy is spare and no-nonsense in his writing style. This is refreshing and does much to give the reader the impression you are sitting across the table from him listening to him tell the tale.  Elworthy is known to Americans because he is the ANZAC that itched along to finish the war after he was freed from a POW camp.  His story is much more than that though and more people should read it.  Too many of the histories of World War II sold in America have an American bias and it is easy to believe that America won the war by itself.  That is not so and many people like Mr. Elworthy contributed to victory as well.  His story is worth reading and is illuminating as to how the British and Commonwealth troops fought before America came into the war.

I highly recommend this book for its no-nonsense account f the ANZAC Corps at war in World War II.

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Book Review: House of War by James Carroll

House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power is one of those books that when you are done reading it you cannot quite decide if it was worth reading or not.

If you want to know what history looks like, particularly American history, from the perspective of someone who sees evil and nefarious dealings in just about every single action taken by the United States then this is the book for you. I never thought I would see the day when the Marshall Plan would be described as economic warfare but it is in this book and that is just one example. I found it difficult to suspend disbelief and finish this book but I managed to man up and do so. This is history of the Zinn School. That is, it is a history written by a person consumed with spite and self-loathing for the culture and nation that nurtured and created them.

There are several outrageous claims made throughout the book and they all essentially boil down to America was/is evil.  Here are some examples:

  1. The Point Blank campaign that destroyed communications infrastructure in occupied Europe prior to the Allied invasion on D-Day was purposely designed to kill as many civilians as possible and any industrial or strategic effects were secondary results at best.  Richard Overy does a very good job of destroying this particular fanstasy in his recently published book, The Bombers and the Bombed.
  2. The Marshall Plan was not designed to help rebuild Europe from the devastation of WWII, it was economic warfare against the Soviet Union and had nothing to do with helping anybody.
  3. The Soviet land blockade of Berlin that led to the Berlin Airlift was a response to economic attacks by the West.  Specifically, he claims it was a response to the West’s apparently malicious introduction of the Deutsche Mark into the Western occupied zones.
  4. The North Korean’s were probably goaded into attacking the the South in 1950 by a speech by Dean Acheson.  The subtext here is that the war would not have happened if it were not for the US.

He goes on and on ad nauseum about NSC-68 being evil and completely ignores the fact that the strategy of communist containment outlined in the document was ultimately the strategy that won the Cold War for the West.  Of course, he thinks the West should not have won.  If you take this book at face value you would come away believing that Communists the world over are/were a bunch of peaceful little boggles that were forced into being the brutish thugs who murdered their own people by the millions because of the evil machinations of the West.  In this long story of the perfidy of the West the brutal Soviet crackdowns on satellite states are ignored and Soviet intervention elsewhere are always presented as being reasonable responses to Western aggression.

I would call this book a waste of paper but that is not strong enough. It is worthwhile in one respect though. If you can see beyond the banality and fake moralism it gives a pretty clear picture of the intense dislike of the modern American left for the United States.  I found myself wondering, if the author finds America so evil why is he still here? The one thing that comes through clearly in the entire book is the author’s conviction that America and the wider West are the true Evil Empire and it is only if the West gives itself over to the modern left/progressive movement that we can hope to atone for the sin of our very existence.  That all this comes from a de-frocked Catholic Priest should be no surprise.

I cannot recommend this book except as an excellent example of what infinitely biased history and twisted facts look like.  Luckily I did not pay for it having borrowed it from my local library.

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Book Review: BOLO! by David Weber

Bolo! by David Weber is kind of an anthology and kind of a series of related novels, I cannot decide which.  Regardless, it is a solid offering from Weber, of Honorverse fame.  The book is 388 pages and consists of 4 chronologically arranged BOLO stories with an annex on the technical characteristics of the evolution of the BOLO.

If you are not familiar with the super tanks known as BOLOs from the books of Keith Laumer this is a good introductory book that will make you want to go read more from Laumer, the guy that invented the concept.  Weber does a solid job of telling these stories as he does a solid job of telling any stories he puts his fingers to keyboard for.  I just think Laumer does a better job of telling BOLO stories.

This is not a bad book, but it is not a great one.  Weber excels when he is in the Honorverse but his stories outside that comfort zone seem to lack a little something.  The best books by Weber that do not include Honor Harrington are the Starfire books he wrote with Steve White.

This is a good book that is sure to entertain but it leaves this fan of David Weber wanting something undefinable that is just not there.  Perhaps it the nature of the anthology and the shorter stories that don’t have as much space for character development.  This is still worth reading though.

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Book Review: Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War by Douglas Porch

The new 2014 US Army Chief of Staff Professional Reading List (PRL) was recently released and I was relieved in the extreme to see that there was only one novel on the list, Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer.  The list is different than earlier lists because it is organized topically instead of by position as earlier lists were.  I have read many of the books on the list already and decided to read the ones I have not and post my thoughts on the books on the list.  This review is the second in that series.

After reading Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War by Douglas Porch I am actually surprised this book made the list.  Mainly because Porch spares no sacred cows in his skewering of Western counterinsurgency doctrine over the past century or so.  This is essentially a study of counterinsurgency doctrine from 1870 forward and an attempt to determine said doctrines effectiveness.

The book itself is 346 pages of text with 53 pages of notes, a 17 page bibliography, and an index.  It is divided into 11 chapters, 10 of which are topical and the eleventh is the conclusion.

To start with, Porch’s disdain for the modern school of COIN thought is apparent throughout as he mentions it’s proponents as COIN-dinistas.  Most of the book is a look at modern insurgencies and the way they have been combated starting with the Peninsular War in the early 19th century.  The constant narrative thread is that COIN is and has been a failure in whatever guise it has been tried.  The only sure way of suppressing an insurgency is through the swift application of violence and maintaining a military presence.  “Hearts and Minds” is a failure because you cannot induce people to be something they do not want to be and any appearance of success is illusory because as soon as the threat of force and repression is removed people will revert back to what they were before the threat existed.

I must admit that I tend to agree with Porch’s assessment and my reading of history says the same thing. The only thing that allows a foreign or domestic power seen as illegitimate to stay in power is repression.  It was true 200 years ago, it was true 2,000 years ago, and it is true today.  WItness the continuing failure of US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan today and compare that to Roman efforts to control Judaea in ancient times.  Repression, usually bloody repression at that, is the only surefire method of controlling insurgency.  Repression only works because eventually you either kill all the insurgents or cow those that remain into submission.

That method of warmaking is anathema to the modern West and so Porch is undoubtedly correct that Western powers are doomed to continue to fail in their attempts at counterinsurgency.  The question is not how to win against an insurgency (they are essentially unwinnable), but why the West gets involved in them at all?

Porch’s book is a sad record of COIN failure and an analysis of why that is so.  He freely admits he does not have an answer for how Western forces can fight and win an insurgency and stay within modern notions of warfare.  The two are probably incompatible.

Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War is a thought provoking and damning study of COIN doctrine both historical and modern.  I would compare this to Max Boot’s The Savage Wars Of Peace: Small Wars And The Rise Of American Power.  Boot thinks that there is a winning combination, Porch does not.

I can see why this book is on the CSA’s list and it fully deserves to be there.  If you are interested in a nuanced and realistic discussion of how and why COIN doctrine is a prescription for failure and what has worked historically then this is it.  I highly recommend this outstanding book for taking an uncompromising and realistic look  at the failure of COIN both today and in the past.

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Book Review: Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Kilcullen

The new 2014 US Army Chief of Staff Professional Reading List (PRL) was recently released and I was relieved in the extreme to see that there was only one novel on the list, Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer.  The list is different than earlier lists because it is organized topically instead of by position as earlier lists were.  I have read many of the books on the list already and decided to read the ones I have not and post my thoughts on the books on the list.  This review is the first in that series.

Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Kilcullen is at a minimum an interesting read.  It is one of those works that appear from time to time that attempt to peer into the crystal ball and divine what future war will look like.  I expect that like most books of this sort, he is partially right and mostly wrong.  However, it is still worth reading and a good inclusion on the PRL as it shows that the new COS is not stuck in the paradigm of the past and recognizes that the next war will not likely be the same as the last one.

The book itself is 294 pages of text with 36 pages of notes and an 11 page bibliography.  The text is separated into 5 topical chapters and an appendix.

The basic theory expounded in the book is that given the trend of the world’s population concentrating itself in coastal or near coastal cities, littoral) that is where most combat is likely to occur in the future.  It also further posits that most combat will be between state and non-state actors who might or might not have state support.  The most important things stressed are the interconnected nature of the modern world, the lack of legitimate authority in large swathes of urban areas, the lack of services in mega-cities, and the phenomenon of the breakdown of the state in slums and periurban agglomerations.

Several littoral and urban conflicts from recent years are chronicled from the Mumbai attacks in 2008, Mogadishu, Somalia in the early 90’s, to the 2009 government takedown of the Shower Posse in Kingston, Jamaica.  All of these episodes are used to illustrate various points made throughout the narrative.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the chapter on the theory of competitive control and how it works to make non-government groups such as gangs and terror outfits legitimate in the eyes of residents by doing things that government either will not or cannot do for the residents.  It is an interesting theory and it perhaps even explains some aspects of urban conflict but I cannot see how the theory helps in developing ways to combat urban terror and lawlessness except for giving a patina of academic rigor to the already demonstrably failed COIN techniques developed over the last century.

Because the book tries to predict the future, it is probably wrong.  Mos such books are.  However, that does not mean the book is worthless, far from it.  Absent the conclusion, which is prescriptive, the book does an outstanding job of describing the factors at work in modern, littoral, megacities and is worth reading because of that.  It is no doubt correct that urbanization will continue and that government failure to adequately plan and provide for urban population growth will be a source of tension between the governed and the government.  I still do not see widespread urban combat taking place in a vacuum and especially absent a rural hinterland supporting said combat.

This is an outstanding book for its description of trends in city growth and the implication that growth has for future combat and tensions.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the combat of today and a possible future trend of where combat will occur.