Tag Archives: Battle Analysis

Book Review: The Color of War: How One Battle Broke Japan and the Other Changed America by James Campbell

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

The Color of War is one of those strange history books that seems both bipolar and unified at the same time.  It is the story of the invasion of Saipan and the Port Chicago naval disaster told mostly convergently.  At first the somewhat bi-polar nature of the way the story was told was off-putting but the more I read the book the more the method made sense.  The two different but temporally convergent narratives reinforce the separation of black and white service members during World War II.  This is not immediately apparent, but true nonetheless.  The book is 362 pages with almost 100 pages of notes and a 18 page bibliography.

The story of the invasion of Saipan is told from the view of several marines the author interviewed personally and whose memoirs were made available to him.  It easily transmits the variables and uncertainty of the war in the pacific to the reader.  Where the author makes an impact is his description of race relations and the conditions under which black sailors worked at Port Chicago.  Those of us who grew up after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have only a vague idea at best of what life was like for black Americans prior to then and even that view is skewed.  The author does an excellent job of describing that life.  He does an even better job of describing how select individuals reacted to that situation.  The wonder is not that blacks put up with such treatment but with what dignity they endured it.  The author does an outstanding job of describing the situation faced by both white and black marines in Saipan but also that faced by black sailors forced to endure the intolerable at Port Chicago.

My only complaint about the book is that by trying to tell two stories at once it seems they both are somewhat neglected.  I cannot point to anything concrete, but I was left with the impression that there was more to both stories than the author had room to say.  Both narratives are worthy of book-length treatment individually and I would love to see that.  that being said, The way the stories are told is enlightening and it’s somewhat original organization will probably lead to the story of Port Chicago reaching a wider audience than if it had been published as a stand alone work.  One thing that is clear from this book is that the stories of Black soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in WWII is both interesting and compelling and needs to be told now before the people that experienced pass away and we lose their stories forever.

This is an excellent book that deserves to be on many historians bookshelves.  It tells an important story of WWII in a sensitive and compelling manner.  I highly recommend this book.

Book Review: Road to Valor by Aili & Andres McConnon

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

Road to Valor is the story of one of the many unsung and unremembered heroes of World War II. Gino Bartali was a prewar Italian racing champion and winner of the Tour de France.  Just about everyone has heard of Oskar Schindler and his List due to the 1993 Spielberg movie or Anne Frank.  What is less known are the thousands of others across occupied Europe that worked trying to help Jews and others that the Nazi’s persecuted.  This book is the story of one of those people.

The book is not overly lengthy at 257 pages but covers the story well.  One of the things that impressed me the most about the book was that while it is not a strictly scholarly work it is extensively endnoted and their are over 40 pages of source notes at the end of the book.  The one thing this book lacks is an index to make it easier to find key passages and figures from the book.  Price is not prohibitive either, the hardcover has an MSRP of $25, which is well within normal for such a work.  The paper quality and printing are above typical to my eyes as well, this is book that will remain in good condition for years, if not decades.

This book is essentially the story of his life with the main events between his twin wins of the Tour de France in 1938 and ten years later in 1948. The valor part of the the title of this book comes from it’s recounting of Gino’s efforts to aid Italian Jews during the Nazi occupation of Italy after the Italian capitulation in 1943.  The long and short of it is that Gino used his fame from cycling to help resistance groups and the Catholic church in their efforts to shelter Italian Jews.  Because of his position and fame he was uniquely able to serve as a courier and even managed to get out of detention by the Italian Fascists secret police.

Gino’s story is not only a story of courage, it is also the story of a life interrupted by war.  Gino Bartali lost what should have been the best years of his racing career due to WWII.  He won the Tour de France in 1938 and came back post-war to win it again in 1948.  The most interesting part of his life story is the way in which he used his fame and notoriety to help save some of the Jews of Northern Italy from persecution.

Although biographies are not the type of books, historical or otherwise, that I normally read.  I found Road to Valor to be easy to read and the narrative was well constructed.  The writing is very well done with none of the stiffness I normally associate with biographies.  This is an excellent biography at a wartime figure who achieved great things outside of World War II and I recommend it to anybody with an interest in World War II or the Holocaust and the way in which average Europeans cooperated to keep their neighbors out of the hands of the Nazi death machine.

Update on SFC Walter Taylor

Saw this update on SFC Taylor’s case yesterday and decided to add it to my page as well.  From the LA Times: Court-martial decision postponed for soldier in Afghan shooting.  His Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a Grand Jury, was held last week and now the case in in the hands of the reviewing officer.  She will review the evidence and testimony presented at the hearing and then make a recommendation to Taylor’s Brigade commander who will endorse that recommendation or not and then send it to the JMTC commander in Graf who is the General Court Martial Convening Authority.  The JMTC commander makes the final decision on whether this case should go to trial or if Taylor should face, a lesser Court Martial, administrative punishment, or even no further action.

All that being said, I would guess that at a minimum Taylor faces a Special Court Martial, probably a Special BCD.  The nature of what has been reported so far makes it clear that Taylor is being prosecute as an example to others.  Whether that is good military policy is besides the point, the army does stuff like this sometimes.  I will say that in my experience, if it does go to a Court Martial Taylor will get a fairer hearing than he would in a civilian court.  His CM Panel, the military version of a jury, will consist of people his grade or higher both officer and enlisted if he opts that, and he would be stupid not to.  The panel are people that understand the military and the pressures in combat.

I have no worries that if it goes to trial he will win.  The problem I have is that even if he wins, his career is now damaged because of the massive publicity surrounding the case.  That is something he cannot get away from.  It will also haunt him as he goes in front of a selection board for promotion.  The perception could be that he hurt the army and he could therefor later be denied promotion or even selected for elimination and the case could have nothing overt to do with it but it will always be there.  The army is a small place and institutional memory is long, especially about people who are perceived as tarnishing the Army Reputation.

Book Review: The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle by Michael Stephenson

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

Michael Stephenson’s work The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle follows somewhat in the tradition of classics such a Keegan’s The Face of Battle and Victor David Hanson’s The Western Way of War. Where it differs from these two works as that while Keegan and Hanson focus on specific battles or time periods this book aims to be a more general description of the experience of combat throughout recorded history.  In that, the book is amazingly successful.  The author has produced a volume that does the job of bringing home te reality of warfare to those who have never experienced it.  What I finds even more refreshing is that he does without weighing the book down with moral judgements on the rightness or wrongness of war itself, instead he accepts the objective reality that war happens and goes about the business of explaining what it is like.

It is written in an easy free-flowing style that is almost a pleasure to read and the text is organized in such a way that it is also compelling to read.  I found myself making excuses to my wife to keep reading to the end of the chapter before I did something else.  The descriptions of combat and death, ultimately this book is about violent death, ring true.  I was struck in particular by the realism of the combat descriptions in the section on the Iraq war.  On page 361 he talks about the US Marines “Pine Box Rule” in which if someone has to go home in a pine box, it is not going to be Marines. In my own experience in Iraq in 2004 my unit had a similar rule except we called it doing the “Death Blossom” when we came under enemy fire.  If his descriptions of combat and death hold as true to reality throughout the rest of the book as they do for modern war, and I have no reason, to think they don’t, then Mr. Stephenson has produced what should be an instant classic.  It should also make its way to the official reading lists of all the services, especially the US Army and Marines.

At 406 pages of text the book is not too long for the interested layman and includes an index, extensive notes, and a truly impressive bibliography that together amount to 54 pages alone.  The book is organized into eight thematic, chronological chapters that cover warfare from the Ancient World to the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with an appendix discussing the state of military medicine through time.  The only very minor criticism I could have for this book is that it is Western Centric in focus, that is true of much western scholarship though  and this book makes no claim to universal history.

As a combat veteran myself, I have said for years in private conversation and on some public forums that no one who has not been in combat can possibly grasp what it is like, this work goes a long way to roving me wrong.  Michael Stephenson comes as close to describing the reality of combat as I have ever read from a non-combat vet.  This objective and fair description of death in battle should be on the shelf of every military historian, whether they are a veteran or not.  Anyone who wants to know what combat is like without putting their own skin on the line should read this book.  If nothing else, they will gain a better understanding of the sacrifices made by those who don the uniform of their country and go forth to do battle.  This is a good description of what George Orwell’s “rough men” go through to allow their countrymen to sleep safe at home.An outstanding book that is sure to remain the standard in its niche for years to come.


A Travesty Calling for Action

In today’s edition of Stars and Stripes and the LA Times is an article about a combat engineer facing charges for actions he took in combat in Afghanistan last year.  The gist of the story is that the soldier involved shot an unarmed female in the middle of a firefight who was moving towards the rear of her vehicle.  The description of the incident from the article is here:

His convoy was reeling from a roadside bomb, his fellow soldiers were engaged in combat with insurgents and a mysterious black car had just screeched to a stop in the middle of the firefight. Some nine minutes later, a black door opens.
Second 1: A figure dressed in dark, bulky clothing emerges.
Second 2: The figure begins walking toward the trunk.
Second 3: Taylor, with five wounded comrades behind him, sees a thin trigger wire seeming to snake directly toward the black car. Could there be a second bomb in the trunk?
Second 4: Taylor squeezes the trigger on his M-4 carbine. The figure crumples to the dirt.
The figure was not an insurgent, but Dr. Aqilah Hikmat, a 49-year-old mother of four who headed the obstetrics department at the nearby Ghazni provincial hospital. Also dead inside the car were Hikmat’s 18-year-old son and her 16-year-old niece. Hikmat’s husband, in the front seat, was wounded.

SFC Taylor now faces charges of negligent homicide in the woman’s death.  If the facts as presented in the article are correct then I got out of the army just in time.  This is an example of the worst kind of second guessing of combat decisions.  Prosecutions such as this are likely to lead to more of our soldiers hesitating in combat and will probably lead to more GIs getting killed because of hesitation in combat.  It would be one thing if he had just shot the woman out of hand but to prosecute him for a combat decision is unconscionable, something I never thought I would see coming out of the US military.  Apparently I was wrong, the forces of idiocy are getting stronger every day.  Policies like this will go far towards making the US military just as toothless as are most European militaries.

Being a combat vet myself I think it is a crying shame that they are making an example out of SFC Taylor.  Based on the circumstances in the article, I would have killed her too.  The bottom line is that in the middle of a firefight you don’t always have the luxury of waiting to find out if someone is hostile or not.  If she had a weapon, should he wait until she starts firing before engaging, I think not.  He made the right cal and now he is getting the shaft.  Shame on the Army for even bringing charges.

Hopefully the panel at his court-martial sees sense and rightfully acquits him.  Something like this just calls out for our support of the soldier.  I highly encourage everybody reading this article to write the secretary of the Army directly and protest this armchair quarterbacking of a combat leaders decision made in the heat of battle.

The Honorable John McHugh
Secretary of the Army
101 Army Pentagon
Washington, DC 20310-0101