Tag Archives: Book Review

CSA PRL Book Review: The Utility of Force by Rupert Smith

The new 2014 US Army Chief of Staff Professional Reading List (PRL) was released in the Summer of 2014 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 third in that series.

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World is an intriguing book, to say the least.  I will admit that after finding out a little more about the author, a retired British General, I was somewhat biased going into reading it as I then expected it to be a book advocating more soft power approaches to hard power problems.  As I got into the text itself that turns out to not be the case.

The book itself is 415 pages of text with an index.  It is separated into an introduction, three, topical three chapter parts, and a conclusion.  The topics of the parts are Industrial Warfare, Cold War Confrontation, and War Among the People.

The essential argument of the book is that the paradigm of war has changed in the past century and the dividing line is 1945 and the employment of nuclear weapons.  The premise goes that nuclear weapons changed the dynamic of war by making it realistically impossible for two nuclear armed states to fight each other out of fear of societal annihilation.  That is all well and good as far as it goes and actually makes sense within the context of historical occurrence since 21945 and the prevailing Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine of the east-west standoff we call the Cold War. He further goes on to explain the paradigm change in terms of war moving from a conflict between recognized forces belonging to sovereign states to one between sovereign forces and non-state forces that live among the people on whose behalf they are ostensibly fighting for.  It is this movement of war from being between defined forces to between undefined forces that makes for the paradigm shift by changing the way wars are to be fought.  That is the essence of the argument as I read it.

He makes several very good points within the narrative.  The first is he continually asserts the primacy of politics in the decision to use force.  In this he is absolutely correct.  In addition he makes clear that policy makers should not make the decision to use force without discussing the use of said force with their military commanders to find out if force is an appropriate tool. That is, can the use of force achieve the desired objective?  This is a point that is often lost or ignored by political leadership in many countries.

The Clausewitzean notion that rue generalship is the ability to impose your will on your enemy is discussed at length.  More importantly, he discusses how that concept has been applied in the era of non-state, non-centralized warfare in which we now find ourselves.  He correctly points out that decapitating the supposed leadership of what we think of as insurgent groups does not have a very stellar record as there seems to be an endless supply of leaders waiting in the wings when one leader gets killed or captured.  The resilience of non-state, non-centralized groups is one of their defining characteristics.

His discussion of the Darwinian nature of modern combat is revealing.  I remember having the same discussion among the NCOs and Officers of my Cavalry Troop in 2004-2005.  As we killed or captured insurgents the ones who remained got ever more competent and able to pull off their operations better.  The end result of such Darwinian, endless war is the creation of groups such as IS/ISIS/ISIL composed of men who have been trained by surviving the best we could throw at them.  They are a hard core of survivors and that much more capable and dangerous because of it.  I am reminded of the phenomenon that occurred in the World Wars where veteran units could accomplish missions that fresh units half their size could not because the men in those veteran units were the hard core of soldiers who just did not quit and had learned how to survive in the crucible of combat.

Lastly, Smith has a very useful discussion in his conclusion about how force should be used.  This is probably the only part of the book that is prescriptive in nature.  I agree with most of this and disagree with parts. Mainly I disagree with how thinks we should deal with the media.  Personally, I think the media should be treated as potential enemies and barred from the area of active operations.  I realize that is not really feasible though and some method of managing the media must be devised.  I suppose Smith’s prescription is as good as anybody else’s since it involves making certain the media understands what the military is doing and providing the context of military operations. More important is his discussion and prescription for deciding when, where, and how force should be used and why it is vitally important that all decision makers be on the same page.  Perhaps most vitally, he is correct in pointing out that an inflexible strategic end-state must be decided upon before force is used because an incoherent strategy leads to incoherent operations.  More importantly, flexible strategic goals almost ensure ultimate mission failure by precluding the proper planning and execution of military operations because it leaves commanders in the dark as to what their purpose really is.

This is an outstanding treatise on the use of military force in the modern world.  I may not agree completely that paradigm of warfare has shifted but Smith has undoubtedly correctly diagnosed why military interventions since World War II have been at best costly successes and more often even costlier failures.  I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in contemporary military theory.  Smith’s book is hopefully the opening of a conversation among generals and policymakers about the utility of using force in the modern world.

 

Book Review: Old Soldiers by David Weber

Old Soldiers is an older book but one I just got around to reading.  It is another foray by David Weber into the Concordiat universe created by Keith Laumer and populated by the sentient AI tanks known as BOLOs.

I you have read Weber’s earlier book Bolo! then you will understand the back story of the two main characters.  Menaka Trevor and the BOLO Lazarus.  Both were featured in a novella in that anthology.  This book picks up after the events in BOLO! with what the Concordiat does with Trevor and Lazarus after they are the only survivors f their battalion following the defense of the planet Chartres against a Melconian attack.

Spoilers below! Continue reading Book Review: Old Soldiers by David Weber

Book Review: The Death of Money-The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System by James Rickards

The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System is one of those topical books that come along every once in a while just at the time you are starting to think about the subject at hand.  I must admit that I probably have a little bit of confirmation bias in my review of this book because I was already thinking much of what he says, I just did not have the hard data to back it up as he does.

The book is 302 pages of text separated into three topical parts consisting of eleven chapters and a conclusion.  There are also 18 pages of notes and an 18 page bibliography.  The three parts are Money & Geopolitics, Money & Markets, and Money & Wealth.

The basic premise of the book is that central banks and the IMF have been playing extremely shady games with the dollar since the crash of 2008 and that it is inevitable that the dollar will lose its status as the reserve currency of the world because of this unless action is taken on several fronts.  The Fed has been largely responsible for much of this by its loose money policies in pursuit of inflation and the lingering effects of the successive rounds of quantitative easing that have occurred.

He also claims that the housing bubble that burst in 2008 has been replaced by a student loan bubble and that stock market gains since 2008 don’t represent wealth creation except for investment bankers and other finance professionals.  I thought that one of the more astute observation in the book is that Fed policies are making any eventual recovery worse by using a band aid on a chest wound.

The discussion of the Euro, the Yen, and SDRs from the IMF was especially illuminating.  He no doubt absolutely correct that only finance and news geeks have probably ever heard of SDRs.  I have heard of them but the explanation of what they are and how they are used in the book is the best explanation I have seen so far.  I also found that his discussion of gold and silver to be right on point.  His examination of sovereign metal purchases over the past view years and the way to view was excellent.  I think he is right that those of us buying metals will be very happy in a few years as fiat money goes away and we see our metal holdings revalued to where they should actually be.  Goldbugs will have the last laugh on that one, unless there is a governmental gold confiscation scheme as there was in the 1930’s, which is not outside the bounds of the possible in a dollar collapse situation

The central take-away from the book is that a correction is coming and it will make 2008 look mild in comparison.  He deploys a broad range of arguments and data to support his contention.  His prescriptions for how to put the dollar back on a sound footing are realistic and because of that highly unlikely to happen.  Absent radical action to put the dollar on a sound footing hard times are coming.  They might take 10-20 years to get here but when they do the wise will be prepared.  This book gives some ideas on how to be prepared and what is likely to occur.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who takes in interest in the sorry state of the economy and the ineffectual efforts thus far undertaken by the US Government to address the structural failures that led to the collapse of 2008 and are leading us to an even harder crash in the near future.

Book Review: The Month That Changed the World: July 1914 by Gordon Martel

[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]

Given that 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, there has been a virtual flood of new books and scholarship on the war in the past few years. A flood that I sincerely hope does not stop anytime soon as the renewed emphasis on the war is starting to change the traditional view of the war. One area that has gotten particular emphasis this year is the Origins Controversy, as in, what really caused the war and who was responsible. The Month that Changed the World: July 1914 by Gordon Martel is ostensibly an origins book but in many ways, it is not. The main goal of the book, as the author puts it in the preface, is to lay out the way that events actually unfolded making clear who knew what, and when they knew it.

The book itself is 431 pages of text divided into three topical parts with the majority of the book being part two, a day-by-day narrative of events in the final week of July, 1914. There are also notes, a list of works cited, and an index.

Entire forests have been dropped in the past 100 years writing books about World War I.  This is particularly so in the past 30 years since Joll and Martel’s The Origins of the First World War produced a virtual deluge of books and journal article presenting competing theories. Trying to explain why the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in June, 1914 set in motion the train of events that led to World War I is almost the platonic definition of impossible. Nobody has come to a satisfactory answer, there are arguments that it was the fault of just about any of the belligerents and many of them are very good arguments. But arguments is all they are. There is not now, nor is it likely there ever will be a definitive answer as to why World War I started when it did. Suffice it to say that there is more than enough blame to go around that opprobrium can be heaped on the leadership of all the belligerents.

This volume is not an origins book per se. That is, it does not seek to assign blame for starting the war. What this book is, is a step by step, detailed narrative of the events between the death of the Archduke on June 28th, and the British declaration of war on Germany on August 4th. This is a straightforward account of when and importantly, what sequence things happened. The number of miscues, miscommunications, and diplomatic bumbles in July, 1914 is astonishing. The wonder is not why the war started when it did, but why it did not start sooner if the men involved were the highest quality diplomats Europe had available. Dr. Martell, lays out all these steps as they happened in a most engaging and readable way that pulls the reader along. I know what happened yet was compelled to keep reading because of the matter of fact way he writes.

What is abundantly clear in the narrative is that while Austria wanted to punish Serbia and eliminate them as a threat to the Dual Monarchy, they did not want a wider war.  It is equally clear that France, but particularly Russia, and to a lesser extent Britain, misread Austrian determination to deal with Serbia. Nobody except the Austrians really understood the lengths to which the Kaiser was willing to go to support Austria, Germany’s only true ally on the continent. Fault is not assigned in this book. The facts however, to the extent we know them, are laid out and it is left to the reader to determine what blame, if any, they assign to the various belligerents.

Diplomatic history, is one of the hardest types of history to write and make interesting. That difficult task has been accomplished in this work. I highly recommend The Month that Changed the World: July 1914 to anyone who wants an unvarnished narrative about July, 1914, possibly the most crucial month of the 20th century. This is an outstanding book that should be on the bookshelf of every student of World War I.

Book Review: A Doctor in the Great War by Andrew Davidson

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

Andrew Davidson’s A Doctor in The Great War: Unseen Photographs of Life in the Trenches is part photographic memoir and part unit history. It catalogs the life of his grandfather, Frederick Davidson, as a Royal Army Medical Corps doctor with the 1st Battalion of the regiment of Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) as the battalion medical officer. What makes the book special is that it contains over 250 pictures taken by the author’s grandfather and other officers of the battalion both before and during the war up tot April, 1915. This is special because at the time taking pictures of British troops at the front was a court-martial offense in the British Army.
The book itself consists of 288 pages of text and photos separated into 16 thematic chapters with a note on sources at the end and most interestingly, a then and now section showing what some of the locations pictured in the book look like in the present.
The 1st Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), was part of the original BEF (the Old Contemptibles) and deployed to France in August, 1914 taking part in the Battle of Mons & le Cateau, the retreat to the Marne, and then the follow up race to the sea that culminated in 1st Ypres in October, 1914, the battles of Messines, Armentières, and Neuve Chapelle in March, 1915. Fred Davidson was with the battalion throughout until he was wounded in the hip and hand on March 13th, 1915 while trying to rescue some wounded men in no-man’s land.
The book tells the story of the battalion during this 8 month period. It chronicles the exhausting marches and countermarches during the maneuver portion of the campaign from August-October, 1914 and the time spent in and out of the trenches by the battalion from then until Fred’s wounding and evacuation. Many other officers and men of the battalion are introduced as they appear in the pictures that are liberally spaced throughout the book.
What I found most interesting was the way that trench life is painted as both unbearably boring and exciting at the same time. My own limited experience of combat bears this out. Of great import is the way in which the total exhaustion that trench warfare causes is shown on the faces of the men in the photographs. It is extremely tiring both physically and mentally to live under horrid conditions and in constant danger for days and weeks at a time and that is reflected in the photos.
Also refreshing is that this is not a work that expounds on grad strategy or the direction of the war. It is a work that reflects the snail’s eye view of the officers and men of one battalion seen through the prism of the battalion medical officer. There are other books with a similar approach but what sets this book apart are the photos that make the story come alive in ways that mere words cannot as they illustrate the hardships of life at the front but they also show men making the best of a bad situation and trying to both do their duty and keep their spirits up at the same time.
This is an excellent book. Even if I thought I was poorly written, which I emphatically do not, this book would be worth reading for the extremely rare photos of life in the BEF in 1914. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in World War I, but particularly to those who want to see what it was like to be an “Old Contemptible” in 1914-1915.