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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.

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Book Review: Steven Pressfield’s “The Warrior Ethos”: One Marine Officer’s Critique and Counterpoint by Edward Carpenter

[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]

This review is kind of different from what I normally do as it is mainly a review of book written as a critique and alternative to another book.  The main review is of Edward Carpenter’s Steven Pressfield’s “The Warrior Ethos”: One Marine Officer’s Critique and Counterpoint, which is response to the inclusion of The Warrior Ethos on the Marine Corps Professional Reading List a few years ago.

That is unfortunate as The Warrior Ethos is essentially a piece of garbage book.  Steven Pressfield is a historical fiction author who decided to write a book about what a warrior s and should aspire to be for the modern military.  The Warrior Ethos is the result.  It is essentially a cherry picking of historical and same fictional events and anecdotes that purports to be a moral and behavioral guide for the modern warrior.  Almost all the anecdotes and events are drawn from ancient history, particularly Sparta.  He is a former Marine having served in the 60’s but never having seen combat.

I think what gets me the most about this book is the almost adulatory tone towards the Spartans, a people who routinely exposed babies they saw as unfit, kept the majority of their population as slaves, mandated military training for all males, and looked at war as sport.   There are some things about Spartans that are admirable, and their military abilities are one them.  The oppression and abuse they heaped upon themselves to achieve that greatness extracted a high price tough.  A price I am not convinced was worth the payoff.

The Warrior Ethos is a small book, only 112 pages and takes about 1 ½ hours to read.  It is essentially new-age, psychobabble pap with a basis on a tyrannical, repressive ancient regime that did not survive more than 400 years or so.  I am actually shocked that the book ended up on a professional reading list.

That being said Steven Pressfield’s “The Warrior Ethos”: One Marine Officer’s Critique and Counterpoint by Edward Carpenter is not very large either at only 124 pages.  That is mainly because it does not require a lot of space to destroy what are the patently absurd ideas contained within Pressfield’s book.  Edward Carpenter is a currently serving Marine Major and as he states in the foreword of his book, he felt compelled to write a critique after reading it.  MAJ Carpenter divides his book into two parts; part I is the critique of Pressfield and part II is his counter-proposal for what a Warrior Ethos should consist of.

In part I he takes Pressfield’s assertions about warriors and warrior-hood and does an outstanding job of debunking them one by one often using text from Pressfield’s own book to do so.  I don’t think I have seen a better job of hoisting someone on their own petard in good long while.  Part I was actually a joy to read and I was unhappy that it was not longer as the idiocy in Pressfield’s points and assertions are brutally exposed for the fallacies they are.

Part II is the answer part to Pressfield’s assertions.  It essentially goes through Pressfield’s book point by point and offers a countervailing view of what a warrior is and what a warrior ethos should contain.  This part is likewise well written but I personally have many issues with the points he makes.  That is probably due to my background as a combat arms soldier with combat under my belt and 23 years of experience.

If I have any issues with part II it is because from my perspective it is written from the PC point of view enforced by the modern military.  He likes to toss out the overused and now essentially meaningless adjective of something or someone being misogynistic.  That is a sop to the modern military fetish for ignoring the differences between men and women and heaping derision on those that point out such differences.  There are in fact, observable and quantifiable differences between men and women and they cannot be put into the same box.  That is not to say that men and women cannot be part of the same team, just that men and women largely cannot do all of the same things.  Men and women complement each other, but do not replace each other.  The modern military ignores this aspect at their peril.

I also have the traditional disdain of the line soldier for support troops.  I acknowledge that without the clerks and jerks in the rear I would not have been able to engage in my passion for blowing things up and breaking stuff.  However, there are attitude, mental, and motivational differences between somebody sitting in an ambush position waiting for the enemy and the guy running a fuel point on a secure FOB.  I don’t think you can truthfully say that everyone wearing a uniform in the modern military is a warrior.  That is just as much new age garbage as Pressfield’s ostensible claim that the only warrior is some bloodthirsty brute with veins in their teeth looking to kill.  I don’t buy the notion that the “fobbits” and the guys going out the gate on a daily basis are equivalent.

I disagree with Carpenter’s definition of a warrior as “a person who willing to subordinate themselves to the demands of a country or a cause, and is willing to aid other members of their organization to engage in violence, and to kill or die or risk severe injury themselves to advance the interest of that cause.”  That broad definition includes terrorists but I don’t have a problem with that.  I have a problem that the definition equates the clerk working in the finance office with the spear thrower on the firing line.  I would submit that the two activities are categorically different and the warrior is in fact the person on the line engaging in combat in the effort to “close with and destroy the enemy through the use of fire, maneuver, and shock effect” as my last Cavalry squadron’s mission statement put it.

He goes on in this vein through the rest of pat II attempting to craft a definition of warrior that is all-encompassing and therefore allows every person wearing a uniform in the modern military to style themselves a warrior.  I understand the logic behind the effort having seen it at work during my last decade of service, I just disagree with it.  A freedom I have, now that I am retired and no longer required to toe the party line in my words and actions.

I find that MAJ Carpenter’s book is well worth reading, especially his counterpoint, which gives some perspective on the way modern US military leadership is expected to think and the mental hoops they have to jump through to do so.  As I state above, I understand the necessity for support troops.  Some support troops indeed have inherently dangerous jobs such as EOD teams, fuel handlers, ammo handlers, and truck driver’s.  That those jobs are inherently dangerous does not the people performing those jobs warriors though.  A fuel line I not actively trying to kill you.  That is why I firmly believe that the warrior is still and will always be the front line combat arms soldier.

I highly recommend MAJ Carpenter’s book as both a needed critique of The Warrior Ethos, but also as a look into how professional military officers have been trained to see the profession of arms.  In order to fully understand the work though, you need to read Pressfield’s book first.  The greater hope is that MAJ Carpenters erudite destruction of Pressfield’s garbage will cause the powers that be to rethink including Pressfield’s book on the professional reading list and will prompt its removal.

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Book Review: Breakout: Pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past, and the Epic Battle That Will Decide America’s Fate by Newt Gingrich

Breakout: Pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past, and the Epic Battle That Will Decide America’s Fate by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would probably have been a more interesting book if it had introduced some new ideas.  Sadly, it does not.  The book is nothing more than a rehashing of the tired ideas that have been floating around in conservative circles for years.

One would think that in 209 pages of text at least one original idea would appear.  The book is separated into 13 topical chapters with an introduction and a conclusion.  There is an extensive notes section and a surprisingly good index.

The topics cover everything from Education, to Healthcare, to Government and Business and much in between.  The essential argument of the book, and one I actually cannot disagree with is that the biggest problem in the US right now is government.  Government regulation and intellectual luddites are stifling innovation and holding the country back from making the conceptual leaps and paradigm shift that it is capable of to extend American leadership into the 21st century and beyond.

Speaker Gingrich makes an eloquent argument that over-regulation and political interests are holding the country back.  There is no reason for the current economic and societal malaise that we are not inflicting on ourselves.  I found especially demining his description of the over-cautious FDA drug and device approval process and the ways in which oil exploration and extraction in the US is being deliberately slowed and even stopped.  I share the Speakers concern that there is a large segment of people in America that actively want the country to fail and work to see that it does.  I find it equally dismaying that such people even exist.  What I don’t share is his optimism that there is a way out of the mess by working within the current system.  I hope that he is right and I am wrong.

Regardless, this is a well written book that explains the many issues presented in a rational and non-extremist manner.  Speaker Gingrich is a past master at making seemingly complex issues easy to understand, Breakout continues in that tradition and for that reason alone is worth reading.  I recommend this book to anyone interested in contemporary politics and the ways in which said politics are stifling progress both societally and technologically.

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Book Review: The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945 by Richard Overy

[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]

The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945 is one of those books that is going to end up a standard work for a long time to come.  It is the single most comprehensive history of the Allied bombing of Germany and occupied Europe during WWII that I have seen since the strategic bombing survey published by the US government in the immediate post-war years.

I have a review copy of the book so the page counts may be a little different in the published version.  The book itself is 561 pages with 78 pages of notes, a 26 pages bibliography, and an 18 page index.  It is divided into six chapters.  The first three chapters are a chronological account of the air war over Germany and the last three are thematic dealing with the logic of bombing and the campaigns in Italy and the occupied countries.

Every book about the war talks about the bombing campaign and most take for granted that it was effective at least partially in reducing Germany’s war-making ability.  This book examines the war in detail and tries to establish the effectiveness, if any, of the Allied bombing offensive.  The answer is mixed at best.

It has always struck me as odd that despite the expenditure of hundreds of tons of bombs and the devastation of the center and surrounding regions of most industrial towns in Germany, german war production continued to increase throughout the war.  Indeed, the most productive war of the month in terms of number of tanks and aircraft constructed was march of 1945.  Given that, how could it be said that the bombing campaign was successful as many historians and the leaders of the campaign claimed?

The point of bombing was not to kill civilians, but to reduce the war making capacity of Germany.  What Dr. Overy makes clear is that while industrial capacity was negatively affected in the wake of many raids, what was lost was regained and then some so rapidly that production halts were temporary at best.  he attributes this to two causes; one, bombing accuracy was abysmal, and two, the Germans were very good at repairing damage and getting production lines running again.

It was considered a good raid by the british if there bombs fell within 5 miles of the target and three Americans thought within 3 miles was good.  Bombing accuracy was so bad because the bombers flew very high to avoid AA fire and in the case of the English, they flew at night.  The lower the bombers flew, the more accurate they were but they also suffered horrendous losses at low altitude due to AA fire and German fighters.

Added to bombing inaccuracy, was the depth and responsiveness of the German Civil and Air Defense Systems.  The Germans had a multitude of agencies tasked with dealing with raiding damage and the German people themselves pitched in to make things good.  The striking thing is that the Germans could have been even more effective if they had streamlined their civil defense organizations and avoided having a plethora of agencies trying to do the same thing.

The story of the bombing of italy shows that where the germans were very good, the Italians were very bad and italian civilians suffered as a result.  Of special interest is the discussion of the bombing of occupied countries and the response of the occupied people to the destruction and loss of life inherent in being bombed to get their freedom.

This is an outstanding book and I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they are knowledgeable about the Allied Bombing campaign of WWII.  The book dispels some myths and puts the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of strategic bombing in context to who the war was won and the Nazis defeated.

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Review: Gulf War Ghosts by W.P. Armstrong

I will admit up front that I normally shy away from historical fiction like it is the plague.  Gulf War Ghosts has made me rethink that position.  This is historical fiction that uses a historical period as the setting but dos not try to play what if games with events.  The setting is the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf war and the plot revolves around mysterious attacks on several American soldiers. With the exception of one mistake one of my biggest pet peeves about any writing having to do with military units was a non-issue.  That is, he gets the format and style of unit designations correct.  There is none of the typical mistake of saying A Company, 1st Division or other mistakes of that nature in the book.  The one mistake I noticed is when he refers to the 2nd Squadron, 8th Cavalry.  Squadron is typically the designation for battalion size Cavalry units but 2-8 Cav was and still is an Armor Battalion and is so designated as 2nd Battalion, 8th US Cavalry.  That is nitpicking though and I am probably one of the few people who looks out for that kind of stuff in books anyway. Because this is a novella the plot moves fast and while by the middle you get an idea where it is going it is written so well that you keep reading to find out exactly what happens.  At just shy of 70 pages printed, this only takes an hour or two to read.  That is an hour or two well spent.  This is an excellent story with an interesting twist and I highly recommend it.

Update:  My quibble about unit designations has been corrected in an update to the novella.