Friday, March 05, 2010

Rumors of War (2010)

For this year's foray into military history and military fiction I am using as a guideline the U.S.M.C.'s Professional Reading List (Adobe Acrobat version here). Broken down by rank, for both enlisted non-comissioned, and warrant/commissioned officer, the Professional Reading List is a way of furthering a Marine's military education without a classroom. The list has changed through the years (an older version can be found here), I am using the current list as a guideline. There will be other books outside this list (or taken from the lists of other branches of service), but this looks to be the core for the year.

Nathaniel Fick: One Bullet Away—The Making of a Marine Officer (Houghton Mifflin Company; 2005; cover by Martha Kennedy; ISBN 0-618-55613-3).

This book covers the same unit and same period of time as Evan Wright's Generation Kill and in the same general area as Major Seth W.B. Folsom's The Highway War (both read previously). If you've seen the HBO miniseries Generation Kill, you'll also see many of the same incidents. Fick expands on the story and talks about his training as well as his unit's deployment into Afghanistan after September 11, 2001. The book was interesting on several fronts, in giving a different view of the events in Generation Kill and The Highway War; showing the training of both an officer and a unit; and illuminating the first several weeks of the Iraq conflict.

The saddest part? Have we really learned anything since Vietnam?

After channeling all my energy into applying to graduate school, I got a phone call from an admissions officer: "Mr. Fick, we read your application and liked it very much. But a member of our committee read Evan Wright's story about your platoon in Rolling Stone. You're quoted as saying, 'The bad news is, we won't get much sleep tonight; the good news is, we get to kill people.'" She paused, as if waiting for me to disavow the quote. I was silent, and she went on. "We have a retired Army officer on our staff, and he warned me that there are people who enjoy killing, and they aren't nice to be around. Could you please explain your quote for me?"

"No, I cannot."

"Well, do you really feel that way?" Her tone was earnest, almost pleading.

"You mean, will I climb your clock tower and pick people off with a hunting rifle?"

It was her turn to be silent.

"No, I will not. Do I feel compelled to explain myself to you? No I don't."

C.S. Forester: Rifleman Dodd—A Novel of the Peninsular Campaign (Kessinger Publishing; 2008; no cover artist indicated; ISBN 978-1-430453-86-4).

Forester, who is probably better known to most as the author of a series about a sea-going officer by the name of Hornblower, here tells the story of a private soldier cut off during a retreat from his regiment and his efforts to rejoin his unit. Over the course of several months, Dodd manages to tie up the enemy, form a group of villagers into irregulars, foil a attempt to bridge a river, and—in the end—return to his unit, worn, dirty, bruised and battered, but with his rifle clean and his equipment all accounted for. A relatively brief book (I read it in one evening), it was an very engrossing story.

First to be read by privates (E1) when using the USMC Professional Reading List.

Matt Gallagher: Kaboom—Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Da Capo Press; 2010; ISBN 978-0-306-81880-6).

Gallagher was a lieutenant (and then a captain) in two Stryker infantry units during the second Gulf War. In the course of his time there, he kept a blog and a notebook which eventually became this book. While there is some interesting stuff here, I've seen much of the same in similar narratives by officers of similar rank. It might have worked but there is one thing about the book that utterly drove me nuts: Gallagher uses nicknames for many of the people he served with or the Iraqi civilians he dealt with—Specialst Big Ern, SFC Big Country, Staff Sergeant Boondock and more. Was he protecting their identities? Not really, as everyone is named in the end, so why not save us all some sanity points and do a global find-and-replace. Sigh. Not going to be a keeper.

Colonel David H. Hackworth (U.S. Army, Ret.) and Julie Sherman: About Face—The Odyssey of an American Warrior (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster; 1990; ISBN 0-671-69534-6).

Hackworth rose from enlisted to Colonel and served in Europe, the United States, Korea and Vietnam. His career ended in controversy as he came to believe that we were fighting the wrong way during Vietnam and that many things about the U.S. Army are broken (many of these things are still broken, alas). I'm not sure if this book is on any of the curriculum's of various service schools or is part of any professional reading list...if not, it should be. The Army (the U.S. military overall) tends to forget the past and reinvent the wheel over and over again.

Part of the sequence of this book seems to have been excised and published separately (even with the cut, it is one darned long book). An amazing story.

Robert D. Kaplan: Imperial Grunts—On the Ground with the American Military, from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq and Beyond (Vintage; 2006; ISBN 978-1-4000-3457-4).

Kaplan's book is one of the more fascinating books that I read this year on the world situation. He covers his travels, as indicated in the sub-title, around much of the world, embedding with units large and small, in a number of countries. In the course of the book he shows us much of what is right about the U.S. military (and what is wrong, but there is more that is right than wrong) and gives us hints as to how it might evolve in the future. The emphasis is on such things as Civil Affairs, various special operations units and the U.S. Marine Corps. Like David Drake, Kaplan shows us the truth of the following: "When you send a man out with a gun, you create a policymaker. When his ass is on the line, he will do whatever he needs to do...And if the implications of that bothers you, the time to do something about it is before you decide to send him out." Highly recommended.

John Keegan: The Battle for History: Re-Fighting World War II (Vintage; 1996; ISBN 0-679-76743-6).

A very thin book, really several long essays, on a subject that Keegan has covered in several of his own books, the Second World War. Keegan looks at such subjects as those who put their spin on the war, the best and worst books on various aspects of the war and more. One very interesting thesis is how a good history of the war has yet to be written: not enough time has (even now) passed).

Peter R. Mansoor: Baghdad at Sunrirse—A Brigade Commander's War in Iraq (Yale University Press; 2008; ISBN 978-0-300-14069-9).

This book was a combination of a pretty good personal story of a soldier's development and a very good story of how one brigade reacted during the occupation of Iraq. It is also interesting (when combined with the other memoirs that I have read) the differences between those who report the war (for the most part, with the rare exceptions of some people like Atkinson and Yon) and those who are in a war. Very highly recommended, especially observations scattered throughout the sections dealing on Iraq and the final chapter of the book.

First to be read by captains on the USMC Professional Reading List.

S.L.A. Marshall: The Soldier's Load and The Mobility of a Nation (The Marine Corps Association; 1980; no cover artist indicated; no ISBN indicated).

This brief book (really two essays) details Marshall's thoughts on how much weight a soldier (or marine) might be expected to carry into combat and still be able to fight. He shows how the mythical man-load came to be, despite the efforts of many to trim it back (a couple of amusing examples include one general officer showing up in front of a higher general officer with what a staff had come up with for the ordinary soldier to carry to drive home the lesson). I wonder what the man-load of the U.S. soldier is these days with electronic gear and body armor tossed in.

First to be read by privates (E1) when using the USMC Professional Reading List.

Craig M. Mullaney: The Unforgiving Minute—A Soldier's Education (Penguin Books; 2010; ISBN 978-0-14-311687-5; cover photograph by Chung Sung-Jen).

The "education" referred to in the title was two-fold. First, came Mullaney's family and schooling, especially West Point and various service schools. Second, was Mullaney's actual war experience, especially in Afghanistan. The book is gripping, compelling, but in the end somewhat dissatisfying. Mullaney leaves the U.S. Army and goes to teach. Was it his war experience? Was it a broken system where it is ever "up or out" when it comes to your career? Was it a inflated review system where you need to start out walking on water, and heaven forbid if you ever go lower?

Thomas E. Ricks: Fiasco (Penguin Books; 2007; ISBN 978-0-14-303891-7).

A good view of the Iraq war through 2007, switching between locales and players (Washington, D.C., Iraq, President and staff, military) and viewpoints (very high to squad level). However, while Ricks is justified in much of his criticism, he is also somewhat myopic when it comes to the criticism. He is pretty harsh with members of the Administration, somewhat harsh with the military, but when it comes time to criticizing the media (of which he is a member), the gloves stay on. Somewhat strange, given the role the media played in the war.

Sun Tzu: The Art of War.

FTC Disclaimer: All books bought. All books written (with blood, sweat and tears).


Tom Copeland said...

You can also track your progress through the USMC (and other branches as well) reading list on I've got several revisions of the USMC list broken down by grade, and am adding more lists and revisions all the time... enjoy!

Fred Kiesche said...

Tom, thanks for the note and especially for the link! As you'll see, I added the books I've read. Looks like I should have been in the US Navy and not the US Army!

John Lambshead said...

Dear Tom
I do not know whether to be sad, mad, or amused by the way that ex soldier was treated - all of the above, I suppose.
I was never in the military but you may recall that I come from a military family. It's difficult for those who have no contact with the military to understand about war zones.

Tom Copeland said...

Glad you like it! It's been a lot of fun putting this site together... tracking these lists has sent so many good books my way. Good times. And I concur with many of your comments - I laughed when I saw the one on "The Tipping Point" :-)