Monday, March 26, 2012

2012: War and Rumors of War

I got started reading (or rather, finishing what I had started) military history this year and ended up finishing two books shortly one after the other in March. Looking at the bookshelves, as usual, these shouldn't be the only ones I read this year.

Dick Camp: The Devil Dogs at Belleau Wood: U.S. Marines in World War I (Zenith Press; 2008; ASIN B004NNUWUS; cover art, historical photograph). Looks in detail at the training the USMC received ahead of their involvement in WWI and in particular their fighting in and around the area known as Belleau Wood. Of particular interest is how training and bravery overcame the difficulties of fighting in wooded/hilly/rocky terrain plus the outmoded means of fighting vs. the massed firing of interlocking machineguns (old tactics vs. new). Hopefully Camp will visit some of the other campaigns he mentions in the book that the veterans (who helped the novices) in various units participated in. Recommended.

Bernard Cornwall: Sharpe's Rifles (Penguin Books; 2001; ASIN B000RAK4U4; cover art, not indicated). I first picked up this series when I was in the Army as several other people in my unit were reading them. I've come back to them and have found a greater level of enjoyment than the first run through as I've read several histories of the era, as well as another series set in the era (Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series). Cornwall sets this entry in the series in the Spanish countryside and some key cities, in between actual historical events. There's a lot of nice stuff in here about an officer who has come up from the ranks (Sharpe), thrown into an adverse situation and how he relates to the men under his command. Toss in some romance, multiple instances of dire straits, and you've got a great read. Not the "first" in the series (despite the number in the description) either written or in the overall historical chronology, but what I also like about these books is that they work very independently.

Doyle D. Glass: Lions of Medina: The Marines of Charlie Company and Their Brotherhood of Valor (NAL Caliber; 2008; ISBN 978-0-451-22408-8; cover, historical photograph). Covers an early battle between a company of U.S. Marines and the NVA during the initial phases of US buildup in Vietnam. If you want a quick-adn-dirty comparison, thinks "We Were Soldiers Once...And Young for Marines". Very moving in places and some of the combat sequences will raise the hair on your head. Hollywood, where are you? This would have been a much better subject for a film than Full Metal Jacket!

Philip Keith: Blackhorse Riders (St. Martin's Press; 2012; ISBN 978-0-312-68192-0; cover, historical photograph). This book covers the actions of a combined cavalry troop—"leg" infantry company in going to rescue another infantry company that walked into a highly-defended enemy encampment during the Vietnam War. The incident was, through various circumstances, overlooked in the overall history of the war until members of the cavalry troop started bringing it to official attention. A gripping story and one that needed to be told a lot earlier than this!

Kevin Mervin: Weekend Warrior: A Territorial Soldier's War in Iraq (Mainstream Publishing; 2005; ISBN 978-1840189742; cover, author photograph). I picked this one up (as an eBook) as it covered something I did not even know existed: the Territorial Army in the United Kingdom. I had spent 12 years as a reservist in the U.S. Army and did not know that the UK had the equivalent. Mervin talks about his experiences in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and the British efforts in and around Basara. There's a good mix of humor (just how many times can one man eat pasta and meatballs for breakfast?), action and suspense (see how Iraq was invaded—by a pair of mechanics—ahead of schedule!) as well as the grimmer side of war: a number of grim tales here about how the citizens of Iraq broke down into tribe-on-tribe fighting. Mervin survives Iraq only to be mistreated at home: he is called a baby killer (sound familiar?), loses his job due to his Territorial Army commitment (so much for the patriotism and support of one's employer!) and eventually has to leave the TA in order to keep a job. Published in 2005, and of a "ground level" view, it (necessarily) does not cover what happened later in Iraq, but it is a fine read from a point of things I do not often encounter.

Mark Owen and Kevin Maurer: No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy Seal—The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden (Dutton; 2012; ASIN B008MG1E4A; cover art, historical photograph). Ahead of the controversy which seems to have been attached to this book, I wanted to read it to learn more of the SEALS and of, in particular, the mission that finally "got" Osama Bin Laden. Having read the book, I wonder if many of those who are criticizing it and complaining about the author have actually read it. I find, for example, no boasting here. I find a quiet, careful, thoughtful narrative who emphasizes the positives of training and focus and the bravery and sacrifice of those in the unit (not just him, not any way close—the praise is heaped more on the others!). I was not startled by any "secrets" (it seems that the reaction, to me, from official circles is more of fear of embarassment—not because those circles did anything wrong, but from foot-dragging, mission creep and the desire to stick an oar in where it might do more wrong than good). I don't even find anything overtly political (towards or against either side of the aisle). We need to celebrate our victories, to praise those who sacrifice, this book does both. A fast read and I've already loaned my copy out (I have both the paper and electronic versions) three times. Highly recommended.

Lewis Sorley: A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (Harvest/Harcourt; 1999; ISBN 978-0-15-601309-3; cover, historical photograph). Sorley looks at the involvement of Creighton Abrams in the Vietnam War and how he (and a few other key people) changed the direction of that war. Some historians have taken Sorley to task for "revising" history, but it is possible that the filters used to this point have been pointed too far to the left, if you get my drift. This book was influential in the "surge" strategy first used in Iraq (and later in Afghanistan).

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