Tuesday, January 01, 2013

2013: Wars and Rumors of War

This entry serves as a collection of reviews and notes on historical items read, fictional and non-fiction alike, mainly tending towards military events.

Rick Atkinson: The Long Grey Line.

Gary W. Bray: After My Lai: My Year Commanding First Platoon, Charlie Company.

I picked this one up after seeing that The Village (see below) was set in the same area, but in a different period. It was also set after the My Lai incident and involved the same unit (but different people, due to rotation). Bray's story of commanding the unit is interesting, but did not provide much detail on the differences between the way the USMC operated (in The Village) vs. how the U.S. Army operated. It was more a telling of Bray's experiences in Vietnam, with some detail on tactics and the like. (It should prove useful for when I start looking for ideas for future wargame scenarios.)

Michael L. Burgoyne, Albert J. Marckwardt, E.D. Swinton: The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa with E.D. Swinton's The Defence of Duffer's Drift (University of Chicago Press; 2009; ISBN 978-0226080932; cover, historical photograph).

The Defence of Duffer's Drift has now inspired a third tale (that I'm aware of) which is included as the first half of this two-part volume. Duffer's Drift features Lieutenant N. Backsight Forethought who is left, along with his men and a scattering of equipment, to guard a key geographical location (Duffer's Drift) during the Boer War. The story is told in a series of dreams, where in each dream, he arrives on location and has to set up, prepare defenses, scout, react and hold out until relieved. He fails each time but learns a bit more and applies what he learns to each subsequent dream, until he succeeds at his task. The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa is a similar tale with applications on the U.S. Army's experience in Iraq. The book also mentions the second story (again, that I'm aware of) inspired by the original, The Defense of Hill 781 by James R. McDonough, disparaging it as being no longer useful to today's Army. A mistake, I feel. The lessons of Duffer's Drift can be applied to the large mechanized force scenario outlined in Hill 781 as easily as they can be applied to al-Doreaa. McDonough's Platoon Leader is cited as a better work; but I'd argue that the lessons that McDonough learned that lead to the writing of Platoon Leader are seen as well in Hill 781. Pick them all up and give them a read!

C.S. Forester: Rifleman Dodd (a.k.a., Death to the French) (eNet Press; 2012; ASIN B007BKAB2E; cover, historical artwork).

Rifleman Dodd is overshadowed by Forster's more widely-known Horatio Hornblower, which is a shame as it is a wonderful little book. Dodd is cut off behind enemy lines in Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars. Unable to rejoin his unit, he instead plays havoc with the French forces, organizing resistance, carrying out harassment and sabotage and helping to convince the French that it is better to retreat than fight. He keeps his weapon clean and working, his spirits up and improvises on the fly. Part of the USMC Professional Reading Program, I found this a better read than some of the other older items in the list (isn't it time to retire A Message to Garcia, for example?).

Russell Lewis: Company Commander (Virgin Digital; 2012; ISBN 0753540304; cover, historical photograph).

This has turned out (so far) to be my best non-fiction read of the year. Lewis covers his experience leading a British unit in Afghanistan; the story is light on his background and the training of the unit prior to deployment (except a few mentions) but does a fantastic job discussing the make up of the unit, the tactics used, and details of the many engagements they were involved in during their time in Afghanistan. Lewis ends by listing several charities (all based in the United Kingdom) to assist soldiers and is donating his profits from the book to one of the charities. A commendable effort, an excellent read and highly recommended!

Bing West: The Village (Pocket Books; 2003; ISBN 978-0-7434-5757-6; cover, historical photograph).

In the Village, West details a two-year period (plus several follow-up visits) in the village of Binh Nghia (South Vietnam) when a "Combined Action Patrol" of USMC and local forces patrolled, interacted with the locals, and fought the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army to the point where the village was essentially at peace (until the fall of South Vietnam). The Marines involved were not special forces or especially trained for this; they developed standards on their own as to who would or would not fit in, slowly developed a means of operating with the locals, and, most importantly, were given time and enough operating room to succeed.

This book is part of the current edition of the Professional Reading List, promulgated by the Commandant of the Marine Corps. You can see how it would apply to Iraq and Afghanistan, but in the current environment of shifting strategies, short cycles, up-or-out promotions and the like, would a long-term strategy of patience work? Or be allowed to work?

One item in the book that I'm going to look for in more detail elsewhere has to do with the relative success with this unit vs. a tragic failure by a U.S. Army unit not too far away. This village was only a stone's throw from My Lai. How did these two situations go so wildly different?

An excellent read. I've already picked up a second book by West (on Afghanistan) and will pick up additional works by him. I read this book both as a paperback and an eBook (on two different eBook gadgets). Reading the eBook version enabled me to keep notes (and tweet the same notes), but for some reason the eBook does not have the photographs included in the paper edition.

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