Thursday, 29 October 2015

Crisis on the Mediterranean: Naval Competition and Great Power Politics, 1904-1914 - Jon K Hendrickson

This review has been published in the Journal of the RCAF.

Title: Crisis on the Mediterranean: Naval Competition and Great Power Politics, 1904-1914
Author: Jon K Hendrickson
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
ISBN: 978-1-61251-475-8
Year: 2014
Pages: 219 

The world of today is so radically different from that of pre-World War 1 that it is difficult to even appreciate the challenges and concerns that nations of that period faced as they struggled with international relations. Central to this, the Mediterranean Sea, represented for many nations a key transport and security concern as well as a common border between many of the (then) worlds leading powers: Italy, France, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Each of these had its own agendas and visions of the region and, in many cases, these were at odds with the desires of their neighbours. Hendrickson's book traces the convoluted lines of international naval diplomacy between the nations of the Mediterranean during the period 1904-1914. It reinforces the fact that the consistent underlying theme in international relations is the fact that nations are never altruistic in their dealings with each other and that these relationships are nothing if not flexible.  

The author takes a chronological approach to the period, each chapter focussing upon a specific component of the interactions. This follows an initial synopsis of the environment and history of the region in order to set the tone for the reader as well as providing a start point from which to move forwards. His contention is that the natural state of affairs for the Med is anarchistic with no clear player holding a dominant position for an extended period of time; thus the British presence, controlling the Med for the last quarter of the 19th century, was a deviation from and not the norm. The start point for the books narrative is 1904 and the recognition by the British that they are no longer able to retain their naval hegemony in the Mediterranean. This has a series of knock-on effects for them including but not limited to: their ability to retain influence over the Ottomon's, the requirement for additional ground forces in order to retain control of their territories in Malta, Egypt and Gibraltar and the necessity to proactively seek allies with whom to share the burden of 'presence'. 

Hendrickson then goes on to trace and analyze the key milestones that delineated the relations between the international players as the Med came into play once again. Thus chapters are assigned for the rise of the Italian and Austro-Hungarian navies during their war scare between 1909 and 1911, their ultimate raproachment and the impact that this had on their strength in the Med. Following this, the decision by the Italians, bolstered by their confidence in their relations with Austro-Hungary and desirous of a greater influence in Med affairs, to invade Libya. The unanticipated impact of this was profound for Italy's relationship with both the Alliance countries and France. He then looks to the reaction of Britain and France to these unfolding events and how the international situation with Germany forced Britain to adopt agreements that were counter to her natural inclinations. The author goes on to shed light on the deepening relationship between Italy and the Alliance as a result of the reaction of the Entente nations to her expansionism. He then closes the main narrative with a discussion on the strategic impact to Frances war plans of the 19th Corps. Composed of the most most hardened and battle experienced soldiers in the French arsenal, it was stationed in Algeria and needed to be transported to France in order to fulfil its role in the Western campaign plan. The importance of this unit to France and the Entente is underscored by Hendrickson dedicating his final chapter to how France and Britain grappled with this problem.
Hendrickson masterfully balances technical analysis of fleet capabilities with a broader study of the operational and strategic implications of the political maneuverings being undertaken by the key players. His narrative style is clear, concise and facilitates an easy understanding of the complex issues facing the different dancers at the 'Med' Ball. He provides a comprehensive bibliography for further research and at the end of each chapter, a synopsis of the events covered. A fascinating and thoroughly researched book. Provides an in-depth look at the role of Italy and Austro-Hungary in the lead up to the First World War, covering areas normally lost in the German/British Naval race and the emphasis on the armies. An outstanding book.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution - Richard Whittle

Published in "Warhistoryonline".

Title: Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution
Author: Richard Whittle
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9964-5
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Year: 2014
Pages: 353
Photos: 26

Predator missions and strike footage is today considered to be rather mundane in the world of news media; real time video of ‘bad guys’ being struck by hellfire missiles or smart bombs is no longer the stuff of science fiction. However, it was not that long ago that this level of technological sophistication left its viewers incredulous. Whittle’s book traces the history not only of the development of the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), its transition from a purely reconnaissance to a weapons platform and  ultimately its adoption and employment in operations throughout the world. He also discusses the challenges related to UAV operations, especially with the addition of weapons to its arsenal and specifically command and control and legal hurdles that had to be dealt with. 

Whittle’s premise, that the UAV was a revolutionary surveillance and weapons platform that changed the very nature of warfare, is justified by the end of the book but is also tempered by the degree of difficulty that the UAV program faced by conventional thinking and bureaucratic inertia. Like many breakthrough technologies, it was envisioned and developed by civilian companies who found it very difficult to convince the government and military of its relevance on the modern battlefield. 
The book highlights a number of interesting consequences of the UAV program and the advent of new technology onto the battlefield: 

a.       The marked increase in the challenges of micro-management as senior officers used the ‘real time’ technology to provide oversight, advice and assistance well below their traditional span of control;

b.      The challenges of bureaucracy as an impediment to change and, concurrently, what can be accomplished in incredibly short periods given the right motivation and backing (referring here to the success of the Big Safari organization in implementing technological advances in the UAV and communications systems);

c.       The challenge of command and control when multiple agencies operate within the same (developmental or operational) battle space. In the case of the Predator, various agencies such as the USAF, CIA US Army and Navy all had proverbial fingers in the pie thereby frustrating clear lines of authority;

d.      The time delay relating to authority for launch when it is centralized at the most senior levels; and

e.      The legal confusion related to what kind of weapon was represented by the Predator UAV. For example, could it be controlled and launched on third party soil, did it violate international treaties and did it represent a violation of Federal law with regard to CIA oversight?
Like most revolutionary programs, the UAV (Predator) project was replete with examples of incredible brilliance and breath-taking myopia. Whittle has translated the convoluted development of the UAV into a very readable and engaging book. There are many lessons to be derived from this experience for any entrepreneur or capital procurement program officer. It is very true the adage presented in the book that change requires a ‘seminal’ event to break comfort zones. The UAV project benefitted from one such event in the form of the September 11 attacks and has not looked back.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Give Me Tomorrow: The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company - Patrick K O’Donnell

Title: Give Me Tomorrow
Author: Patrick K O’Donnell
ISBN: 978-0-306-82044-1
Publisher: DaCapo
Year: 2010
Pages: 261
Photos/Maps: 28/4

O’Donnell’s book, while touching upon the grander strategies of the Korean War – mainly for context – is not about the larger picture. Rather it is a testament to the resilience and endurance of the soldiers at the coal face of battle. It is the story of the soldiers of the 1st Marine Division and, more specifically, George Company (the 3/1st – 3rd Battalion/1st Marines) and their epic, horrific retreat from the Chosin Resevoir in 1950. Indirectly, it is also the story of the Chinese and North Korean soldiers that they fought against and their tenacity in the face of horrible firepower and conditions.

Sound tactical and operational planning and effective logistics are the building blocks of military success; however, the absolute foundation is represented by esprit de corps, leadership and training. This is the message of this book. The author has gathered first-hand accounts of the individual soldiers, senior NCO’s and officers of the 1/3rd and has produced a fine rendition of their experiences and motivations. Korea was unique in that, despite the lessons of the recently finished Second World War, America and the West had very few resources to draw upon to meet the North Korean threat and thus had to scramble to reactivate and train units. Therefore, many of the Marines of the 3/1st had only the most basic of training and had to rely very heavily of a small cadre of officers and senior NCO’s to season them in the field (and very quickly). It was this common experience glue and the reliance each had upon the other that enabled these marines to overcome odds of greater than 10:1 and winter weather that was the coldest in living memory for the region.

O’Donnell’s narrative emphasizes the role of the professional NCO and officer cadre. They are there not only to ensure the baseline training and professionalism of the troops, but also that they stay focussed on the task at hand when everything about them is coming apart. The example and standards set and enforced by these individuals instilled the men with the capacity to endure the severe conditions that they were faced with. It becomes quite evident as the Chosin battle unfolded that it was not belief in the ‘cause’ but the desire to support one another and the pride at being a marine that carried the day.

Another aspect of leadership that was well conveyed in this book were the roles of the officers and NCO’s. The officer’s role was to plan and fight the Company; the First Sergeant and his NCO’s managed the men. These roles overlapped yet were distinct and it is this delineation that is most difficult for junior officers and NCO’s to learn and exercise comfortably. In the case of George Company, the example and experience of the First Sergeant Zullo was critical to the continued effectiveness of the Company.

Give Me Tomorrow is an excellent example of what can be achieved with proper training and leadership. It is also an excellent example of what can go wrong when intelligence and advice is ignored at the more senior levels. At the end of the day, it falls upon the lowest tactical level units to either carry the day or collapse. In the case of 3/1st, they rose to the challenge and overcame the odds. The book is well researched and clearly expresses the sentiments of the men involved. The Korean War may be one that has been largely lost between World War 2 and Vietnam but the lessons are as relevant today as they were then. The men of George Company have been well served by O’Donnell’s work.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Guerrillas of Tsavo: The East African Campaign of the Great War in British East Africa 1914-1916 - James G Willson

Title: Guerrillas of Tsavo: The East African Campaign of the Great War in British East Africa 1914-1916
Author: James G Willson
ISBN: 978-9966-7571-3-5
Publisher: Self-published by James Wilson
Year: 2014
Pages: 356
Photos/Maps: 511/28 

The campaign that was fought in Africa during WW1 has been largely overshadowed by every other theatre but was extremely significant in the lessons that were (or were not) learned, the operational doctrine developed and the new paradigm that it left the Africans involved. Wilson, a local Kenyan businessman and historian, has become an expert on the Tsavo region and the fighting that took place there and his passion and deep knowledge of what transpired is patently evident in this book. 

It is important to realize that for the major combatants, Britain and Germany, Africa represented very different fields of effort. The one area of common ground was that neither side envisioned Africa being anything more than a brief sideshow to the major efforts on the Western Front: Germany seeing no way of defending/supporting its colonies given the strength of the Royal Navy and Britain simply assuming that the German colonies would capitulate given their isolation. It is interesting that the civilian leadership in both locations preferred to avoid any form of conflict altogether and it was the military contingents that drove the recruitment, planning and execution of operations. 

Notwithstanding geography, Africa was unique in the fact that, in no other theatre was the influence of a single commander more keenly felt. In this case, Gen Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commanding the German forces throughout the campaign, developed doctrine and an operational appreciation that effectively prevented the vastly superior Allied forces from ever assuming the initiative. Lettow-Vorbeck correctly determined that his Centre of Gravity/Effort was the tying down of as many allied forces as possible, thereby preventing them from being utilized elsewhere. In this approach, he was successful beyond anyone’s wildest estimations. German forces at their peak numbered 3,007 European Officers and 12,100 Askari (locally trained soldiers) as well as several thousand carriers/porters. Conversely, Allied forces (British, Portuguese and Belgian) numbered in the region of 137 Generals, over 300,000 soldiers and many hundreds of thousands of porters. The scope of success of the German effort in Africa may be recognized by the fact that they did not surrender until a week following the armistice in Europe and when they did, it was as an undefeated, still operationally effective force.  

Wilson has authored a very interesting book. He provides an analysis of the social and political situation in Africa at the time of the commencement of hostilities and also provides the reader with detailed maps and geographic information. He then follows the campaign in a daily format tracing the activities of both contingents throughout the 1914, 15 and 16 campaigning season. As he does so, he emphasizes different doctrines and methodologies used by each side and to what degree they were effective. This is especially telling as the German asymmetric approach, while unique at the time, will be seen as very familiar to subsequent armies and campaigners. The lessons that Lettow-Vorbeck taught in his approach to warfare were decades ahead of his time but they have not been studied by modern military scholars and as a result, remain largely forgotten. They form, however, the basis for most subsequent asymmetric conflicts.  

This is a well-researched and engaging book. I would strongly recommend that it be reviewed and studied by any student of military history wishing to understand how the correct application of limited force can have far-reaching consequences.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters - Jason K Stearns

Title: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters
Author: Jason K Stearns
Publisher: PublicAffairs
ISBN: 978-1-61039-1078
Year: 2012
Pages: 380 

The West is very aware of the horror of the Rwandan genocide that took place between April and July, 1994; over 800,000 people (mainly Tutsi's) were slaughtered. What is not well known, indeed hardly commented or reported upon, was the follow-on war and genocide that took place in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) between 1995-2001. This 'Great War' of Africa involved 5 countries and resulted in an estimated 1.7 million dead, untold wounded, millions displaced and hundreds of thousands raped and ravaged. Stearns book is an effort to redress this shortfall and it makes for dark and difficult reading.  

Stearns contends that the fundamental reasons for the lack of interest on the part of the West to this agony in Africa centres upon two main themes: one represents the complexity of the war and the causes thereof and two is the fact that it was far away from the West and of little immediate impact. The first cause is indicative, the author contends, of a modern world interested in quick and simple explanations and the second, a media that both recognizes and enables that simplistic approach. 

He is absolutely correct in his contention that the underlying causes of the war were complex; indeed, there were no clear 'good guys' or 'bad guys'; all players were both. Sadly, the one consistency were the victims of personal, national and tribal greed. Commencing with a history of the region, Stearns takes the reader through the tangle of the ensuing years with candid interviews of key players and evaluations of the political and societal conditions that enabled the tragedy to unfold. His eye for detail and the human condition paint, for the reader, a depressingly predictable pattern of idealism, corruption and acceptance.

This is a very disturbing rendition of the events of this period, made all the more so by the complete indifference of the West. The West does play a key role in developing the historical conditions for the tragedy; however, responsibility lies equally with the Africans in taking advantage of those vulnerable members of their societies. There does exist some aspects however, that leave the reader with cause for hope, primarily centring upon the resilience of the human spirit. The Africans repeatedly move forward, not without rancour or memory, but in recognition of the need to rebuild.  

The complexity of the causes and unfolding of this war are indeed manifest. Stearns has done an outstanding  job of presenting the drama with clarity and accuracy without diminishing impact or 'dumbing down' the story. He has a strong eye for the human condition and is able to translate the visual to the written with subtlety and frankness. This book is uncomfortable to read as it cracks the vault on aspects of the human psyche rarely seen on such vast scales. It is nevertheless, extremely educational for Western readers to begin the process of understanding the tragedy and complexity of Africa. Especially recommended for those who may find themselves preparing for deployments or jobs in Africa.