Saturday, 30 January 2016

Our Last Best Chance - King Abdullah II of Jordan

Title: Our Last Best Chance
Author: King Abdullah II of Jordan
ISBN: 978-0-141-04879-6
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 2012
Pages: 346
Photographs/maps: 39 b/w

The Kingdom of Jordan stands as a bastion of stability in a very unstable neighbourhood. That it has been able to maintain internal order and good governance despite poverty, a massive refugee challenge and a region wracked by sectarian and religious violence is a testament to its benign leadership and a moderate and balanced approach by government. The role of the Royal family in Jordan has been instrumental in the maintenance of this stability.

King Abdullah came to the throne unexpectedly upon the death of his father King Hussein in 1999. Since then he has dealt with the second Iraq War and its regional fallout, the Arab Spring, the world economic crisis of the late 2000’s, War in Syria, the ongoing Palestinian/Israeli issue and the challenge of the international perception of Islam with the rise of ISIL. His book is a reflection of his thoughts and vision of how these and other issues are being met, the challenges associated with each both regionally and internationally and what may be done to address them.

His book is a balanced and thoughtful assessment of the root causes of these issues and the role that Jordan and the international community must play in addressing them. He does not shy away from forthright criticism of all parties and the continuing narrow mindedness of the actions of individuals and states. He is particularly critical of the Israeli approach to the issue of the Palestinians; his observations however, are not simply rhetoric and bombast but measured and reflect a position based upon contemplation and experience.

His work provides an excellent insight into the realities of Arab politics: the challenges of tribalism, individuality, religion and economic disparity. His is a world where coups and the threat of political violence is a very strong reality. He outlines his efforts to improve education and the access of all to the benefits of the global economy while recognizing the history and culture of the Arab community. It is a fascinating view of the interface between politics, the integrated role of religion in all aspects of society and the lingering traditions of the Arab people relating to the role of tribes, women and honour.

King Abdullah has a foot in each camp. He brings to his book his insights into the Arab mind tempered with his exposure and understanding of the Western world. His is a benign and moderate leadership whose success is reflected in the stability of Jordan. His book represents the thoughts and contemplation's of an experienced and respected Arabic leader. They are not couched in religious rhetoric but are presented in a very readable and logical fashion. It is evident that he has thought long and deeply on these issues and that he holds very strong opinions and beliefs. This is a book well worth reading and one that, it is hoped, will be followed by further writings on the subsequent events since its publication in 2012.  

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Marshall KK Rokossovsky: The Red Army’s Gentleman Commander - Dr Boris Sokolov

This review has been submitted to the Canadian Army Journal

Title: Marshall KK Rokossovsky: The Red Army’s Gentleman Commander
Author: Dr Boris Sokolov
ISBN: 978-1-909982-10-9
Publisher: Helion Publishing
Year: 2015
Pages: 493
Photographs/Maps: 23/11

History is replete with biographies of US, Canadian, British and German Commanders from the Second World War; however, there is a marked lack of in-depth commander studies from the Russian perspective that have not been skewed through the Soviet lens. Marshall Rokossovsky is a case in point. One of the finest Commanders of the Second World War, a Pole who considered himself to be Russian but was never truly trusted or accepted by either, a Bolshevik, victim of Stalin’s purges and a cavalryman who began his military career in 1916, Rokossovsky life and career represented a microcosm of the potential, good and bad of the Soviet Union. A humble yet driven commander he lacked a formal higher education but was an avid student of the martial arts. He was deeply involved throughout the Barbarossa Campaign commencing as a Corps Commander in June, 1941, ending as a Front Commander in 1945 and ended his career as the Chief Inspector of the Soviet Army and Deputy Minister of Defense.

Sokolov is very upfront that he holds Rokossovsky in the highest regard as both an Officer and a man. Alone amongst the Marshall’s he did not resort to threats or intimidation nor did he directly order the execution of any subordinates. He was a driven Commander who held the lives of his soldiers in the highest regard. Nevertheless, the author is balanced in his appraisal of the Marshall and does not hesitate to highlight areas of weakness as well as strength. His assessment of Rokossovsky as a strategist and maneuver warfare specialist clearly identifies that, while competent, he was not a master of his craft; rather his strength lay in his leadership and motivation of his soldiers and officers, the drawing upon their skill sets and his willingness to accept risk and make decisions.

There was not a great deal of source material available for this book left by Rokossovsky, therefore, Sokolov drew upon primary sources in the Russian archives, recollections of former subordinates and colleagues as well as family members and histories. The material reflects the challenges of separating the chaff and wheat in terms of the written recollections of the Soviet era. Typical of this period was a tendency of commanders to modify their reports to place them in a better light. Sokolov has done an excellent job at identifying instances of this and using alternate sources to draw attention to these inconsistencies. He has provided insight into his subject’s strengths and weaknesses through an in depth analysis of the challenges that Rokossovsky faced during his career. Consistent throughout were four themes: his love of family, his struggle with Polish/Russian identity, his loyalty and responsibility to the soldiers under his command and his avoidance of any criticism of Stalin despite his horrible experiences at Stalin’s direction.

Stuart Britton once again has provided an excellent translation from the original Russian and Helion, the publisher, has produced a book of the highest quality. Sokolov deserves high praise for his work and the attention that he has brought to a little known but superb Russian Commander. His writing style is quite different from traditional Western authors as it reverts periodically to an almost spoken text; however this only requires getting used to and does not take away from the quality of the research. He also provides a selected bibliography, unfortunately for the Western reader it primarily refers to Russian sources. A very interesting and engaging read.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Strange Defeat - Marc Bloch

Title: Strange Defeat
Author: Marc Bloch
ISBN: 978-8-087-83083-3
Publisher: Important Books
Year: 2013
Pages: 133
Photographs/maps: 0

Between July and August 1940, Captain Marc Bloch, a fuel services officer in the French Army, drafted his testament of the cause of the French defeat at the hands of the German Wehrmacht. Bloch had seen active service in the trenches during the First World War and was a historian/professor during the interwar years. His service in the Second World War was undertaken at both operational and Army level HQ's where he was privy to the workings of the highest level of French Army command. With ample military experience and the eye of a professional historian, he was able to to discern much in the confusion that he witnessed around him.

His book is a poignant and insightful analysis of why the French Army and, by extension, the French Government and people were so thoroughly and soundly beaten when all of the potential existed for French victory. He addresses multiple aspects of the French armed forces and French society for, as he points out, there was no one issue but a combination thereof, that brought the house of cards down. He readily acknowledges that he did not have ready access to the 'behind the scenes' machinations of decision making but he did have a keen eye and a myriad of experience that gives his analysis validity and credibility.

He is both relentless and balanced in his exposure of the flaws that plagued the French leadership and HQ; he spares no level of command, but it is evident that his purpose is not to discredit on a personal level but to reveal on a professional level. His observations cross the spectrum of what today would be called the 'J-Staff'; some of his more telling observations follow:

1. Communication: A lack of common operating picture within the HQ's and a failure to pass information to the levels where it was needed in a timely manner. Also a tendency to hoard information;
2. Administration vs Operations: Administration trumped operational decision making. An emphasis on process as opposed to results. 
3. Hubris: An assumption of superiority and a failure to emphasize continuous learning. A failure to appreciate the changes that technology had brought to the battlefield and a reliance upon the "way it has always been done'.
4. Education: A failure to adapt and to take advantage of the opportunities to adjust and develop doctrine before the conflict started (the Germans used blitzkrieg techniques in Poland but the French ignored the lessons to be learned despite an 8 month gap between Poland and France).
5. Command: An inability of the commanders to adjust to the dynamic environment of modern operations as a result of experience, training and paradigm shortfalls. Bloch quotes a corps commander to Gen Blanchard (commander of the 1st Army): "Do what you want Mon General but do something!"; stated in Bloch's presence.
6. National Expectations/institutions: A rise amongst the population of a level of expectation for self (as opposed to national) service exacerbated by both government and media playing off political and economic fault lines resulting in stagnation and a psychological 'softening' of the population. A diminishment of critical thinking within scientific and centres of higher education.

These represent a few of the myriad of observations raised by Bloch. Unlike historians writing on the collapse of France in the past tense, Bloch's work is based on experience and having lived the drama. His comments are based upon his personal experiences and views. Bloch's work is a challenge to France to take a hard, unvarnished look at its performance in the war. Unfortunately, many of his views are prevalent in the military's and societies of today including a tendency to emphasize a success without recognizing where significant weaknesses existed. His narrative lacks perhaps some of the 'finishing' of a modern author's work but his points are clear and devastating; our modern institutions and commands ignore his lessons at their peril.