Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Red Army and the Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Soviet Military - Peter Whitewood

Title: The Red Army and the Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Soviet Military
Author: Peter Whitewood
ISBN: 978-0-7006-2117-0
Publisher: University of Kansas Press
Year: 2015
Pages: 360
Photos/Maps: 0

The Great Terror of 1937-1938 that resulted in the decimation of the Red Army’s Officer corps at the hands of their own government, has remained an enigma in the years following; why would Stalin undertake this action when he strongly suspected war was imminent? Popular conception has it that the German’s, in an unprecedented intelligence coup, planted material that implicated the Red Army leadership in subversive activity and therefore initiated the purge. Whitewood’s research shows that, while threat of foreign subversion was definitely a factor on the purge, the seeds had been planted long before, in the decades following the Russian revolution. Whitewood has drawn upon previously classified records to shed light upon the events and activities that set the stage for one of the greatest acts of self-mutilation that a nation has undertaken in recent history.

The author traces the civil-military relationship in the nascent Soviet Union throughout the 20’s and 30’s. His research is comprehensive and in-depth and shows a difficult and, at times, challenging interaction between the two entities. Policies such as collectivization of the agriculture industry in the 1920’s stressed the Army as a majority of its soldiers were from farming communities. Additionally, the necessity to integrate former ‘White” specialist officers into its ranks following the civil war left a lingering concern regarding loyalty; moreover, the stresses within the Soviet hierarchy between the Trotsky and Stalin camps left those officers who had been supporters of Trotsky with black marks against them. Finally, the lingering discomfort of the Soviet government, built upon a foundation of communism which eschewed a professional army, with the necessary evil (in their eyes) of maintaining a military capability consistently underlined and always coloured the relationship.

A perfect storm developed for the Red Army as a government, rife with insecurity, built upon a structure that promoted interdepartmental rivalry, in an international political environment which exacerbated internal tensions and fears of espionage was led by a brutally ‘real politique’ leader who ruled with no checks or balances upon his power. Whitewood shows that perception became reality and a government, already predisposed to find disloyalty, was able to prove their suspicions through the use of torture to elicit confessions, build cases based upon guilt by association and a legal system which rubber-stamped convictions. These stressors built over the decades leading up to 1937 saw minor purges and low level sweeps of the military until finally exploding in a flurry of denunciations, convictions, executions and imprisonment of literally thousands of officers on the flimsiest of evidence.

Whitewood’s book is an excellent analysis of the events and environment within the Red Army and Soviet government during this period. It seems incredible that the military hierarchy would allow itself to be decimated as it was with such acquiescence. I have issue with only two aspects of Whitewood’s excellent book. First, I feel that it would have been beneficial to have had more discussion on the response of the senior levels within the Red Army as things degenerated for them. Individuals such as Tukhashevsky, Uborevich and Iakir must have been aware of the environment given their high rank and yet Whitewood does not discuss their responses or actions to try and counter the allegations being leveled against them. Additionally, the author does not emphasize, as a possible motive, the ongoing competition for influence and power between the Army and the NKVD. This had to be a driving force in the aggressive and brutal means by which senior officers in the Army were sacrificed.  

The book overall is a chilling read and provides an outstanding evaluation of the human psyche in an environment in which leadership unchecked combined with a siege mentality results in perception and rumour being the basis for justice. His book contains a plethora of excellent references and a comprehensive bibliography. Strongly recommended.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Counterinsurgency - David Kilcullen

Title: Counterinsurgency
Author: David Kilcullen
ISBN: 978-0-199-73749-9
Publisher: Oxford UP
Year: 2010
Pages: 251
Photos/maps: 7/1

Those of you actively involved in counterinsurgency operations are most likely to have heard about David Kilcullen. Both an experienced operator (infantry in East Timor, Indonesia as well as tours in Iraq and Afghanistan) as well as a renowned student of the insurgent/terrorism ‘art’ he has, in this book, put together a practical and common sense approach to tackling the challenges of insurgency and terrorism (he clearly delineates between the two) in different environments.  The book is a compilation of articles and concept papers that he has drafted based on firsthand experience, immediate debriefs with those involved in conflict, follow-on interviews with combatants from both sides as well as a deep engagement with local civilians.

His first chapter covers the 28 articles or ‘rules of thumb’ that a counterinsurgent must remember to maintain effectiveness. Based, very  loosely, as a companion piece to the original 27 articles of TE Lawrence (of WW1 Arabic uprising fame), it is updated and adjusted to reflect the realities of the modern counterinsurgent battle space. Each article is also preceded by an explanatory introduction that sets the stage for the focus of the article and provides for the reader the context within which to approach it. His points are succinct and eminently relevant and logical.

His next chapter discusses the value and merit of metrics. He acknowledges the critical requirement of being able to measure success (or failure); however, he posits that the traditional methods of measurement are not relevant or accurate to the asymmetric conflicts that we are engaged in. For example, the traditional body counts or military accessibility levels into regions do not provide for accurate measurements of enemy capability. Rather, he suggests that a series of non-traditional metrics based upon the four ‘pillars’ of counterinsurgency (the population, the supported government, the security forces and the enemy forces) should be adopted. Examples that he provides are not exhaustive but do adjust the paradigm of the reader into a more correct avenue. Things such as: price of exotic vegetables, tax collection or participation in sponsored programs can act as indicators for population stability, Government Indicators: where officials sleep, capital flight, rate of budget execution; Security Forces: ratio of guilty to innocent detainees, ratio of kills to wounds/captures, night operations and, finally, Enemy Forces: Insurgents villages of origin, insurgent medical health, price of black market guns and ammunition and midlevel insurgent casualties.

In the following chapters he discusses the success of the Indonesian forces in suppressing the West Java insurgents in the late 1950’s and how the tactics used so successfully there were a failure when it came to East Timor (and why). This chapter is extremely interesting as it reinforces the importance of appreciating how there is no standard solution to an insurgency that can be applied universally. Changes in motivation, geography and technology (to name a few) can have profound effects upon the methodology best suited to countering it. The Indonesian example is particularly relevant when viewed from the perspective of the impact of world opinion on the activities of Indonesian security forces in East Temor mirroring the of ‘media’ and communication technology as a factor (both positive and negative) on operations.
He next discusses the environment within which insurgencies are able to flourish. He postulates that identifying regions as being pro-government or pro-insurgent is missing the fundamental truth that populations seek security, predictability and stability and they will follow whatever group or organization that can guarantee it locally. This is one of the main reasons for the frustrating tendency in Afghanistan for locals to ‘switch’ from government to Taliban and back. It is not loyalty; it is pragmatism that is their driving force. Thus it is that concurrent to an armed challenge of an insurgency, it is imperative that issues of poor governance, corruption and mismanagement amongst the governing body be addressed aggressively.

He concludes with an examination of the modern phenomenon of the global insurgency, its make-up, methods of operation, strengths and weaknesses.  Starting with an assessment of the differences between ’terrorism’ (seen today as synonymous with any act of violence against the government) and ‘insurgency’ he clearly delineates not only the difference between  two, but also, the forces behind them and the paradigm shift needed to address them effectively. He concludes with a discussion on the critical weaknesses of the global jihadist style movements and how best to exploit these weakness in the ‘competition for government’.

Kilcullen has a great wealth of experience to draw upon when contemplating these issues. There are those who would make the argument that much of what he writes is common sense and not new revelations. That may be; however, it is also true that while many of the successful techniques used against jihadist movements have been used in the past, it took much blood and treasure to begin applying the lessons of yesteryear. The shift in paradigm and approach to the modern global jihadist with its access to instantaneous communications requires not only a reinforcement of our previously learned but forgotten lessons, but  further enhancement to meet the unique challenges of today’s modern insurgent. Kilcullen’s book is an excellent place to further enhance that education.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Collision of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front in 1914 - Prit Buttar

This review has been published in Soldier Magazine.

Title: Collision of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front in 1914
Author: Prit Buttar
ISBN: 978-1-78200-648-0
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2014
Pages: 472
Photographs/maps: 32/17

 Histories of the First World War tend to focus on the events of the Western Front encompassing land, air and sea operations. Rarely, other than in passing, are the no less dramatic or critical events of the Eastern Front discussed in any degree of detail. The Eastern Front in this case encompasses not only the Russian Empire but also Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empires. Buttar has done an excellent job at highlighting the major challenges and battles of the Eastern theatre up until the end of 1914. He adroitly emphasizes the significant difference if fighting styles and doctrine application that the geographic realities of the east demanded of the protagonists. 

He commences his study with an analysis of the individual national strategies and aspirations as well as the events leading up to the outbreak of hostilities. He then follows this with a detailed look at the initial deployment phase of he war with special emphasis on mobilization plans, particular national strengths and weaknesses and the impact of the execution of those plans on the effectiveness of the early engagements. It is interesting how the demands of allies dictated the priority of operations and yet there was little to no formal planning for combined operations between the different nations.

Once Buttar has provided the reader with the background he focuses upon the major engagements of 1914: Tannenberg, Masurian Lakes, Galacia, Serbia and  Lodz. Echo's of future challenges are seen in all cases as logistics, time/space and speed of maneuver are all recognized quickly as key elements unique to the East. Additionally, the impact of modern technology on out of date doctrine asserts itself in the form of horrific casualties amongst all of the protagonists. Buttar is able to draw out the lessons in stark detail without breaking the flow of his narrative. Added depth is provided through his use of quotes from personal recollections, histories  and biographies of survivors.

His writing style is engaging and fluid and his research thorough. He has provided a comprehensive bibliography and notes section. It would have been beneficial to have had more detailed maps of the battles themselves but that was a minor distraction. His book was a pleasure to read.

Monday, 9 May 2016

The New Scramble for Africa - Padraig Carmody

Title: The New Scramble for Africa
Author: Padraig Carmody
ISBN: 978-0-7456-4785-2
Publisher: Polity Books
Year: 2011
Pages: 244
Photographs/maps: 0

Africa is a continent that has almost unlimited potential. Rife with both resource and human capital, it has however been limited in its realization of said potential due to the legacy of colonialism, rampant and systemic corruption within a majority of its governments/institutions and a resulting failure to translate its resource based economy into manufacturing. African leadership and its wealthy elite, looking to draw financial advantage from the potential of their countries, have now embarked upon a comprehensive sacrifice of their nations' birthright through the selling off of their resources to resource hungry second and first world nations. Carmody's book has undertaken a study of the history, causes, effects and potential outcomes of this new pillaging of Africa at the hands of a few for greed and short term gain.

The author commences his review by setting the stage through an analysis of the history of Africa's engagement with the east and west. Following the end of colonialism, the continent was a battle ground of proxy wars between the West and Soviet Bloc. During this time, governments were supported not for their effectiveness but for their willingness to undertake operations for one side or the other. However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a gradual change transpired whereby western support and investment for governments became more closely aligned with accountability and transparency. Ironically, it was this insistence upon openness that created the opportunities for a resurgent Russia, emerging China and the EU to create markets for themselves. Unlike a majority of the west, which, concurrent with its demands for more accountability suffered a reduction in economic clout, cash rich China et al jumped into the breach with an approach that precluded any demand for change in the corrupt national leaderships. Their realpolitik approach sought advantage wherever it could be found for the betterment of their national goals. Carmody's overview of this is comprehensive and disturbing.

He then goes on to look in greater detail at the kinds of exploitation that are being undertaken with a specific emphasis on the role that China is now playing on the Continent. Attention is paid to the economic interests being sought after with a focus on timber, fishing, uranium, cobalt, food products, fuels and biopiracy. In each case, advantage is being taken over weak central governments and deep corruption in order to feed and furnish domestic demands. Carmody identifies not only the methods undertaken by these foreign powers but also the secondary and tertiary impacts on the African domestic markets and populations of these actions. As an example he discusses the impact of rampant illegal fishing within the EEZ of Somalia. Foreign factory fleets have, as a result of Somalia’s inability to enforce its territorial waters, been able to not only pillage this resource but also to undermine the domestic fishing industry of Somalia. Desperate fishermen have then turned to piracy to try and recoup their losses.

 Carmody's book is an extremely disturbing insight into the present day "Scramble for Africa" and its impact upon indigenous populations. Western powers especially are quick to jump on the symptoms of this malaise (such as piracy) but very slow to respond to the underlying causes of these behaviours. Well researched and logically presented, Carmody's book, while five years old, identifies the pattern that has been followed since then with predictable results. An extensive bibliography and notes section provide ample additional reading options.