Thursday, 30 June 2016

Prelude to Blitzkrieg: The 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Romania - Michael B Barrett

Title: Prelude to Blitzkrieg: The 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Romania
Author: Michael B Barrett
ISBN: 978-0-253-00865-7
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Year: 2013
Pages: 399
Photographs/Maps: 33 b/w//15

1916 was characterized by huge and bloody battles that chewed up literally 100,000’s of men for little or no gain to either side (the Brusilov Offensive in the East and Verdun and the Somme in the West standing as key examples). Romania, who had up to this point, remained neutral despite initial leanings towards the Central Powers (CP), had its eye on the Transylvania region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; an area that had traditionally rested within the Romanian sphere of influence. With assurances for material and manpower support from both Russia and the West, Romania made the decision to undertake a surprise strike on 27 August into Transylvania. The German-Austrian response, against all expectations in the West, was both decisive and conclusive; within 135 days the Romanians had been crushed. The significance of this victory can be gauged by a comparison between the Somme and Romania. In an almost identical period the Central Powers covered 360 miles in Romania while the Allied powers moved 7 miles in the Somme.

Barrett’s book analyses what was done differently by the Germans and Austrians and the effect that it had upon tactics at the operational level. Two significant issues set the conditions for CP success: the limited resources available to counter the Romanian incursion and the removal of General von Falkenhayn from his post as German Chief of Staff (due to the Verdun debacle) and his resultant availability to command in Romania. Barrett shows that the limited resources necessitated a significant change in traditional tactics in order to maintain both momentum against and disruption of superior Romanian forces. Additionally, the presence of a German commander determined to rehabilitate his reputation allowed for greater leeway and drive.

Falkenhayn took advantage of Romanian hesitation after their initial successes (they had driven through the Carpathian Mountain passes against very limited Austrian forces) by launching a strike utilizing Bulgarian, Turkish and Austrian forces under German Commander von Mackesen from the south into the Dobrogea region while concurrently driving back through the mountain passes from the north using combined arms operations of German and A-H forces. He also used large cavalry units to cover his flanks and to strike deep into Romania, keeping them both off-balance and blind. Falkenhayn demanded speed and audacity from his subordinates at the expense of flank security and was therefore able to retain the advantage of momentum and initiative over his adversaries.

Barrett’s explanations and insights into Falkenhayn’s strategies and the impact that it had on the Romanians is excellent. The book is very well written and researched encompassing not only the operational success of the CP strategy but also the impact of the lack of coordination at the strategic level between the Allied forces, specifically the Russians. The Austro-German success left the Romanians and Allies stunned and provided for them the resources to continue the war. The author sheds light on the lessons that were overlooked by many due to the ‘sidebar’ nature of this campaign and is able to draw a direct line between the German success in Romania and the seeds of blitzkrieg. Well researched and argued.  

Friday, 24 June 2016

Clan Cleansing in Somalia: The Ruinous Legacy of 1991 - Lidwien Kapteijns

Title: Clan Cleansing in Somalia: The Ruinous Legacy of 1991
Author: Lidwien Kapteijns
ISBN: 978-0-812-22319-4
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania
Year: 2013
Pages: 308
Photos/Maps: 0/1

The ongoing trials and tribulations of the Horn of Africa are well known; however, the history and cause of the degree of dislocation and ongoing state collapse is not nearly as well understood. Kapteijns has encapsulated in his four chapter analysis of the history, causes and ongoing legacy up to 1991 (the height of the genocide) a succinct and detailed synopsis of the Somalian tragedy.

His first chapter undertakes a study of the reaction of the Somali people to their environment through the medium of poetry. While interesting, it strikes the reader as odd and somewhat out of step with the rest of the book. For those who would see the resilient capacity of the human spirit to overcome incredible adversity, it is an interesting view.

The book really engages with the second chapter which discusses the reign of President Barre and the actions that he took during the 21 years that he ‘governed’,  that both secured his hold on power while concurrently undermining it and ultimately causing his downfall. The watchwords of his administration were corruption and division. He undertook a deliberate policy of dividing the clans in order to deflect attention away from his own dishonesty. By doing so he created the conditions of deep hatred and distrust of not only his government, his clan bt also the other numerous clans within Somalia. The author undertakes a noteworthy analysis of this period that sets a clear tone for the follow-on chapters that discuss the actual descent into societal chaos. The clear take away from the historical review is the setting of the preconditions for collapse and the incredible self-centred hubris of the clan leadership.

Chapter three is where the author discusses the collapse of the government, the fighting in Mogadishu and the absolute loss of any veneer of civilized behavior amongst the combatants. The outright dismissal of any notion of non-combatant and the use of terror aimed at clan cleansing (through the use of systemic rape, murder, torture, theft and starvation) is appalling. Kapteijns does not use sensationalism to pass on his points; the experiences through vignettes and fact as gathered by international agencies are presented in a stark, unvarnished manner that reinforces the horror. The capacity for base level violence and behavior amongst people and the self serving attitude from those that wish not the best for the people of Somalia but for themselves, is revealed in a manner that is all the more poignant for its  austerity.

Chapter four pursues a deeper analysis of the reasons for the utter breakdown of society and the deliberate targeting of non-combatants by the militias. It is a revealing study into the nature of human reaction when law and order is stripped away and the utter helplessness of the elderly, young and destitute is taken complete advantage of for personal gain. What is additionally disturbing is the revelation that regional powers took advantage of Somalia’s refugees as well.

As a means of understanding the background and psychology of the conflict between the government and the militias followed by intra-militia fighting, this book is a critical read. While it focuses solely upon the  events leading up to the utter slaughter of 1991, it presents a excellent synopsis of the conditions which have prevented a resolution of the Somali conflict to the present day. Kapteijns has done a superb job at explaining this tragedy in terms that are accessible to a wide audience. His bibliography is extensive and his research thorough. This is disturbing read but critical to the student of African history.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The ISIS Apocalypse - William McCants

This review has been provided to British Army Review.

Title: The ISIS Apocalypse
Author: William McCants
ISBN: 978-1-250-08090-5
Publisher: St Martin’s Press
Year: 2015
Pages: 242
Photos/Maps: 0

The War on Terror has prompted the drafting of hundred’s of books covering all facets of the cause and personalities surrounding ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban etc; however, one area that has received little to no ‘accessible – to the layman’ interpretation has been a religious analysis of the driving doctrine behind the various groups. McCant’s book covers the background and history of ISIS but he also pays a significant amount of attention to the Islamic canon, drawing upon his expertise in Islamic religious studies (he has a PhD in Near Eastern Studies and speaks and reads Arabic fluently).

Islam as a religion is an extremely complex and confusing faith; subject to interpretation by scholars going back hundreds of years. As McCants points out if you want to find text promoting peaceful co-existence you will find it just as you will find text advocating violent extremism against non-believers. The author’s primary strength lies in his ability to quote primary-source Arabic text to assist in his explanation of this to the layman. Further, his talent at presenting this text within the context of the greater narrative in such a way as to facilitate easy interpretation lends both credence and accessibility to his account.

The challenge of dealing with the myriad of organizations that make up the adversaries in the War on Terror,  is exacerbated by the underlying motivators that drive them and set the tone for their conduct and goals. Thus it is that the extremists are not a homogeneous organization but deeply fractured and, as often as not, fighting one another rather than secular forces. McCants goes to great lengths in explaining this and underlying the fact that the goals and methods of ISIS are neither condoned nor in common with those of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. This is critical to understand because the West tends to lump these organizations together in error as their means and methods are fundamentally different.

He also goes on to explain how the population of the Middle East’s perspective on the war has changed over the course of the conflict. Many secular Muslims who initially viewed the war in terms of power politics have now come to see the conflict in terms of the religious interpretation of the Islamic “End Times” prophecy. The significant upheavals of the last decade combined with the deep divide between Shia and Sunni as well as the ongoing role of the “New Crusaders” have heralded, for many, the coming apocalypse. This message resonates with the international Muslim community as well as locals due the violence and tyranny in the very regions prophesized in the Muslim texts.

McCants book fills a void missing in many of the narratives on ISIS and its rise: that of the religious underpinnings justifying its actions and the connection this has with the local population. His book is reasoned and balanced. His deep understanding of Islam combined with his third person perspective make for a book well worth the time to read and ponder.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Eisenhower’s Guerrillas - Benjamin Jones

This review was published in Soldier Magazine.

Title: Eisenhower’s Guerrillas
Author: Benjamin Jones
ISBN: 978-0-19-994208-4
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year: 2016
Pages: 384
Photos/Maps: 19/5

This is a fascinating book on the nature of the asymmetric warfare undertaken in the months and years leading up to the invasion of mainland Europe by Allied forces. It highlights clearly the challenges surrounding this form of operation including: the effects of multiple organizations with different goals trying to operate in the same region (the politics of resistance), the significant obstacles to logistically supporting these personnel and the subsequent impact on their efficacy and the effectiveness of the Germans at countering the Allied efforts (and how it changed as the war progressed). Worth a read.

Somme 1916 – Success and Failure on the First Day of the Battle of the Somme - Paul Kendall

This review was published in Soldier Magazine

Title: Somme 1916 – Success and Failure on the First Day of the Battle of the Somme
Author: Paul Kendall
ISBN: 978-1-84832-905-8
Publisher: Frontline Books
Year: 2015
Pages: 442
Photos/Maps: 31/6

The Somme and its effect upon the British Army has been written upon and studied at length. Kendall's book is an excellent modern interpretation of this seminal batttle. His writing style is extremely engaging and his analysis clear and concise. He incorporates a myriad of first-hand accounts of individual experiences that add a level of intimacy to the narrative. His conclusion is balanced, and presents both sides of the ongoing debate surrounding the utility of the attack as well as the effectiveness of the Command staff with a historian's critical eye. The production value of the book itself is outstanding.

Monday, 13 June 2016

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror - Michael Weiss, Hassan Hassan

Title: ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
Author: Michael Weiss, Hassan Hassan
ISBN: 978-1-6824-5029-1
Publisher: Regan Arts Publishing
Year: 2016
Pages: 411
Photos/Maps: 0

As the war against terror expands beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria, it is increasingly more important to understand not only the nature of the conflict that the world is facing, but also the history of the organizations that comprise our adversaries. Too often we perceive the fundamental Islamacists as a solid entity when in fact they are comprised of not only multiple facets, often with tenuous (at best) alliances, but also varying priorities and goals. It is in this aspect that the author’s book carries its greatest benefit. Weiss and Hassan do not suggest means of combatting the varying organizations that make up ISIL but they do provide invaluable analysis of its history, development and composition.

It is a very convoluted and complex path that ISIS has taken; with many actors and influences. The authors have done a noteworthy job of tracing this route and providing the depth and breadth of scrutiny in order for the reader to grasp the history and goals of this organizations. One of the key takeaways is the sheer number of players engaged in this fight. Additionally, their ability to quickly morph and adjust their operating procedures to meet the changing battlespace is striking. It is interesting; however, that one of their strengths also represents one of their greatest weaknesses; that of building a Caliphate.

When Al-Qaeda and ISIS were operating as asymmetric terror groups within the societies that they wished to control, it was very difficult for the governments to directly challenge them due to the fluidity and flexibility of their modus operendi. However, these groups were also hampered by this approach due to the fact that they remained on the periphery of rule. By establishing a caliphate with its fixed responsibilities and tasks, they were able to more formally impose their brand of theocratic rule upon the population. However, this in turn, meant that they no longer could rely upon the camouflage of the population and were now much easier to engage.

This book does not limit itself to a study solely of the Army of ISIS but incorporates the broader scope of the regional and international influences and goals. Players such as Syria, destabilized by internal revolution from a number of fronts, is suggested as clandestinely supporting ISIS operations within its borders in order to garner international sympathy and support. Iran is shown to be vigorously expanding its regional influence and control through its active and ‘passive’ support to not only the incumbent Iraq government but also the Syrian regime. A myriad of others such as the Free Syrian Army, Al-Nusra, Russia, the US, the Kurds and the Iraqi government all play host to the mosaic of individual interests at play.

The book is, for the most part, well balanced. The authors show their bias at times in their criticism of the role that Assad, the Syrian leader. While his activities are without question, brutal, they must be seen in light of his efforts to retain power within a ‘real politique’ context. The book reads very well and does an admirable job at unraveling the Gordian Knot of ISIS and the region. It is worth reading in order to gain a better appreciation of the nature of the region, the adversaries and the goals within this conflict.