Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/March 2014/Book reviews
Battalion Commanders at War - Steven Thomas Barry
- By Hawkeye7
The combat effectiveness of the United States Army during World War II was controversial early in the war, as American forces took a hammering in Papua, the Solomon Islands and North Africa. This tended to confirm the fears of the Army Ground Forces' feisty commander, Lieutenant General Lesley McNair, who saw his plans for a well-structured and well-trained army set back first by rapid expansion of the army and lack of priority for high-quality recruits compared to the Army Air Forces and Army Service Forces, and then by higher-than-expected casualty rates that forced him to strip units of their personnel to keep the ones at the front up to strength.
After the war, Trevor Dupuy and Martin van Creveld backed up the thesis that the combat effectiveness of the United States Army was inferior to the German Army with solid numbers in Numbers, Predictions and War (1985) and Fighting Power: German and US Army Performance 1939-1945 respectively. More recently, Jörg Muth published another comparison of American and German training and doctrine in his Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II.
Predictably, some American historians have pushed back. One of these is Steven Thomas Barry. In this book, he examines the fighting in North Africa and Sicily at the tactical level. The infantry and armored battalion commanders were a remarkably uniform group at this stage of the war; some 85% of them were West Point graduates from the late 1920s and early 1930s. Some seventy-odd of them retired as full colonels and 19 eventually became generals, including brilliant officers like William O. Darby and Hamilton H. Howze. Barry argues that their training, doctrine and tactics were proven sound.
The problem is that Barry's own material simply does not support his case. The campaign in Northwest Africa was a shambles that for the most part has been swept under the rug of history. While some officers were indeed brilliant, others were dim bulbs, and several were relieved of their commands. Barry, a career U.S. Army officer, relates numerous instances where leadership, tactics and doctrine were faulty. He therefore sounds rather Pollyanna-like in trying to put a positive spin on this. And while the US Army demonstrated a laudable ability to learn from costly mistakes, many of these lessons were already well known and could have been absorbed at less cost simply by listening to British advice.
Although well researched and written in a readable style, this book is unlikely to appeal to someone without a detailed knowledge of the campaigns being described, because it is too fragmentary, and I doubt that many readers will enjoy a series of detailed descriptions of tank battles. Meanwhile, those with greater depth of knowledge of the subject are likely to be sceptical of Barry's thesis.
Publishing details: Barry, Steven Thomas (2013). Battalion Commanders at War: U.S. Army Tactical Leadership in the Mediterranean Theater, 1942-1943. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 9780700618996. OCLC 818143714.
Command Culture - Jörg Muth
- By Hawkeye7
Jörg Muth's Command Culture is broader in scope and sharper in tone. A German academic who earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah, Muth is well placed to observe American military culture from the outside. He also has an expert understanding of the German system. (I am particularly pleased that he notes that a generalmajor is a major general, and sites like the BBC that think it is a brigadier general are wrong.) The result of comparing the quality of officer education in the US and German armies should have been fairly predictable, but raised hackles in the United States.
The problem is not so much that his criticisms are off the mark, but that so little has changed. This book covers the period from 1901 to 1940, the formative years of the regular officers who fought in World War II. Muth foes not restrict himself to West Point, but traces the full course of officer education, including the Infantry School, the Command and General Staff School and the Army War College. However, the study is restricted to the regular Army, and does not cover the ROTC or National Guard.
Muth has particularly harsh words though for West Point, which was noted for its tradition of bastardization (which Americans call "hazing"), poor-quality instruction and a curriculum devoted to subjects of marginal usefulness. The proficiency of the system in producing high-quality leadership has long been in doubt. Douglas MacArthur famously attempted to reform the institution in the early 1920s, with a spectacular lack of success. Most of his reforms were subsequent re-introduced, but those familiar with the subject will suspect that a sequel covering 1941 to 1980 might not produce a much improved report card, so Muth's book is a call for reform.
Notwithstanding its polemical tone and the fact that the author is not writing in his first language, this book is highly readable, and an fine introduction to both the US and German armies of the period.
Publishing details: Muth, Jörg (2011). Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II. Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press. ISBN 9781574413649. OCLC 741122271.
F-111 & EF-111 Units in Combat - Peter Davies
- By Nick-D
F-111 & EF-111 Units in Combat is 96-page summary of the operational history of all the variants of the Cold War-era General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark, which were operated by the United States Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force. It is focused almost entirely on the type's service with the USAF in the Vietnam War, the 1986 United States bombing of Libya, and the 1991 Gulf War, but also includes brief coverage of the RAAF's use of its F-111Cs to support the INTERFET intervention into East Timor during 1999.
The greatest strength of this book is its highly detailed accounts of the combat operations conducted by F-111s. The description of the 1986 raid on Libya is the book's highlight, and provides a fascinating insight into the difficulties associated with operating tactical aircraft over long distances. I also found the chapter on the use of the F-111s in the Vietnam War to be excellent, and Davis successfully explains why the aircraft represented a major jump in the USAF's ability to hit targets in North Vietnam. The book is clearly written throughout, and is supported by many well-chosen photos and colour drawings.
For all of that, F-111 & EF-111 Units in Combat has some frustrating weaknesses. The absence of any maps is a significant shortcoming - Davis describes F-111 operations in obscure parts of the world in detail, and maps showing these areas and the typical routes the F-111s took would have added a lot. While the book isn't intended to be read in isolation from more general histories of the F-111, it did need a bit more background on the type's role and how the aircraft were upgraded over time. However, the central flaw in the book is that Davis allows his unabashed admiration of the F-111 to bias his discussion of its operations. He excuses the poor showing of the first F-111s deployed to the Vietnam War, and his discussion of the 1986 operation seems unduly positive: the results of the F-111s' bombing hardly seem to have justified this complex and expensive operation, and he minimises the significant role played by US Navy aircraft. In the final chapters of the book, Davis has a real chip on his shoulder about the retirement of the F-111s, and unconvincingly argues that this was due to unreasonable plotting by "critics" of the type, rather than the more prosaic reality that the type had simply reached the end of its viable period in service and needed replacement.
Overall, I found F-111 & EF-111 Units in Combat to be an interesting read and a useful resource on the service history of this impressive aircraft. However, it would have benefited from some critical editing.
Recent external reviews
- Segal, Victoria (8 March 2014). "Wounded: The Long Journey Home from the Great War – review". The Guardian.
- Murray, Nicholas (March 2014). "Early Trench Tactics in the French Army: The Second Battle of Artois, May-June 1915". H-Net Reviews. H-Net Humanities & Social Sciences Online.
Barry, Steven Thomas (2013). Battalion Commanders at War: U.S. Army Tactical Leadership in the Mediterranean Theater, 1942-1943. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 9780700618996. OCLC 818143714.
- Muth, Jörg (5 December 2013). "Battalion Commanders at War: U.S. Army Tactical Leadership in the Mediterranean Theater, 1942-1943". Michigan War Studies Review.
- Stone, Bill (16 March 2014). "Cressman, Robert J. The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II". Stone & Stone Second World War Books.