Is China’s Navy hiding its real secret weapon?

The Chinese navy has in recent times focused much attention upon a decidedly more mundane and nonphotogenic arena of naval warfare: sea mines. This focus has, in combination with other asymmetric forms of naval warfare, had a significant impact on the balance of power in East Asia. In tandem with submarine capabilities, it now seems that China is engaged in a significant effort to upgrade its mine warfare prowess.

Source: Chinese Mine Warfare: A PLA Navy ‘Assassin’s Mace’ Capability | Andrew S. Erickson

The prolific and insightful Andrew Erickson suggested in 2009 that by focusing on aircraft carriers and anti-ship missiles, we may be missing the hidden secret of China’s maritime strategy: huge investments in mine warfare.

Is the Liaoning nothing more than a showy distraction, meant to invigorate nationalists at home and deceive observers abroad? This study makes an implicit argument that the received wisdom on China’s strategy is probably a false trail.

If nothing else, Erickson’s study should serve as a reminder that China will use a full spectrum of weapons in its efforts to control the seas, and that we have to be imaginative about what they will do, rather than allow ourselves to be sucked into a seductive narrative about carrier-killing missiles.

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Revisiting the Umbrellas

“Hong Kong Revisited”
Jeffrey Wasserstrom
The LARB Blog
November 18, 2015

U.C. Irvine professor and prolific writer Jeffrey Wasserstrom offers a minimalist retrospective on the Umbrella movement a year after the events began, and on the lecture he gave in Hong Kong on the topic last fall.

And while there are many reasons to be deeply worried about Hong Kong’s future, it is important to remember that, at least for now, a public lecture focusing on protest and featuring a large group of citizens thinking together about their city, their politics, and their future, is still possible in that very special city.

Wasserstrom does not come right out and foretell the end of democracy in Hong Kong, but the tone carries that ominous, almost fatalistic, overtone. It is impossible to say whether the umbrella protests of 2014 will have a meaningful effect on how Hong Kong is governed. The real question is whether we have witnessed the last such protest in the city’s modern history.

We who live outside of Hong Kong shall have no say in the matter. The future of politics in Hong Kong lies in the hands of the people of that city and the men and women who rule China.

Review Essay: An Unbetter China

Chinese armies defeating the Dzungar prior to the genocide.

There is a growing chorus of voices, mostly Sinophilic or Russo-philic, who attempt to bestow upon China a mantle of moral superiority in its dealings with the wider world for the sole reason that it has not waged any form of expeditionary warfare in its recent history.

This forum and this writer have criticized many of America’s forays into overseas military engagements over the past 50 years. That said, there is no moral standard of which this writer is aware that bestows moral ascendancy upon a country that systematically slaughters its own citizens over another country that engages in misguided adventures abroad.

It is possible to deplore most or even all major exercises of American military power abroad since the cessation of hostilities in Korea in 1953, to see them as misguided and their outcomes to be awful, and yet to acknowledge that with a few exceptions the intentions were neither evil, nefarious, nor malicious. As an historian, you judge the decisions of the past in the context of the times, on that basis this writer would argue that that on the balance the US mostly acted in good faith, with notable and egregious exceptions in Chile, Iraq and Afghanistan.

China’s history leaves the nation much for which it must answer, including the “red on its ledger” from the nation’s imperial period that has not been entirely expunged by decades of foreign incursion, Republican rule, civil war, and Communist rule. Indeed, in the period following the revolution, the Chinese Communist Party has continued some of the tendencies that characterized the worst behaviors of its emperors.

Explore, if you will, how a middling agrarian kingdom actually managed to expand to dominate the continent. I’ll give you a hint: they weren’t invited by their subject peoples, Han or otherwise. Dig, if you dare, into the the gritty details of China’s imperial tributary system, which was outwardly peaceful but often ugly and violent, involving the stationing of military forces beyond China’s borders. Ask the Koreans, Mongolians, and Russians how their histories see China as a “ good neighbor.”

Consider the forcible takeover of the Tibetan region in the 1950s, China’s war with India, and its attack on Vietnam in 1977. And finally, look at the background of the 20+ territorial disputes in which China is currently engaged, including China’s extraordinary claim to the overwhelming majority of the South China Sea, and it’s effort to buy vast swaths of land in Africa and elsewhere. China has been, and is once again, an Imperial Power with 21st Century Characteristics.

Both China and the US have done great things, and both have done atrocious things. But we do ourselves and those countries a disservice by exaggerating the good or whitewashing the bad of either. And if China appears to be under more of a microscope at the moment, there is good cause. For if we accept the premise proffered by scholars both within and outside of China that America is entering a period of relative decline in its international power and China is in a period of relative ascendancy, we must use extreme care in bestowing moral superiority over a nation whose record is distinctly mixed. Doing so only grants it license to engage in much more of the same.

Japan Debates the Issue of Comfort Women

How to Cleanse Asahi’s Widespread ‘Misreports’ on Comfort Women
Masaaki Sugiura 
The Global Forum of Japan
1 December 2014, Vol. 7, No. 6

Venerable Japanese political commentator Masaaki Sugiura, offers a rebuttal to sensationalist reports in the Japanese media (specifically the Asahi Shimbun) about Japanese soldiers and “comfort women,” local girls and women from territories conquered in Japan who were essentially forced into prostitution serving Japanese soldiery before and during World War II.

Masaaki does not seem to be associated with the kinds of nationalist factions that make a habit of whitewashing Japanese behavior in the war. What he does, however, is call into question the dominant Korean and Chinese narratives about “comfort women,” and suggest that the nature and extent of the problem may well have been exaggerated in China and Korea for domestic political purposes.

An interesting issue, and an interesting read.

Beijing’s Belgrade Syndrome

China Matters: How It All Began: The Belgrade Embassy Bombing.

This is a superb post, and well worth the read. I do agree that we in the United States – including most of our leaders in Washington – underestimate the psychological impact that the bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade had in certain quarters in Beijing. Nor do we realize, I think, the degree to which this shifted a modicum of power and credibility to the People’s Liberation Army.

That said, to suggest that the Belgrade bombing was the origin point of China’s grand strategy is to overstate, if not ignore history. The plans and doctrine that form the basis of China’s grand strategy were set in motion (at the latest) with the accession of Deng Xiaoping, and more likely traces its roots back to the Zhou Enlai’s Four Modernizations. (Defense, for those who will recall, was the fourth modernization, after agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology.)

China has been on this general course for decades. Have specific goals and force structure evolved as they adapted to new circumstances and opportunities? Certainly. But the tune China is playing today was first set on paper fifty years ago.

Understanding “Tao Guang Yang Hui”

A phrase that is making the rounds among China watchers is “tao guang yang hui.” I will not attempt to explain the concept: any brief explanation would hide too many nuances, and nuances are important here. I just watched an online debate amongst some of my more scholarly friends, and the battle was about different interpreteations of of the phrase.

One interpretation of the phrase is captured in Deng Xiaoping’s maxim “keep a low profile and bide your time, while also getting something accomplished.” Given the noises China has been making in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Indian frontier, and Hong Kong, it appears to some that China has abandoned the tao guang yang hui strategy altogether.

Others, however, suggest that the strategy was not abandoned, but that Deng’s intention all along was to wait for a time when China was ready to assert itself in the global sphere, not simply lay low forever.

Yang Wenchang, President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, offers his interpretation in “My Views about ‘Tao Guang Yang Hui.” It is a worthwhile read, and an important one: not only does he provide an erudite explanation of the idom’s roots, his interpretation of the phrase seems to be at odds with China’s current foreign policy.

The entire debate may seem a petty tempest among the cognoscienti. If China is becoming more assertive globally, what does it matter whether this is Xi’s own policy or a continuation of the past?

In truth, it does matter: the answer to the question of whether this is part of a long-standing plan or whether this is Xi rejecting Dengist strategy would help us better predict where China is likely to jump next. We are unlikely to get clarification from the leadership compound at Zhongnanhai: Xi will want to seem unpredictable so as to keep his percieved opponents, both at home and abroad, guessing as to his intentions, leaving him with the initiative. Hence a better understanding of his strategic approach is essential to ensure that Asia and the west are not caught unawares by China’s next Great Leap Outwards.

 

China and the Limits of History

Some things we used to know about china’s past and present but, now, not so much” 
Alice Lyman Miller
Proceedings of the USC US-China Institute Symposium, “History and China’s Foreign Relations: The Achievements and Contradictions of American Scholarship”,
Feb. 16-17, 2008

Stanford’s Alice Miller is one of those China scholars who prefers not to mince words. Whether it was her sixteen years with the CIA or the cumulative effect of four decades studying China, she is direct and still unfailingly scholarly in her assessments and, as a result is, a joy to read.

Her paper at a USC symposium above is an excellent example. There is a school of China scholarship that attempts to parse Beijing’s politics and foreign policy through a prism of China’s imperial past. To those scholars, the CCP is just another dynasty in China dynastic cycle, its current leaders just emperors in new clothes, and China wants to turn the rest of the world into tributary powers.  As a history buff with late-life aspirations to historianship, these parallels are appealing to me, and they are clearly appealing to others, else Miller would not feel the need to debunk the approach.

And debunk she does. Offering ample examples from current scholarship and public discourse, she makes a convincing case that while the history has some general value as background in understanding Chinese strategic thinking, past behavior is no template for current or future action.

A must-read for any China-watcher, it surprises me that this paper has not received more attention, but perhaps it shouldn’t: as a longtime purveyor of the “China is more nuanced than that” approach, I know that people are not looking for nuance: they’re looking for easy. Miller makes it clear that this sort of intellectual laziness is a hazard to be avoided.

History, however, is not the bunk that Henry Ford thought. I side with Cicero: ignorance of history is the hallmark of intellectual immaturity. Miller is correct in saying that we should not rely on history too much. It is important to caution that we ignore it at our peril.

China and the Money Diversion

China After Tian’anmen
Perry Link
The New York Review of Books
31 March 2014

Those among us who watch these sorts of things, but who don’t talk about them, share a quiet understanding that 2014 is one of those little anniversary years in China.

The fourth of May marks the 95th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, a 1919 grassroots nationalist campaign protesting the Chinese government’s handling of the Versailles treaty, a key event in the history of the Chinese revolution. The first of October marks the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China; and the fourth of June marks the 25th anniversary of the incident in Beijing’s main public square in 1989.

It is perhaps this latter milestone that inspired Rowena He to pen her new Tiananmen Exilesand that inspired Perry Link to write the foreword to that book. The foreword is excerpted in Link’s NYRB essay.

In his article, Link takes us through the background of China’s modern social contract: the shock of the June 4th incident was followed by a concerted effort on the part of the Party to shift the nation’s focus away from politics and toward prosperity. Commerce, opportunity, rising living standards and the social stability that made all of them possible absorbed the attention of the nation for the next two decades. The quid pro quo, of course, was that the people would not ask hard questions of their leaders.

For a generation, this approach has yielded great success as China’s economy continued to rise on the back of consistent and high economic growth. But the number of people enjoying consistently rising standards of living is falling, and the nation faces simultaneous crises in both the environment and ethics. As Link notes:

At a deeper level, though, Chinese people (like any) do not feel secure in a system built on lies. The wealthy send their money abroad—and their children, too, for education. In 2013 several surveys and reports showed sharp increases in the plans of whole families, especially among the wealthy, to emigrate, and there is no reason to think that poorer people would not follow this trend if they had the means.

The nation’s most prosperous are turning into a quiet flood of refugees to societies with rule of law, strong ethical systems, and who place limits on opportunity in favor of a better lifestyle.

Link summarizes a narrative familiar to many of us. It does more than simply justify the current silent exodus: it sets the stage for the next act in China’s economic and political evolution.

Free eBook of the Day: U.S. Global Defense Posture, 1783–2011

U.S. Global Defense Posture, 1783–2011
Stacie L. Pettyjohn

RAND
2012
144 pp.

In a refreshingly thin volume, Stacie Pettyjohn offers us an overview of how the U.S. approach to its national defense evolved from a minimalism that could barely defend the national frontiers to global interventionism.

It is a thoughtful, largely apolitical study that points us to a future where the U.S. treads more lightly overseas, and as such will offer food for thought for all of us who debate U.S. foreign policy.

When Deeds Speak Louder

ADMIRAL RAYMOND A. SPRUANCE, USN

ADMIRAL RAYMOND A. SPRUANCE, USN (Photo credit: roberthuffstutter)

 

The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance
Thomas B. Buell
Naval Institute Press
January 1987
518 pages

 

“There are two kinds of people in this world,” a Chinese executive told me once. “The kind of people who speak for themselves, and the kind who let their deeds speak for them.”

 

This insight not only compelled me to look at my own life (which one am I?), it also forced me to re-evaluate my heroes. Who among my pantheon was a doer, and who did some good things but was really exceptional at tooting his own horn (or paying others to toot if for them?) What does it say about an individual who crafts his or her life after one type or the other? And what does it say about nations that make heroes of narcissists?

Old “Electric Brain

Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations in World War II, thought Raymond Spruance was the single most intelligent U.S. naval commander in the war. Given the competition – Nimitz, Turner, Halsey, McCain, Leahy, and King himself – this was high praise. Yet Spruance today is largely unknown outside of the relatively small circle of mariners, historians, and history buffs. Why?

Thomas Buell, himself a naval officer, offers an answer with his definitive portrait Spruance, the enigmatic commander who made the critical decisions at Midway and led the US Navy-Marine Corps team in their legendary drive across the Central Pacific. Throughout his life, his subordinates and superiors all came in turn came to rely on his quiet intellect, his preternatural calm under fire, and his ability to size up a situation and act with deliberation, neither vacillating like Ghormley nor impetuous like Halsey.

 

Working from a relatively small number of sources on Spruance, Buell gives us no great insights that will change the way we think of war, but it will change the way we think of warriors, their flacks, and their biographers. Buell paints a credibly human picture of Spruance, and rather than inflate him to larger-than-life size, offers us the spartan, taciturn, stone-faced career officer whose deeds remain greater than the man himself. It would have been easy for the author to write a panegyric, but you can almost hear the ghost of Spruance whispering over his shoulder, telling Buell not to go down that path. While ably defending Spruance against criticism of his actions at Midway (later proven to be correct), Buell uses the same historiographical care to excoriate the admiral’s actions during his tenure as Ambassador to the Philippines.

The Smartest Man in the Navy

Buell also points out more sublime examples of Spruance’s leadership that resonate today. Spruance led his fleet with a staff that was a fraction of the size of Halsey’s, demonstrating an economy that the brass-bloated navy of today has forgotten: he was early to recognize and defend geniuses like Kelly Turner and Carl Moore against the capricious politics of the Navy; he was a battleship officer who never learned to fly, yet absorbed so much about carrier aviation that he became one of the country’s ablest commanders of airpower; he oversaw the reinvention of naval logistics, a factor the Japanese navy recognized as the keystone to the US victory in the Pacific; and he grasped early that American bases in postwar Asia would be an irritant that would lead to further conflict.

And then there was that intellect: rebelling against the provincial, trade-school approach the navy had taken to professional education, he spent the last years of his career turning the Naval War College into an outstanding graduate school with unparalleled programs in strategy, national security, and world affairs. While nothing he did will surpass his feats as a commander, in terms of its importance to the nation, to sea power, and to global security his two years as President of the College are unmatched.

Buell also offers us an illustration as to why, seven decades after the end of the conflict, we are still unearthing truths that compel us to reevaluate how we understand the war, history, power, and leadership. As we do, we are finding that many of the lessons our fathers learned from their victories are wrong, and many of the right lessons have been forgotten. The time has come for a reappraisal of that conflict: as we watch the rise of a new set of world powers, now more than ever we need to understand why World War II was won (or lost), and we need to find the people who were really responsible, not just the heroes and villains our fathers’ textbooks served to us. Raymond Spruance offers us a timeless model of leadership in crisis. We would be wrong if we did not go looking for more.

 

Guarding the Straits

US Navy 050330-N-1307C-005 Quartermaster 2nd C...

US Navy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

High Seas Buffer: The Taiwan Patrol Force, 1950–1979
Bruce A. Elleman

Naval War College Press
June, 2o12

Recent events in the South China Sea and the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, timed with a continued warming in relations between Taiwan and the Mainland, have temporarily displaced the six-decade international focus on the Taiwan Straits. Yet the strategic significance of that strip of water has not declined in the wake of recent events.  If anything, the PRC’s claims to the south and immediate north of Taiwan can be seen as an oblique effort  to bolster Beijing’s territorial claim on the Green Island itself.

That this is all taking place as China bestows overdue attention and budget on its navy and on maritime strategy is likely no coincidence. For these reasons, now is a good time for China watchers and naval planners to learn more about why China is so focused on controlling its “near seas.”

Bruce Elleman of the U.S. Naval War College offers us an oft overlooked piece of that puzzle. While history, Chinese irredentism, and geopolitics have set Beijing and Taipei at loggerheads, China’s grand strategy – and the doctrine of the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN) are also a response to decades during which the China coast was an uncontested highway of American naval might. Those decades formed the thinking of today’s PLAN leaders, and their doctrine and ambitions are tempered by the humiliating fact that the PLA, strong enough to challenge the U.N. on land in Korea, has been a dull instrument on anything wetter than a shallow river.

Elleman recounts the formative years of the PLA and its nearest sea from an American point of view, thus his study offers serves as a mirror for the PLAN, and deep background for what motivates China to dominate the waters within the “first island chain.”

Who Started It, Hitler or Stalin?

Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War?
Victor Suvorov
300pp.

Following our review of a small library about Russia’s fight against Germany in World War II,  a reader introduced to me Victor Suvorov’s provocativeIcebreaker: Who Started the Second World War? In this book, the author debunks the accepted idea that Hitler was the primary instigator of the war, suggesting instead that it was mostly Stalin’s fault.

The author sets himself against a mass of historical evidence and analysis in his work, and in so doing opens himself to accusations of being an apologist for Hitler. But Suvorov is not that kind of revisionist: his goal is not to exonerate the Austrian Corporal or the Nazis, but to prove that the accepted Soviet/Russian narrative about the war is wrong.

Much has been done to uncover the crimes of Nazism and find the butchers who perpetrated atrocities in its name. This work must be continued and stepped up. But while unmasking fascists, one must also expose the Soviet communists who encouraged the Nazis to commit their crimes, so that they could avail themselves of the results of these crimes.

The task would seem almost impossible given that Soviet historians had 44 years after the war to alter the historical record and eliminate any countervailing evidence. Suvorov manages to make an argument that is interesting to those of us who still puzzle over Stalin’s tactical idiocy in the opening days of Operation Barbarossa. Believing that the whole show was a Stalin set piece, even down to the sacrifice of tens of millions of Soviet lives, offers a rationale that seems to reconcile Stalin’s early bumbling with the Red Army‘s victories during the last 30 months of the war.

What is more, Suvorov is no longer alone in the effort to make Stalin a co-culprit in World War II. Timothy Snyder‘s excellent Bloodlands is a reminder that both Hitler and Stalin engaged in political killings and mass-murders of their own citizens and those of the lands they conquered.

Unfortunately, Suvorov’s book (and indeed much of his other work, including his Inside the Soviet Army) comes across rather less than an academic study and more as a political treatise against Soviet communism. When the book was written in the late 1980s, there was a receptive audience for such works. Today, Suvorov’s tone and approach seems rather quaint (although, I would argue, not as anachronistic as it may seem, given events in Russia.)

Stripping away that foible, though, Suvorov at least opens the door to further academic examination of his points. There seems a vast field for historians to sow in probing the degree to which initial Soviet defeats were calculated by Stalin to secure his own power and provide an opening for Soviet domination of Europe.

How the USSR Won World War II

When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler
David M. Glantz
& Jonathan House
University of Kansas
384 pages

The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin’s War with Germany, Volume I
John Erickson
Yale University Press
606 pages

The Road to Berlin: Stalin’s War with Germany, Volume II
John Erickson
Cassell Military Paperbacks
896 pages

Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945
Catherine Merridale
Picador Press
462 pages

For nearly three generations in the west, and in the Anglophone countries in particular, we have been given a narrative of World War II that focuses on the contributions of the United States and Great Britain to the defeat of Nazi Germany. After a lifetime of this narrative, it is not unreasonable to believe that the war was won by England and America. That belief tends to cast the Russian Front and the China-Burma-India Theater as little more than diversionary sideshows to the core campaigns of the conflict.

Little doubt this was reinforced by the prejudices laid upon our interpretation of history by the Cold War. It is, after all, impolitic to grant your enemies in your present conflict the credit for victory in the last. Since the fall of the Wall in 1989, we have been engaged in a celebration of the “Greatest Generation” of Americans, Britons, and Australians who fought that righteous conflict. The contributions of the Russians, largely ignored during the Cold War, was all but forgotten by the generation that came after.

I was a victim of this collective epidemic of amnesia. A lifetime study of the war my father’s generation fought has left me with a fair appreciation of the Pacific War from the perspective of the U.S. Navy; of the Battle of the Atlantic from the perspective of the Royal Navy; and the fight in Europe from the perspective of the U.S. Army (in particular, Patton’s Third Army.) I say this not to apologize, but to suggest that the scope of the war was so great and the literature so vast (including a trove of government documents declassified only recently) that it is possible to lose the wider perspective.

When the Cold War ended and the Iron Curtain fell, the time had come for the psychological curtain to come down on the history as well. The Russian Front has now emerged from the realm of the scholarly to the realm of popular history, allowing a wider, balanced reconsideration of the role played by the Soviet Union in Germany’s defeat.

The Basic Narrative

Unguided, the newcomer to the study of the Eastern Front will quickly fall into a deep rabbit hole. The story of Stalin’s war against Hitler, begun in hubris and betrayal and ended 46 months later in vengeful retribution is so vast and deep that it invites a lifetime of study. Fortunately for those of us unable to afford such a commitment, three authors have created a superb overview of the Russian theater that will either satisfy the casually curious or entice the serious scholar into deeper study.

The risk of trying to capture the conflict in a single volume of popular history is that important though seemingly peripheral events will be left out. But two of the U.S. Army’s most distinguished military historians, Colonel David M. Glantz and Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan House manage to offer a thorough and engrossing narrative that serves as the ideal primer on the war in the East. Experienced instructors of undergraduates, Glantz and House know their audience, readers who want an overview of the war and plenty of maps to put a litany of unfamiliar places into comfortable context. The authors break some new research ground, but perform yeomen’s service in delivering a history with enough detail to provide understanding without getting us immersed in detail.

The Authoritative History

Glantz and House leave the reader thirsty to know more, and the next (and best) step is John Erickson’s authoritative two-volume history, The Road to Stalingrad and The Road to Berlin. In what is perhaps the single best account of the Eastern Front, suited for popular readers and scholars alike, Erickson offers less a military blow-by-blow than a social history of the conflict from the Soviet point of view. Erickson’s achievement in research, conducted when the Cold War was at its height, would have been challenging to duplicate in today’s more open environment – it was a work of genius at the time. His greatest accomplishment, though, is in his restraint: Erickson manages to give the Red Army the credit it is due for its role in the war without creating a panegyric.

Cover of "THE ROAD TO BERLIN (STALIN\'S W...

Cover via Amazon

At the core of Erickson’s telling is the man FDR called “Uncle Joe,” who emerges over the course of the books as a Machiavellian thug possessed of just enough intelligence and raw cunning to save the Soviet Union and himself after his hubris and ruthlessness placed both on the cusp of oblivion. Hitler, for his part, had co-opted the German officer corps and let them forge the Wehrmacht into the most powerful armed force the world had seen to that point, all in less than a decade of Germany’s repudiation of the Versailles Treaty. Stalin, by contrast, had by the time Germany turned on the USSR reduced the Red Army’s leadership to little more than a corps of incompetent sycophants who commanded an army utterly unprepared to fight a modern war.

Without belaboring Stalin’s error, Erickson shows us how a tiny handful of capable Red Army officers who had dodged the worst of the purges (led by G.K. Zhukov and I.S. Koniev) were joined by heretofore overlooked leaders who distinguished themselves in battle (including V.I. Chuikov, the savior of Stalingrad, and P.A. Rotmistrov, arguably the Red Army’s best tank commander) rallied demoralized, ill-equipped, and ideology-crippled Red Army after eighteen months of defeat and retreat. Their first victories were internal. With the Germans at the gates of Stalingrad, “The Boss” relented and allowed Zhukov to unify the Army’s command structure and relegate the military commissar’s role to that of an indoctrination officer. A seemingly small change, this opened the door for the Red Army to fight the war on military terms and make decisions on weapons and doctrine for purely military reasons. It was a very near thing.

Yet Stalin was the quintessential control freak, and his institutionalized tool for micromanaging every aspect of the war’s conduct, the Supreme High Command (Stavka), was proof that while Stalin would give his commanders some leeway, their ropes were short. Indeed, Stalin arguably involved himself as much with his battle conduct as Hitler did. But after a year-and-a-half and a swathe of blood and destruction from the Bug River to the Vistula, Stalin had learned to give his better generals the benefit of the doubt. Still, earning even that modicum of trust was not easy for Uncle Joe, and he delegated only when detail became too overwhelming.

Erickson does not venerate the Red Army marshals, even the best of them. To the very last, even when better weapons, hard-won lessons, and the preponderance of forces offered opportunities for tactical innovation, the leaders of the Red Army remained as careless with the lives of their own soldiers as they were with those of the enemy. Arguably Leningrad, Sevastapol, the Moscow campaign and the battle for Stalingrad were desperate battles where the only choice was to win by bloody attrition. To suggest that the Red Army was in such straits as it prepared to launch the final battle for Berlin in 1945, though, is ludicrous. Yet Zhukov, who remains the most venerated Soviet commander of the War, turned Seelow Heights between the Polish Frontier and Berlin into a meat grinder, and the last two weeks of the war cost the Red Army a quarter of a million lives. It is, perhaps, as much a testament to the heavy hand of the Stavka as to the hard-headedness of Soviet commanders that a revolution in battlefield doctrine would have been seen as a counterrevolutionary act. The average Soviet soldier paid the price for such orthodoxy in blood, right up to the moment of German capitulation.

The Average Ivan

The individual soldier of the Red Army and what he indured for Stalin’s ultimate victory is the subject of Catherine Merridale’s superb oral history Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army 1939-1945. Merridale has done historians a remarkable service capturing the memories and memoirs of Russia’s own Greatest Generation while at least a few of that generation remained. The story she assembles compliments Erickson’s in that she tells the story from the point of view of the average Ivan. She makes no apologies for the often atrocious extra-combat behavior of Soviet soldiers. Yet in describing their backgrounds, their hopes, and the psychological effects of living in the early years of the USSR, she offers us a chance to understand what turned these otherwise unassuming peasants into remorseless marauders.

What is more broadly relevant, though, is how so many of these (mostly young) soldiers believed that the end of the war would mean a better life than before. Somehow, reading into the promises of Party propaganda, most of them felt that greater freedom and prosperity would be their reward for the sacrifices they and their mates had made for Comrade Stalin and therodina.They certainly deserved as much. Without denigrating the contributions of the Yanks and the Tommies, it is fair to say that Ivan, his willingness to endure the worst possible conditions, the strongest imaginable enemy, and officers prepared to sacrifice him by the tens of thousands, was the single decisive factor in the war against Germany.

Birth of an Empire

Ivan may have achieved little more than a chance for survival via victory. Stalin, however, had every intention of exacting from Europe and the world the fullest possible payment for Russia’s blood and devastation. From the moment the Red Army turned Stalingrad into a German rout, Stalin began a campaign to permanently neuter Germany and turn the Soviet Union into a hegemonic power. Erickson in particular weaves into his account the story of how Stalin systematically undermined every government-in-exile in Europe (save Greece and France), how he crafted his own proxies, and how he bullied the rest of the Allies into accepting a fait accompli even as the NKVD “disappeared” entire delegations of exiled Polish leaders. With a 19 page summary of the Yalta conference, Erickson makes it clear that Roosevelt and Churchill were neither conspirators nor dupes. In war as in business, Erickson’s account suggests, possession is nine-tenths of the law. Short of taking Eastern Europe back by force, there was no way Stalin was going to give an inch more than suited him.

As much as in the diplomatic salons, Stalin made sure that every move on the battlefield reinforced the Soviet Union’s claim on postwar hegemony. Stalin insisted that the U.S. and British armies stop cold on the previously-agreed demarcation lines across Germany, even though the Allies were prepared to storm across Europe and could have met the Red Army much farther east (on the line Prague-Dresden-Berlin) and ended the war as much as a week sooner. Stalin preferred to bleed Germany – and the Red Army – for as long as it took to ensure he was not going to have to ask the Allies to give up anything that they had taken. General Patton, somewhat less in awe of Soviet ambitions than his superiors, let the forward reconnaissance elements of his force get all the way into the suburbs of Prague, two days before the Soviet 13th Army reached the same point. Stalin pressed the Allies, who pressed Eisenhower, who told Patton to withdraw.

U.S. soldiers returned home to 52 weeks of paid vacation and an opportunity to attend university at government expense. Ivan did not do near as well. Joseph Stalin, for his part, won an empire that just outlasted him and marked the high-water mark of Russian civilization. Whether the cost seemed dear to Stalin the world will likely never know.

A Lesson for China

If there is an enduring lesson in the course of Stalin’s war with Germany, it is that the cost in national treasure and blood of a politicized army is prohibitive. Ideology and military necessity are uncomfortable bedfellows in the best of times, and utterly incompatible in the crucible of combat command. The salvation of the Soviet Union was a very near thing, so much so that it is arguably an even more powerful legitimizing myth for Russia than the Revolution, much in the way the Civil War serves as an historic vindication of America. The price to Stalin of political conformity in the military was almost the existence of the USSR itself.

China will likely face no such existential moment, no matter how poorly its forces perform in the field: possession of nuclear arms guarantees as much. Whether a Chinese government could remain legitimate in the eyes of its own people after the rout of its conventional forces is another matter altogether. China is betting on force structure, diplomacy, and bluff to ensure against such an eventuality. But the politicization of the force and its doctrine remains a weakness that would inhibit battlefield performance at every level. It seems, though, that the PLA will be no more able to exercise this problem in advance of combat than the Red Army was seven decades ago.

An Alternative to Clausewitz and Sun Tzu

 

portray of J.F.C. Fuller

Colonel J.F.C. Fuller (Image via Wikipedia)

The Foundations of the Science of War, by Major General J.F.C. Fuller

Fuller was a British officer during the Boer War, the First World War, and the 1920s, but he is one of the most controversial figures in the firmament of 20th century strategy. He was brilliant but arrogant, inquisitive but opinionated, and had rotten political instincts.

Yet despite all of that, he was learned in the conduct of battle and sought to create a unified theory of war in this compilation of his lectures from the British Army’s Staff College at Camberly.

Fuller never quite reaches the level of the great strategists like Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Mahan, and Boyd, but the book serves as an excellent foil against which to pit other theories of war.

The Tao of Bill, the Te of Dave

Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built The World’s Greatest Company
by Michael S. Malone
Portfolio, 438pp

Cognizant that saying this may well sound ungracious, if not heretical, the recent well-deserved paeans to Steve Jobs tactfully omit the fact that in all he accomplished, he stood on the shoulders of giants. This is not to belittle what he accomplished. He created one industry, disrupted several others, created products that inspired the fierce loyalty of millions of consumers (myself included), and set in motion careers, companies, and trends that will define the foreseeable future. But Steve Jobs did not spontaneously self-generate. Everything he became, everything he accomplished, he was able to do because other men and women had passed that way before. The Apple II, the Macintosh, NEXT, Pixar, OS X, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and iTunes were his products.

But Jobs himself was the product of Silicon Valley: the place, the ecosystem, and the attitudes that combined to give this powerful, unique, and ultimately fragile wizard the place to create electronic magic.

As supporting evidence for my heresy I offer Michael Malone’s engaging biography of the founders of Hewlett-Packard, Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World’s Greatest Company. It is hard for most of us to recall the days when HP was the glowing heart of Silicon Valley, especially as the latest in a long string of outsiders attempts to save the company from the consequences of misguided leadership. But in telling the story of the two proto-geeks-cum-billionaires, Malone reminds us why Hewlett and Packard deserve to stand above the Silicon Valley milieu as both icons and role models.

To be sure, the environs south of San Francisco have been engineering hotbeds since just after Governor and Mrs. Leland Stanford turned their Palo Alto farm into a college. Stanford Professor Fred Terman and entrepreneurs like Charlie Litton and Ed Varian were the early shoots of the Valley’s transmogrification into the global capital of electronic engineering. But Malone’s narrative suggests that the Valley’s destiny was no given: the region was such a backwater when Bill and Dave graduated from Stanford in the mid ’30s that there was no company in the region capable of hiring either of the talented young engineers: Packard went to work for GE in its test lab Schenectady, New York, and Hewlett, a year behind, stayed in Stanford to work with his mentor Terman. The only way for the two men to get a job that suited them was to start a company. But when they did, right on the eve of World War II, established an enterprise that brought to the region and to the industry an ethos that mixed engineering talent, opportunistic flexibility, and Depression-tempered business sense. That ethos, suggests Malone, was the fertilizer that allowed Silicon Valley as we know it to take root.

After a time as a freelance electrical engineering firm, the two men produced their 1st unique product: an audio oscillator, a product that seems prosaic now but at the time was a revelation: the men had figured out a way to use an overlooked principle of electronics to create a device that cost a tenth of the competition’s product, and was easier to use to boot. The result, the Hewlett-Packard 200A Audio Oscillator, not only set the company on its path, it also set the mold for the way the company would do business for the next five decades: tinker, innovate, disrupt, reap, repeat. In the process, Hewlett and Packard established a legacy that the young Turks of the PC revolution could only envy.

For those younger entrepreneurs…many had already failed at least once. And all of that combined to make their respect for Hewlett and Packard ever greater. Those two guys, they realized, had not only already negotiated every step of the career path they intended to follow, often doing so first, but they had done so with breathtaking grace…Even in the virulently competitive world of high technology, even as people measured their own careers against those of Hewlett and Packard, many privately admitted that matching Bill and Dave was beyond their reach. No amount of revenue or percentage of market share would ever match a company that had invented a dozen entirely new industries; no amount of laudatory BusinessWeek cover stories would ever match a company whose employees set historic records for loyalty and commitment’ and no number of trips to Washington would ever equal having a medal for quality named after you.

What is more, Hewlett and Packard had created a series of business innovations that altered forever the world of work. Flex-time, coffee breaks, casual Fridays, beer and pizza busts, open plan offices, profit-sharing, flattened organizational charts, managing-by-walking-around, and the open-door policy are but a few of the practices that HP’s founders created, championed, or popularized. Then they crafted all of these into a form of enlightened management that reinvented work for much of the developed world, and turned conventional labor-management relations on its ear.

Malone began his career as a public relations guy for Hewlett-Packard, which is perhaps why he treads lightly on the shortcomings of HP’s founders. He skims past allegations of Packard’s marital infidelities, soft-pedals HP’s defense work, and lamely excuses HP’s failure to start the personal computer revolution by suggesting that the company was “just too busy” when Steve Wozniak presented his Apple I computer to HP management. These and other tells leave Malone open to accusations of hagiography.

One could argue in Malone’s defense that his treatment of Hewlett and Packard is far less breathless than the fawning prose that too often passes for business journalism. In an age when men of commerce with far less impressive legacies than HP’s founders are lionized and deified by the business-as-a-spectator-sport crowd, Malone’s tribute to his idols is perhaps a measured effort to restore some perspective.

Which brings us back to Mr. Jobs.

A friend and I were lunching in these willow-shaded precincts last week, shivering slightly as the Beijing fall worked its way into our bones. The topic turned to Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Apple CEO, and my friend asked if I would be reading it. “No,” I replied, “but not because I’m not interested.”

For an aspiring historian, Isaacson’s study has come out a decade or more too soon. I was a teenager when Apple was born, and I grew up watching Steve Jobs, so I don’t need a rehash of his remarkable life or career. What I want to know is whether history will treat him like a Morgan, Edison, Westinghouse, Pullman, Ford, or Watson; or whether, perhaps, he was a transitional figure setting the stage for someone or something even greater.

As for me I believe the former. But as Bill & Dave illustrates, our importance to history, to the bigger picture, is not always what we think it is at the time.

The Battles Inside the US Navy in World War II

Mark 14 Steam Driven Torpedo

Image via Wikipedia

Administrative histories of military forces rarely make for scintillating reading. Accounts of the activities of command bureaucracies are, however, treasure chests for the military historian. Without taking from the fighting men and women or their commanders, it is usually the force that has its stuff together in the rear and in the higher echelons of command that wins the battles. Administrative histories show us the terrain on which the bureaucratic battles were fought.

Some of those fights were spectacular and were felt on the battlefield. The fight between the OSS, the FBI, and the armed forces, for example over control of strateic intelligence; the denial of the Navy bureaucracy that there was something seriously, fatally wrong with the Mark 14 torpedo; the Army Air Corps’ struggle for independence from the ground forces that made tactical air support and battlefield interdiction permanent poor cousins to strategic bombing and air superiority; and the countless internal fights that determined the way the war would be fought and by whom. These conflicts not only dictated the nature of the battle, but cast the shape of the US armed forces for the remainder of the 20th century. And they are all chronicled in so-called “administrative histories.”

Thus, the Guide to United States Naval Administrative Histories of World War II is a bibliography of the internal accounts of these battles in the Department of the Navy. They serve, therefore, as glimpses into the birth and early growth of modern naval forces, as well as the conduct of the war itself. The resource is indispensible for the serious historian, and, if nothing else, serves as a guide when pursuing research into any significant naval topic.

The Unexpurgated Pentagon Papers

Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnem Task force (The “Pentagon Papers“).
U.S. Department of Defense
1967
7,000pp.

In June of 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked significant portions of this report, blowing the lid off of the way the United States had conducted the war in Vietnem.

Today, thanks to the National Archives, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, and the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library, the entire, original, unredacted seven thousand page report has been declassified and made available to the public. It also includes background documentation and a complete account of the peace negotiations, none of which were previously available.

That this release will become one of the most important documents in the study of the war is axiomatic. What is better, it is available at no charge to anyone with the desire and bandwidth to download its 1.5 gigabytes of PDF files. Whether you have read the original edition published by the New York Times or not, historians, political scientists, and Vietnam War buffs will want to grab this. I’m scheduling it for when I am back in the US, or someplace with really fast download speeds.

America’s War in the North Atlantic

On lookout for U-boats in the Second Battle of...

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As much as the U.S. Army’s role in the Pacific War somewhat unjustly fades behind that of the Navy and Marines, the Navy’s role in the victory in Europe is too-often overlooked. Samuel Eliot Morrison tried to rectify that somewhat in his multivolume histories of the U.S. Navy in World War II, but there is precious little grist available to us amateur historians to learn more about the US Navy’s Atlantic fight.

One of the most critical of those fights was the Battle of the Atlantic, the six year effort to thwart Germany’s plan to win the European war by severing the Allies’ transatlantic supply line. Our hindsight makes it easy to forget that the matter was often in doubt, especially after German U-Boats were organized in Wolf Packs, began operating off the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and shredded convoys like the infamous PQ-17. Indeed, the U.S. applied the same strategy to Japan with huge success.

Navy Task Force 24 was the U.S. unit charged with the safe conduct of merchant convoys from U.S. ports to a point where British escorts could assume escort duties. The official account of the Admirals who commanded that unit, Commander Task Force 24, is thus a critical primary source for anyone with an interest in that period.

As with many such government-produced documents, the narrative can be a bit dry, more of a chronology than a thematically-organized work, and it is focused heavily on administrative matters rather than operations themselves. Nonetheless, this is essential background, and anyone familiar with or interested in the conduct of the war in the Atlantic will find the work enlightening.

Joe Wilson, Xerox, and the Future of American Business

Joe Wilson and the Creation of Xerox
by Charles D. Ellis
Wiley, September 2006, 404 pp.

Great books have a regrettable tendency to get lost in an age when 3,000 new English tomes are published every day. Likewise, great men and women are lost in the shuffle of an era where we are all famous for a quarter of an hour. How common it must be, then, for books about great men and women to emerge and disappear without ever having seemed to surface.

To be sure, there are a few biographies that are of such import and scholarly merit that they are impossible to ignore. David McCullough’s Truman is one example, as is Anne Somerset’s magisterial biography of Elizabeth I and anything written by Doris Kearns Goodwin or Ron Chernow.

Beneath this elite layer, however, scores of biographies of more specific interest go all but unnoticed, particularly those written by writers who are neither biographers nor historians, and whose subjects are military leaders, government executives, and, indeed, captains of industry. Ironically, it is among these biographies that are more relevant to us personally than the stories of kings and presidents. A superb example of this is Charles Ellis’ enjoyable story of Joe Wilson and his creation of the company we now know as Xerox.

Each of us takes something different from the reading of a biography, but the value of this particular sub-genre is that it offers us sobering yet hopeful glance back at a time when Americans did not depend en masse on real estate and stock markets to fund their futures. It is sobering because it reminds us how far we have strayed from a harder yet more viable path to prosperity. It is hopeful because it hints at a way forward.

It would be easy – and plausible – to dismiss the success of American industry between 1940 and 1970 as the product of fortunate happenstance. After all, America was the “arsenal of democracy” during World War II and the world’s manufacturer and wholesaler for a decade thereafter. At home, returning servicemen unleashed an explosion of consumerism while the government armed itself for the global military standoff of the Cold War. In such an environment, one might ask, how could a company fail?

Yet not every company prospered during these years. Indeed, many failed miserably and some imploded spectacularly. Others, once the postwar boom ended, folded as fast as they grew, either because there was no substance to their success or because stupid decisions and hubris created a culture unfit for all but the best off times.

Those companies that thrived long after the boom and into the new century had, I would argue, built something into their culture, doctrine, and structure that laid the foundations for success in good times and at least perseverance in bad times.

For its part, Xerox has managed to outlast the post-boom bust, the rise of global competition, bouts of miserably bad leadership, face-smackingly dumb acquisitions, and the revolution in electronic documents to remain a force in business and publishing. The “why” comes back to an ethos and a culture inculcated by a largely forgotten CEO. To read Joe Wilson’s story is to see anew the timeless principles that underpin lasting commercial greatness.

Wilson was not a great inventor. He was the scion of a family that had built the Haloid Company, a dependable but uninspiring business in photographic paper, and had managed to do right down the street from the leviathan of the photography business, Eastman Kodak. Wilson understood early in his career at Haloid that the company existed at the mercy of Kodak, and that competition would slowly squeeze the profits out of the business.

Wilson embarked on a quest to find the innovation that would secure the company’s future, finding it finally in a half-baked plain-paper dry photocopying technology developed by patent attorney Chester Carlson and the Battelle Institute. After spending more than a decade and every penny he could earn, save, or borrow developing and commercializing the fledgling technology, Wilson’s company launched their revolutionary product, the Xerox 914.

It was a path fraught with setbacks and haunted by the possibility that Kodak, IBM, or other competitors would beat Haloid to the prize. Along the way what kept the company on the path was Wilson’s determination, his integrity, and his careful management of the company’s day-to-day business and its team of volatile geniuses. Once success came, the Republican Wilson made Xerox the standard-bearer of progressive business, underwriting a television series on the United Nations, hiring African-Americans when few other companies would, and helping the company’s hometown of Rochester, New York lay the foundation for the city’s long-term prosperity.

Today, as we struggle to shake off the misguided belief that financial chicanery can be a viable substitute for vision and innovation, Joe Wilson’s story points the way to a future where America draws its livelihood and competitiveness from its industry rather than its greed, and where finance is again the handmaiden of commerce and commerce serves the people.

The value to us of Wilson’s story is thus not in the singular specifics of xerography and the way it changed the world, but in giving us a window to a different way of thinking about risk, opportunity, the work ethic, and the financial and spiritual rewards of creating something of lasting material value. In an era where most of the graduates of the nation’s leading B-schools head for Wall Street rather than main street, we all need to hear Joe Wilson’s story, and hear the stories of men and women like him.

For they, not the big swinging dicks on the trading floors, are the true heroes of commerce, the true commercial titans. And they light for us a path to a better future, provided we can muster their courage and conviction to seek and follow it.

The Untold Story of the Navy on D-Day

Normandy Invasion, June 1944 A convoy of Landi...

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The Invasion of Normandy: Operation NEPTUNE (Administrative History of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, 1940-1946)

Do not let the otherwise bland title fool you. Nearly seven decades after the Allied landings in northern France, this service history remains the most comprehensive study of the maritime side of the invasion of Normandy.

Covering the complete history of the operation, from its early planning stages in January 1942 until its execution 30 months later, this is an exhaustive study of what had to happen behind the scenes in order to bring together the massive flotilla necessary to make D-Day happen. It is probably one of the best yet least told naval stories of World War II, and it is available for free reading online.

The work itself has, to my knowledge, never been published in book form, though the original manuscript was apparently a key source for naval Historian Samuel Eliot Morrison when he wrote the eleventh volume in his massive operational history of the U.S. Navy in World War II. This it is probably the single best primary source of history about the operation.

A must for any historian, we can only hope that somebody will put it in book, pdf, or Kindle format at some point soon.

The Pacific War According to MacArthur

General Douglas MacArthur surveys the beachhea...

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There are histories aplenty of World War II in the Pacific, and the biographies of General Douglas MacArthur would fill a long bookshelf. Anyone interested in the man or the period, however, would do well to read The Campaigns of MacArthur in the Pacific, Volume 1.

This account of Douglas MacArthur’s World War II, published by the U.S. Army and compiled by MacArthur’s staff, is excellent source material, but should not be seen as a definitive history. Indeed, the work seems a tad more biased than both contemporary and recent works by distinguished historians, and there are those who would read into the portrayal of some of the events and battles an overly flattering picture of MacArthur, his generalship, and the strategic importance of his theater of operations.

That said, the account of the war against Japan could use a little bias away from the accepted narrative, if only to prevent important campaigns from vanishing from memory. As the saying goes, there were two wars being fought in the Pacific, the one between the Allies and Japan, and the one between the US Navy and the US Army. If history is written by the victors, the Navy won the latter, and as a result the role of the US Army in the region has been minimized by a focus on the Navy by academic and popular historians alike.

This begs for some rectification without taking from the sacrifices and achievements of the Navy/Marine Corps team. MacArthur’s account, although compiled by men intensely loyal to the general personally, is a first step in that direction.

So What Did YOU Do in the War, Daddy

Reading through David Brinkley’s excellent Washington Goes To War provided a jarring reminder to this amateur historian that history during that period was made outside of the Armed Forces as well.

For those interested in studying the home front in World War II, an excellent resource is The Administrative Histories of World War II Civilian Agencies of the Federal Government. This is essentially a large bibliography, but it is exhaustive, and thus an outstanding scholarly resource.

How Intelligence Helped Turn the Tide Against Japan

USS Yorktown (CV-5). In Dry Dock # 1 at the Pe...

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On April 17, 1942, Imperial Japan seemed invincible. The nation’s armed forces were virtually undefeated in battle. All of East Asia, including much of China, lay under the boot of Dai Nippon; Australia and India looked to be next; and with the Allies focused on Europe first, the U.S. looked to be at least a year away before being able to take the offensive against even an overextended Japan.

Within 50 days, that had all changed.

While her armies were still rampant on mainland Asia, Japan’s Navy had suffered a sequence of defeats. The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo ended the myth of Japanese invincibility, the Battle of the Coral Sea had halted Japan’s drive into Australia, and the Battle of Midway destroyed the Imperial Japanese Navy as a strategic offensive force.

That turning point was enabled by a range of factors, but it surely would not have happened had there not been a series of coups in signals intelligence in the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. In A Priceless Advantage: U.S. Navy Communications Intelligence and the Battles of Coral Sea, Midway, and the Aleutians, Frederick D. Parker gives us a look at the facts behind the legends, and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the unconventional team that enabled those (and many other) victories.

If the work leaves one wondering why, in contrast, the history of US intelligence over the last six decades reads like the annals of the Keystone Kops, it also offers the beginnings of an answer. Superior intelligence organizations are often not the conscious product of organizational science, but of brilliant, directed operators who are completely focused and left unhampered in their work.

A superb read for lovers of history and anyone interested in intelligence.

 

U.S. Navy Communications Intelligence and
the Battles of Coral Sea, Midway, and the Aleutians
Frederick D. Parker