The British Army and Modern Counterinsurgency

The attention given to failed efforts to contain insurgencies like Vietnam tend to drown out the cases of successful outcomes where insurgent groups were defeated. Of the successes, the one that proponents and practitioners of counterinsurgency continue to come back to is Britain’s defeat of Malayan communists between 1947 and 1960. Given the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, interest in the lessons of the Malayan Emergency is high again.

As a result, there is plenty of current literature on the topic, the best of which is probably John A. Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. Contemporary accounts, on the other hand, drawn as they are from the context of the times, can often be more enlightening as they lack the additional haze that comes with the passage of time. Such an account is Riley Sunderland’s Army Operations in Malaya, 1947-1960.

Given unprecedented access to the files of the War Office in the United Kingdom, Sunderland made his study just as the U.S. was expanding its involvement in Vietnam. The intent, therefore, was to give the U.S. Army as much insight as possible into how to fight a successful counterinsurgency. The work is interesting not only because it provides some interesting perspective on what the Americans did and did not learn before escalating the Vietnam effort, but also because it informs the today’s conflicts without using Vietnam as a yardstick.

Even a superficial analysis suggests that the U.S. Army could have learned little from the Malayan experience. The British succeeded in their effort because they were able to contain the growth of the insurgency long enough to secure the countryside. By the time the U.S. showed up in Vietnam in force, not only was the guerrilla infrastructure well into its second decade of development, it had a sympathetic and supportive sovereign country next door to sustain it. Nonetheless, some of America’s more successful tactics in Vietnam (the USMC’s Combined Action Platoons, for example) were rooted in the Malayan playbook.

Sunderland’s account is a testament to the need to stop insurgencies early, and the futility of fighting them once they have reached a critical mass. For anyone interested in whether and how it is possible to quell an uprising with armed force, this book will provide much food for thought.

The Road to Catalonia

Cover of "The Battle for Spain: The Spani...

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There are probably any number of reasons someone of my vintage might not know much about the Spanish Civil War.

Perhaps it is because I grew up in America, and there were probably far less than 10,000 Americans involved in the conflict, making it defensible to gloss over in courses on modern European history. Perhaps it is because the intervening years have seen Spain relegated to the back bench of European powers, thus making the civil war easy to ignore. Or perhaps it is because the conflict, waged between Franco’s facists on one side and the anarcho-socialist-communist Republic on the other, gave us anti-Facist and (after 1945) anti-Communist Americans no easy heroes?

In his masterful The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Anthony Beevor, who has written some of the best popular histories of World War II campaigns like Stalingrad, Crete, and the fall of Berlin, has taken on a far more complex conflict than the others. His task is thus ambitious: given a nation with whom few of us are familiar and a vast cast of characters who are all but alien and irrelevant to your average English speaker, allow us to follow the course of the conflict sufficiently to reach our own conclusions about it.

While there were moments about halfway through the book that I despaired of ever getting it all straight, not long afterward it was all coming together, even without the benefit of a good map or a scorecard of the major and minor characters. Along the way, Beevor makes it painfully clear that the war was inevitable. Spain needed to be yanked out of its somnambulant neo-feudalism, but a democratic republic could not accomplish the necessary changes against the opposition of the church and the landowners, and the radicals that captured and led the republic provoked an inevitable reactionary response.

There are few heroes, but Beevor hesitates just short of making either Franco or his radical opponents into villains. The Caudillo was as vain and power-hungry as the worst Latin despots and a mediocre commander, but one is left believing that if it had not been Franco, it would have been someone else, perhaps Jose Sanjurjo de Sacanell or Gonzalo Quiepo de Llano, Franco’s fellow generals and co-conspirators in the plot to overthrow the republic. The leaders of the republic, portrayed as fractious, squabbling, and mutually-distrustful, are tragic figures.

If there were evildoers in this saga, Beevor subtly points beyond Spain: at the Germans and Italians, who honed their arsenals and armies for World War II in supporting Franco; at the Russians, who supported the Republic but exacerbated its centrifugal politics; at the British and French, who feared giving Hitler an excuse to go to war more than they feared facism in Spain; and to the Vatican of Pope Pius XII, who framed the war as a Catholic jihad and mobilized the faithful around the world against helping the Republic.

Beevor’s other conclusions are even more provocative, but I will leave you to read the book and decide for yourself.

One last thought.

The framers of the Declaration of Independence understood that, at some point, even the most downtrodden of peoples must rise up and replace the government that has kept them there. The history of the past three centuries is replete with examples of successful revolutions, and these have framed our political thinking. But if we learn more from our failures than our successes, it behoves those of us who believe in the value of a modern, participatory state to spend more time studying the failed revolutions than the successful ones.

The Spanish Civil War was a failed revolution. With peoples from Malaysia to Tunisia rising up against their leaders, we must remember Catalonia, the Republic, the Spain that might have been, and we must understand why it was not. Only then can we comprehend the dangers of spontaneous risings as well as we do the opportunities.

Finding Stuff from Above

As the U.S. Armed Forces increasingly rely on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or “drones”) to gather information about current or potential battlefields, the time has come to remember that the skills that count among the people controlling those aircraft are not limited to remote-control airmanship. Equally important are the other abilities that give drones their value.

Most important among those skills is figuring out what you are seeing when you look down from above. For that reason, the RAND corporation has re-issued a series of papers from the early jet age about how to conduct aerial reconnaissance. This makes fascinating reading for the aviation buff, and would be fun for anyone who spends way too much time checking out Google Earth as well.

Marshall’s Airman

Lieutenant General Frank Maxwell Andrews

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The history of war is written not only by the victors, but the survivors. How much better we remember those who made it through the fight than those who fell, even when the fallen fought on the side of the victors.

One of those soldiers who fell in the allied cause was General Frank M. Andrews, who died in a B-24 crash enroute to take command of the U.S. Air Force in Europe in 1943. Andrew’s most important role in his career predated the war, when he was the organizer and commander of the General Headquarters Air Force (GHQAF), and as such the man who pulled the U.S. Army’s U.S.-based aviation units into a single, integrated operational force. if General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold is the man best remembered as the commander of U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, it was Andrews who made Arnold’s efforts possible.

Andrews was the officer, arguably, who sold Army Chief of Staff George Marshall on both the concept of strategic bombing applied in Europe during the war, and on the primary weapon used in that effort, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.

In Frank M. Andrews: Marshall’s Airman, a brief but engrossing biography published by the Air Force History and Museums Program, historian DeWitt Coop goes further. He suggests that Andrews, in his advocacy of an independent air arm and the first commander of GHQAF, was one of the leading architects of an independent air force that came into being after the war. Coop thus places Andrews in that aerospace pantheon of air visionaries who, like Billy Mitchell, made an independent air force possible.

History has not been kind to Andrews or his vision. Andrews was virtually forgotten after his tragic death, eclipsed by Arnold, LeMay, and others who survived him. The ultimate benefits of the strategic bombing campaign he was to have led in Europe, once taken as a given, are now a matter of hot debate among historians. And the value of an independent air force, appreciable in a day when few non-aviators understood the role of aviation on the battlefield, is now much less so in an era of pervasive aviation, unmanned aerial vehicles, and combined-arms doctrine. But there was no way of knowing any of that then, and at no point has it been suggested that Andrews was anything but sincere in his beliefs.

I am a member of what I believe to be a small group of historians who think that we have more to learn from failed beliefs, doctrines, and strategies than winning ones. Understanding Frank Andrews, what he believed, and why he believed it offer us a mirror for our own passionately held beliefs, whether in war, in business, or in life.

Autonomy of the Air Arm

This interesting history describes the background behind the autonomy U.S. Air Force and its split from its mother service, the U.S. Army. The informal 1947 government accords which laid out the roles and missions of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, known as the Key West Agreements, were a triumph for Air Force supporters.

Throughout the service’s history it has been in the Air Force’s best interest to remind senior civilians in the Pentagon and Congress occasionally why there was an autonomous Air Force in the first place. Hence this book. The arguments herein are primarily that the Air Force was a de facto autonomous service from its early beginnings in 1907, and that its formal separation from the army was a mere formality after years of divergent evolution. There is some evidence to support this position, and the book makes an excellent case that the air arm does not belong under the oversight of an infantryman.

What has become the case over the years, however, and with the authors of this work either miss or studiously avoid discussing, is the Air Force’s pathway of divergence from the Army continued throughout the Cold War and its aftermath. Today we have not just an autonomous air service, but one that appears to be developing increasingly independent of the strategies, doctrine, and tactical considerations that drive the other three services. At some point between 1947 and 2001, the Air Force crossed a line between autonomy and independence.

This is no simple matter of semantics. The matter has reached the point where the Junior service now no longer provides the aerial support required by sister services. This issue is part of what drove Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to appoint Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz as Air Force chief of staff in 2008. Gates and his successors are going to have to contend with an Air Force is growing in budget hunger, even as it falls its ability to deliver airframes on target and drifts further away from the integrated approach to conflict championed by its sister services.

American political theatrics being what they are, at some point, not only the autonomy but the existence of the air arm will be called into question in the parts of Washington where decisions of this nature can be made. Shutting down the Air Force in America’s political climate would be impossible. But until the service shakes its thinking clear of the conflict that created it (World War II) and the conflict that formed it (the Cold War), it will struggle to retain relevance in an increasingly budget conscious capital, China bogeyman or no.

Airborne Assault on Holland

Waves of paratroopers land in the Netherlands ...

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This book gives us the perspective of the US Air Force on the story made familiar in Cornelius Ryan‘s epic A Bridge Too Far. As you read through this account, even if you’re familiar with the events of Operation Market-Garden, you’ll realize that the Air Force’s side of the story has not been well told.

What is most fascinating about this account, however, is the Air Force’s own admission that while it did everything that it could to help beat back stiff German resistance, airpower was unable to secure the victory. This must come as a sobering realization to airmen dedicated to the proposition that air power is decisive in battle. Clearly at a tactical level in World War II, this was not the case, despite the presence of some of the best close air support tacticians, practitioners, and equipment ever produced.

If you have read other accounts of this campaign, you’ll find this work to be of great interest.

Air Warfare and Air Base Air Defense 1917-1973

McGuire Air Force Base

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In his foreword to this excellent PDF book, Air Force historian John F Kreis notes that most histories of air warfare revolve around the actual combat, and far too few if any examine the issue of combat support or, as he does in this volume, air base defense. The author believes that this is an oversight, and I would agree.

Some of history’s more renowned tactical air commanders, most notably Air Force Major General Claire Chennault, commander of the Flying Tigers and later the 14th US Air Force in China in World War II, were late to discover that their ignorance of the challenges and necessity of air base defense undermined and sometimes erased their successes in the air.  It was almost as if, once liberated of the ground, these otherwise fine aviators and leaders forgot that it existed.

In this comprehensive (if not exhaustive) tome,  Kreis examines the entire topic of air base defense from the perspective of all the countries involved in combat, starting in World War I, and running all the way through the Vietnam War.  Despite hints that the air arm has learned its lessons about base defense, the author suggests that there is still more to be learned. Indeed,  if the recent experiences of the US Armed Forces and NATO in Afghanistan are any indication, air base defense remains as vexing as ever for both air and ground commanders.

This book belongs in the library of even the casual military historian.

Communist China’s Policy Toward Laos: A Case Study 1954-67

Apart from Zhou Enlai’s well known initiative to forge a bloc of non-aligned nations at the Bandung Conference in 1955, China’s foreign policy before Nixon’s visit is not frequently covered in popular histories.

In this book, Chae-Jin Lee makes the case that local conditions determined the nature of China’s foreign policy toward each country, and examines the country-specific factors in Laos that informed China’s policy toward the kingdom even as the PRC supported the growth of the Pathet Lao, the local communist movement.

Air War Over South Vietnam, 1968-1975

Cessna A-37B Dragonfly attack planes of the So...

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Historian Bernard Nalty gives us a look into the way the air war in Vietnam changed after the Tet Offensive in 1968. His selection of dates is not arbitrary. The growing opposition to, politicization, and micromanagement of the war after Tet, as well as the shift of operational responsibility to the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVNAF) changed the way in which the air war was conducted, and arguably gives a preview of the challenge faced in air warfare in our current conflicts.

Keep in mind that this is a service history, published by the U.S. Air Force. Political considerations and bias do enter the report and should be accounted for. But this makes the candor with which Nalty examines a few of the less flattering aspects of the period – the drugs and personnel issues, the over-extension of the B-52 force – the more interesting.

It is also worth noting that while Nalty’s aim is to tell the story of the air war, he does not limit himself, and provides a great deal of context and general history. As such, this book is a worthy addition to any library on the war.

Air Superiority in World War II and Korea

On May 21, 1982, four retired U.S. Air Force generals – James Ferguson, Robert M. Lee, William Momyer, and Pete Quesada – sat down at a table in the officers’ club at Bolling Air Force Base and took a hard look at the lessons they and the air service had learned in the course of their careers. Free of the constraints placed on serving general officers, the four have a far more frank discussion than they would have had while in uniform, and through this pdf book the reader gets to be a fly on the wall.

You can feel the ghosts in the room: Mitchell, Spaatz, LeMay, Chennault. A superb and fast read, and oral history at its best.

Air Power in Three Wars: WWII, Korea, and Vietnam

From left to right, an A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-...

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This pdf book examines the evolution of air power and air power doctrine from 1939 to 1971 through the eyes of one U.S. Air Force officer, General William Momyer, who lived and commanded through the three wars.

The three-and-a-half decades covered in this volume witnessed the most fecund period of technological advances in military aviation, and the evolution of air power from an uncertain, secondary role in warfare to a core position in tactical and strategic thought.

What is fascinating to watch, though, is how doctrine did not develop so much as ossify in the face of battlefield experience and the vagaries of Presidential grand strategies. Momyer, unconsciously, is a living example of this paralysis of thinking that suffused Air Force command. The lessons he learned in World War II colored his views of Vietnam: the proper role of air power in that conflict, he suggests, was to take the war to the North and, presumably, even north of Friendship Pass.

In this Momyer exposes himself as a proven tactician and commander but a failed strategist, and in this he has much company from among his peers. It was the rare and career-reckless officer during that period who questioned the Holy Trinity of Strategic Bombing, Missile Forces, and Air-to-Air warfare, and Momyer rose to four stars worshiping at the alter of Billy Mitchell, Carl Spaatz, and Curtis LeMay.

But Momyer’s strategic failings do not make his memoir less interesting, and he offers lessons that we ignore today at our peril. His calls for de-centralized command and control, flexibility of forces and of thinking, and strong close-air support balance his open disregard for interdiction, his devotion to strategic bombing, and his call for massive “shock-and-awe” applications of airpower in an age where such thinking was already failing to address a new strategic reality.

Air Power for Patton’s Army: The 19th Tactical Air Command in the Second World War

Otto P. Weyland

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One of the most consistently underrated factors in the Allied victory in Europe during World War II is the quality of tactical air support to the troops on the ground. Each for its own reasons, the Army and the Air Force tend to underplay the importance of tactical air support to their operations.

By delving into how General George S Patton worked with his counterpart at the XIX Tactical Air Command, General Otto P. Weyland, this book underscores how strong air-ground coordination actually changes the traditional rules of battle, and arguably was much of the secret sauce behind Patton’s successes in his advance across France, Germany, and Czechoslovakia.

A fascinating read for historians of the period.

Fire in the Valley

IBM Portable Personal Computer :: Retrocomputi...

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Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer, by Paul Frieberger and Michael Swaine

Picking up this classic 25 years after the fact is a worthy reminder of how the PC industry developed. More important, what keeps this work relevant is how it hints at the current ossification of the industry, suggesting that even in the days when the business was driven by the excitement of almost constant innovation, hubris was never far from the surface.

The question that plagues the reader as you plow through the book is whether innovation has died in the PC business because there is nothing left to innovate, or whether business and creeping conservatism has killed the innovation.

Love or hate Apple, it has shaken free the bonds of care and liberated itself to take billion dollar bets on disrupting industries. Yes, vision is important. But having the testicular fortitude to act on your vision is what separates the leaders from the followers.

Reading Fire in the Valley, one is thus struck by how the companies in the industry need to regrow their cojones.

Air Power and the 1972 Spring Invasion

As the ground war in Vietnam was handed over to local Vietnamese forces as a part of Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” strategy, the leaders of the Republic of Vietnam could still call on a substantial U.S. air contingent to support operations.

This book is designed to prove the necessity of air support to ground operations. In this it succeeds. Where it has appeared to fail is in convincing the leadership of the Department of the Air Force to shift focus to air support and interdiction instead of the Cold War imperatives of air superiority and strategic bombardment.

A subtle and thought-provoking read.

Air Force Combat Wings: Lineage and Honors History 1947-1977

We are a bit rough on the air service in this forum (somewhat disingenuous for the scion of a USAAF veteran), but this book is a detailed reminder that the U.S. Air Force matured in combat in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, often in ways that confounded its leadership. An invaluable resource to anyone with an interest in military history generally, and US Air Force history specifically.

Air Base Defense in the Republic of Vietnam

The unspoken lesson of this volume of history is that when you try to fight an insurgency with airpower alone, you wind up pulling in significant ground forces to defend your forward bases. Forward-deployed, land-based air forces, therefore, create a much larger footprint than might be desirable in a given situation.

This issue is more than simply an historical curiosity. In addition to affecting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it bears a growing influence on America’s short-term and long-term overseas basing challenges. Political considerations closed US air bases in the Philippines, and will eventually close air bases in Japan. And against the global terrorist threat, large military installations everywhere become targets that demand a higher degree of defense than ceremonial guards and rent-a-cops.

A growing portion of every country’s defense budget will be going to base defense in the coming years, and this early study gives us an overview of how the challenge has developed and a glimpse at what armed forces will face.

Anything, Anywhere, Anytime: Combat Cargo in the Korean War

Korea was probably the first war where the military was able to resupply and reenforce troops in the field in large part by air. The evolution of the helicopter, of a range of capable cargo aircraft, and the perfection of an entirely new logistical science was the first step toward what we now refer to as “air mobility.”

This book is a reminder that every major human enterprise moves on its stomach, and that sometimes the most important technical developments in the conduct of modern warfare have little to do with killing people or breaking things. This is particularly important in an age when logistical capabilities – in insurgencies, in disaster relief, in humanitarian operations –  play an increasingly important role in extending power and influence.

The Army Air Forces in Northwest Africa

Reviewing history through the lens of the Allied victory in World War II, it is easy for us to forget that the only armed forces (arguably) prepared for war at its onset were those of Japan and Germany. Both had experienced cadre and formations, Japan’s honed in China and Manchuria, Germany’s in the Spanish Civil War. The Allies, lulled into complacency by a combination of popular wishful thinking and artful propaganda, were, even in 1942, still catching up with the Axis forces. Nowhere was this more the case than with the American forces thrown into combat in North Africa.

For the U.S. Army Air Forces, still far behind the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe in experience and equipment, North Africa was the beginning of a brutal learning curve in arts of tactical air support and what was then known as pursuit aviation. This book, while a service history, gives a good overview of operations without getting so granular as to make it pedantic. A worthy addition to the library of anyone with an interest in the period, or in the history of aviation.

American Military on the Frontier

A pdf book on the U.S. military and the Wild West. It is terribly convenient in these times to forget the positive work that was done by the Army and Navy during America’s westward expansion. We tend to focus on the negative, and in so doing forget that the surveyors, explorers, scouts, and lawkeepers that enabled the frontier wore Army blue and Navy white.

This book, the proceedings of a symposium at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, seeks to re-examine the military’s role in the opening of the West.