America’s War for the Greater Middle East by Andrew J. Bacevich

America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by Andrew J. Bacevich (Random House, 2016) 453 pages

AW by Bacevich

This is Memorial Day, so this book seems to fit right in. If I live to be 100, my fondest memories of growing up revolve around Memorial Day. In New York, that was the day the pools opened, the big Little League double header, and the day of the big parade (in New York, a lot of kids went away to camp, so the 4th of July parade was non-existent). We all trooped down to Village Hall and stood at quiet attention. There, after the high school band played the Anthem, in front of the statue of Dollar the horse and the War Memorial with the names of the dead, the Ladies Auxiliary of the American Legion (Mrs. Suda and someone else) brought wreath to the monument. Then came the highlight of the day: the firing of the salute…three rounds of three blanks into the deep blue spring sky, the kids scrambling on the ground for the ejected shells, still warm from the barrel. Yes, I still have a few, somewhere. Then, after the local minister or priest gave the blessing, the mayor gave a short speech, and then he read the Roll of Honor: the names of all the locals who had died in all the wars since the Revolution. I am old enough to remember the skinny but absolutely erect veteran of World War I who walked the whole mile of the parade without a cane of help until the year he died in the late 70s. By then, the names of the Vietnam Veterans had joined the rest.

Only when the last name was read did the crowd disperse to their cookouts and barbecues.

That is my memory. By the time I left town in my early fifties, about the time of the second Iraq War, many adults used their cell phones all through the service, their kids ran around the edges of the crowd shouting, and a lot of new residents from South America and Eastern Europe had no idea what was going on, if they bothered to show up at all. I won’t judge them or the times we live in, but books like this help to show where America went off the rails.

All you need to know about this book is on the flap and in the beginning:

From the end of World War II until 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in the Greater Middle East. Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed in action anywhere else. (p. 11)

Bacevich’s book explores how this happened.

Where is started to go wrong is open to debate. The early part of the book goes over a lot of history we have all but forgotten but should not. One key event is the overthrow of the vicious reign of the Shah of Iran by the religious mullahs who still rule the country today. U.S. support of Israel, even when the Israelis attacked U.S. vessels, cost this country the support of the Arab world.

Or maybe it happened even earlier. After Israel won the October War in 1973, the Arab notions retaliated by suspending oil sales to the United States. I still recall the days of gasoline shortages, when you could only buy gas on odd days if your license plate ended in an odd number, or even days for even numbers. (For those who wonder, A-L endings were considered odd, M-Z considered even…at least in New York.) That was when Nixon decided that oil was more important than almost anything else.

Bacevich, a West Point graduate, emphasizes the military aspects of our Middle East dealings, but he has good reminders about other events often overlooked. Everyone knows about how the Iranians took Americans hostage in their embassy in Tehran (p.24). But how many remember that the cause of the student’s action was the U.S. allowing the deposed and dying Shah to enter the US for medical treatment? The students feared that the U.S., which had the CIA kill the elected leader of Iran in 1953 to put the Shah in power in the first place, was plotting their old tyrant’s return. (In spite of repeated claims of conspiracy, there is no evidence that the hostage-taking was a well-thought-out plot.)

In any case, by the time Reagan came along in 1980, America’s policy in what Bacevich calls the Greater Middle East (roughly from Morocco to Pakistan) was founded on three key beliefs (p. 35):

  1. The Soviet Union would take over Middle East oil if we didn’t defend our right to buy it.
  2. Our allies needed the USA to defend them: they were too weak to do it on their own.
  3. Our military had to be strong enough to take the oil we wanted by force if necessary.

Following these tenets led to all kinds of odd things: support for Iraq, then Iran, then neither. Only the military and political mattered: that Sunni/Shia historical and social thing? Who cares! (p. 42).

The Iran-Contra scandal in 1987, which makes Hillary’s silly email problem seem like, well, a silly problem over email, meant that U.S. planes were in danger of being shot down by Hawk missiles that the U.S. had sold to one side or the other (p. 101).

The book slogs on through all the mistakes we made in the First Gulf War, then the Second, as well as our stumbles in Afghanistan and the Balkans (where, oddly, for once we were on the side of the Muslims), and our troubles with Arab revolutions in Egypt and Libya and elsewhere.

Throughout, the author focuses on our military failures, which compounded our shortcomings in the political (democracy for all, as long as you vote in people we like!) and social (get along with those Sunnis/Shia like we get along with minorities and illegal aliens!) arena. Basically, our biggest shortcoming has been to overestimate the impact of air power and modern mechanized warfare and underestimate the will of the people of the invaded country to resist our occupation in spite of a veneer of cooperation.

More than one book I’ve read recently points out that US casualties increased when the Iraqis stopped “fighting” with modern weapons and started using IEDs. And that didn’t start in earnest until the Iraqis realized that the US forces were not there to get rid of Saddam and go home: they were obviously digging in to stay while (and chasing rumors of those “chemical weapons” that had to be hiding somewhere).

The book ends on a depressing note as drone strikes are making a generation of new enemies for us in Libya and Syria (p. 325). And although we can save the lives of more and more of our wounded troops, we have created a large pool of people who will need care for the rest of their lives, not only because they lack arms and legs and faces, but because their ordeal has shattered their minds as well as their bodies.

No, Memorial Day is not the way I remember it. I hope the oil was worth it. I fear it’s not.


Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell

Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles by Bernard Cornwell (Harper, 2015), 352 pages.

W Cornwell

It’s been a month since I last updated this book blog (27 May to 28 June) but I have only been home 8 nights this month. After we got back from Europe, I had to fly out to California for business, so things are only settling down. (Of course, I’ll be in New York for July 4th weekend, so this write-up will be lonely for a week or two.)

I bought this book when it came out in the USA at the start of May 2015 (it still has the British copyright date of 2014, but this is one of those quirky international publishing things). I put it on the “book pile” and said “Well, Waterloo was in June of 1815, so I have plenty of time to read it….” However, once I got back from Europe, I realized that June 18 (the anniversary) was very close. So I dragged the book to California and finished it there. And here it is!

I paid about twenty bucks for this book (no, not Amazon), and I have to say it was a bargain. The color plates alone are usually found only in books that cost twice as much, and the paper has a nice gloss that repels liquid (I found this out when the flight attendant spilled Diet Coke on page 290). Each chapter starts off with a nice color map of the action to come, although it took me a chapter or two to figure that out because the 3 or 4 pages of illustrations preceding the map are for the previous chapter, often captioned with quotes from the chapter text.

This is a solid book by a solid author. Yes, it’s a popular book about Waterloo, not a political or military history. But don’t let that put you off. The politics of Waterloo are easy to outline: Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba by painting a ship to match the brigs of the British blockade and taking advantage of his British “keeper” being away visiting his mistress (page 18). Gathering forces on his way to Paris, mostly from units betraying their oath to the restored king of France, Napoleon felt he could pick up where he left off as Emperor, as long as he could prevent the combined armies of England (okay, Britain and allies, but Cornwell says England as well), Prussia, Austria, and Russia from invading France. While the last two were far away, the British army under Wellington, who had fought Napoleon’s forces – but not Napoleon – to a standstill in Spain and invaded southern France, and the allied Dutch force under “Slender Billy,” or William, Prince of Orange, were camped south of Brussels.

The Prussians under von Blucher were hurrying to join them from the east, and this Anglo-Dutch-Prussian grouping forms the three armies of the title. The Anglo-Dutch were near a place named Waterloo, although the nearest town was called Mount St.-Jean. So why is the battle called Waterloo? Because Wellington, who won the darn thing (although the Prussians point out – rightly so – that without them, the battle is a draw at best), called it that. So there. The Prussians, who still call it the battle of “La Belle Alliance,” had to deal with it.

The military aspects of Waterloo are a bit more complex. Napoleon was the master of maneuver, and of course he would try to isolate the forces, face one at a time, and defeat them piecemeal. He did this in a series of three battles over four days, as also mentioned in the title, with one night of pouring rain and a “travel day” in between. The three battles were the battles of Ligny (a win that chased off the Prussians, but did not rout them), Quatre-Bras (this counts as a Wellington victory because he kept his forces intact and stopped Napoleon), and Waterloo (now a synonym for “whatever can go wrong…”).

Would it be a faux pas to mention that I like Cornwell’s nonfiction writing more than I like his fiction? His fiction is really historically detailed and accurate, and I read it for that, but I found a spark and spirit in his nonfiction I don’t often see in his fiction. Sorry.

Anyway, this book will not only make you very familiar with all aspects of those days in June, but how it felt to be on the battlefield, that day and at almost any battle between the American Revolution and the Civil War. (Speaking of the American Revolution, America had the good sense to rebel between the careers of Marlborough and Wellington, two undefeated generals. Washington faced such sparking generals and admirals as Clinton and Howe and Cornwallis…need I say more?)

Along the way, you will learn about different leadership styles as Wellington gallops all over the field, encouraging ragged units, while Napoleon hung out at his headquarters at La Bella Alliance and let Marshall Ney and the other Marshalls run the battle for him. You will learn how fickle the gods of war can be, as cannon fire kills or takes legs from three of four but leaves the fourth untouched. You will see how cruel the battle is to horses, who suffer ghastly wounds and yet carry on (I will spare you the details, but see pages 246 and 303). In places, you can almost hear the cannon roar and feel the safety of the square formation, especially when charged by cavalry. These passages, taken from letters and diaries or those who on the battlefield, are Cornwell at his best.

Wellington and his white horse Copenhagen, by the way, survived the day unscathed, while many of his command staff were killed or horribly wounded and had one or sometimes two horses shot out from under them.  Wellington felt his loses acutely, and wrote sadly about this aspect of war to Lady Shelley after the battle (according to Cornwell, Wellington also had an army of young, beautiful, noble, and smart women to command). He wrote, on page 307, “next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained” because of the loss of life even in victory.

So why did Napoleon lose at Waterloo, and lose so spectacularly that he had to flee without his carriage and treasury? Most of it seems to be Napoleon’s own doing, although Cornwell wisely lets readers reach their own conclusions. For whatever reason, Napoleon did not try to shatter Blucher’s Prussians after Ligny, leaving them to regroup and show up late at Waterloo, drawing off troops Napoleon needed for final assault. Napoleon issued odd orders to his generals, leading a couple of them to shuttle back and forth at Quatre-Bras without ever engaging and then falling on the Prussian rear guard when they were desperately need twelve miles away at Waterloo. Napoleon even waited at Waterloo until late in the day (almost noon by most accounts) for the field to dry out for his cavalry, hours that let the Prussians draw closer and closer.

Worst of all, Napoleon’s biggest mistake was attacking Wellington in the first place, the general known as the best defensive general of his day. Napoleon had little choice: time was not on his side. But Napoleon relied greatly on cannon and howitzers for victory, and Wellington would wisely station the bulk of his troops over a ridge, on a reverse slope, where they were relatively safe and could move without being observed. So when Napoleon sent horse and men up and over the ridge, he ended up attacking the strongest part of Wellington’s line.

One last point of illumination to me: Wellington was known as the “Iron Duke” not for his defensive capabilities, but for the iron shutters he installed on his residence late in life as prime minister so the people could not break his windows (page 341). Apparently, the cranky old general thought every citizen should obey his orders without question, as they had at Waterloo. Then again, that philosophy only had to work once. And it did.

Deep Violence by Joanna Bourke

Deep Violence: Military Violence, War Play, and the Social Life of Weapons by Joanna Bourke (Counterpoint, 2015), 312 pages.

DV Bourke

By some strange alignment of planets, tomorrow is Memorial Day in the United States…not the REAL Memorial Day like when I was a kid, but the 3-day holiday they made it into. So it seems appropriate that I examine this book, a book about how we came to live—especially in the United States—in a state of perpetual war.

I am old enough to remember my father putting out the American flag for Memorial Day…it flew then and on the Fourth of July and Veterans Day. The rest of the year it stayed rolled up in the hall closet (“I know what country I live in,” he told me once). My father had enough of flags and war on Guam and Okinawa (he was nearby when Ernie Pyle was killed). Until the day he died, not only would he never buy a Japanese car, he would never *ride* in a Japanese car. But he worked on the Rockefeller estate with imported Japanese architects to do the stonework for Nelson’s tea house. Remembrance was fine, he thought, but a man’s got to work. After all, the completely militarized societies of Nazi Germany and Tojo’s Japan were what we fought against.

We had troops stationed oversea back then, naturally. In Germany, in Korea, and other places. But my cousin, who was in Korea, told me that the most danger they encountered along the North Korean border was a bar fight or when an irate local husband came looking for a certain marine.

“Remembering the troops” is something we do constantly today, as if they might vanish without incessant reminders of their presence. I suspect some of it has to do with how poorly we treat our veterans once they will not or cannot be of further use.

This is a long preamble to a book essay, but I want to show that the current state of affairs is not normal (historically, a stridently militarized society, besieged by enemies within and without, is the mark of a nervous elite). Bourke knows it too, and although British (the book was published in England in 2014), she navigates the military-industrial-political complex with great authority.

I am not a pacifist, and I have had an article published in Military History magazine. But I do not recognize the country that perpetual war (page 214) has created, either among our leaders or our citizens. And perpetual war has nothing to do with respect for the military. As Bourke points out on page 7, 45% of American adult males were veterans in 1969, after the drafts of WW I, WW II, Korea and Vietnam. Today’s volunteer forces draw recruits from a much smaller pool, with repeated combat tours until a breakdown physically or mentally halts the cycle. There is a sense of “well, they knew what they were signing up for,” but the draft at least made representatives wonder how many of their relatives would be dead or destroyed in a few years. Today, we mainly send the poor to wage our wars, and they seem endless (yes, I mean both).

Today we don’t even call them “soldiers fighting enemy soldiers,” terms which impute valid, but different, motives to our opponents. They are “warfighters” against “insurgents” (page 30) and, in an Orwellian twist, heavily armed ground forces and bombers are called “peace keepers.”

Bourke cites Nurse Vera Brittain (page 39: there is a new movie about her) who became a pacifist when she saw the carnage of WW I, trying to comfort “men without faces, without eyes, without limbs, men almost disemboweled, men with hideous truncated stumps of bodies.” The photo on page 226 is very hard to take, and not for everyone. If we were honest and faced the truth of war, we’d have the color guard at the football games made up of the lame, the halt, and the blind, assisted by amputees and the emotionally shattered.

I do appreciate Bourke’s book for offering a balanced view. She includes long sections presenting the words of Gen. Curtis Lemay, father of strategic bombing (another word for “killing workers and civilians”) and vice presidential candidate with Barry Goldwater in 1964. (Never forget that Lyndon Johnson, who bombed Southeast Asia mercilessly and poured 500,000 troops into Viet Nam, could portray Goldwater and LeMay as out-of-control “war mongers”!)

LeMay pulled no punches. His warriors were not peacekeepers, they were widow-makers and worse. Churchill, knowing that Britain alone could not out-produce Germany with most of Europe pumping out war goods, decided to bomb the factory workers instead of the factories (page 121). Arthur Harris, Marshall of the Royal Air Force, wrote to General Ira Eaker, head of the Army Air Force, and said “You destroy a factory and they rebuild it. In six weeks they are operational again. I kill all the workmen and it takes twenty-one years to provide new ones” (also page 121).

On page 66, LeMay is quoted as saying “To worry about the morality of what we’re doing—Nuts. A solider has to fight. We fought.” LeMay lost no sleep over using the atomic bomb on civilians (page 78). Neither did my father: after being wounded by a sniper on Okinawa and still delivering the ammunition he had volunteered to fetch, earning him a Bronze Star for Valor, he and the 77th Division were in training to hit Japanese beaches when the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was part of a BAR fire team and told me that I would not be here except for the atomic bomb.

“No matter how you slice it,” LeMay says on page 118, “you’re going to kill an awful lot of civilians.” On page 5, Bourke points out that in modern wars, such as those fought “to save Afghan women from the Taliban” (!), 90% of those killed are not enemy combatants, but civilians.

Bourke covers another key area: drones and video games. Now we can kill civilians (and, in fairness, a lot of really bad people) from an air-conditioned office.  Video games are a training ground, and the drone controllers can be modeled on PlayStation controllers (page 205). This is the future of perpetual war: the US military had 50 drones in 2000, 6800 in 2009, and many more today (page 151).

Drone carnage is easy to keep at arm’s distance (page 216), unlike bombers pilots who often wondered what the people under their wings were going through (page 118). Drone pilots can feel like “God hurling thunderbolts from afar” (page 219). Isaac Asimov’s robots were forbidden from harming humans. Perpetual war robots exist only to harm humans. Of course the argument is made that the horror of these new weapons shortens war and prevents new conflicts. That same thing was said about gunpowder, dynamite, the machine gun, the atomic bomb, and so on (page 38).

In perpetual war, we somehow imagine that killing people is the best way to make them like us. The point is, Bourke says on page 250, not that a tragedy like 911 should not happen here in the US, but not happen anywhere.

As I write these words, SSgt. Barry Sadler’s Ballad of the Green Berets (the #1 song of 1966, by the way) is playing as part of the excellent 13 CD Next Stop Is Vietnam collection: I lost 5 close friends in Vietnam, and I’ve never met anyone who lost more.

In a state of perpetual war, every day is Memorial Day. Think about what you really want Memorial Day to be like.