Review: Punk’s Fight

Punk’s Fight

Former F-14 RIO Ward Caroll’s Punk’s Fight is actually the third book in his series starring an F-14 pilot (write what you know, I guess). I nonetheless chose it as my starting point because it takes place during the beginnings of Enduring Freedom and I was fresh off reading about the Afghan air wars. Maybe the first two books were better. Because this one was not very good.

Do you want Herman Melville’s Overdescriptive F-14 Ride followed by a contrived way to get his main character to the ground war and lots of self-aggrandizing? If so, then this is the book for you. To be fair, its technical realism is an arguable selling point, but it squanders it on unlikeable and axe-grinding characters, mixed with the protagonist’s not-exactly-ideal adventure on the ground when his Tomcat goes down.

I can see why some people would like this book and series, but I didn’t.

Review: Wings Over The Hindu Kush

Wings Over The Hindu Kush

Lukas Muller’s Wings Over The Hindu Kush shines a light on an obscure footnote in aviation history: The Afghan air forces (yes, plural) between the Soviet withdraw and Enduring Freedom. Leaving behind a large quantity of helicopters and aircraft, there were enough parts and willing pilots for the Taliban and its rivals to create air forces up until 2001. As someone aware of their existence and interested in how functional air units could be maintained from such “scraps”, this book was an easy purchase.

In a complex, fluid situation without the best documentation, getting the detail that Muller did was no small feat. The book isn’t the biggest or most absolutely detailed, but it does tell the story of these helicopters, Fitters, and Fishbeds. And it’s a very interesting story.

The strike aircraft were far from the most capable or effective (the transports in a place with poor infrastructure were far more vital), but their mere presence in such conditions was surprising. And this book clears up the surprise in a great way.

The Mountain Flip Flop

Despite otherwise having little in common save for lots of mountains, Switzerland and Afghanistan have a shared reputation in popular culture as being impregnable, untameable countries. Which led me to go: What if circumstances flip-flopped their history and outcomes?

In Central Asia, a Dari-speaking nation arises in the mountains of what we’d call northern and central Afghanistan. Close to many major trade routes, it takes advantage of its geographic security and reputation for studious neutrality to develop a thriving financial sector. This and the wealth generated by it enable this to develop a reputation for exporting luxury, advanced artisanal goods as well. Meanwhile in Europe, an artificial clump of different ethnicities in the Alps becomes a weak, tumultuous, war-torn “western Yugoslavia”.

Yes, it’s a very soft alternate history. But it’s the kind of thing that alternate history was made for, and it’d work great as a story’s setting.

Review: The Voroshilov Lectures

The Voroshilov Lectures

The Voroshilov Academy was/is one the most prominent Soviet/Russian military training centers of all time. In the late 1980s, a peek behind the curtain emerged. An Afghan officer named Ghulam Wardak attended the academy in the mid-1970s and carefully transcribed the courses. Wardak later fought with the mujaheddin and escaped to the United States, where staff from the US Army’s Soviet Army Studies Office eagerly edited and published his notes. Since its publication, the CIA’s FOIA reading room has declassified similar lectures and studies from there that support Wardak’s interpretation of them.

In three volumes (two on strategic and one on operational combat), the lectures go into detail about how to plan and execute a Soviet campaign in 197X. Most importantly, they occurred in a time period that finally allowed for the discussion and making of purely conventional plans. The lectures and planning do not take the naive belief that a Fuldapocalypse would stay conventional from start to finish, but they do view non-nuclear war as important. (Of course, with Soviet conventional superiority at the time, they’d have a vested interest to keep it non-nuclear as long as possible…)

Obviously much of these lectures need to be taken with a pile of salt. There’s obvious politically uh, slanted passages and some of the advance rates seem a little too optimistic. But these are nonetheless an invaluable resource for the wargamer and/or conventional World War III historian. As detailed Soviet primary sources, they excellently fill a previously blind spot in knowledge.

Formations in the Fog Of War

Two previously speculated-upon formations that have not had much evidence to substantiate their (exact) existence include Iraqi “Special Forces Divisions” and the “Islamic Regiments” of the 1980s Afghan mujaheddin.

The former were depicted as regular army formations containing soldiers with at least some greater training and morale than the bottom-of-the-barrel rabble. They were fairly conventional triangular motorized infantry divisions in terms of structure, operating in either trucks or wheeled APCs. These divisions contained no organic (part of their structure) tanks, but could easily get them cross-attached if need be.

The latter were supposedly black-clad formations of raiders with more organization and standardization than the usual bands, but nothing (usually) heavier than normal crew-served weapons. They consisted of about 600-900 people broken into multiple small battalions. It’s worth noting that their layout does bear a resemblance to the kind of “guerilla regiments” that Mao described in detail in On Guerilla Warfare.

Of course, there is a hint of truth to these formations. There were/are large commando formations in the Iraqi and especially Syrian armies, the Republican Guard did have an unambiguous “Special Forces Division”, and the mujaheddin did occasionally operate in formations the size of the fabled “Islamic Regiments”, as well as deploy better trained and equipped subunits. This is of course is what leads to the inevitable exaggerations.

And also, the joy of generalist wargaming rules and alternate history is that these units can easily be simulated as if genuine. Neither requires much in the way of exotic equipment or modifiers to use.

Review: The Afghan Way Of War

The Afghan Way Of War

Robert Johnson’s The Afghan Way of War was an obvious buy for me based purely on its relevance to current events. I was expecting a concise military history of that country and got it. But I also got more. The “more” had a few rough spots but was mostly good. As the book was published in 2011, it does not contain the decade that saw massive changes in the war even before the fall of Kabul. But that’s not it’s fault. Anyway, this was an interesting book, and not just because of its subject matter.

From the get go, the book wants to avoid and debunk “Orientalist” stereotypes. Because of this, at times it can get a little too “argumentative”, for lack of a better word. There are some passages that remind me of Stephen Biddle’s Nonstate Warfare in terms of being a little too focused on going “Well, these sources are wrong”. But only a few, and they aren’t deal breakers by any means. That the book succeeds at achieving its goal helps a lot.

And when The Afghan Way of War goes from being “argumentative” to “informative”, it works wonderfully. Johnson avoids not just the “idiot fanatic savage” stereotype, but also its cousin, the “cunning inscrutable super-warrior that the poor dumb lazy westerner cannot comprehend” that the likes of William Lind and H. John Poole like to trot out. The Afghans from the 1700s to the present are shown at their best and worst, never being truly dominant even in irregular warfare but always a threat.

One of the most fascinating and best written sections dealt with the Soviet war in the 1980s. The picture it paints of the mujaheddin there is not a flattering one. They come across as being substantially and massively flawed, and accomplishing as much as they did purely due to external support and the inherent advantages of irregular war on home ground.

Granted, its conclusions are not exactly shocking to anyone knowledgeable. Said conclusions amount to “a country known for poverty and disunity will have that manifest in its military and operations”. And it sometimes dives a little too deeply into supposed motivations (the “why”) when a deeper dive into operations (the “how” ) would have been, at least in my opinion, more useful.

Still, this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it.