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.

Review: Unflown Wings

Unflown Wings

I was somewhat critical of Yefim Gordon’s book on the MiG-29. Yet for his Unflown Wings, showing nearly a century of never-built Soviet/Russian aircraft, I’m far less so. This is an amazing book about amazing aircraft. It’s rightfully massive, covering every major design bureau.

People looking at the weird “Luft 46” German aircraft often overlook that every country had its similar oddball paper planes. And so it is with this book. With many illustrations, one can see everything from the redundant to the too expensive to the too out-there. It’s a lot to make you wonder what could have been, from the cancelled jet-powered maritime patroller to giant seaplanes to my personal favorite, the overambitious “Backfiretomcat” Tu-148 multi-role fighter.

The very nature of this book means that the issues I had with the Fulcrum one are far less so. Because the aircraft here never actually entered service in any event, it means there’s less need for total rigor and one doesn’t have to be “deep”. Breadth is required for this overview, and it’s very, very broad indeed.

This is a very fun, very thick book, and I recommend it to any aviation fan in spite of its size and expense.

Review: Mikoyan MiG-29 and MiG-35

Mikoyan MiG-29 and MiG-35: Famous Russian Aircraft

The MiG-29 was the last hurrah of the legendary Cold War bureau. Aviation authors Yefim Gordon and Dimitry Komissarov write about it in the extensive Famous Russian Aircraft: MiG-29 book. The book is both a wonderful treat and a bitter “what could have been”. First, the obvious needs to be stated. This is a book for aviation enthusiasts and not a general audience. If you don’t know much about the MiG-29 or military aircraft already, it’s not a good first choice.

But even as a niche in-detail work, it’s uneven. Gordon has a reputation online for not being the most reliable source, but I wouldn’t know enough to comment in that regard. Whatever the veracity, the book is extremely broad, covering each and every prototype, variant, and proposal of the Fulcrum complete with excellent pictures and once-rare photographs. You want to know the exact radar designations? This is for you. You want to know the slight visual differences? This is also for you.

Yet while it’s broad, this book also feels shallower than it could have been. This manifests most visibly in the section on the actual service of the MiG-29. There, it’s a combination of more lists and stuff that I’d already heard about. It was disappointing and could have used a little more doctrinal meat.

Finally, the book feels a little, well, inefficient. It’s a very long impressive paperweight of a hardcover, but its layout and formatting doesn’t look very space-effective. The pictures are good, but their organization isn’t. That being said, take this book for what it is-something meant for serious aviation fans. It’s what you’re getting, for better or worse.

Review: Hitler’s Last Levy

Hitler’s Last Levy

Hans Kissell was chief of operations for the German “Volkssturm” (lit. “People’s Storm”), the infamous last-ditch militia created at the end of World War II. In Hitler’s Last Levy, published in German in the 1960s and translated decades later, he told their story. It’s an interesting look at a horrific footnote.

The Volkssturm was both a desperation formation and Martin Bormann’s attempt at making his own pet army (like the SS was for Himmler or the Luftwaffe ground formations were for Goering). Kissell goes into detail and includes a massive amount of direct primary sources. While this is a work by a German WWII commander, its subject matter makes it at least a little better than the usual “we fought in our unstoppable kitty-tanks until we ran out of ammunition and fought totally cleanly” memoirs. It’s impossible to portray the ragged old men as some kind of super-army, and they had far less opportunity to commit war crimes simply because by that point they were losing. And Kissell doesn’t hesitate to point to their (many) weaknesses.

Because of this, and because of the wealth of primary sources and details (for instance, describing how on paper, some Volkstturm battalions had an organic battery of captured anti-tank guns), I recommend this for anyone wanting to know about them or similar emergency territorial formations. Yes, it’s dated and slanted. But it’s not nearly as bad in those regards as you might think.

Review: Sporting Blood

Sporting Blood

Carlos Acevedo’s Sporting Blood is a nonfiction chronicle of boxers at their worst. Not at their worst in the ring, but at their worst out of it. His writing is excellent and well-handled (legendary boxing historian Thomas Hauser praises him in the foreword, no easy feat). It’s just the book can get a little repetitive.

There’s some interesting entries, like a 1920s prizefighter prolonging his career through quack medical surgery. But so much of the book is just one entry after another detailing how a boxer got beat up, lost his brain, lost his temporary money, lost his prestige, and sank back into the terrible life he came from. And then there are the stories of how many of them had terrible upbringings-the tale of boxing trainer Tony Ayala Sr. and how he treated his sons was especially disturbing. (Sadly but unsurprisingly, one of them became an absolute monster).

This isn’t the author’s fault, but it does make for melancholy reading. And it also details why the talent pool of American boxers shrank so dramatically after World War II. Because given a choice between that and another career, athletic or note, who would want to subject oneself to the vicious free-for-all of boxing?

The Growing MOUT Frontage

The Soviets had a love-hate relationship with city combat. On one hand, the pitfalls of something that went against their desire to move fast were very apparent. On the other, as the world became more built-up, they recognized it as a necessity. So in my relaxing reading of old field manuals, I decided to look up the frontage they desired in cities. Strictly defined frontages and unit boundaries were a trademark of them. Having both late 1940s and mid-1990s as my primary dates (because that was where I had the most detailed primary sources/analyses) wasn’t ideal, but oh well.

By the Heavy OPFOR/Genforce Era, the city block (generally 80-100 meters wide and 200-300 meters long) that had doctrinally taken a battalion or even entire regiment to storm fifty years earlier had been reduced to a reinforced company (whose reinforcements included SPHs meant to engage buildings with direct fire). Me being an detached armchair enthusiast, I’m wondering how much was better trust in a smaller unit with better training and communications and how much was the belief that they just had to walk over the rubble because their supporting firepower was so much greater.

And of course different circumstances would produce different geographical densities. But I still found it interesting. As was the shift of where the tanks should generally be compared to the infantry. With the Battle of Berlin undoubtedly in their minds, the most relevant statement in the early postwar regulations was “The mission of the tanks and the self-propelled artillery is to support the infantry attack with fire and shock action [note the “Fire” appearing first]”. Then much later their assault drills had the tanks usually going ahead of the infantry. Then after the uncomfortable experience of Chechnya, it shifted back to “the infantry should almost always go first unless the situation specifically calls for something otherwise”.

Review: Super Tiger

Grumman F11F-1F Super Tiger

The original F-11 Tiger was just one of many 1950s flash-in-the-pan fighters. But there was a developed upgraded version that could have given it more staying power. In this book, former Grumman test pilot Corky Meyer tells its story.

There really isn’t that much to say about the airplane from a macro-technical point of view. It was basically an F-11 with a slightly different shape and a J79 engine (made famous on the F-4 Phantom). This gave it massively more thrust, to the point where it could hit Mach 2 in ideal conditions and reach the practical limit of performance for most fighters. The other unusual feature was that it carried a pair of Sidewinders on the top of the fuselage. From this emerged several other proposals. Described are a basic single-seat, a two-seater with Sparrows, a multirole non-carrier export version, and a reconnaissance aircraft with cameras.

Of course, the best and worst part of the book comes from the story of how it failed to gain traction. While Meyer’s deep connection to the aircraft meant he could say much about it, it also made him obviously biased when it came to its prospects. He was not the best person to give a fair evaluation of why it didn’t go anywhere. The reasons were the US Navy not wanting another jury-rigged shoved-in fighter when the F-4 was almost ready, the Air Force wanting the raw power of the F-104, and export customers facing a mix of Lockheed sleaze, a sales effort that Meyer admitted was understaffed and inexperienced, and the turn-off of the Americans seemingly not wanting it for themselves.

It’s still ultimately hard to feel too much sorrow at the loss of the Super Tiger. While it may have been safer than the F-104, it would still be a 1950s design in an inherently risky role if used the same way, and the accidents would have piled up regardless. Its role was soon successfully filled by the F-4 in American service and the F-5 (which ironically became known as the Tiger II) with export customers. But it’s a fascinating footnote in aviation history nonetheless.

Review: Mobile Strike Forces in Vietnam

Mobile Strike Forces in Vietnam: 1966-1970

Gordon Rottman’s Mobile Strike Forces in Vietnam: 1966-1970 is about a frequently understudied and overlooked force in the war-the MIKE (or Mobile StrIKE) forces of the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group). Comprised mostly of non-Vietnamese minorities (the famous “Montagnards”), they served as essentially a parallel army under US Special Forces command.

The MIKE forces arose from a pair of facts on the ground. The first was that the CIDG needed a mobile action force, especially as nearly all of its rank and file formations were only suitable for local defense around their home villages. The second was that it couldn’t count on the support of the southern government or mainline American/allied forces. So an in-house force had to be created, and it was.

Rottman’s book is, without exaggeration, a masterpiece. First, it’s careful not to exceed its grasp or opine on the war as a whole. Sticking to its subject matter closely, it delivers. And does it deliver. The book succeeds in being both extremely detailed (going into both paper organizations and how the formations inevitably diverged from those organizations in practice) and very readable. There’s only a few big blocky info sections, and those are more than offset by the rest of the book. Even though it’s short, you can get a very clear picture of how these forces trained and fought. This includes everything from the WWII/Korean hand-me down equipment they used to their occasional use of parachutes because of the advantages they offered over helicopters in certain situations (capacity, range, ability to deploy a lot of people quickly).

It’s also very evenhanded. After seeing so many authors whose advocacy for light infantry operations has reached the level of outright fetishism, it was a delight to see the drawbacks of such forces respectfully laid out by a knowledgeable Vietnam veteran with personal experience. The MIKE forces are given both credit and criticism when deserved. This is an excellent book and an excellent study of Vietnam War operations.

Review: Friday Night Fighter

Friday Night Fighter

Troy Rondinone’s Friday Night Fighter is the story of both a boxer and a time period. It is the story of boxer Gaspar Ortega. It is also the story of a huge-in-its-day sporting event, the time when boxing aired en masse on network television and attracted a viewing share comparable on the low end to the NFL playoffs today. It is the story of a far more unified sport than the later “alphabet belts”.

Rondinone’s writing is excellent and Ortega, a boxer who appeared on television many times, is arguably the perfect figure for this age. On one hand, he was much more than a small journeyman who appeared on television a few times. On the other, he wasn’t the kind of already-immortal figure that everyone already knows about (ie, Marciano, Patterson, Liston). A contender who never got to actually wear the belt, he illustrates the time period exactly.

Another impressive element of this book is that it rarely sinks into Good Old Days nostalgia despite boxing being the one sport where it’s the most viable. It makes it clear that boxing gave up on network TV because network TV gave up on boxing, with viewership substantially down even before Benny Paret’s death. Yes, TV played a role in diluting the talent pool and closing down the old clubs and gyms that served as the fighter pipeline, but so did simple demographic change. And it doesn’t hesitate to tackle the sleaze in the sport.

The best complement I can give to this book is that it truly takes the reader into another time, and that’s something a lot of history books just can’t manage. Friday Night Fighter is one of the best works of sports history that I’ve read, and I highly recommend it.