Review: US Army Doctrine

US Army Doctrine: From The American Revolution to the War on Terror

In his study of published doctrine, Walter Kretchik embarks on the herculean task of reading multiple centuries worth of field-manualese. He looks at the very first to the then latest manuals (the book was published in 2011) and how they were applied in practice. The result is an excellent nonfiction study for field manual nerds like me.

The book is very readable and understandable. I would advise reading the actual manuals themselves if you wanted to know more (they’re all public domain by their very nature and the age of many of them), but as a starting point for both doctrine and warfare, this book is excellent. It’s expensive and niche, but it’s good in addition to being those two.

The Non-Russian SSRs and nuclear weapons

There is one argument, especially after the 2022 invasion, about Ukraine (and the other non-Russian ex-SSRs) and nuclear weapons. This goes: They gave up their nuclear weapons in exchange for largely meaningless and unenforceable diplomatic agreements, which was a mistake that Ukraine paid for and Kazakhstan might have.

Many informed nuclear commentators have pointed out that the launch codes/infrastructure were still in Russian hands, that Ukraine had no actual control, and that the ICBMs in particular were ill-positioned for deterring their former owners. This is all accurate, as is the staggering cost of making a usable nuclear program during a time of massive political and economic upheaval (Ukraine’s implosion in the 1990s made Russia’s look like a modest recession, and Kazakhstan had effectively no army of its own immediately after independence)

But there is another opposite fallacy, which is that the decision was more or less out of their hands. Because all the nuclear weapons were under Russian control, there was no real choice involved. This is also flawed. The nuclear weapons weren’t immediately usable, but to act like there was a Ward Of Russianism on them is wrong. Ukraine had extensive infrastructure and science on its territory (including a missile plant), while Kazakhstan’s uranium industry meant that it was already over the biggest hump for a usable bomb-the materials.

So it was not technically impossible for the non-Russian SSRs to maintain a nuclear weapons program. You can argue that it was politically and economically so, and probably correctly. But it was not a technical issue. The republics had agency, and they likely prevented a far earlier Russian invasion by relenting.

Review: Carrying the Fire

Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys

Long considered one of the two best astronaut memoirs (the other being Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets), Carrying the Fire is the autobiography of Apollo 1 command module pilot Michael Collins. He got to go to the moon but not walk on it. Collins insisted on writing the book all by himself without assistance, and it paid off. Not only was he a capable pilot and astronaut, but he turned out to be an excellent author as well.

With both humor and majesty, Collins tells the story of flight and the moon program. Anyone interested in outer space should get this. It’s an excellent book and even greater autobiography. While it’s not nearly as fresh as it was in 1974, that’s a small and inevitable “problem” to have. This is a great book.

How Computers Destroyed (And Could Save) Cover Art

I just found this great article called “When Movie Artwork Was Great.” Long story short, the cover was an important part of advertising, and thus was worth the expense even for otherwise low-budget productions. A combination of computer tools making it easy to do a basic cover (Ie, it’s not like “you have to hand-draw it anyway…), and lower production values as the industry got squeezed meant that generic photoshopped mush took over.

It felt very familiar to me because the exact same thing happened concerning book covers for exactly the same reasons. Weirdly enough, otherwise high-profile books tended to have minimalist covers from the get-go. But trashy pulps that couldn’t even keep the main character’s name consistent (I’m not joking) would have spectacular covers from the likes of Gil Cohen and Ken Barr.

Now it’s just-look at the book section of a grocery store and you’ll know.

I mentioned the ability to improve book covers at very little cost as one of the upsides of AI art. Now that I’ve gotten more into it, I can say even more comfortably that something quickly makeable with the least controversial models (closed source, public domain only, etc…) and only small amounts of manual tweaking could leave most contemporary covers in its dust.

So yeah, shed a tear for the running silhouettes and clunkily shopped-in muscle men. I know we’ll all miss them so much.

Review: The Reckoning

The Reckoning

David Halberstam was one of the most legendary historical writers. In The Reckoning, written at the height of the 1980s auto crunch, he turned his eyes on Ford and Nissan, trying to find what made carmakers on both sides of the Pacific go. Halberstam has a talent for writing. Unfortunately, that very skill makes it uneven.

It does a good job describing formative events like Henry Ford’s family drama and the 1953 labor dispute at Nissan that shaped not only it but the entire Japanese auto industry. It also does well when looking at individual workers caught up in the mess. Although I have to say that it’s very hard to write about the auto industry and not make it interesting. The field is just so inherently complex and full of colorful stories.

So what are the problems? Well, it’s dated for one. This isn’t as bad as it could have been. Yes, it’s a more than a little “JAPAN GOOD”, but certainly not to the excess of some other bubble era publications. After all, this shows the Japanese industry warts and all. It also aptly points out in its study of the South Koreans how the rest of Asia was cracking its knuckles and preparing to charge-which came to pass.

No, the biggest obvious problem is that it’s too “Bruce Springsteen”. Which is to say it has the tone of a wealthy suburbanite who idealizes the blue collar worker’s struggle too much. Its slobberingly positive portrayal of UAW head Walter Reuther is the most obvious part of it, with even sympathetic history works on that man being far more critical and full than Halberstam’s hagiography. This also leads Halberstam to idolize the “Manufacturing Men” over the supposed “bean counters” who nickel and dimed every car to pieces. (Not surprisingly, Robert McNamara in his pre SecDef days is there and scorned).

This leads to the next problem that someone with any kind of interest in the auto industry can see: It’s too centered around the capital-N Narrative of the Good Manufacturing Man being brought down by the Evil White Collar Consultant. The “Manufacturing Men” in both continents could get away with running hog wild simply because their industry was in a boom. Once it busted, they simply had to start penny pinching. After all, the first Japanese car company to close a plant and downsize was… Nissan. All this is combined with something that, for all his research, Halberstam didn’t actually have much familiarity with, and it showed. It’s also catnip for the mostly well-off target audience of the book.

Still, for all its problems this is something I’d definitely recommend.

Review: Invisible Armies

Invisible Armies

Author, historian, and (sadly) political commentator Max Boot takes the reader through thousands of years in Invisible Armies, his chronicle of irregular and asymmetric war throughout history. Let’s just say that I’m no fan of either his past or current viewpoints on contemporary politics and leave it at that. Not just because I don’t want to get political here, but because it’s basically irrelevant to the actual book. (Which is a huge point in its favor, I might add.)

Said book is a masterwork of popular history. It has the weaknesses of its format in that by design it can’t go into too much detail, and no doubt there are some inaccuracies that I couldn’t tell but which someone more invested in the subject matter could. But it also has the strengths of it in that the facts are presented in an extremely engaging way.

There’s one central point made throughout the book, which is that contrary to both recent high-profile examples with small sample sizes and “fourth-generation war” thunderers, the default outcome for an insurgency is loss. Most of the time, it either fails completely or can’t progress past its initial strongholds. There’s also the less novel reminder of almost all successful ones having the support of an outside state.

As something that both explains and demystifies unconventional war, I highly recommend this book.

Review: Mercenaries in Asymmetric Conflicts

Mercenaries in Asymmetric Conflicts

I hate being disappointed by a book. But Scott Fitzsimmons’ Mercenaries in Asymmetric Conflicts was one of the most disappointing nonfiction books I’ve recently read. Or disappointing books in general, to be honest. It sounded good-studying the military cultures of different groups. When I started it, the stated influence of Kenneth Pollack made me even more interested.

Then the actual content emerged. The book is written in one of the thickest and least pleasant versions of academic-ese I’ve seen. If this was stylistic, I could forgive it as writing style is one of the most “natural” things and hardest to change. Plus, you know, it is an academic text.

But it also applies to more than that, which tips it over the edge. The book only talks about military performance in terms of different “theories”, as if they were some abstract phenomenon. It was one of the least helpful ways of approaching the matter, and almost the opposite of how Pollack did so in his own books.

Once the walls of jargon are slogged through, the final conclusion basically amounts to…. Well… Ok. The final conclusion is basically “Better trained and skillful armies with a good internal culture perform more capably, even if they’re at a material disadvantage.” That’s not exactly a big shock.

There is some good information on obscure in the Western Hemisphere African conflicts, but there are undoubtedly better sources on those that don’t involve huge amounts of pretentious analysis. I just can’t recommend this book.

Operation El Paso

OPLAN El Paso was a proposed campaign in the Vietnam War to block off the Laos trails by land. One southern and two American divisions would deploy by air and hold the terrain. This corps-sized blocking force could theoretically do what no amount of airpower realistically could: stop the flow of troops and supplies south.

It may have been a missed opportunity to decisively change the (conventional) course of the Vietnam war-or a chance for the northerners to inflict a huge number of politically sensitive casualties on the Americans in a place where it was near its supply bases and they were farther. If one of the people responsible for the plan was skeptical that it could work, you know it could very well end up going the way of the similar Lam Son 719.

Review: An Untaken Road

An Untaken Road

Steven Pomeroy’s An Untaken Road is officially a book explaining why mobile ICBMs never caught on with the US military the way they did elsewhere. It’s that, but it’s also a history of the many, many, many different proposals for missile basing of all sorts. That alone makes it very good, especially since there’s a huge synergy with Nuclear War Simulator (after all, you can easily build and uh, “test-fire” a lot of the platforms described here).

At times the central argument can get a little pretentious and a little too focused on abstract themes. But as a pure source of information, this is excellent. There were a lot of nuclear missile base proposals right out of cheap thrillers, and this book is a great resource on them. It’s also a serious and informative look at nuclear war strategy. So I highly recommend it.

Review: Children of the Night

Children of the Night: The Strange and Epic Story of Modern Romania

With All Union and my Soviet-Romanian War project, I figured getting a good one-volume history of the Southeast European country would be nice. And Paul Kenyon’s Children of the Night delivers. It starts in 1442 with Vlad “Dracula”, or “The Impaler” Tepes, and more or less concludes with the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. The book is a magisterial epic of Romania’s frequently bizarre and violent history.

One consistent theme is Romania being perched on an unsteady point and being tugged on in multiple directions for centuries. Whether it be the Hungarians and Turks, the Russians and Turks, or the east and west in the Cold War, Romania always feels like an odd one out, a Latin enclave in a Slavic realm. The most blatant example of this was Romania spending the first part of World War I figuring out who it should support (it sided with the Entente eventually), but this was shown throughout history. The most ghoulish is Ion Antonescu’s regime conducting some of the worst massacres of the Holocaust, but suddenly changing its mind on the deportation of Jews-conveniently right after the encirclement at Stalingrad.

But it’s its postwar history where the book shines. Ceausescu’s reign of terror is well documented, and the scenes of his fall and execution read like they could have come straight from The Death of Stalin. It also shows that his tendencies towards what can be called “independent totalitarianism” started under his predecessor, Gheorge Gheorghiu-Dej.

If you could only read one book on the history of Romania, this would be a good contender for the choice. It’s definitely worth reading.