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.

Review: How To Make War

How To Make War

Written by acclaimed and prolific wargame designer James Dunnigan, How To Make War is an impressive one-volume entry on both the basics of military operations and wargaming them. It’s not an easy feat to stuff so much into one book, but he manages it. Every facet of post-WW2 warfare is covered inside, along with simple but generally effective formulas for determining a unit’s “combat power” and stuff like average attrition in personnel and equipment.

Some of the “flaws” are clearly not his fault. For instance, it’s not his fault that (like most aficionados, to say nothing of actual veterans) I already knew most of what he was saying in his basic description of various unit types. It’s also not his fault that some of the book is dated (the latest edition was made in 2003). I’ll even excuse its frequent yet understandable bias, which is exactly what you’d expect from an old western Cold Warrior.

The biggest drawback that I’m not so willing to let slide is how its two central parts don’t really gel. It’s trying to both teach someone to walk (ie, the intro to all parts of the military) and run a marathon (do calculations for exact combat power). It just feels a little awkward to have “here’s the basic differences between infantry-heavy and tank-heavy formations” and “here’s how to calculate the combat power of a Syrian armored division” close to each other in the same book.

Still, this is a very good and very convenient resource for people wanting to learn more about missile-age warfare and/or wargaming. For fictional country simulations/story concepts, I’m already finding his formulas very useful for translating an order of battle into a general feel of its relative strength (which is the most important part). While some specialists may already know its material, you still can’t go wrong with getting this book.

Review: North Korean Tactics

North Korean Tactics

One of the best OPFOR manuals I’ve seen, and one of the most recent, is ATP 7-100.2, North Korean Tactics. The manual itself is a good read, and the “Breaking Doctrine” podcast that comes along with does a great job explaining how both it and other OPFOR documents (a long weird guilty pleasure of mine) have come into being.

Thus the manual isn’t a direct “They will do this” the way that some of the more overly rigid Soviet-inspired ones were. But it does show the characteristics of the secretive country (light infantry, high willingness to take casualties, artillery over tanks, etc…) and has to focus on its specific qualities instead of just lumping them in with a generic OPFOR designed for challenge above adherence to any specific country.

It’s not perfect, but it’s intriguing and well-done, showing the seeming contradiction of mass asymmetric warfare in action. Ones for China and Iran are planned, and I’m awaiting them. (There’s one for Russia announced, but it’s kind of in limbo. My hunch is that the need for something so specific is less for a country that’s already studied and already fairly close to the generic OPFOR).

The Super Bunkers

I’ve long been intrigued by “super-bunkers”, made by and for a combination of overly paranoid governments and survivalists with too much money. For the former, I’ve liked Albania’s mess of bunkers to the point where I made my very first Command scenario centered around that country. For the latter, well, it’s bemusing to look at the entries of bitter rival (to put it mildly) bunker-builders Atlas Survival and Rising S .

Bunkers range from the small, legitimately practical and affordable to the over-the-top. On one end are essentially beefed-up storm shelters. On the other is Rising S’ “The Aristocrat”, which boasts a swimming pool and bowling alley (!).

The practicality of these, especially for private citizens, has unsurprisingly been called into question. There’s the expense (especially for upkeep) and the challenge of getting to the bunker, since even the advanced ones are hard to live in full time. This happened even to John Rourke, who was caught far away from his “Retreat” and had to fight his way to it in the first arc.

Granted, making a bunker on property one already owns is different from the whole Mel Tappan “countryside retreat” that one mysteriously has time to get to before “it” happens.

Review: The Modern Bodyguard

The Modern Bodyguard

Peter Costerdine’s The Modern Bodyguard is an excellent research resource for realistic “executive protection”. Written in a typically sharp, slightly sneery British style, it delivers the blunt realities of the job, especially for civilians who lack both financial and legal resources compared to government personnel. For instance, it points out that private security, especially traveling private security, will almost always be unarmed for legal/political reasons (at least as of the time of writing).

It’s not perfect, and it says something about the type of genre that even Costerdine goes into tirades about various types of firearms. But its positives outweigh the negatives substantially. If you’re curious about realistic, limited-resource protection, I cannot recommend this book enough.

Review: Nonstate Warfare

Stephen Biddle’s Nonstate Warfare aims to debunk the myths around warfare featuring nonstate actors and point out that there really isn’t as clear a line as thought between “conventional” and “unconventional” warfare. As I’ve been annoyed by the use of the terms “Hybrid War” and especially “4th Generation War”, I was eagerly awaiting this book. However, I found the execution significantly flawed.

Now, the premise is sound and well supported, which makes the flaws in outcome all the more severe. Basically, even the most mass-mobilized total wars with the clearest defined front lines have an irregular and/or deep element (he uses the excellent example of partisans on the Eastern Front in World War II). Likewise, even non-state elements can and have fought battles with large forces, heavy weapons, and the aim to hold territory. Very few people would dispute this. Biddle also points out that the progress of industrial-age technology means that ill-equipped irregulars can have weapons that the most advanced world powers didn’t have a few decades prior.

None of this is really controversial, and simply stating that would make for a very short book. What would be useful would an example of middle-level armies that don’t fit categories very well. Biddle does do this, with his descriptions of the Sadrist militias in the Iraq War and Adid’s forces in Somalia fitting well. He also has an interesting analogy with a spectrum from “Fabian” operations (a reference to the Roman strategy of avoiding defeat) to “Napoleonic” ones (a reference to seeking decisive battlefield victory). To be snarky, Fabian operations to excess are Kalib Starnes spending the entire MMA fight running away from Nate Quarry, while Napoleonic ones are the bandit in a Bethesda game charging the player in super-armor.

Unfortunately, this is written in clunky academese. Biddle uses a rigid scale to rank various forces from “Fabian” to “Napoleonic”, one that I found to be too rigid for an inherently arbitrary judgement. His writing is full of hair-splitting and nitpicking of what honestly feels like a strawman that everything is either phalanxes on a field or nothing but backstabbing. There’s weird hangups like a fixation on force density for its own sake, obsession on individual technical examples (so Adid had TOWs? So what? Even in 1993 it wasn’t like they were stealth fighters), and not enough focus on non-state forces supplied by state ones.

I wanted to like this book. And I don’t disagree with the overall point. But it could have been made just so much better. This feels like an academic squabble in academic language, when a plain-text history of case studies with “conventional irregular armies” would have been far more suitable in promoting the argument.

Review: On The Path of Songun

The Armed Forces of North Korea: On The Path of Songun

It’s been a while since I read a really, really good military nonfiction reference. Thankfully, Stijn Mitzer and Joost Olieman’s The Armed Forces Of North Korea: On The Path Of Songun takes the cake. The product of the same people behind the legendary Oryx Blog of military intelligence, this took a while to finally get going. Thankfully, it’s well, well, well worth the effort.

So why is it so good? Well, for a start, it’s incredibly well researched, written, and photographed. It’s not an OPFOR manual or a ridiculously broad order of battle chart. What it does do is go into legitimate detail and depth about the KPA and its rise, fall, and rise. What made me absolutely fall in love with this was how this is the rare military book that doesn’t fall into either extreme of “unstoppable or helpless”. When I saw the self-proclaimed intent to the debunk the notion that the KPA wasn’t/isn’t a threat, I feared it would go too far in the opposite direction.

That was not the case. I was treated to a very evenhanded look that amounts to “Yes, there’s modernization, yes there’s legitimately advanced indigenous developments, but as of now it’s limited and foreign support is undoubtedly there” and doesn’t hesitate to point out their shortcomings and material issues. The authors are even good at pointing out what they can verify and what they can’t, a must for dealing with a country as secretive as North Korea.

For enthusiasts, general audiences, wargamers, and anyone, really, this is a great book that I highly recommend.

Review: Tupolev Tu-22

Tupolev Tu-22

The Tu-22 “Blinder” is one of those “overshadowed by more famous successor” aircraft, the Backfire, which was doing the “let’s keep the same nominal designation for a new aircraft to pretend its more similar than it actually is” long before the Super Hornet. Sergey Burdin and Alan Dawes’ history of the Blinder is one that does it justice.

Though this is a very dry and very technical book overall, it does have some humorous anecdotes, such as how the Libyans used their Tu-22s (spoiler alert: Not very well). It also defends the bomber, with evidence, from the charge that it was a deathtrap. The authors make the good, backed-up case that it was no more dangerous than any other 1950s design, a period known for its high attrition. I’m reminded of the tale of it being unusual when the flagpole at Nellis wasn’t at half staff.

As for why a 1950s design stayed in service so long, the combination of the Soviet packrat attitude and its ability to carry monster ASMs a decent distance meant it was still viable. This “redemption of the ugly duckling” makes me eager for a similar book on another Soviet aircraft with a poor reputation, the MiG-23.

Really, this is a great book for aviation enthusiasts. I didn’t mind the reams of charts, and it goes into detail on lots of things. And the “use oddball tactics” side of me loved the passage where they trained/experimented with using the tail gun against ground targets. This is a solid work and I recommend it.

Review: Firepower

Firepower: A History of the American Heavy Tank

R. P. Hunnicutt was the dean of American tank history, and in Firepower he turned his attention away from the famous Shermans, Pattons, and Abrams’ to something more obscure-heavy tanks. Due to the issues needed to ship them across the oceans, the American military was never the fondest of heavy tanks (a similar issue with being able to travel on bad roads and be easily shipped across the Eurasian landmass has always constrained the size of Soviet/Russian tanks). Excluding the Pershings considered “heavies” while operating alongside lighter Shermans, the only heavy tanks actually produced were a handful of M103s.

But their doctrine was heavily (no pun intended) spelled out and there were, as this reference book shows, a lot of interesting designs. These range from the produced M103 to the World War II boondoggle that was the M6 to the French-esque autoloaded Cold War heavies that languished in obscurity until the World of Tanks computer game. And of course, there’s the monstrous, monomaniacal T28.

This is a dry reference book that reads like a dry reference book. Yet its subject matter is obscure and fascinating, and I highly recommend it to tank enthusiasts and people who like “what-ifs”.

Big Guns in Big Units

The corps/army level artillery mission hasn’t really changed that much since World War I, at least from what I’ve seen.

  • Counter-battery
  • Deep strike
  • Supporting the right effort at the right time.

As always, the Soviets were the most explicit in spelling it out, as one set of field regulations shows.

The American FM 100-15, from a similar time, had a similar statement.

As far back as 1923, the regulations explicitly state:

“The primary mission of corps artillery is the destruction or neutralization of hostile batteries, the destruction of hostile defenses, and long-range interdiction fire.”

As technology has consistently improved, command has “flattened”, and the understanding of its role has become more obviously apparent, more recent documents don’t spell it out so exactly. But the general concept is still there and present.