The Ultimate Trench and Dugout Building Guide

I stumbled into this 1920s American training document on building fortifications with the lessons of World War I in mind. The full piece has detailed guides on everything from “the kind of thing you build when you have only a few hours” to “the kind of thing you build when you have a few years”. Both fighting positions and gargantuan medical/residential/command underground dugouts (or “cave shelters” as the document calls them) are there.

There are a couple things I found interesting in particular. The first is that antipersonnel mines, despite becoming a hallmark of later fortifications, are only mentioned very briefly and dismissively. According to it, they take too much effort to emplace for something that’s going to be knocked aside/detonated by the big artillery preparation already. (Antitank mines, including ones rigged to be sensitive, are treated somewhat more favorably.)

The second is that what became known as an overpressure system (ie, higher pressure in the area than out of it, pushing clean air out instead of poisoned air in) is talked about as a counter to poison gas for large bunkers. I didn’t know it was talked about that early, and thought it was a Cold War invention. So that was interesting.

The third is that while machine guns were present, very few of the later infantry support weapons were. Besides indirect mortars, the only thing talked about for forward emplacement is the 37mm infantry support gun. So this was a very interesting time capsule, and some of its TTPs (techniques, tactics, and procedures) are still relevant. After all, artillery hasn’t exactly gotten less lethal since the 1910s.

Review: Small Unit Infantry Ambush Tactics

Small Unit Infantry Ambush Tactics

It’s very rare that I find a book that’s essentially a “strictly worse” version of another one. Where another work exists that can do literally everything it can and do it better. Yet that is the case for Small Unit Infantry Ambush Tactics, a how to fight guide about-look at the title.

By itself it’s not too bad, showing different ambush types and critiquing rote training. But it’s just that Special Reconnaissance and Advanced Small Unit Patrolling has everything it does and so much more. Plus the latter book has a far better tone, giving credit to the establishment where the author thinks it’s due instead of the more overly critical one of this book. So I feel comfortable in saying: Get Wolcoff’s masterpiece instead.

Review: A History of Cavalry From The Earliest Times

A History of Cavalry From The Earliest Times

Now long since in the public domain (the first edition was in 1877 and later ones were published to 1913), George Denison’s A History of Cavalry From the Earliest Times was a look back at thousands of years of mounted operations. It’s an interesting time capsule. The aim was a sincere chronicle of cavalry and a look forward into an age of increased firepower. It’s a successful one given the limitations of the time.

The biggest problem, besides a 19th Century perspective on the world, is that Denison only had famous text sources to work with. Still, you can’t blame someone for being a product of their time or not having resources that only emerged later on. And he gets both important analyses essentially right. The first is how the role of mobile forces hasn’t really changed for thousands of years. Even if they swapped their horses for motorized vehicles. The second is how firepower and lethality was increasing, with him citing vastly higher casualties in recent (as of publication) battles compared to earlier ones with muzzleloaders.

Of course, the flame of cavalry would be briefly extinguished when offense against it rose massively by 1914 while defense did not. But another vehicle would soon pick up the torch. In any event, this is a good piece of classical military history.

Review: Luxury Fleet

Luxury Fleet

Professor Holger Herwig’s Luxury Fleet is the single best book on the Imperial German navy that I’ve read. It manages to be both detailed and fun, going into political squabbles and technical details while remaining easy to read. Reading it really gets you a feel for the “Luxury Fleet”, or “Tirpitz’s Folly”.

It’s great to read this alongside Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game, an equally effective study of its adversary. But if you’re into naval history at all, this is well worth a purchase on its own.

Review: Special Reconnaissance and Advanced Small Unit Patrolling

Special Forces (specifically MACV-SOG) veteran Edward Wolcoff has created a masterpiece in Special Reconnaissance and Advanced Small Unit Patrolling. Despite the long and clunky title, the book itself is very accessible. The goal was to create a list of tactics, techniques, and procedures determined by both theory and practice. It was also to present them in a way that was easily accessible and not written in field manualese (indeed, taking issue with official doctrine is stated in the introduction as a big motivation for the entire book). Wolcoff succeeds admirably in both parts.

This is not just for people who actually do light infantry patrols. Even armchair writers like me will find it very useful for both research and curiosity. Few stones are left unturned. This aims to be comprehensive and it succeeds. It does arguably focus a little too much on the past, but given the author’s Vietnam service, this is quite understandable. While “tone” isn’t the most relevant for a book like this, I enjoy how this comes across as being critical of official doctrine and often greatly so, but not in a bitter or axe-grinding way (Wolcoff has said that he submitted this book to a security review and cooperated with the Pentagon in its publication, FWIW).

What I particularly like is how Wolcoff makes it very clear that failure is as big a teacher (if not more) as success. Survivorship bias can skew things massively, so it’s important to look at what didn’t work as well as what did. This is a great resource for well, anyone, and well worth a purchase.

Review: The Eleven Days of Christmas

The Eleven Days of Christmas

For Christmas, I feel like I should review a Christmas book. A Christmas book that’s also a Fuldapocalyptic history book is Marshall Michel’s The Eleven Days of Christmas, about the final significant bombing campaign in the Vietnam War. Michel, himself an aviator veteran of the war, left no stone unturned to try and get the full story. To try and find the truth about Linebacker II, he went not only to American sources, but as many North Vietnamese ones as he could access, and even esoteric ones like the memoirs of Joan Baez (who was in Hanoi at the time).

The result is a masterpiece that illustrates Strategic Air Command as this clunky newbie that had sat out the war and then blundered into it. And also spun its clumsy, ineffective performance into a great victory. This is perhaps the biggest unintentional weakness of the book: The claim that Linebacker II was mixed at best and ineffective at worst is a lot less controversial now than it was at the time he wrote it.

Still, anyone interested in the Vietnam air war has to get this book. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!

Review: High Intensity Military Urban Combat

High Intensity Military Urban Combat

The book High Intensity Military Urban Combat focuses on exactly what the title says. It aims to teach in the very relevant task of high intensity war in built-up areas. To an extent (being adopted from an official use only instruction) it’s focused on a military audience and having them “unlearn” the circumstances of low-intensity urban war (superior resources, ability to do complex operations, rightful focus on collateral damage) compared to a slugfest in Seoul/Tallin/Taipei (or wherever. There are a lot of big cities!)

Focused on squad level operations, it’s well-illustrated and detailed. To a degree, it duplicates what’s in existing publications, although trading field manual-ese for clear text and good diagrams is a welcome tradeoff. I can’t say how helpful it’d be to a professional audience, but to an armchair observer like me it’s illuminating.

Review: Little Girls In Pretty Boxes

Little Girls In Pretty Boxes

Joan Ryan’s gut-wrenching nonfiction book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes is a beautifully written book about a hideously ugly topic. That is gymnastics, one of the most horrifying and least cost-effective sports ever. One horror story after another comes out of it. Fatal crashes, eating disorders, and girls forced into horrendous discipline and generally ruined by something that almost all of them see absolutely no benefit from. The aging curve is so ridiculously steep that at 24 , Simone Biles was considered the equivalent of athletes with freakish longevity like Jamie Moyer or Frank Gore.

Ryan’s only “problem” is that she’s so good at telling something where stage parents leave their daughters in the hands of a Ceausescu-vintage slave driver (and, with recent revelations after the book’s publication, someone far, far, worse). Most sports involve the participants getting bigger and stronger. Gymnastics forces them to stay small and underdeveloped. There’s been understandable talk of banning American Football, but Ryan makes a much better case for gymnastics.

It’s a good book about a bad sport.

Review: Pros and Cons

Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL

Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger’s Pros and Cons is a 1999 book about the massive instances of NFL players who had criminal records. These players were not just chosen in the draft in spite of their criminal backgrounds, but were often shielded by their teams to great extents. So far, that does not sound surprising, being just a few years removed from the OJ Simpson trial. But they deliberately avoid talking about the obvious “superstar power” and instead focus near-entirely on how the teams twist to protect criminal players who are not stars by any definition of the term.

It’s well-researched and has many harrowing examples. But it comes across as flawed for two big reasons. The first is that it ultimately feels sensationalist for the sake of sensationalism. This is of course a massive inherent issue for true crime books like it. But it seems to go further in that it assumes its readers are holding to a hopelessly outdated “Gee whiz, look at that Mickey Mantle, so nice and clean” mindset that I can assure you was not present even in children at the time of the book’s release (I know this because I was one at the time. I can tell you that I knew more about Dennis Rodman’s off-court antics than about what made him good on it).

Which leads to the second not-its-fault problem. This is like a book on unrestrained warfare-released in 1913. The internet was a paradigm shift in how these inevitable incidents were processed and viewed, and arriving just before it really broke out massively makes it horrendously dated.

I can’t really recommend this book. It’s a dated true crime book that’s basically redundant by this point.

Review: Taiwan’s Former Nuclear Weapons Program

Taiwan’s Former Nuclear Weapons Program: Nuclear Weapons On-Demand

David Albright and Andrea Stricker’s 2018 book on the abandoned nuclear weapons program of Taiwan tells the true story of one of the biggest nuclear programs that never resulted in a functioning bomb. The authors themselves note the similarities to the previously-reviewed underground South African program-and the huge differences.

The big catalyst was, unsurprisingly, the mainland’s successful deployment of nuclear weapons in 1964. What followed was a decades-long game that lasted as long as the Taiwanese military regime itself, where it tried to slip nuclear construction ability under the nose of the Americans who feared escalation. A tale of both technical and political detail, it’s excellently told.

Where I differ book is in its conclusion. Albright and Stricker argue that the Americans were fully in the right in stopping the program. To me, I would feel a lot more comfortable about Taiwan’s security if it had the ability to make Shanghai and other close, large cities disappear in a fireball. Many Taiwanese themselves made legitimate arguments against them that were quoted in the book: It would trigger the PRC to rev up earlier, and Taiwan was so small that they’d be vulnerable to a counterforce strike. But I still think a submarine deterrent would go a long way.

Still, opinions aside, this is a great look at an underappreciated weapons program.