Review: A UN Legion

A UN ‘Legion’: Between Utopia and Reality

Stephen Kinloch Pichat’s A UN ‘Legion’: Between Utopia and Reality is a very inconsistent book. This may be due to its subject matter, which involves the various proposals for a UN standing army, proposals made since before the formal United Nations Organization even existed.

About half the book, at least figuratively, is written in a particularly bad form of “academic-ese”. I had trouble getting through it and I read long dissertations for fun (seriously). Even if unintentional, the problem is that the political obstacles to such a force are so obvious and so easily explained that any long statement will become unfulfilling.

That being said, the other half of the book is a concise, well-written, and well-sourced example of various proposals. They come in two categories. The first is a gigantic “World Army”. The earliest proposals, made during World War II, fit this category, with numbers that seem big to a modern reader but weren’t back then. “World Armies” frequently were capped by a standing high-readiness force (think the 18th Airborne Corps or maybe the USMC/VDV).

The second is a smaller and more theoretically practical “UN Army”, a comparably small force designed for specific contingencies. One of the most detailed examples, which Pinchat describes, is the ‘Vital Force’/’UN Legion’ proposal amounting to several brigades of light to medium troops. Others amount to similar versions of the same thing-something that can conduct most normal peacekeeping missions, but without the ad hoc nature of existing setups.

I’m a little reluctant to recommend a book that sinks to such lows, but it’s still a good resource. It’s just a bit of a shame it’s not better laid out, but this is an academic history and the text is still good when it counts.

The Flying Aircraft Carrier: Not Just For Comic Books

Yes, there was a serious study on the possibility of equipping 747s with trapeze catches and stuffing them full of “microfighters” to serve as flying aircraft carriers that could reach any hot spot soon.

aacdesign

Besides the expense and equally obvious safety issues, these microfighters were only benchmarked against the MiG-21 and their small size would make them harder to upgrade (although this could be mitigated by increasingly miniaturized electronics and giving them smart weapons that didn’t need to be carried en masse). Still, this is a similar gimmick to what the absolutely crazy (in a good way) Black Eagle Force series did with its fighters, and it’s great for fiction.

Review: Black April

Black April

George Veith’s Black April is an excellent chronicle of the final fall of South Vietnam. Taking as many sources as he could, Veith paints the picture of an understudied and underappreciated campaign.

The interior workings of the North Vietnamese are very fascinating and, in my opinion, the best part of the book. This is because the campaign was the biggest example of a Soviet-style army defeating a western-style one decisively. While all the planning texts and documents can show a strict operational plan where everyone adheres to their role, in any reality, friction and human conflict is always there, and this shows an example of it in practice.

Veith is on less firm footing with the southerners. While his goal to emphasize the damage of the aid cutoff and give the southerners a fair emphasis compared to their scapegoating as inept bumblers from start to finish is admirable, his opinions about the primacy of the aid cutoff don’t always match with the examples he shows. This isn’t to say that it wasn’t an incredibly important factor, but the frequent examples are of southern units getting chopped up by better-handled northern ones, not attritional slugfests that only ended when they ran low.

Still, this book is an excellent historical reference.

Review: The Book Of Basketball

The Book Of Basketball

I’ll be honest, The Book Of Basketball was one of my favorite sports books, as fit someone who grew up reading Bill Simmons’ web columns. Now it looks worse in hindsight. And I don’t mean the tasteless jokes.

The secret about Simmons is that his difference from the stuffy old sportswriters is and was a matter of style, not substance. There’s the same focus on the capital-N Narrative, the “he’s got that clutch spirit” eye test, and the sort of only-a-sportswriter-can-see-it “intangibles” that aren’t talent anyone can see or statistical/tactical analysis an expert can. It’s just dipped in sleazy jokes and pop culture references.

The not so-secret part about him is his unashamed Celtics fandom. This ranges from harmless (much of the description) to mildly annoying (ranking Celtics high and then clumsily placing Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ahead of Larry Bird to go “see, I’m not biased-see”) to the seriously flawed (Having an entire chapter devoted to excoriating Wilt Chamberlain while praising Bill Russell).

The opinionated history of the NBA section is funny, somewhat informative, and really well-written. It should have been stretched to the then-present, instead of, say, the sections complaining about the MVP award and the abominable “Russell, then Wilt” chapter. There’s the inevitable “Of course a surviving Len Bias would have been a legend and not the kind of Christian Laettner/Danny Manning-esque player who’s great in college but merely good by pro standards” section.

Then there’s the Hall of Fame Pyramid, where his concept of the best 96 players of all time, from Tom Chambers to Michael Jordan are listed. It’s a fun but obvious attempt to have the cake (see, it’s a logical ranking-a formal ranking) and eat it too (“This guy knew The Secret [a banal “teamwork” cliche Simmons tries to pass off as profound], I don’t need numbers”). Take a combination of Simmons’ previous antics and an obsession with winning championships (and not the kind of obsession an actual player or even a fan understandably has, but a specific “I’d rather be Robert Horry [7 titles] than Charles Barkley [0 titles]” statement) and the result is not that good.

The anecdotes are often well-done, but lose their power when submerged in a combination of inconsistent use of stats (Simmons goes from fluffy “stats” like total All-Star appearances to an overimpressed Thomas Friedman-esque reaction to advanced stats to the sort of “You can’t measure heart”-style quotes that the likes of Fire Joe Morgan would rightfully tear to pieces), and the cliches. The Team Player against the Selfish Greedy Superstar, the man who can rise to the occasion and grab the ring vs. the man who just doesn’t have it in him. This Manichean writing is dinosaur sports commentary at its worst.

This book feels like a long-range two pointer, inefficient and outdated. There are some good moments, just like how there are still justified long two shots. But, with a decade of hindsight and a more open mind, there’s more bad than good here.

Review: Divided Armies

Divided Armies

Jason Lyall’s Divided Armies is a big look at how societal inequality can influence military peformance. It’s mixed and uneven but still worthy.

First, the research is exhaustive and extensive. Lyall specifically aims to avoid a Eurocentric/great war bias by looking at a gigantic sample size of conflicts around the world from 1800 to the present. The book is not the easiest read and is written in “Academic-ese” with lots of political science formulas. However, I didn’t consider this a bad thing so much as just being part of its very nature (it’s not the only book of this type of I’ve read). The case studies feature more and more obscure battles. It’s a solid, disciplined set of information that shows a lot of underappreciated and understudied wars.

Of course, this book also has the weakness of the approach. I had two main doubts about this book. One was that Lyall would overcorrect and make the issue too dominant. Although not quite as bad as I feared, I saw a lot of this happening.

The weakest part of his research by far is, ironically, when he goes into great power wars. His study of the World War II Eastern Front, despite citing modern scholars, is still disappointing and clearly viewed through the lens of his thesis. So it means an overt focus on the early war (because the Soviets were clearly doing poorly), and an over-focus on Stalinism at the expense of other factors (because it fits the tone of the book). This image is rather distorted, to say the least.

A far less bad but still iffy example comes from his comparison of Ethiopa in the 1998 war with Eritrea and the DRC in the simultaneous Second Congo War. Despite Lyall’s box-checking and vigorous arguments, I’m still left thinking of the two having far more differences than similarities. They’re not the ones I’d use in a direct comparison, the former having overwhelmingly more experience with large, conventional operations.

The second doubt I was also vindicated with was a sense of “you needed a ton of formal data to say this?” The conclusion of less cohesive societies translating that into ineffectual military performance was not exactly the most shocking or counter-intuitive one.

However, with those caveats in mind, as well as the usual focus on keeping eyes open, the book is still a worthwhile read. The basic conclusion is sound, the examination of previously under-explored conflicts is fascinating, and if the “what” isn’t the most interesting or noteworthy, the “how” definitely is.

 

 

 

Review: Armies of Sand

Armies of Sand

This is the first Fuldapocalypse nonfiction book review. Kenneth Pollack’s Armies of Sand is a semi-adaptation of his thesis, The Influence of Arab Culture on Arab Military Perfomance, and a semi-sequel to his book, Arabs at War. That looked at how Arab armies underperformed in the 20th century and examined the “how”. This looks more at the “why”.

Pollack uses bits and pieces from both Arab states at war and the non-Arab “control groups” to look at the four explanations-Soviet doctrine, over-politicization, underdevelopment, and culture. The first is a total red herring, with Pollack concluding that if anything, it was at least a little helpful. The middle two have had obvious influence, but can’t explain all of it. The final one is what he feels is the most satisfactory answer.

My biggest problem is his methodology, even though I think his conclusions are mostly sound. A lot of his sources are dated, some of the more lurid anecdotes are thinly-sourced, and a few times the implications go from the more reasonable “New York Knicks” (undeniably underperforming, sometimes significantly so) to the exaggerated “Washington Generals” (completely hopeless from start to finish at everything). This is the kind of argument where you need a lot of rigor, so seeing him pass on examples,  even those that would support his case like looking at the North Vietnamese air force when he used the Vietnam War in another control group, has made me raise an eyebrow.

Still, Pollack handles the cultural argument well, by pointing out education and particularly military training as how it took root. He stresses the dangers of stereotyping and, most importantly, shows both how culture and warfare can change and how workarounds were developed. All of the workarounds involved, in some form or another, a smaller army with a more selective choice of personnel.

Armies Of Sand is not and should not be the last word on the Middle East or military history, and should not be unhesitatingly accepted. But I still highly recommend it, and not just for information on Arab armies. Its study of politicization and underdevelopment in general is fascinating, and it’s well-written.