Review: The ISIS Solution

Released at the height of the 2010s anti-ISIS campaign, The ISIS Solution is a short book by several SOFRep authors, which include such familiar names as Jack Murphy and Peter Nealen. It offers critique and recommendations, and since I knew their books well, I wondered how their nonfiction commentary would go. As commentators, they’re pretty good novelists.

As the saga of “Mean” Joe Greene’s transformation from the best defensive lineman to the worst football commentator ever attests, being good in one field doesn’t translate to being successful in another. Granted, some of this is due to the book being short and aimed at a much broader audience than actual security analysts. But more of it is due to a phenomenon I’ve seen sadly too often.

I call this Fire Joe Morgan-ism (not surprisingly, Morgan was another athlete who went from brilliant player to dubious commentator). There a group of spicy screenwriters (seriously) who dabbled in baseball analytics took pride in dogpiling on all the old crusty baseball hacks who didn’t know any stat beyond batting average. It basically amounts to going ahead of the absolute worst baseline (sportswriters in that case, network talking heads in this one) by showing that you do have genuine knowledge of it (military operations/baseball stats), and then doing a little dance and a victory lap because you’ve overcome such an easy target.

Granted, this probably wasn’t as surprising as I’d thought. Murphy’s books ranged from “blatantly political even when good” to “unironic Metal Gear Solid plotline”, while Nealen’s commentary attempts in Maelstrom Rising sank it a lot compared to the far more apolitical Blackhearts series. But it’s still disappointing, and there are a lot better sources out there.

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.

Review: C3

C3: Nuclear Command, Control, Cooperation

Written by former Strategic Rocket Forces officer Valery Yarynich, 2003’s C3 is an in-depth look at Cold War (and beyond) nuclear war command systems and their hazards. Although having access to then-secret info in Soviet times, Yarynich was no Viktor Suvorov and did not sensationalize (in fact, he provided one of the first detailed and level-headed descriptions of the infamous Perimetr/Dead Hand system). The result is one of the best nonfiction books on nuclear war that I’ve read.

As it is written by a former Soviet officer, you do get waves and waves of charts and equations that attempt to quantify something relating to military technology. But you also get lots of clear, simple explanations that make a layperson able to understand this well. In terms of everything from organizational charts to what the “nuclear briefcase” even is to why scissors were found to be a weak link in the command chain (seriously), it’s incredibly illuminating.

If you have any interest in nuclear war or command systems whatsoever, I highly recommend this book. I’ll also just say that it’s an excellent research resource…

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.

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.

Review: Tomorrow’s Soldier

Tomorrow’s Soldier

David Alexander’s Tomorrow’s Soldier is a book that you’d expected to be dated based on its subject matter. It’s a 1999 popular account of the WARS AND WARRIORS OF THE FUTURE. And it is dated. It’s also somewhat shallow even by the standards of the time.

It’s still interesting, but isn’t really a rigorous study. The descriptions basically consist of trends that were obvious even at the time (ie, more digitization/etc…) and the obligatory description of wunderwaffe like power armor. This is a little less triumphalist than some other books of its nature, but it isn’t really more substantive.

This felt like a throwaway book even when it was written. And now it’s an older throwaway book. So I’m not really recommending it except as a curiosity. I do wonder if the same “David Alexander” who wrote this was the same “David Alexander” who wrote the ultra-middling Marine Force One. If so, it would be fitting.

Review: Secret Luftwaffe Projects

Secret Luftwaffe Projects

Through diligent research and the uncovering of the original drawings and plans, Walter Meyer sheds some light in Secret Luftwaffe Projects. As a basic guide to the Luftwaffe wunderwaffe napkinwaffe, this is excellent. It also doesn’t pretend to be anything that it’s not, and doesn’t extrapolate or make wild claims.

But what it is is (deliberately) broad, shallow, and focused entirely on the basics. Each wunderplane gets a very short description of its role and a sheet of its (intended) stats. There’s no context or even reasonable speculation, but this isn’t the kind of book for this. It’s an encyclopedia of planes that never were, and in that role succeeds beautifully, complementing rather than competing with other books on the same subject.

And besides, it’s very fun to see all the crazy contraptions one after another. I recommend this book to any aviation enthusiast or anyone interested in the bizarre, because a lot of the planes here are just weird. But what did you expect?

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.