Review: The Afghan Way Of War

The Afghan Way Of War

Robert Johnson’s The Afghan Way of War was an obvious buy for me based purely on its relevance to current events. I was expecting a concise military history of that country and got it. But I also got more. The “more” had a few rough spots but was mostly good. As the book was published in 2011, it does not contain the decade that saw massive changes in the war even before the fall of Kabul. But that’s not it’s fault. Anyway, this was an interesting book, and not just because of its subject matter.

From the get go, the book wants to avoid and debunk “Orientalist” stereotypes. Because of this, at times it can get a little too “argumentative”, for lack of a better word. There are some passages that remind me of Stephen Biddle’s Nonstate Warfare in terms of being a little too focused on going “Well, these sources are wrong”. But only a few, and they aren’t deal breakers by any means. That the book succeeds at achieving its goal helps a lot.

And when The Afghan Way of War goes from being “argumentative” to “informative”, it works wonderfully. Johnson avoids not just the “idiot fanatic savage” stereotype, but also its cousin, the “cunning inscrutable super-warrior that the poor dumb lazy westerner cannot comprehend” that the likes of William Lind and H. John Poole like to trot out. The Afghans from the 1700s to the present are shown at their best and worst, never being truly dominant even in irregular warfare but always a threat.

One of the most fascinating and best written sections dealt with the Soviet war in the 1980s. The picture it paints of the mujaheddin there is not a flattering one. They come across as being substantially and massively flawed, and accomplishing as much as they did purely due to external support and the inherent advantages of irregular war on home ground.

Granted, its conclusions are not exactly shocking to anyone knowledgeable. Said conclusions amount to “a country known for poverty and disunity will have that manifest in its military and operations”. And it sometimes dives a little too deeply into supposed motivations (the “why”) when a deeper dive into operations (the “how” ) would have been, at least in my opinion, more useful.

Still, this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it.

Review: Praxis Tacticum

Praxis Tacticum

Canadian retired colonel Chuck Oliviero has released the new Praxis Tacticum. It’s one of those “mean 51%” books, being incredibly erratic. Much of the actual content is not objectionable-ie, “learn to face someone who isn’t a low intensity, technically inferior opponent”. Some of it is stuff even unqualified armchair general me picked up-me being the OPFOR addict I am, I’ve seen journal articles complaining about the rigidity of the OPFOR in practice compared to its flexibility in theory that he states. And some of it, however much I’d disagree with, is at least defensible and understandable. Oliviero is much, much more of a “manueverist” than I would be.

Plus, anyone who wants to simplify documents and instructions into something that isn’t in field-manualese has their heart in the right place.

However, the execution does not come across as ideal. For something aimed at lower-level commanders, it feels far too pretentious and buries the important stuff (stuff like how to do rapid drills and move a unit very quickly without outrunning your supply lines), in a mess of pompous mush. His decision to have a flexible, winning OPFOR (good) turns into an embrace of exercise munchkinism. This also has its heart in the right place (again, an opponent with the ability will seek to disrupt your setup and can often succeed) but I had the uncomfortable feeling that it was just him wanting to show off his supposed genius, crossing the line too often from “spar in an unconventional way” to “spar in traditional boxing and then instantly launch a Masvidal-Askren flying knee to crush your partner before patting yourself on the back.”

And this is the biggest problem. There is a very, very, very obvious barely disguised subtext of resentment that he didn’t get to be in charge throughout the book. High technology is treated with skepticism, unless it’s on tracks. Like everyone, Oliviero comes across as unavoidably biased-but he takes it to extremes.

I would recommend this for enthusiasts or intellectuals who have a full grasp of the context surrounding this book. Yet from my limited viewpoint, I actually would not recommend it to his target audience. It comes across as too slanted and inefficiently written.

Review: The Iraqi Threat

The Iraqi Threat And Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction

In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, Stephen Hughes released an unofficial sort of OPFOR compilation called “The Iraqi Threat And Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.” As the intelligence forces of the world found out after the war, getting any kind of accurate information on a country both as secretive and as slapdash as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a very difficult challenge. So I can forgive Hughes for any inaccuracies in the book, just as how I can forgive pre-1991 western sources on the USSR for not having information that was only unclassified/found out later.

What is significantly harder to forgive is the layout of the book. It’s, to be frank, a total mess. A lot of the most important parts on Iraqi (conventional) capabilities are lifted from an NTC document but strewn about in a way that makes them less understandable. Likewise for his pieces on Iraqi equipment. And militias. And so on. About the only thing really interesting and coherent is a huge section on mountain formations and defenses, which is applicable to far more than just Saddam’s Iraq.

But that can’t save the rest of the book, which is just too poorly organized to be much good. Even accepting it as a product of its time, it’s still effectively unusable, unlike many other OPFOR documents.

Review: Unflown Wings

Unflown Wings

I was somewhat critical of Yefim Gordon’s book on the MiG-29. Yet for his Unflown Wings, showing nearly a century of never-built Soviet/Russian aircraft, I’m far less so. This is an amazing book about amazing aircraft. It’s rightfully massive, covering every major design bureau.

People looking at the weird “Luft 46” German aircraft often overlook that every country had its similar oddball paper planes. And so it is with this book. With many illustrations, one can see everything from the redundant to the too expensive to the too out-there. It’s a lot to make you wonder what could have been, from the cancelled jet-powered maritime patroller to giant seaplanes to my personal favorite, the overambitious “Backfiretomcat” Tu-148 multi-role fighter.

The very nature of this book means that the issues I had with the Fulcrum one are far less so. Because the aircraft here never actually entered service in any event, it means there’s less need for total rigor and one doesn’t have to be “deep”. Breadth is required for this overview, and it’s very, very broad indeed.

This is a very fun, very thick book, and I recommend it to any aviation fan in spite of its size and expense.

Review: Mikoyan MiG-29 and MiG-35

Mikoyan MiG-29 and MiG-35: Famous Russian Aircraft

The MiG-29 was the last hurrah of the legendary Cold War bureau. Aviation authors Yefim Gordon and Dimitry Komissarov write about it in the extensive Famous Russian Aircraft: MiG-29 book. The book is both a wonderful treat and a bitter “what could have been”. First, the obvious needs to be stated. This is a book for aviation enthusiasts and not a general audience. If you don’t know much about the MiG-29 or military aircraft already, it’s not a good first choice.

But even as a niche in-detail work, it’s uneven. Gordon has a reputation online for not being the most reliable source, but I wouldn’t know enough to comment in that regard. Whatever the veracity, the book is extremely broad, covering each and every prototype, variant, and proposal of the Fulcrum complete with excellent pictures and once-rare photographs. You want to know the exact radar designations? This is for you. You want to know the slight visual differences? This is also for you.

Yet while it’s broad, this book also feels shallower than it could have been. This manifests most visibly in the section on the actual service of the MiG-29. There, it’s a combination of more lists and stuff that I’d already heard about. It was disappointing and could have used a little more doctrinal meat.

Finally, the book feels a little, well, inefficient. It’s a very long impressive paperweight of a hardcover, but its layout and formatting doesn’t look very space-effective. The pictures are good, but their organization isn’t. That being said, take this book for what it is-something meant for serious aviation fans. It’s what you’re getting, for better or worse.

Review: Hitler’s Last Levy

Hitler’s Last Levy

Hans Kissell was chief of operations for the German “Volkssturm” (lit. “People’s Storm”), the infamous last-ditch militia created at the end of World War II. In Hitler’s Last Levy, published in German in the 1960s and translated decades later, he told their story. It’s an interesting look at a horrific footnote.

The Volkssturm was both a desperation formation and Martin Bormann’s attempt at making his own pet army (like the SS was for Himmler or the Luftwaffe ground formations were for Goering). Kissell goes into detail and includes a massive amount of direct primary sources. While this is a work by a German WWII commander, its subject matter makes it at least a little better than the usual “we fought in our unstoppable kitty-tanks until we ran out of ammunition and fought totally cleanly” memoirs. It’s impossible to portray the ragged old men as some kind of super-army, and they had far less opportunity to commit war crimes simply because by that point they were losing. And Kissell doesn’t hesitate to point to their (many) weaknesses.

Because of this, and because of the wealth of primary sources and details (for instance, describing how on paper, some Volkstturm battalions had an organic battery of captured anti-tank guns), I recommend this for anyone wanting to know about them or similar emergency territorial formations. Yes, it’s dated and slanted. But it’s not nearly as bad in those regards as you might think.

On Sports Betting Media

The legalization of sports betting in the United States has brought about a wave of media devoted to it. And even in the offshore era, there were no shortage of websites talking about gambling. After looking at sports betting media, it didn’t take me long to sour on it. Even with less direct knowledge, it came across as being extremely shallow at best and, more often, something sinister seeming. It felt like trying to goad people who knew basic sports trivia into playing a stacked against them game (even back then, I knew the fundamentals of how gambling worked).

And after finding out more, studying more, and getting the spark that would lead to The Sure Bet King, I feel weirdly proud to say that well, I was completely on point. The conflicts of interest are there. Sportsbooks themselves and their loss share affiliates (people who get others to sign up to the books in exchange for a share of the house winnings) obviously have no direct incentive to help punters win and much motivation to help them lose. There’s a reason why sportsbooks hype up the people who hit a monster parlay/accumulator (where multiple outcomes all have to win), because those are where the house has the biggest edge. The idea is to get Joe Sportsball Fan to be convinced that if he follows his gut and knowledge of trivia, like how Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have that clutch spirit, then the jackpot will be his.

Even more innocently, I think (no pun intended) that even without this conflict, a lot of sports betting shows are just basic sports opinion pieces given a gilded gambling coating. The indispensable “Sports Truth with William Leiss” channel (who I actually thanked in the dedication to my book, and with good reason), has two videos showing this, which is dubbed the “think tank.” There isn’t any actual statistical analysis (not that most sports hosts could really do it beyond “Oh, he’s hitting .230”), just stuff like “I think that the Giants offense isn’t ready yet so I think the Colts will cover.”

Then there are the few sharp bettors who are (of course) magnified on social media. To be honest, after seeing what it entails, I would chose one of my old jobs that involved hauling carts back to a rickety old, cramped supermarket, often in bad weather, for six days a week, in an instant over being a professional sports bettor. It just feels almost wasteful, like a strange form of slumming from people who have the drive and/or intelligence to succeed at other careers that are far less zero-sum and far more relaxing. Learning that a lot of the “sharps” win not by being better handicappers but by a combination of manipulating the lines and doing the equivalent of coupon-clipping and bargain hunting, further drove my opinion down.

In fact, despite me maintaining every bit of negative feelings for the sleazy tactics of the bookmakers, I actually began to take their side to an extent regarding the banning/limiting of winners (one of the most vocal complaints from the sharps). And it wasn’t just “oh, they have to make money.” It was more like “oh, they have every right to keep munchkins from plundering them. Good for them.”

And then there are the touts, or tipsters. These pick-sellers are nearly all scam artists, and when I saw how they worked, I knew that one would be the perfect topic for a novel. Touts got amplified because for the longest time they were the only sports betting figures who could operate semi-openly (see the infamous infomercials), and they took advantage of it post-legalization.

Finally, there are the various governments who treat sports betting as a tax-producing cash cow. New York is particularly ham-fisted in this regard, which is even more counterproductive because there’s the far more lenient New Jersey right next door. So yeah, there’s that too.

So I came away from my research with even less regard for the sports betting industry than I had before-and more of a feeling that it would be great subject matter. So I wrote my first full-length novel about that very topic. And I had lots of fun doing so.

Review: Sporting Blood

Sporting Blood

Carlos Acevedo’s Sporting Blood is a nonfiction chronicle of boxers at their worst. Not at their worst in the ring, but at their worst out of it. His writing is excellent and well-handled (legendary boxing historian Thomas Hauser praises him in the foreword, no easy feat). It’s just the book can get a little repetitive.

There’s some interesting entries, like a 1920s prizefighter prolonging his career through quack medical surgery. But so much of the book is just one entry after another detailing how a boxer got beat up, lost his brain, lost his temporary money, lost his prestige, and sank back into the terrible life he came from. And then there are the stories of how many of them had terrible upbringings-the tale of boxing trainer Tony Ayala Sr. and how he treated his sons was especially disturbing. (Sadly but unsurprisingly, one of them became an absolute monster).

This isn’t the author’s fault, but it does make for melancholy reading. And it also details why the talent pool of American boxers shrank so dramatically after World War II. Because given a choice between that and another career, athletic or note, who would want to subject oneself to the vicious free-for-all of boxing?

Review: Super Tiger

Grumman F11F-1F Super Tiger

The original F-11 Tiger was just one of many 1950s flash-in-the-pan fighters. But there was a developed upgraded version that could have given it more staying power. In this book, former Grumman test pilot Corky Meyer tells its story.

There really isn’t that much to say about the airplane from a macro-technical point of view. It was basically an F-11 with a slightly different shape and a J79 engine (made famous on the F-4 Phantom). This gave it massively more thrust, to the point where it could hit Mach 2 in ideal conditions and reach the practical limit of performance for most fighters. The other unusual feature was that it carried a pair of Sidewinders on the top of the fuselage. From this emerged several other proposals. Described are a basic single-seat, a two-seater with Sparrows, a multirole non-carrier export version, and a reconnaissance aircraft with cameras.

Of course, the best and worst part of the book comes from the story of how it failed to gain traction. While Meyer’s deep connection to the aircraft meant he could say much about it, it also made him obviously biased when it came to its prospects. He was not the best person to give a fair evaluation of why it didn’t go anywhere. The reasons were the US Navy not wanting another jury-rigged shoved-in fighter when the F-4 was almost ready, the Air Force wanting the raw power of the F-104, and export customers facing a mix of Lockheed sleaze, a sales effort that Meyer admitted was understaffed and inexperienced, and the turn-off of the Americans seemingly not wanting it for themselves.

It’s still ultimately hard to feel too much sorrow at the loss of the Super Tiger. While it may have been safer than the F-104, it would still be a 1950s design in an inherently risky role if used the same way, and the accidents would have piled up regardless. Its role was soon successfully filled by the F-4 in American service and the F-5 (which ironically became known as the Tiger II) with export customers. But it’s a fascinating footnote in aviation history nonetheless.

Review: ATP 7-100.3 Chinese Tactics

ATP 7-100.3 Chinese Tactics

After seeing the excellent work on North Korea, I eagerly awaited the next installment in the ATP 7-100 series on the most potential opponents. When ATP 7-100.3, Chinese Tactics dropped, I was not disappointed. Well detailed and well laid out, this is the first comprehensive unclassified analysis of the PLA in decades.

In some ways, being a far more advanced opponent that’s far closer to the fictional maximum-challenge “composite OPFOR” than North Korea is means that the tactics shown feel a lot more mundane and slightly less interesting. But showing the (deliberately overcomplicated and confounding) organization is where this shines. The modern PLA is organized a lot like the old “GENFORCE-Mobile” OPFOR with a bunch of brigades and combined arms battalions jumping straight to corps-equivalents with six line brigades each.

This is a great resource and I highly recommend reading it. Besides its topicality, seeing a force structure diverge from the classic Russo-American style is interesting to see and valuable for wargamers.