Robert D. Kaplan, Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military, from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq and Beyond. Random House: New York, 2005 (Reprinted Vintage Books, 2006)
One night while cleaning an old Lee-Enfield rifle on a Bukhara carpet, Custer provided me his theory on the problem with the War on Terror as it was currently being waged in Afghanistan. … It wasn’t really his theory so much as everybody’s- that is, when people were being honest with each other.
Imperial Grunts p. 225
I wanted something silly to read in December, and Imperial Grunts delivered. This book is like a glimpse into an alternate universe, a world where steely-eyed, Protestant soldiers wander the world bringing order not chaos, where US military inventions are hindered only by journalists, metropolitan intellectuals, and the backwardness of the people they operate among, a world where Apple is a has-been and Microsoft is an important company (pp. 262, 263) It is based on the author’s travels as a reporter embedded in various US military units around the world from late 2002 to early 2004 (Yemen, Columbia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and Iraq). But a considerable part comes from the author’s library and neo-conservative ideology. As I read it, I noticed a way of thinking which I have also seen in writings about the Achaemenids.
Ian W. Walker, Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts: Mussolini’s Elite Armoured Divisions in North Africa (The Crowood Press: Ramsbury, UK, 2003)
Even during the war, nobody wanted to tell the truth about the Italian army. The fascist government and their pet generals did not want to admit that they had entered the war on a whim and sent soldiers with too little training and equipment into battle. German soldiers often disliked the Italians for good old ethnocentric reasons, and found that it was very convenient to blame them for everything which went wrong. And as they suffered defeat after defeat in 1940, 1941, and 1942, the British leaned on their own stereotypes to depict the one Axis power they could beat as frivolous and cowardly. The Italian army did not always fight its unjust wars enthusiastically, and did not keep fighting for two years after the war had been lost, but it is rarely praised for this. Ian W. Walker’s Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts is a good summary of the reassessment by an amateur historian who can read English and Italian. It has basic sketch maps and handy line drawings of key Italian equipment such as the M11, M13, and M14 series of medium tanks. Rather than a traditional review, this week I will post three things I learned from this book.
S.M. Stirling’s Nantucket trilogy is a Late Bronze Age alternate history which does not involve Akhenaten or the Exodus (it does involve the Trojan War). That makes it a novel for me. It even quotes some Stan Rogers lyrics! So in 2021 I re-read my copy of the second volume in Canada. After being cast back to the Late Bronze Age, the Nantucketers have been divided into a majority based on their island and a renegade faction lead by William Walker (not the filibuster). Both factions are rushing to industrialize and expand like unto a game of Civilization.
There is in all of us a repugnance, is there not, for hit-and-run tactics, for skirmishing and ambush? Does there not hide a feeling, however illogical and poorly thought-out, that direct assault between men who, in Brasidas’ words, “stay their ground” is somehow more “fair” and certainly more “noble” an opportunity to show a man’s true character and test it before his peers?
VDH, The Western Way of War (1989) pp. 13, 14
I know what manner of men you are in valour; what need have you to tell the tale of it? For if now all the best of you were being chosen beside the ships for an ambush, in which the valour of men is best discerned– there the coward comes to light and the man of valour, for the colour of the coward changes ever to another hue, nor is the spirit in his breast checked so that he sits still, but he shifts from knee to knee and rests on either foot, and his heart beats loudly in his breast and he imagines death, and his teeth chatter; but the colour of the brave man changes not, nor does he fear excessively when once he takes his place in the ambush of warriors, but he prays to mix immediately in woeful war- not even then, I say, would any man make light of your courage or the strength of your hands. For if you were struck by an arrow in the toil of battle, or struck with a thrust, not from behind in neck or back would the missile fall; but your chest would hit it or your belly, as you were pressing on into the dalliance of the foremost fighters.
Iliad 13.275-286 (cited for a different purpose in WWoW p. 96 / ch. 8)
Ambushes are murder and murder is fun!
Anglo infantry training chant, 1960s-present
In my first book, I said that ancient historians had not really addressed the broader problems with Hanson’s The Western Way of War in print for the general public (pp. 38 and 351 for those of you following along at home). They often share concerns in private, but in public they were much more comfortable talking about the estoerica of infantry combat than about the Greek exceptionalism and breezy generalizations about the orient which motivated Hanson’s book. John Lynn is a specialist in the wars of Louis XIV not Iphicrates or Cao Cao! But one ancient historian has in fact done that work. Rose Mary Sheldon wrote a book on ambushes in ancient Greek warfare and wrapped it in a plea to soldiers and policymakers that wishful thinking about the past will lead to terrible things in the future.
About ten years ago, I discovered that I loved Giovanni dall’Agocchie’s fencing. It seems like people don’t talk very much about why they love the arts that they do. Online I see more accusations that the old masters taught something impractical or complaints that someone today is WRONG IN THE SALLE. So this week, I would like to talk about his gentle and humane approach to the art of defense.
Martin van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallerstein to Patton (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2007) ISBN 0-521-21730-X
What John Keegan did to the experience of battle in 1979, Martin van Creveld did to the logistics of modern European warfare two years earlier. I finally read this book in May 2021 and am glad that I did, although its perspective is different than mine.
van Creveld lays out a model of logistics which goes like this. Before the late 19th century, armies could easily carry all the ammunition and spare weapons they needed with them, so the main requirements were food and fodder. As long as an army kept moving and was not too large, it could get these things in the area of operations. The main differences between armies were whether they confiscated supplies or purchased them, and whether they got their food from individual villages and farms, hired contractors to collect and deliver it, or obtained it from local towns and governors. So armies could wander around freely but might get in trouble if they had to stop to besiege a town or because enemies had blocked their path. If an army did not want to pay, then it was better to operate in hostile territory than friendly territory, just as Sun Tzu says. In 1870-1871, the Prussian army only consumed 56 rounds of rifle ammunition per infantryman and 199 rounds per gun (p. 102). This was less than the army carried with it when it set out, so there was no need to bring trains of ammunition from Prussia to the army. Outside of North Africa and some Pacific islands, the Axis still relied on local food and fodder in WW II.
Michael Edelson, Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application (CreateSpace, 2017) ISBN-13 978-0999290385 (hardcover) 978-1979910972 (softcover)
A sharp sword in a skilled hand is a fearsome cutting weapon. When the sword or the swordsman is inadequate, fighters can find themselves helplessly slapping their opponent’s hat or clothing. There is now a book for the historical fencing movement on how to cut through things effectively. This one is by an instructor who teaches at a school in New York City, competes in cutting and fencing tournaments, and used to be quite active and aggressive on forums. In the historical fencing world, his main interest is the art from Central Europe associated with a poem which circulated under the name of Meister Liechtenauer, the Kunst des Fechtens. This art probably emerged in the late 14th century and flourished until there was a ‘martial arts craze’ for Italian fencing in 17th century Germany.
A practical book on the use of weapons raises three basic questions. Can I understand it? Are its teachings something I want to commit to trying? After a substantial period of training, have these teachings made me more effective? When reconstructing historical and prehistorical martial arts like 18th century backsword play or the use of bronze swords, there is a fourth question: how does the book support its claim to describe how things were done back in the day? My first impression is that this book is clear and that probably 80-90% of the theory describes one good way of doing things. The most controversial teaching is the insistence on stepping into range (measure) and then cutting. How to do this without walking into a cut or thrust is “beyond the scope of this book” (p. 57). I don’t have a sharp longsword with me, or money to spend on things to chop up (and my sharp longsword is the long stiff poky kind not the broad flexible choppy kind). So this review will focus on how this book justifies its claims. I am a professional at analyzing arguments, but only a dabbler at fencing.
The Macedonian Phalanx is a thoughtful, engaging account of the ancient pike phalanx. By drawing upon literature, inscriptions, archaeology, and comparative evidence it uses the best available methods in ancient history. I am both jealous and relieved that I no longer have to write such a book myself.
Elizabeth Moon, Hunting Party (Baen Books: Riversdale, NY, 1993). Later released in an omnibus as Heris Seranno.
Calgary is a hard town for the poor and pedestrian, but when I lived there I discovered some authors in the few hardy used bookstores which held out like poplars in draws along the rivers. One of those was Elizabeth Moon. I had read a few of the Kylara Vatta novels and not felt inspired to finish the series, but when I read some of her earlier novels and short stories I was very impressed.
Robert Engen, Canadians Under Fire: Infantry Effectiveness in the Second World War (McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal, QC and Kingston, ON, 2009) ISBN 978-0-7735-3626-5 [Bookfinder][Biblio]
In this plague time, zombie ideas walk the earth, for all our attempts to call down academic fire on them. One of those is S.L.A. Marshall’s assertion that only 15-25% of American infantry in WW II fired their weapons in the direction of the enemy. Although Marshall’s trustworthiness had been undermined by the 1980s, and he left no records of the interviews where he claimed to have learned this embarrassing truth, the idea gained a new life after it was popularized by writers like columnist Gwynne Dyer and the smooth smiling David Grossman. Engen’s book focuses on another body of evidence which exists today: surveys mailed to Canadian infantry captains, majors, and lieutenant-colonels returning to Britain after fighting on the continent. Anyone can go and read the original documents in Ottawa, and they were filled out within a few weeks of leaving combat for an internal military audience. While Engen dutifully reminds readers that combat is confusing, memories are maleable, and people don’t always say exactly what they remember, these surveys are better sources than anecdotes or the opinions of one amateur historian with a gift for self-publicity.