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Book Review: When Soldiers Fall:How Americans Have Confronted Combat Losses from World War I to Afghanistan

“As casualties mount, support decreases.”
– John Mueller

When Soldiers Fall by Steven Casey

When Soldiers Fall:How Americans Have Confronted Combat Losses from World War I to Afghanistan by Steven Casey is a study of the actions and behavior of the US government and its people to its own war dead. Casey earned his undergraduate degree from the University of East Anglia. Both his masters and doctorate were earned from Oxford. He was a junior Research Fellow and Tutor in Politics at Trinity College. For over the last decade he has been at the London School of Economics. Casey has published articles and books on the Korean War, Cold War, and casualty reporting. 

This is certainly a book where a great education helps produce a great book. What also separates and elevates this book above most is that Casey is on the outside looking into American politics and foreign policy. Although, not advanced, as Casey’s I do share his education background and was anxious to read his insight into this sensitive and current issue in America. 

A few key points were made in the book. Casualty reporting, by the government, was a 20th century creation. For example during the Civil War, commanders kept track of causalities, not for reporting, but rather to keep track of empty spots in their ranks. World War I brought in the first casualty reporting, but with it came a problem. With the massive scale of offensives, the casualty counts were prime intelligence material. If the enemy knew the number of dead caused by their offensive action, they could first judge the effectiveness of the attack and secondly, with other casualty reports determine weak spots in allied defenses. Delays in transatlantic communications also contributed to problems in reporting. It could be weeks after a major offensive before any casualties were reported. 

Perhaps one of the greatest problems with America is politics and political perception. In the opening of the book, Casey compares Bush and Obama. Bush prevented the media from photographing the returning caskets from Iraq and Afghanistan. He was criticized for hiding the war dead from the public to prevent a popular backlash against the war. Obama allowed the press and was present for the return of the dead at Dover Air Force Base. He was criticized for using the dead for a photo op and his own personal gain. America politicizes everything and the vast majority of politics falls into only two camps. The American public treats politics like a major sporting event. No matter how alike the two teams are, people expand on the minor points until they believe victory by the other side would be a catastrophe. 

Accuracy of reporting even in the most recent times can be called in question. The Jessica Lynch story is a prime example. Ambushed by the Iraqis, Lynch returned fire, and was shot/stabbed/raped in the conflict before taken prisoner and tortured. In reality, her convoy had gotten lost and her vehicle was hit by a rocket propelled grenade, her rifle jammed, and she fell unconscious. She was taken prisoner and hospitalized, by her own testimony, she was treated well. Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman was reported to be killed in a firefight and awarded the Silver Star in a nationally televised memorial service. Later, it was found Tillman died from friendly fire and it was covered up. Another problem remains the difference in definitions causality. Causality means different things to different government agencies: Killed, wounded and evacuated, wounded and not evacuated, minor wounds, missing in action. Accuracy of information is a problem even today. The media is competing for the breaking story. The military is competing for need for security. The politicians are competing for their popularity. The mission of the three rarely intersect. 

War is a complex issue for America. We like the idea of fighting for what is (or we are lead to believe is) right, but quickly become weary of war when we learn that American’s are dying. Support for the second war in Iraq was high at the start when we believed the that there were weapons of mass destruction or Saddam Hussein played a part in 9/11. As the we lost faith in the reason and the body count rose, opinion changed. After WWI, it took Pearl Harbor to persuade America to pick up arms and fight on foreign shores again. Even then as the war went on, it was not popular, but seen as necessary. Korea became a war where soldiers “die for a tie.” Even as the war was being fought, it earned the nickname of the “Forgotten War.” Vietnam brought a major change America both politically and socially. No matter how many people supported going to war with the Japanese or more recently the Taliban or Iraq, the casualty count changed people’s minds.

Technology plays an increasing role in America’s war planning. Technology saves lives and makes great press. America loved the smart bomb footage from the First Gulf War; it made great television. So much so Roger Waters even commented on in the song “The Bravery of Being Out of Range”

Hey bartender over here
Two more shots
And two more beers
Sir turn up the TV sound
The war has started on the ground
Just love those laser guided bombs
They’re really great
For righting wrongs
You hit the target
And win the game
From bars 3,000 miles away

Obama likes drone strikes. Clinton liked cruise missile attacks. Under Obama some 2,000 to 2,500 people have been killed with drone attacks while sparing any threat to American military. Clinton’s motives were the same. Maximum damage with minimal risk to American lives. 

America likes its wars short, high tech, and low casualty. Perhaps the only president in the 20th century to become more popular by a war in his own presidency was G.H.W. Bush. He had a 89% approval rating at the end of the war, but failed to win re-election. Casey does an outstanding job of dissecting what would seem like the process of reporting war casualties. He puts each war in its historical and domestic political perspective. The work is well documented and very well written. As controversial as the subject can be, I can find little fault in his work. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the politics and reporting in war time and the complexities of the reporting America’s war dead.

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Book Review: Mobilize!: Why Canada was Unprepared for the Second World War

Mobilize!: Why Canada was Unprepared for the Second World War by Larry D. Rose is a Canadian history of the years before WWII. Rose was born in British Columbia, served as a second lieutenant and later as a captain in the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps (Reserves). He has worked in broadcasting for forty-five years including work with CBC Television News, Global News, and CTV. Rose earned a BA in History and Political Science and a MA in Political Science and Public Administration from the University of Victoria. 

I learned a great detail about Canadian history from this short book. That is a rather sad statement. I grew up fifty miles from Canada in Cleveland, Ohio. Throughout college the only real mention of Canada was its role in the War of 1812. I have visited Canada several times. I was actually surprised to see the RCMP in paramilitary uniforms with semiautomatic weapons– no, I wasn’t expecting campaign hats and a Dudley Do-Right jacket. I talk to Canadians on social media sites. Yet I know so little about the country.

I was a little surprised with the the title of the book. Being an American I continually heard how the US was not prepared for WWII throughout my education. I thought about the title of this book and realized aside from Germany and Japan what countries were prepared for WWII? After reading Mobilize! I realized how prepared the US was for war compared to Canada. In the prewar years Canada did not have a military capable of protecting its borders, let alone a force to contribute to the Allies. Canada was so unprepared for hostilities that the US had plans to protect Canada’s western coast from possible Japanese aggression whether Canada supported the action or not. A slap in the face of Canadian sovereignty. 

In the interwar years, Canada’s armored divisions had no tanks. There were still horseback mounted cavalry. The navy had few ships and no money allotted to keep them ready for war or even defensive anti-submarine warfare. Naval guns were not fired in training because it cracked the paint on the guns. The Royal Rifles didn’t have uniforms and wore armbands to identify themselves. They were also almost barracks bound until a citizen donated thirty pairs of boots. The air force did not even have a operational bomber group until October 1942. 

Several key players in Canadian history are covered. From military leaders to Prime Minister King who was instrumental in managing to build a military that could contribute to the war. Canada went to war in 1939. American neutrality laws prevented Canada from getting arms and equipment from its closest neighbor. It took a great effort to build Canada up to a point where it could contribute to the war effort. There are plenty of internal struggles in the years leading up to the war. 

Canada was caught up in several events that proved to be challenges. The Statute of Westminster in 1931 gave Canada the power to truly govern itself and set its own foreign policy. Being newly “independent” created fiscal challenges that were further complicated by the American stock market crash and droughts throughout Canada. The idea of war was completely unexpected. Canada went home after WWI like the United States thinking that there would be no future wars. The only threat to their territory came from the US want to protect its own territory. Prepared or not, Canada joined the war almost two years ahead of the United States. It went to war not to bring democracy or defeat Hitler, but because England went to war. The war cost Canada 37,000 lives. That is quite a sacrifice for a country not threatened by a European war. Mobilize! gives a good and detailed history. It is well written and documented and will give a southern neighbor an education that is sadly missing.

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Book Review: Exit Wounds: One Australian’s War on Terror

Exit Wounds - One Australian's War On Terror by Major General John Cantwell

Lest we forget…

Exit Wounds: One Australian’s War on Terror by John Cantwell is his story of serving in three wars, two of which are seemingly American conflicts. Cantwell joined the army in 1974 as a private and rose through the ranks to become Deputy Chief of the Army. He served for thirty-eight years and fought in both Gulf Wars and Afghanistan. Cantwell was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2012.

Over the last twelve years Americans have been aware of combat and death in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most forgot we started losing lives in the Gulf in 1987 when the US involved itself, indirectly, in the Iran-Iraq War. What many Americans don’t remember is we seldom stand alone, and it is usually more than our NATO allies standing with us. Australia was there. They were there too when many of out allies were not, in Vietnam. For such a loyal ally, it is a shame that most in the United States do not recognize Australia’s service. 

Cantwell, as a liaison officer, witnesses the war from a distance. Watching the artillery, rocket and tank fire was impressive and like many watching there was a certain bravery from being out of range. One thing that would haunt, then Major, Cantwell was the American plan to bulldoze over the enemy’s trenches burying defending Iraqi’s alive. However, US army Colonel Magee wasn’t phased “A bullet or a bulldozed blade, it doesn’t matter. We’re saving American lives and that’s all that matters.” The aftermath of both the bombardment and the bulldozing would go on to haunt Cantwell. More important than his stories of the war are the effects of the wars on him. His wife, Jane, writes two chapters in the book on the PTSD affecting Cantwell. Cantwell does his best to hide his nightmares and carry on, like a soldier. 

After the First Gulf War, Cantwell returns to serve in Baghdad in the Second Gulf War. Although not directly involved in the fighting, he witnesses the violence of Sunni on Shite violence, the building body count, and the Iraqi government’s apathy to anything but money. In Afghanistan, Cantwell needed to deal with the deaths of soldiers under his command. He is very candid with the toll the wars took on him psychologically, even his stay in a psychiatric hospital. He is not the only one who suffered. In 2011, 6,500 American veterans took their own lives. The suicide rate was twenty-five times higher than the battlefield casualty rate. The high tech, impersonal warfare may remove soldiers from physical dangers but it does not seem to remove men’s minds from the horrors of warfare. 

Cantwell did a great service to his country and mine as well. Sadly his and his countrymen’s efforts are not well known in in the United States. I have seen several books on Australia’s war efforts and they peaked my interest, however, this is the first book out of Australia I have been able to read because of copyright laws and geographical restrictions. There are two important things that need to be taken from this memoir. First, that the horrors of war are real and live in soldier’s (and all those involved) minds long after the war ends and hiding those memories is not the best way to deal with them. Secondly, Australia has a long and proud history of standing willingly next to the United States in armed conflicts. Exit Wounds is a well written and very informative memoir. Also as a Marine, I would like to say “Thank you, sir.” 

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Book Review: America’s First Clash with Iran: The Tanker War 1987-88

America's First Clash with Iran by Lee Allen Zatarain

America’s First Clash with Iran: The Tanker War 1987-88 by Lee A Zatarain is an account of the American involvement in the Iran-Iraq war. Zatarain earned both his Bachelor’s and JD from Louisiana State University. He currently works as an attorney for the energy industry and resides in Texas.

I was just leaving the Marines when the tanker war started in 1987. I spent 1985 and part of 1986 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia serving on Embassy Duty, and remembered most of the events leading up to the re-flagging of the Kuwaiti tankers. I remember the AWACs crews in Saudi: Elf-1. I also remember the rumors (later confirmed) that information from the AWACs was turned over to the Saudi government with the understanding that it would not be given to Iraq…. wink, wink. Saddam may not have been liked, but he had the support of the Gulf States and the West. Britain sold their desert camouflage uniforms to Iraq. America, although restricted from selling military goods to either side in the conflict did manage to export military vehicles and helicopters to Iraq as farm equipment. Henry Kissinger said of the war, “It’s too bad they both can’t lose.” That quote pretty much summed up the feelings of most, even though the Iranian hostage crisis was still fresh in the minds of many Americans. 

America’s First Clash opens with the Iraqi attack on the USS Stark in the Persian Gulf. The attack, although claimed to be accidental, killed thirty-seven sailors. The Stark for a variety of reasons did not fire in defense or deploy any defensive measures against a friendly plane. Iraq apologized. The pilot was rumored to either have been rewarded for his actions or purged for them; there is no definitive answer. Later American military personnel complained, after close calls, that Iraqi pilots shoot at radar blips without confirming the target. 

Kuwait felt the most pressure from the Iranian attacks on oil shipping. It started to appeal to the Soviets for protection, which in turn convinced the US to jump in before the Gulf was filled with Soviet warships. America, once it realized the extent of the support needed to escort the reflagged ship, requested permission to set up a base; both Saudi and Kuwait refused. Reagan responded to the American people that we never asked to set up a base. Although the protection of America’s much needed oil would be the publicly acknowledged as the reason to send the military to the Gulf, only 5% of the oil consumed by the United States came through the Persian Gulf. The threat of a Soviet presence was much more of the reason for action. 

A Kuwaiti oil tanker company did agree to pay the lease on two floating oil service barges for the navy to use as mobile sea bases. These barges were located in international waters and could be very easy targets for Iranian attack. The lack of a base was not the only problem for the American forces. The escort ships started duty without minesweepers. Iran relied heavily on mines in the gulf. In fact, the first ship captured by the American forces was the Iran Ajr in the process of laying mines. Mines were successful and cheap to produce. The USS Roberts sustained $95 million worth of damage from a single mine that cost $1,500 to make. Iran boasted it could churn out mines like seeds. Mines remained a hazard in the Gulf even after the conflict was resolved. 

Operation Earnest Will was the name of the military escort operation. Inside America’s First Clash, the background and events are covered in great detail and well documented. In addition to the main operation, Operation Prime Chance, Operation Nimble Archer, and Operation Praying Mantis are covered in great detail. Perhaps one of the greatest mistakes made by the US was the downing of Iran Air Flight 655; an Airbus A300 mistaken for an Iranian F-14. Zatarain gives a very detailed and fair examination of this event that killed 290 civilian passengers. 

I remember following these event very closely as they happened and researching many of the same events as a graduate student studying security policy. Zatarain does an outstanding job with both his research and writing. This bit of history, the US involvement in the Iran-Iraq War, will set the stage for America’s return to the Gulf just two years later as part of a United Nations authorized coalition and still continues to justify America’s presence in the Gulf. An outstanding read.

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Book Review: My Souls is Wherever You Are: A Crime, A Treasure, A Love Story

My Souls is Wherever You Are: A Crime, A Treasure, A Love Story by Aldo Cazzulllo is a novel spanning seven decades in just over one hundred and fifty pages. Cazzullo is an Italian journalist from Alba, Italy, coincidentally where the story takes place. He is a columnist for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Seraand a best selling author of history and current affairs books. This is his first novel.

I looked at this book several times before picking it up. The crime and mystery books are not my usual thing, but something kept me coming back to this book. It has history, which is a draw for me, but what kept me coming back is the cover. I usually don’t fall for the cover art when selecting books, but this one hooked me. There is a young Italian woman, a partisan, staring out with a determined look on face and a machine pistol slung over her shoulder. There is a red scarf around her neck . She was an anti-fascist or, by another name, a communist fighting for her country, Italy. She is a central part of the story and the cover explains so much it.

The story takes place in three different time periods: 1945, 1963, and 2011. In 1945 the Italian resistance fighters are fighting the remaining fascist and Nazis in Italy. The story focuses on several people beginning in the resistance fight and their connection to Virginia and a missing treasure. The story is told in very short chapters, most barely stretching into a second page. The chapters alternate between the three different years slowly tying to together the events that lead up to and explain to the murder of the former resistance leader Domenico Moresco on April 25, 2011 which is introduced in the opening chapter.

The short chapters and jumping from year to year takes a little getting used to. However, once the reader falls into the rhythm, the story flows well and is easy to follow. The time jumps also help keep the story short and to the point. By limiting the events to basically three days in a seventy year period, focus is maintained to only the relative events and people.

Although short and admittedly drawn in by the cover, I was surprised at the quality of the story and enjoyed the book. There is also a little history in the book too. Everyone who has taken a history class has heard of the French Resistance, this is an introduction for many to the Italian Resistance. The story is quite a web of people and events and will hold most readers attention. A very good read.

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Book Review: Fire Base Illingworth: An Epic True Story of Remarkable Courage Against Staggering Odds

Fire Base Illingworth by Philip Keith

Fire Base Illingworth: An Epic True Story of Remarkable Courage Against Staggering Odds by Philip Keith is the story of the men who defended Fire Base Illington on April 1, 1970. Keith earned a degree in history from Harvard and worked on a master’s at the Naval War College. He joined the navy and became an aviator serving three tours in Vietnam. Keith remained in the navy reserves and attained the rank of captain. He has written eight other books including Blackhorse Riders, his first Vietnam book.

Vietnam was a war where nothing seemed to work for America. A superpower picking up where France had failed waged a new war against communism. What America did not understand, Vietnam really didn’t care about waging a philosophical war. It wanted its independence and that provided a strong will to fight. Western nations had a difficult time giving up the idea of empire, and communist nations saw a place to expand their influence. Vietnam was caught between these forces.

The strategy of fire bases was to bring the war to the North Vietnamese. They were meant to disrupt supply lines and engage the the enemy on America’s terms. Fire bases were set up to attract the enemy attention and bring force to force confrontation. From my time as a Marine, I understood fire bases to be well fortified bases on easy to defend terrain such as hilltops. The army’s 1st Cav Division decided to modify this plan. They planned to make fire bases very temporary bases and to keep moving them in effort to frustrate the Vietnamese. Fast moving fire bases where not nearly as fortified as their predecessors which presented a definite security challenge.

Fire Base Illingworth experienced these security concerns as well as a self inflicted security concern in the form of forty tons of 8” artillery shells. Although the fire base had 8” artillery, forty tons was more than a bit excessive and made an attractive target for the North Vietnamese. The fire base succeeded in its mission to attract the Vietnamese and bring head to head confrontation. The confrontation happened just hours past midnight on April 1, 1970. The soldiers of a lightly fortified Fire Base Illingworth met a well armed and experienced North Vietnamese force.

Keith gives nearly a minute by minute account of the battle. He uses the experiences of the soldiers who fought the battle to tell the story of how fighting and some luck, both good and bad, played a role in the outcome of the battle. Artillery, infantry and cavalry soldiers tell their story and Keith uses the accounts of the North Vietnamese Colonel Lai to help explain what both sides experienced. The battle account moves quickly and highlights the heroism of the American defenders.

There is an introduction to the battle that includes a biography of Illgworth and strategy and equipment being used in the war. The epilogue gives a biography of individual soldiers involved in the battle and the fire base including Colonel Lai. Biographies are also given for those who did not live through the morning. Keith writes and outstanding history that brings to the reader the heroism, frustration, futility, and perhaps even the madness of the entire war. An excellent read.

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Book Review: Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy

Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy by Norman Lewis is his personal account of his experience in the British Intelligence Corps during WWII. Lewis was attached to an American unit in Naples after serving in North Africa. He and his colleagues were given little supervision and, for the most part, left to do their own tasks. He went on to write other books about French Indochina, Indonesia, India, Brazil and other countries. Lewis has also written fifteen novels.

There are at least a thousand books on World War II and plenty on the war in Italy. What makes this book different than most is that is a soldier’s journal. Taking that a step farther, it is a soldier who had a great deal of freedom in Italy and worked in the intelligence field. It is not a journal about battles; it is more a journal about interaction with the people of Naples. Freed of Mussolini, but still under the Germans, then Allied occupation the people suffered. A prisoner at court was asked if it meant anything that the Allies freed him and his people from fascism. The reply through the interpreter came back “ With respect, your honour, he says Americans or Germans, it’s all the same to him. We’ve been screwed by both of them.” The prisoner was released, because the judge thought he was insane. How could anyone in their right mind compare American liberators to fascists?

Food shortages are described. Fish served in restaurants often had a head of a desirable fish attached to the body of undesirable fish to ensure its sale. Another restaurant served “veal”, but when pressed the waiter admitted it was horse meat. Rabbit that was sold at the market had the head attached to ensure the customer that he or she was not buying cat. Shortages of the most basic food stuff, like olive oil, created a thriving black market.

A variety of dealings with the local population are covered. Initially cutting communications lines was thought to be enemy or sympathizer attacks against the allies. It turned out that they lines were being cut for the copper to sell on the black market. The people taking the copper thought nothing of it. They claimed it was German wire they were taking, not the Allies’ wire. Everything found its way to the black market from sugar to automobile tires, to blankets used to make clothing.

Lewis writes a personal look into a “liberated” Italy. He brings a part of war that many people do not know or think about. It is a common misconception that liberating a country brings peace and stability. It usually brings suffering and corruption/crime long before it brings meaningful change. Naples ’44 not only tells of war, but more importantly shows human nature in wartime. The behavior of both the Allies and the people of Naples are reported. Lewis does an outstanding job of documenting his experiences in Naples and provides a very worthwhile read. Recommended to those interested in WWII or the human experience in war and “liberation.”

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