Military

Barnett, Thomas P. M. The Pentagon's New Map. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2004. ISBN 0-399-15175-3.
This is one scary book—scary both for the world-view it advocates and the fact that its author is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and participant in strategic planning at the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation. His map divides the world into a “Functioning Core” consisting of the players, both established (the U.S., Europe, Japan) and newly arrived (Mexico, Russia, China, India, Brazil, etc.) in the great game of globalisation, and a “Non-Integrating Gap” containing all the rest (most of Africa, Andean South America, the Middle East and Central and Southeast Asia), deemed “disconnected” from globalisation. (The detailed map may be consulted on the author's Web site.) Virtually all U.S. military interventions in the years 1990–2003 occurred in the “Gap” while, he argues, nation-on-nation violence within the Core is a thing of the past and needn't concern strategic planners. In the Gap, however, he believes it is the mission of the U.S. military to enforce “rule-sets”, acting preemptively and with lethal force where necessary to remove regimes which block connectivity of their people with the emerging global system, and a U.S.-led “System Administration” force to carry out the task of nation building when the bombs and boots of “Leviathan” (a term he uses repeatedly—think of it as a Hobbesian choice!) re-embark their transports for the next conflict. There is a rather bizarre chapter, “The Myths We Make”, in which he says that global chaos, dreams of an American empire, and the U.S. as world police are bogus argument-enders employed by “blowhards”, which is immediately followed by a chapter proposing a ten-point plan which includes such items as invading North Korea (2), fomenting revolution in (or invading) Iran (3), invading Colombia (4), putting an end to Wahabi indoctrination in Saudi Arabia (5), co-operating with the Chinese military (6), and expanding the United States by a dozen more states by 2050, including the existing states of Mexico (9). This isn't globocop? This isn't empire? And even if it's done with the best of intentions, how probable is it that such a Leviathan with a moral agenda and a “shock and awe” military without peer would not succumb to the imperative of imperium?

November 2004 Permalink

Biggs, Barton. Wealth, War, and Wisdom. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. ISBN 978-0-470-22307-9.
Many people, myself included, who have followed financial markets for an extended period of time, have come to believe what may seem, to those who have not, a very curious and even mystical thing: that markets, aggregating the individual knowledge and expectations of their multitude of participants, have an uncanny way of “knowing” what the future holds. In retrospect, one can often look at a chart of broad market indices and see that the market “called” grand turning points by putting in a long-term bottom or top, even when those turning points were perceived by few if any people at the time. One of the noisiest buzzwords of the “Web 2.0” hype machine is “crowdsourcing”, yet financial markets have been doing precisely that for centuries, and in an environment in which the individual participants are not just contributing to some ratty, ephemeral Web site, but rather putting their own net worth on the line.

In this book the author, who has spent his long career as a securities analyst and hedge fund manager, and was a pioneer of investing in emerging global markets, looks at the greatest global cataclysm of the twentieth century—World War II—and explores how well financial markets in the countries involved identified the key trends and turning points in the conflict. The results persuasively support the “wisdom of the market” viewpoint and are a convincing argument that “the market knows”, even when its individual participants, media and opinion leaders, and politicians do not. Consider: the British stock market put in an all-time historic bottom in June 1940, just as Hitler toured occupied Paris and, in retrospect, Nazi expansionism in the West reached its peak. Many Britons expected a German invasion in the near future, and the Battle of Britain and the Blitz were still in the future, and yet the market rallied throughout these dark days. Somehow the market seems to have known that with the successful evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkerque and the fall of France, the situation, however dire, was as bad as it was going to get.

In the United States, the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined throughout 1941 as war clouds darkened, fell further after Pearl Harbor and the fall of the Philippines, but put in an all-time bottom in 1942 coincident with the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway which, in retrospect, but not at the time, were seen as the key inflection point of the Pacific war. Note that at this time the U.S. was also at war with Germany and Italy but had not engaged either in a land battle, and yet somehow the market “knew” that, whatever the sacrifices to come, the darkest days were behind.

The wisdom of the markets was also apparent in the ultimate losers of the conflict, although government price-fixing and disruption of markets as things got worse obscured the message. The German CDAX index peaked precisely when the Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union was turned back within sight of the spires of the Kremlin. At this point the German army was intact, the Soviet breadbasket was occupied, and the Red Army was in disarray, yet somehow the market knew that this was the high point. The great defeat at Stalingrad and the roll-back of the Nazi invaders were all in the future, but despite propaganda, censorship of letters from soldiers at the front, and all the control of information a totalitarian society can employ, once again the market called the turning point. In Italy, where rampant inflation obscured nominal price indices, the inflation-adjusted BCI index put in its high at precisely the moment Mussolini made his alliance with Hitler, and it was all downhill from there, both for Italy and its stock market, despite rampant euphoria at the time. In Japan, the market was heavily manipulated by the Ministry of Finance and tight control of war news denied investors information to independently assess the war situation, but by 1943 the market had peaked in real terms and declined into a collapse thereafter.

In occupied countries, where markets were allowed to function, they provided insight into the sympathies of their participants. The French market is particularly enlightening. Clearly, the investor class was completely on-board with the German occupation and Vichy. In real terms, the market soared after the capitulation of France and peaked with the defeat at Stalingrad, then declined consistently thereafter, with only a little blip with the liberation of Paris. But then the French stock market wouldn't be French if it weren't perverse, would it?

Throughout, the author discusses how individuals living in both the winners and losers of the war could have best preserved their wealth and selves, and this is instructive for folks interested in saving their asses and assets the next time the Four Horsemen sortie from Hell's own stable. Interestingly, according to Biggs's analysis, so-called “defensive” investments such as government and top-rated corporate bonds and short-term government paper (“Treasury Bills”) performed poorly as stores of wealth in the victor countries and disastrously in the vanquished. In those societies where equity markets survived the war (obviously, this excludes those countries in Eastern Europe occupied by the Soviet Union), stocks were the best financial instrument in preserving value, although in many cases they did decline precipitously over the period of the war. How do you ride out a cataclysm like World War II? There are three key ways: diversification, diversification, and diversification. You need to diversify across financial and real assets, including (diversified) portfolios of stocks, bonds, and bills, as well as real assets such as farmland, real estate, and hard assets (gold, jewelry, etc.) for really hard times. You further need to diversify internationally: not just in the assets you own, but where you keep them. Exchange controls can come into existence with the stroke of a pen, and that offshore bank account you keep “just in case” may be all you have if the worst comes to pass. Thinking about it in that way, do you have enough there? Finally, you need to diversify your own options in the world and think about what you'd do if things really start to go South, and you need to think about it now, not then. As the author notes in the penultimate paragraph:

…the rich are almost always too complacent, because they cherish the illusion that when things start to go bad, they will have time to extricate themselves and their wealth. It never works that way. Events move much faster than anyone expects, and the barbarians are on top of you before you can escape. … It is expensive to move early, but it is far better to be early than to be late.
This is a quirky book, and not free of flaws. Biggs is a connoisseur of amusing historical anecdotes and sprinkles them throughout the text. I found them a welcome leavening of a narrative filled with human tragedy, folly, and destruction of wealth, but some may consider them a distraction and out of place. There are far more copy-editing errors in this book (including dismayingly many difficulties with the humble apostrophe) than I would expect in a Wiley main catalogue title. But that said, if you haven't discovered the wisdom of the markets for yourself, and are worried about riding out the uncertainties of what appears to be a bumpy patch ahead, this is an excellent place to start.

June 2008 Permalink

Burkett, B.G. and Glenna Whitley. Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History. Dallas: Verity Press, 1998. ISBN 1-56530-284-2.

September 2001 Permalink

Chancellor, Henry. Colditz. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 0-06-001252-8.

March 2003 Permalink

Churchill, Winston S. The World Crisis. London: Penguin, [1923–1931, 2005] 2007. ISBN 978-0-141-44205-1.
Churchill's history of the Great War (what we now call World War I) was published in five volumes between 1923 and 1931. The present volume is an abridgement of the first four volumes, which appeared simultaneously with the fifth volume of the complete work. This abridged edition was prepared by Churchill himself; it is not a cut and paste job by an editor. Volume Four and this abridgement end with the collapse of Germany and the armistice—the aftermath of the war and the peace negotiations covered in Volume Five of the full history are not included here.

When this work began to appear in 1923, the smart set in London quipped, “Winston's written a book about himself and called it The World Crisis”. There's a lot of truth in that: this is something somewhere between a history and memoir of a politician in wartime. Description of the disastrous attempts to break the stalemate of trench warfare in 1915 barely occupies a chapter, while the Dardanelles Campaign, of which Churchill was seen as the most vehement advocate, and for which he was blamed after its tragic failure, makes up almost a quarter of the 850 page book.

If you're looking for a dispassionate history of World War I, this is not the book to read: it was written too close to the events of the war, before the dire consequences of the peace came to pass, and by a figure motivated as much to defend his own actions as to provide a historical narrative. That said, it does provide an insight into how Churchill's experiences in the war forged the character which would cause Britain to turn to him when war came again. It also goes a long way to explaining precisely why Churchill's warnings were ignored in the 1930s. This book is, in large part, a recital of disaster after disaster in which Churchill played a part, coupled with an explanation of why, in each successive case, it wasn't his fault. Whether or not you accept his excuses and justifications for his actions, it's pretty easy to understand how politicians and the public in the interwar period could look upon Churchill as somebody who, when given authority, produced calamity. It was not just that others were blind to the threat, but rather than Churchill's record made him a seriously flawed messenger on an occasion where his message was absolutely correct.

At this epoch, Churchill was already an excellent writer and delivers some soaring prose on occasions, but he has not yet become the past master of the English language on display in The Second World War (which won the Nobel Prize for Literature when it really meant something). There are numerous tables, charts, and maps which illustrate the circumstances of the war.

Americans who hold to the common view that “The Yanks came to France and won the war for the Allies” may be offended by Churchill's speaking of them only in passing. He considers their effect on the actual campaigns of 1918 as mostly psychological: reinforcing French and British morale and confronting Germany with an adversary with unlimited resources.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to be drawn from this work is that of the initial part, which covers the darkening situation between 1911 and the outbreak of war in 1914. What is stunning, as sketched by a person involved in the events of that period, is just how trivial the proximate causes of the war were compared to the apocalyptic bloodbath which ensued. It is as if the crowned heads, diplomats, and politicians had no idea of the stakes involved, and indeed they did not—all expected the war to be short and decisive, none anticipating the consequences of the superiority conferred on the defence by the machine gun, entrenchments, and barbed wire. After the outbreak of war and its freezing into a trench war stalemate in the winter of 1914, for three years the Allies believed their “offensives”, which squandered millions of lives for transitory and insignificant gains of territory, were conducting a war of attrition against Germany. In fact, due to the supremacy of the defender, Allied losses always exceeded those of the Germans, often by a factor of two to one (and even more for officers). Further, German losses were never greater than the number of new conscripts in each year of the war up to 1918, so in fact this “war of attrition” weakened the Allies every year it continued. You'd expect intelligence services to figure out such a fundamental point, but it appears the “by the book” military mentality dismissed such evidence and continued to hurl a generation of their countrymen into the storm of steel.

This is a period piece: read it not as a history of the war but rather to experience the events of the time as Churchill saw them, and to appreciate how they made him the wartime leader he was to be when, once again, the lights went out all over Europe.

A U.S. edition is available.

February 2010 Permalink

Dornberger, Walter. V-2. Translated by James Cleugh and Geoffrey Halliday. New York: Ballantine Books, [1952] 1954. LCCN 54-007830.
This book has been out of print for more than forty years. Used copies are generally available via abebooks.com, but the original Viking Press hardcover can be quite expensive. It's wisest to opt for the mass-market Ballantine paperback reprint; copies in perfectly readable condition can usually be had for about US$5.

Dornberger's account is an insider's view of Peenemünde. For an historical treatment with more technical detail plus a description of postwar research using the V-2, see Ordway and Sharpe's 1979 The Rocket Team, ISBN 0-262-65013-4, also out of print but readily available used.

December 2002 Permalink

Drury, Bob and Tom Clavin. Halsey's Typhoon. New York: Grove Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8021-4337-2.
As Douglas MacArthur's forces struggled to expand the beachhead of their landing on the Philippine island of Mindoro on December 15, 1944, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey's Third Fleet was charged with providing round the clock air cover over Japanese airfields throughout the Philippines, both to protect against strikes being launched against MacArthur's troops and kamikaze attacks on his own fleet, which had been so devastating in the battle for Leyte Gulf three weeks earlier. After supporting the initial landings and providing cover thereafter, Halsey's fleet, especially the destroyers, were low on fuel, and the admiral requested and received permission to withdraw for a rendezvous with an oiler task group to refuel.

Unbeknownst to anybody in the chain of command, this decision set the Third Fleet on a direct intercept course with the most violent part of an emerging Pacific (not so much, in this case) typhoon which was appropriately named, in retrospect, Typhoon Cobra. Typhoons in the Pacific are as violent as Atlantic hurricanes, but due to the circumstances of the ocean and atmosphere where they form and grow, are much more compact, which means that in an age prior to weather satellites, there was little warning of the onset of a storm before one found oneself overrun by it.

Halsey's orders sent the Third Fleet directly into the bull's eye of the disaster: one ship measured sustained winds of 124 knots (143 miles per hour) and seas in excess of 90 feet. Some ships' logs recorded the barometric pressure as “U”—the barometer had gone off-scale low and the needle was above the “U” in “U. S. Navy”.

There are some conditions at sea which ships simply cannot withstand. This was especially the case for Farragut class destroyers, which had been retrofitted with radar and communication antennæ on their masts and a panoply of antisubmarine and gun directing equipment on deck, all of which made them top-heavy, vulnerable to heeling in high winds, and prone to capsize.

As the typhoon overtook the fleet, even the “heavies” approached their limits of endurance. On the aircraft carrier USS Monterey, Lt. (j.g.) Jerry Ford was saved from being washed off the deck to a certain death only by luck and his athletic ability. He survived, later to become President of the United States. On the destroyers, the situation was indescribably more dire. The watch on the bridge saw the inclinometer veer back and forth on each roll between 60 and 70 degrees, knowing that a roll beyond 71° might not be recoverable. They surfed up the giant waves and plunged down, with screws turning in mid-air as they crested the giant combers. Shipping water, many lost electrical power due to shorted-out panels, and most lost their radar and communications antennæ, rendering them deaf, dumb, and blind to the rest of the fleet and vulnerable to collisions.

The sea took its toll: in all, three destroyers were sunk, a dozen other ships were hors de combat pending repairs, and 146 aircraft were destroyed, all due to weather and sea conditions. A total of 793 U.S. sailors lost their lives, more than twice those killed in the Battle of Midway.

This book tells, based largely upon interviews with people who were there, the story of what happens when an invincible fleet encounters impossible seas. There are tales of heroism every few pages, which are especially poignant since so many of the heroes had not yet celebrated their twentieth birthdays, hailed from landlocked states, and had first seen the ocean only months before at the start of this, their first sea duty. After the disaster, the heroism continued, as the crew of the destroyer escort Tabberer, under its reservist commander Henry L. Plage, who disregarded his orders and, after his ship was dismasted and severely damaged, persisted in the search and rescue of survivors from the foundered ships, eventually saving 55 from the ocean. Plage expected to face a court martial, but instead was awarded the Legion of Merit by Halsey, whose orders he ignored.

This is an epic story of seamanship, heroism, endurance, and the nigh impossible decisions commanders in wartime have to make based upon the incomplete information they have at the time. You gain an appreciation for how the master of a ship has to balance doing things by the book and improvising in exigent circumstances. One finding of the Court of Inquiry convened to investigate the disaster was that the commanders of the destroyers which were lost may have given too much priority to following pre-existing orders to hold their stations as opposed to the overriding imperative to save the ship. Given how little experience these officers had at sea, this is not surprising. CEOs should always keep in mind this utmost priority: save the ship.

Here we have a thoroughly documented historical narrative which is every bit as much a page-turner as the the latest ginned-up thriller. As it happens, one of my high school teachers was a survivor of this storm (on one of the ships which did not go down), and I remember to this day how harrowing it was when he spoke of destroyers “turning turtle”. If accounts like this make you lose sleep, this is not the book for you, but if you want to experience how ordinary people did extraordinary things in impossible circumstances, it's an inspiring narrative.

August 2009 Permalink

Faverjon, Philippe. Les mensonges de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Paris: Perrin, 2004. ISBN 2-262-01949-5.
“In wartime,” said Winston Churchill, “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” This book examines lies, big and small, variously motivated, made by the principal combatants in World War II, from the fabricated attack on a German radio station used as a pretext to launch the invasion of Poland which ignited the conflict, to conspiracy theories about the Yalta conference which sketched the map of postwar Europe as the war drew to a close. The nature of the lies discussed in the various chapters differs greatly—some are propaganda addressed to other countries, others intended to deceive domestic populations; some are strategic disinformation, while still others are delusions readily accepted by audiences who preferred them to the facts. Although most chapters end with a paragraph which sets the stage for the next, each is essentially a stand-alone essay which can be read on its own, and the book can be browsed in any order. The author is either (take your pick) scrupulous in his attention to historical accuracy or, (if you prefer) almost entirely in agreement with my own viewpoint on these matters. There is no “big message”, philosophical or otherwise, here, nor any partisan agenda—this is simply a catalogue of deception in wartime based on well-documented historical examples which, translated into the context of current events, can aid in critical analysis of conventional wisdom and mass stampede media coverage of present-day conflicts.

July 2005 Permalink

Finkbeiner, Ann. The Jasons. New York: Viking, 2006. ISBN 0-670-03489-4.
Shortly after the launch of Sputnik thrust science and technology onto the front lines of the Cold War, a group of Manhattan Project veterans led by John Archibald Wheeler decided that the government needed the very best advice from the very best people to navigate these treacherous times, and that the requisite talent was not to be found within the weapons labs and other government research institutions, but in academia and industry, whence it should be recruited to act as an independent advisory panel. This fit well with the mandate of the recently founded ARPA (now DARPA), which was chartered to pursue “high-risk, high-payoff” projects, and needed sage counsel to minimise the former and maximise the latter.

The result was Jason (the name is a reference to Jason of the Argonauts, and is always used in the singular when referring to the group, although the members are collectively called “Jasons”). It is unlikely such a scientific dream team has ever before been assembled to work together on difficult problems. Since its inception in 1960, a total of thirteen known members of Jason have won Nobel prizes before or after joining the group. Members include Eugene Wigner, Charles Townes (inventor of the laser), Hans Bethe (who figured out the nuclear reaction that powers the stars), polymath and quark discoverer Murray Gell-Mann, Freeman Dyson, Val Fitch, Leon Lederman, and more, and more, and more.

Unlike advisory panels who attend meetings at the Pentagon for a day or two and draft summary reports, Jason members gather for six weeks in the summer and work together intensively, “actually solving differential equations”, to produce original results, sometimes inventions, for their sponsors. The Jasons always remained independent—while the sponsors would present their problems to them, it was the Jasons who chose what to work on.

Over the history of Jason, missile defence and verification of nuclear test bans have been a main theme, but along the way they have invented adaptive optics, which has revolutionised ground-based astronomy, explored technologies for detecting antipersonnel mines, and created, in the Vietnam era, the modern sensor-based “electronic battlefield”.

What motivates top-ranked, well-compensated academic scientists to spend their summers in windowless rooms pondering messy questions with troubling moral implications? This is a theme the author returns to again and again in the extensive interviews with Jasons recounted in this book. The answer seems to be something so outré on the modern university campus as to be difficult to vocalise: patriotism, combined with a desire so see that if such things be done, they should be done as wisely as possible.

October 2006 Permalink

Fleming, Thomas. The New Dealers' War. New York: Basic Books, 2001. ISBN 0-465-02464-5.

September 2003 Permalink

Foden, Giles. Mimi and Toutou Go Forth. London: Penguin, 2004. ISBN 0-141-00984-5.
Only a perfect idiot would undertake to transport two forty foot mahogany motorboats from London to Cape Town and then onward to Lake Tanganyika by ship, rail, steam tractor, and teams of oxen, there to challenge German dominance of the lake during World War I by attempting to sink a ship three times the length and seven times the displacement of the fragile craft. Fortunately, the Admiralty found just the man in Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simpson, in 1915 the oldest Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy, his ascent through the ranks having been retarded due to his proclivity for sinking British ships. Spicer-Simpson was an inveterate raconteur of tall tales and insufferable know-it-all (on the ship bound for South Africa he was heard lecturing the Astronomer Royal of Cape Town on the southern constellations), and was eccentric in about as many ways as can be packed into a single human frame. Still, he and his motley team, despite innumerable misadventures (many self-inflicted), got the job done, sinking the ship they were sent to and capturing another German vessel, the first German warship ever captured by the Royal Navy. Afterward, Spicer-Simpson rather blotted his copybook by declining to engage first a German fort and then a warship both later found to have been “armed” only with wooden dummy guns. His exploits caused him to be worshipped as a god by the Holo-holo tribe, who fashioned clay effigies of him, but rather less impressed the Admiralty who, despite awarding him the DSO, re-assigned him upon his return to the routine desk job he had before the adventure. HMS Mimi and Toutou were the boats under Spicer-Simpson's command, soon joined by the captured German ship which was rechristened HMS Fifi. The events described herein (very loosely) inspired C.S.Forester's 1935 novel The African Queen and the 1951 Bogart/Hepburn film.

A U.S. edition is now available, titled Mimi and Toutou's Big Adventure, but at present only in hardcover. A U.S. paperback is scheduled for March, 2006.

October 2005 Permalink

Forstchen, William R. One Second After. New York: Forge, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7653-1758-2.
Suppose, one fine spring day, with no warning or evident cause, the power went out. After a while, when it didn't come back on, you might try to telephone the power company, only to discover the phone completely dead. You pull out your mobile phone, and it too is kaput—nothing happens at all when you try to turn it on. You get the battery powered radio you keep in the basement in case of storms, and it too is dead; you swap in the batteries from the flashlight (which works) but that doesn't fix the radio. So, you decide to drive into town and see if anybody there knows what's going on. The car doesn't start. You set out on foot, only to discover when you get to the point along the lane where you can see the highway that it's full of immobile vehicles with their drivers wandering around on foot as in a daze.

What's happening—The Day the Earth Stood Still? Is there a saucer on the ground in Washington? Nobody knows: all forms of communication are down, all modes of transportation halted. You might think this yet another implausible scenario for a thriller, but what I've just described (in a form somewhat different than the novel) is pretty much what the sober-sided experts of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack sketch out in their April 2008 Critical National Infrastructures report and 2004 Executive Report as the consequences of the detonation of a single nuclear weapon in space high above the continental United States. There would be no thermal, blast, or radiation effects on the ground (although somebody unlucky enough to be looking toward the location of the detonation the sky might suffer vision damage, particularly if it occurred at night), but a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) created as prompt gamma rays from the nuclear detonation create free electrons in the upper atmosphere due to the Compton effect which spiral along the lines of force of Earth's magnetic field and emit an intense electric field pulse in three phases which reaches the ground and affects electrical and electronic equipment in a variety of ways, none good. As far as is known, the electromagnetic pulse is completely harmless to humans and other living organisms and would not even be perceived by them.

But it's Hell on electronics. The immediate (E1) pulse arrives at the speed of light everywhere within the line of sight of the detonation, and with a rise time of at most a few nanoseconds, gets into all kinds of electronics much faster than any form of transient protection can engage; this is what kills computer and communications gear and any other kind of electronics with exposed leads or antennas which the pulse can excite. The second phase (E2) pulse is much like the effects of a local lightning strike, and would not cause damage to equipment with proper lightning protection except that in many cases the protection mechanisms may have been damaged or disabled by the consequences of the E1 pulse (which has no counterpart in lightning, and hence lightning mitigation gear is not tested to withstand it). Finally, the E3 pulse arrives, lasting tens to hundreds of seconds, which behaves much like the fields created during a major solar/geomagnetic storm (although the EMP effect may be larger), inducing large currents in long distance electrical transmission lines and other extended conductive structures. The consequences of this kind of disruption are well documented from a number of incidents such as the 1989 geomagnetic storm which caused the collapse of the Quebec Hydro power distribution grid. But unlike a geomagnetic storm, the EMP E3 pulse can affect a much larger area, hit regions in latitudes rarely vulnerable to geomagnetic storms, and will have to be recovered from in an environment where electronics and communications are down due to the damage from the E1 and E2 pulses.

If you attribute much of the technological and economic progress of the last century and a half to the connection of the developed world by electrical, transportation, communication, and computational networks which intimately link all parts of the economy and interact with one another in complex and often non-obvious ways, you can think about the consequences of the detonation of a single nuclear weapon launched by a relatively crude missile (which need not be long range if fired, say, from a freighter outside the territorial waters of the target country) by imagining living in the 21st century, seeing the lights flicker and go out and hearing the air conditioner stop, and two minutes later you're living in 1860. None of this is fantasy—all of the EMP effects were documented in nuclear tests in the 1960s and hardening military gear against EMP has been an active area of research and development for decades: this book, which sits on my own shelf, was published 25 years ago. Little or no effort has been expended on hardening the civil infrastructure or commercial electronics against this threat.

This novel looks at what life might be like in the year following an EMP attack on the United States, seen through the microcosm of a medium sized college town in North Carolina where the protagonist is a history professor. Unlike many thrillers, the author superbly describes the sense of groping in the dark when communication is cut and rumours begin to fly, the realisation that with the transportation infrastructure down the ready food supply is measured in days (especially after the losses due to failure of refrigeration), and the consequences to those whose health depends upon medications produced at great distance and delivered on a just in time basis. It is far from a pretty picture, but given the premises of the story (about which I shall natter a bit below), entirely plausible in my opinion. This story has the heroes and stolid get-things-done people who come to the fore in times of crisis, but it also shows how thin the veneer of civilisation is when the food starts to run out and the usual social constraints and sanctions begin to fail. There's no triumphant ending: what is described is a disaster and the ensuing tragedy, with survival for some the best which can be made of the situation. The message is that this, or something like it although perhaps not so extreme, could happen, and that the time to take the relatively modest and inexpensive (at least compared to recent foreign military campaigns) steps to render an EMP attack less probable and, should one occur, to mitigate its impact on critical life-sustaining infrastructure and prepare for recovery from what damage does occur, is now, not the second after the power goes out—all across the continent.

This is a compelling page-turner, which I devoured in just a few days. I do believe the author overstates the total impact of an EMP attack. The scenario here is that essentially everything which incorporates solid state electronics or is plugged into the power grid is fried at the instant of the attack, and that only vacuum tube gear, vehicles without electronic ignition or fuel injection, and other museum pieces remain functional. All airliners en route fall from the sky when their electronics are hit by the pulse. But the EMP Commission report is relatively sanguine about equipment not connected to the power grid which doesn't have vulnerable antennas. They discuss aircraft at some length, and conclude that since all commercial and military aircraft are currently tested and certified to withstand direct lightning strikes, and all but the latest fly-by-wire planes use mechanical and hydraulic control linkages, they are unlikely to be affected by EMP. They may lose communication, and the collapse of the air traffic control system will pose major problems and doubtless lead to some tragedies, but all planes aloft raining from the sky doesn't seem to be in the cards. Automobiles and trucks were tested by the commission (see pp. 115–116 of the Critical Infrastructures report), and no damage whatsoever occurred to vehicles not running when subjected to a simulated pulse; some which were running stopped, but all but a few immediately restarted and none required more than routine garage repairs. Having the highways open and trucks on the road makes a huge difference in a disaster recovery scenario. But let me qualify these quibbles by noting that nobody knows what will actually happen: with non-nuclear EMP and other electromagnetic weapons a focus of current research, doubtless much of the information on vulnerability of various systems remains under the seal of secrecy. And besides, in a cataclysmic situation, it's usually the things you didn't think of which cause the most dire problems.

One language note: the author seems to believe that the word “of” is equivalent to “have” when used in a phrase such as “You should've” or “I'd have”—instead, he writes “You should of” and “I'd of”. At first I thought this was a dialect affectation of a single character, but it's used all over the place, by characters of all kinds of regional and cultural backgrounds. Now, this usage is grudgingly sanctioned (or at least acknowledged) by the descriptive Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (p. 679, item 2), but it just drives me nuts; if you consider the definitions of the individual words, what can “should of” possibly mean?

This novel focuses on the human story of people caught entirely by surprise trying to survive in a situation beyond their imagining one second before. If reading this book makes you ponder what steps you might take beforehand to protect your family in such a circumstance, James Wesley Rawles's Patriots (December 2008), which is being issued in a new, expanded edition in April 2009, is an excellent resource, as is Rawles's SurvivalBlog.

A podcast interview with William R. Forstchen about One Second After is available.

March 2009 Permalink

Fraser, George MacDonald. Quartered Safe Out Here. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, [1992, 2001] 2007. ISBN 978-1-60239-190-1.
George MacDonald Fraser is best known as the author of the Flashman historical novels set in the 19th century. This autobiographical account of his service in the British Army in Burma during World War II is fictionalised only in that he has changed the names of those who served with him, tried to reconstruct dialogue from memory, and reconstructed events as best he can from the snapshots the mind retains from the chaos of combat and the boredom of army life between contact with the enemy.

Fraser, though born to Scottish parents, grew up in Carlisle, England, in the region of Cumbria. When he enlisted in the army, it was in the Border Regiment, composed almost entirely of Cumbrian troops. As the author notes, “…Cumbrians of old lived by raid, cattle theft, extortion, and murder; in war they were England's vanguard, and in peace her most unruly and bloody nuisance. They hadn't changed much in four centuries, either…”. Cumbrians of the epoch retained their traditional dialect, which may seem nearly incomprehensible to those accustomed to BBC English:

No offence, lad, but ye doan't 'alf ga broon. Admit it, noo. Put a dhoti on ye, an' ye could get a job dishin 'oot egg banjoes at Wazir Ali's. Any roads, w'at Ah'm sayin' is that if ye desert oot 'ere — Ah mean, in India, ye'd 'ev to be dooally to booger off in Boorma — the ridcaps is bound to cotch thee, an' court-martial gi'es thee the choice o' five years in Teimulghari or Paint Joongle, or coomin' oop t'road to get tha bollicks shot off. It's a moog's game. (p. 71)

A great deal of the text is dialogue in dialect, and if you find that difficult to get through, it may be rough going. I usually dislike reading dialect, but agree with the author that if it had been rendered into standard English the whole flavour of his experience would have been lost. Soldiers swear, and among Cumbrians profanity is as much a part of speech as nouns and verbs; if this offends you, this is not your book.

This is one of the most remarkable accounts of infantry combat I have ever read. Fraser was a grunt—he never rose above the rank of lance corporal during the events chronicled in the book and usually was busted back to private before long. The campaign in Burma was largely ignored by the press while it was underway and forgotten thereafter, but for those involved it was warfare at the most visceral level: combat harking back to the colonial era, fought by riflemen without armour or air support. Kipling of the 1890s would have understood precisely what was going on. On the ground, Fraser and his section had little idea of the larger picture or where their campaign fit into the overall war effort. All they knew is that they were charged with chasing the Japanese out of Burma and that “Jap” might be “half-starved and near naked, and his only weapon was a bamboo stake, but he was in no mood to surrender.” (p. 191)

This was a time where the most ordinary men from Britain and the Empire fought to defend what they confidently believed was the pinnacle of civilisation from the forces of barbarism and darkness. While constantly griping about everything, as soldiers are wont to do, when the time came they shouldered their packs, double-checked their rifles, and went out to do the job. From time to time the author reflects on how far Britain, and the rest of the West, has fallen, “One wonders how Londoners survived the Blitz without the interference of unqualified, jargon-mumbling ‘counsellors’, or how an overwhelming number of 1940s servicemen returned successfully to civilian life without benefit of brain-washing.” (p. 89)

Perhaps it helps that the author is a master of the historical novel: this account does a superb job of relating events as they happened and were perceived at the time without relying on hindsight to establish a narrative. While he doesn't abjure the occasional reflexion from decades later or reference to regimental history documents, for most of the account you are there—hot, wet, filthy, constantly assailed by insects, and never knowing whether that little sound you heard was just a rustle in the jungle or a Japanese patrol ready to attack with the savagery which comes when an army knows its cause is lost, evacuation is impossible, and surrender is unthinkable.

But this is not all boredom and grim combat. The account of the air drop of supplies starting on p. 96 is one of the funniest passages I've ever read in a war memoir. Cumbrians will be Cumbrians!

August 2013 Permalink

Fregosi, Paul. Jihad in the West. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998. ISBN 1-57392-247-1.

July 2002 Permalink

Graham, Richard H. SR-71 Revealed. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1996. ISBN 0-7603-0122-0.
The author, who piloted SR-71's for seven years and later commanded the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, provides a view from the cockpit, including descriptions of long-classified operational missions. There's relatively little discussion of the plane's development history, engineering details, or sensors; if that's what you're looking for, Dennis Jenkins' Lockheed SR-71/YF-12 Blackbirds may be more to your liking. Colonel Graham is inordinately fond of the word “unique”, so much so that each time he uses it he places it in quotes as I have (correctly) done here.

July 2003 Permalink

Guderian, Heinz. Panzer Leader. New York, Da Capo Press, 1996. ISBN 0-306-80689-4.

February 2001 Permalink

Guderian, Heinz. Achtung—Panzer!. Translated by Christopher Duffy. London: Arms & Armour Press, [1937] 1995. ISBN 1-85409-282-0.
This edition is presently out of print in the U.S., but used copies are generally available. The U.K. edition, ISBN 0-304-35285-3, identical except for the cover, remains in print.

November 2002 Permalink

Hackworth, David H. and Eilhys England. Steel My Soldiers' Hearts. New York: Rugged Land, 2002. ISBN 1-59071-002-9.

September 2002 Permalink

Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture. New York: Doubleday, 2001. ISBN 0-385-50052-1.

February 2002 Permalink

Hersh, Seymour M. The Samson Option. London: Faber and Faber, 1991, 1993. ISBN 0-571-16189-1.

December 2001 Permalink

Hitchens, Christopher. A Long Short War. New York: Plume, 2003. ISBN 0-452-28498-8.

August 2003 Permalink

Hodges, Michael. AK47: The Story of the People's Gun. London: Sceptre, 2007. ISBN 978-0-340-92106-7.
The AK-47 (the author uses “AK47” in this book, except for a few places in the last chapter; I will use the more common hyphenated designation here) has become an iconic symbol of rebellion in the six decades since Mikhail Kalashnikov designed this simple (just 8 moving parts), rugged, inexpensive to manufacture, and reliable assault rifle. Iconic? Yes, indeed—for example the flag and coat of arms of Mozambique feature this weapon which played such a large and tragic rôle in its recent history. Wherever violence erupts around the world, you'll probably see young men brandishing AK-47s or one of its derivatives. The AK-47 has become a global brand as powerful as Coca-Cola, but symbolising insurgency and rebellion, and this book is an attempt to recount how that came to be.

Toward that end it is a total, abject, and utter failure. In a total of 225 pages, only about 35 are devoted to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the history of the weapon he invented, its subsequent diffusion and manufacture around the world, and its derivatives. Instead, what we have is a collection of war stories from Vietnam, Palestine, the Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, and New Orleans (!), all told from a relentlessly left-wing, anti-American, and anti-Israel perspective, in which the AK-47 figures only peripherally. The author, as a hard leftist, believes, inter alia, in the bizarre notion that an inanimate object made of metal and wood can compel human beings to behave in irrational and ultimately self-destructive ways. You think I exaggerate? Well, here's an extended quote from p. 131.

The AK47 moved from being a tool of the conflict to the cause of the conflict, and by the mid-1990s it had become the progenitor of indiscriminate terror across huge swaths of the continent. How could it be otherwise? AKs were everywhere, and their ubiquity made stability a rare commodity as even the smallest groups could bring to bear a military pressure out of proportion to their actual size.
That's right—the existence of weapons compels human beings, who would presumably otherwise live together in harmony, to murder one another and rend their societies into chaotic, blood-soaked Hell-holes. Yup, and why do the birds always nest in the white areas? The concept that one should look at the absence of civil society as the progenitor of violence never enters the picture here. It is the evil weapon which is at fault, not the failed doctrines to which the author clings, which have wrought such suffering across the globe. Homo sapiens is a violent species, and our history has been one of constant battles. Notwithstanding the horrific bloodletting of the twentieth century, on a per-capita basis, death from violent conflict has fallen to an all-time low in the nation-state era, notwithstanding the advent of of weapons such as General Kalashnikov's. When bad ideas turn murderous, machetes will do.

A U.S edition is now available, but as of this date only in hardcover.

August 2008 Permalink

Hofschröer, Peter. Wellington's Smallest Victory. London: Faber and Faber, 2004. ISBN 0-571-21768-0.
Wellington's victory over Napoléon at Waterloo in 1815 not only inspired Beethoven's worst musical composition, but a veritable industry of histories, exhibitions, and re-enactments in Britain. The most spectacular of these was the model of the battlefield which William Siborne, career officer and author of two books on military surveying, was commissioned to build in 1830. Siborne was an assiduous researcher; after surveying the battlefield in person, he wrote to most of the surviving officers in the battle: British, Prussian, and French, to determine the precise position of their troops at the “crisis of the battle” he had chosen to depict: 19:00 on June 18th, 1815. The responses he received indicated that Wellington's Waterloo Despatch, the after-action report penned the day after the battle was, shall we say, at substantial variance with the facts, particularly as regards the extent to which Prussian troops contributed to the victory and the time at which Wellington was notified of Napoléon's attack. Siborne stuck with the facts, and his model, first exhibited in London in 1838, showed the Prussian troops fully engaged with the French at the moment the tide of battle turned. Wellington was not amused and, being not only a national hero but former Prime Minister, was a poor choice as enemy. For the rest of Siborne's life, Wellington waged a war of attrition against Siborne's (accurate) version of the events at Waterloo, with such success that most contemporary histories take Wellington's side, even if it requires believing in spyglasses capable of seeing on the other side of hills. But truth will out. Siborne's companion History of the Waterloo Campaign remains in print 150 years after its publication, and his model of the battlefield (albeit with 40,000 figures of Prussian soldiers removed) may be seen at the National Army Museum in London.

June 2004 Permalink

Holmes, W. J. Double-Edged Secrets. Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, [1979] 1998. ISBN 1-55750-324-9.
This is the story of U.S. Naval Intelligence in the Pacific theatre during World War II, told by somebody who was there—Holmes served in the inner sanctum of Naval Intelligence at Pearl Harbor from before the Japanese attack in 1941 through the end of the war in 1945. Most accounts of naval intelligence in the war with Japan focus on cryptanalysis and use of the “Ultra” information it yielded from Japanese radio intercepts. Holmes regularly worked with this material, and with the dedicated and sometimes eccentric individuals who produced it, but his focus is broader—on intelligence as a whole, of which cryptanalysis was only a part. The “product” delivered by his shop to warfighters in the fleet was painstakingly gleaned not only from communications intercepts, but also traffic analysis, direction finding, interpretation of aerial and submarine reconnaissance photos, interrogation of prisoners, translations of captured documents, and a multitude of other sources. In preparing for the invasion of Okinawa, naval intelligence tracked down an eighty-year-old seashell expert who provided information on landing beaches from his pre-war collecting expedition there. The total material delivered by intelligence for the Okinawa operation amounted to 127 tons of paper. This book provides an excellent feel for the fog of war, and how difficult it is to discern enemy intentions from the limited and conflicting information at hand. In addition, the difficult judgement calls which must be made between the risk of disclosing sources of information versus getting useful information into the hands of combat forces on a timely basis is a theme throughout the narrative. If you're looking for more of a focus on cryptanalysis and a discussion of the little-known British contribution to codebreaking in the Pacific war, see Michael Smith's The Emperor's Codes (August 2001).

December 2004 Permalink

Holt, George, Jr. The B-58 Blunder. Randolph, VT: George Holt, 2015. ISBN 978-0-692-47881-3.
The B-58 Hustler was a breakthrough aircraft. The first generation of U.S. Air Force jet-powered bombers—the B-47 medium and B-52 heavy bombers—were revolutionary for their time, but were becoming increasingly vulnerable to high-performance interceptor aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles on the deep penetration bombing missions within the communist bloc for which they were intended. In the 1950s, it was believed the best way to reduce the threat was to fly fast and at high altitude, with a small aircraft that would be more difficult to detect with radar.

Preliminary studies of a next generation bomber began in 1949, and in 1952 Convair was selected to develop a prototype of what would become the B-58. Using a delta wing and four turbojet engines, the aircraft could cruise at up to twice the speed of sound (Mach 2, 2450 km/h) with a service ceiling of 19.3 km. With a small radar cross-section compared to the enormous B-52 (although still large compared to present-day stealth designs), the idea was that flying so fast and at high altitude, by the time an enemy radar site detected the B-58, it would be too late to scramble an interceptor to attack it. Contemporary anti-aircraft missiles lacked the capability to down targets at its altitude and speed.

The first flight of a prototype was in November 1956, and after a protracted development and test program, plagued by problems due to its radical design, the bomber entered squadron service in March of 1960. Rising costs caused the number purchased to be scaled back to just 116 (by comparison, 2,032 B-47s and 744 B-52s were built), deployed in two Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber wings.

The B-58 was built to deliver nuclear bombs. Originally, it carried one B53 nine megaton weapon mounted below the fuselage. Subsequently, the ability to carry four B43 or B61 bombs on hardpoints beneath the wings was added. The B43 and B61 were variable yield weapons, with the B43 providing yields from 70 kilotons to 1 megaton and the B61 300 tons to 340 kilotons. The B-58 was not intended to carry conventional (non-nuclear, high explosive) bombs, and although some studies were done of conventional missions, its limited bomb load would have made it uncompetitive with other aircraft. Defensive weaponry was a single 20 mm radar-guided cannon in the tail. This was a last-ditch option: the B-58 was intended to outrun attackers, not fight them off. The crew of three consisted of a pilot, bombardier/navigator, and a defensive systems operator (responsible for electronic countermeasures [jamming] and the tail gun), each in their own cockpit with an ejection capsule. The navigation and bombing system included an inertial navigation platform with a star tracker for correction, a Doppler radar, and a search radar. The nuclear weapon pod beneath the fuselage could be replaced with a pod for photo reconnaissance. Other pods were considered, but never developed.

The B-58 was not easy to fly. Its delta wing required high takeoff and landing speeds, and a steep angle of attack (nose-up attitude), but if the pilot allowed the nose to rise too high, the aircraft would pitch up and spin. Loss of an engine, particularly one of the outboard engines, was, as they say, a very dynamic event, requiring instant response to counter the resulting yaw. During its operational history, a total of 26 B-58s were lost in accidents: 22.4% of the fleet.

During its ten years in service, no operational bomber equalled or surpassed the performance of the B-58. It set nineteen speed records, some which still stand today, and won prestigious awards for its achievements. It was a breakthrough, but ultimately a dead end: no subsequent operational bomber has exceeded its performance in speed and altitude, but that's because speed and altitude were judged insufficient to accomplish the mission. With the introduction of supersonic interceptors and high-performance anti-aircraft missiles by the Soviet Union, the B-58 was determined to be vulnerable in its original supersonic, high-altitude mission profile. Crews were retrained to fly penetration missions at near-supersonic speeds and very low altitude, making it difficult for enemy radar to acquire and track the bomber. Although it was not equipped with terrain-following radar like the B-52, an accurate radar altimeter allowed crews to perform these missions. The large, rigid delta wing made the B-58 relatively immune to turbulence at low altitudes. Still, abandoning the supersonic attack profile meant that many of the capabilities which made the B-58 so complicated and expensive to operate and maintain were wasted.

This book is the story of the decision to retire the B-58, told by a crew member and Pentagon staffer who strongly dissented and argues that the B-58 should have remained in service much longer. George “Sonny” Holt, Jr. served for thirty-one years in the U.S. Air Force, retiring with the rank of colonel. For three years he was a bombardier/navigator on a B-58 crew and later, in the Plans Division at the Pentagon, observed the process which led to the retirement of the bomber close-up, doing his best to prevent it. He would disagree with many of the comments about the disadvantages of the aircraft mentioned in previous paragraphs, and addresses them in detail. In his view, the retirement of the B-58 in 1970, when it had been originally envisioned as remaining in the fleet until the mid-1970s, was part of a deal by SAC, which offered the retirement of all of the B-58s in return for retaining four B-52 wings which were slated for retirement. He argues that SAC never really wanted to operate the B-58, and that they did not understand its unique capabilities. With such a small fleet, it did not figure large in their view of the bomber force (although with its large nuclear weapon load, it actually represented about half the yield of the bomber leg of the strategic triad).

He provides an insider's perspective on Pentagon politics, and how decisions are made at high levels, often without input from those actually operating the weapon systems. He disputes many of the claimed disadvantages of the B-58 and, in particular, argues that it performed superbly in the low-level penetration mission, something for which it was not designed.

What is not discussed is the competition posed to manned bombers of all kinds in the nuclear mission by the Minuteman missile, which began to be deployed in 1962. By June 1965, 800 missiles were on alert, each with a 1.2 megaton W56 warhead. Solid-fueled missiles like the Minuteman require little maintenance and are ready to launch immediately at any time. Unlike bombers, where one worries about the development of interceptor aircraft and surface to air missiles, no defense against a mass missile attack existed or was expected to be developed in the foreseeable future. A missile in a silo required only a small crew of launch and maintenance personnel, as opposed to the bomber which had flight crews, mechanics, a spare parts logistics infrastructure, and had to be supported by refueling tankers with their own overhead. From the standpoint of cost-effectiveness, a word very much in use in the 1960s Pentagon, the missiles, which were already deployed, were dramatically better than any bomber, and especially the most expensive one in the inventory. The bomber generals in SAC were able to save the B-52, and were willing to sacrifice the B-58 in order to do so.

The book is self-published by the author and is sorely in need of the attention of a copy editor. There are numerous spelling and grammatical errors, and nouns are capitalised in the middle of sentences for no apparent reason. There are abundant black and white illustrations from Air Force files.

May 2016 Permalink

Hutchinson, Robert. Weapons of Mass Destruction. London: Cassell, 2003. ISBN 0-304-36653-6.
This book provides a history and survey of present-day deployment of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The author, a former journalist with Jane's, writes from a British perspective and discusses the evolution of British nuclear forces in some detail. The focus is very much on nuclear weapons—of the 260 pages of text, a total of 196 are devoted to nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Two chapters at the end cover chemical and biological weapons adequately but less thoroughly. Several glaring technical errors make one worry about the reliability of the information on deployments and policy. The discussion of how fission and fusion weapons function is complete gibberish; if that's what interests you, the Nuclear Weapons Frequently-Asked Questions available on the Nuclear Weapons Archive is the place to go. There is one anecdote I don't recall encountering before. The British had so much difficulty getting their staged implosion thermonuclear weapon to work (this was during the years when the McMahon Act denied the British access to U.S. weapon design information) that they actually deployed a 500 kT pure fission weapon, similar to Ted Taylor's “Super Oralloy Bomb” tested in the Ivy King shot in 1952. The British bomb contained 70 kg of highly enriched uranium, far more than the 52 kg unreflected critical mass of U-235. To keep this contraption from going off accidentally in an aircraft accident, the uranium masses were separated by 450 kg of steel balls (I'll bet, alloyed with boron, but Hutchinson is silent on this detail) which were jettisoned right before the bomb was to be dropped. Unfortunately, once armed, the weapon could not be disarmed, so you had to be awfully certain you intended to drop the bomb before letting the ball bearings out.

June 2004 Permalink

Jenkins, Dennis R. Magnesium Overcast: The Story of the Convair B-36. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, [2001] 2002. ISBN 1-58007-042-6.
As alluded to by its nickname, the B-36, which first flew in 1946, was one big airplane. Its 70 metre wingspan is five metres more than the present-day 747-400 (64.4 m), although the fuselage, at 49 metres, is shorter than the 70 metre 747. Later versions, starting in 1950, were powered by ten engines: six piston engines (with 28 cylinders each) driving propellers, and four J47 jet engines, modified to run on the same high-octane aviation gasoline as the piston engines. It could carry a bomb load of 39,000 kg—no subsequent U.S. bomber came close to this figure, which is the weight of an entire F-15E with maximum fuel and weapons load. Depending on winds and mission profile, a B-36 could stay aloft for more than 48 hours without refueling (for which it was not equipped), and 30 hour missions were routinely flown.

August 2003 Permalink

Jenkins, Dennis R. and Tony Landis. North American XB-70A Valkyrie. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58007-056-6.

September 2003 Permalink

Jenkins, Dennis R., Mike Moore, and Don Pyeatt. B-36 Photo Scrapbook. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 1-58007-075-2.
After completing his definitive history of the B-36, Magnesium Overcast (August 2003), Dennis Jenkins wound up with more than 300 historical photographs which didn't fit in the book. This companion volume includes them all, with captions putting each into context. Many of these photos won't make much sense unless you've read Magnesium Overcast, but if you have and still hanker for more humongous bomber shots, here's your book. On page 48 there's a photo of a New York Central train car to which the twin J47 jet pod from a retired B-36 was attached “to see what would happen”. Well, on a 38.5 km section of straight track, it went 295 km/hour. Amazing, the things they did in the U.S. before the safety fascists took over!

June 2004 Permalink

Judd, Denis. Someone Has Blundered. London: Phoenix, [1973] 2007. ISBN 0-7538-2181-8.
One of the most amazing things about the British Empire was not how much of the world it ruled, but how small was the army which maintained dominion over so large a portion of the globe. While the Royal Navy enjoyed unchallenged supremacy on the high seas in the 19th century, it was of little use in keeping order in the colonies, and the ground forces available were, not just by modern standards, but by those of contemporary European powers, meagre. In the 1830s, the British regular army numbered only about 100,000, and rose to just 200,000 by the end of the century. When the Indian Mutiny (or “Sepoy Rebellion”) erupted in 1857, there were just 45,522 European troops in the entire subcontinent.

Perhaps the stolid British at home were confident that the military valour and discipline of their meagre legions would prevail, or that superior technology would carry the day:

Whatever happens,
we have got,
the Maxim gun,
and they have not.
            — Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc, “The Modern Traveller”, 1898
but when it came to a fight, as happened surprisingly often in what one thinks of as the Pax Britannica era (the Appendix [pp. 174–176] lists 72 conflicts and military expeditions in the Victorian era), a small, tradition-bound force, accustomed to peace and the parade ground, too often fell victim to (p. xix) “a devil's brew of incompetence, unpreparedness, mistaken and inappropriate tactics, a reckless underestimating of the enemy, a brash overconfidence, a personal or psychological collapse, a difficult terrain, useless maps, raw and panicky recruits, skilful or treacherous opponents, diplomatic hindrance, and bone-headed leadership.”

All of these are much in evidence in the campaigns recounted here: the 1838–1842 invasion of Afghanistan, the 1854–1856 Crimean War, the 1857–1859 Indian Mutiny, the Zulu War of 1879, and the first (1880–1881) and second (1899–1902) Boer Wars. Although this book was originally published more than thirty years ago and its subtitle, “Calamities of the British Army in the Victorian Age”, suggests it is a chronicle of a quaint and long-departed age, there is much to learn in these accounts of how highly-mobile, superbly trained, excellently equipped, and technologically superior military forces were humiliated and sometimes annihilated by indigenous armies with the power of numbers, knowledge of the terrain, and the motivation to defend their own land.

April 2007 Permalink

Keegan. John. The Face of Battle. New York: Penguin, 1976. ISBN 978-0-14-00-4897-1.
As the author, a distinguished military historian, observes in the extended introduction, the topic of much of military history is battles, but only rarely do historians delve into the experience of battle itself—instead they treat the chaotic and sanguinary events on the battlefield as a kind of choreography or chess game, with commanders moving pieces on a board. But what do those pieces, living human beings in the killing zone, actually endure in battle? What motivates them to advance in the face of the enemy or, on the other hand, turn and run away? What do they see and hear? What wounds do they suffer, and what are their most common cause, and how are the wounded treated during and after the battle? How do the various military specialities: infantry, cavalry, artillery, and armour, combat one another, and how can they be used together to achieve victory?

To answer these questions, the author examines three epic battles of their respective ages: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the first day of the Somme Offensive. Each battle is described in painstaking detail, not from that of the commanders, but the combatants on the field. Modern analysis of the weapons employed and the injuries they inflict is used to reconstruct the casualties suffered and their consequences for the victims. Although spanning almost five centuries, all of these battles took place in northwest Europe between European armies, and allow holding cultural influences constant (although, of course, evolving over time) as expansion of state authority and technology increased the size and lethality of the battlefield by orders of magnitude. (Henry's entire army at Agincourt numbered less than 6,000 and suffered 112 deaths during the battle, while on the first day of the Somme, British forces alone lost 57,470 men, with 19,240 killed.)

The experiences of some combatants in these set piece battles are so alien to normal human life that it is difficult to imagine how they were endured. Consider the Inniskilling Regiment, which arrived at Waterloo after the battle was already underway. Ordered by Wellington to occupy a position in the line, they stood there in static formation for four hours, while receiving cannon fire from French artillery several hundred yards away. During those hours, 450 of the regiment's 750 officers and men were killed and wounded, including 17 of the 18 officers. The same regiment, a century later, suffered devastating losses in a futile assault on the first day of the Somme.

Battles are decided when the intolerable becomes truly unendurable, and armies dissolve into the crowds from which they were formed. The author examines this threshold in various circumstances, and what happens when it is crossed and cohesion is lost. In a concluding chapter he explores how modern mechanised warfare (recall that when this book was published the threat of a Soviet thrust into Western Europe with tanks and tactical nuclear weapons was taken with deadly seriousness by NATO strategists) may have so isolated the combatants from one another and subjected them to such a level of lethality that armies might disintegrate within days of the outbreak of hostilities. Fortunately, we never got to see whether this was correct, and hopefully we never will.

I read the Kindle edition using the iPhone Kindle application. It appears to have been created by OCR scanning a printed copy of the book and passing it through a spelling checker, but with no further editing. Unsurprisingly, the errors one is accustomed to in scanned documents abound. The word “modern”, for example, appears more than dozen times as “modem”. Now I suppose cybercommand does engage in “modem warfare”, but this is not what the author means to say. The Kindle edition costs only a dollar less than the paperback print edition, and such slapdash production values are unworthy of a publisher with the reputation of Penguin.

July 2009 Permalink

Macdonald, Lyn. 1915: The Death of Innocence. London: Penguin Books, [1993] 1997. ISBN 0-14-025900-7.
I'm increasingly coming to believe that World War I was the defining event of the twentieth century: not only a cataclysm which destroyed the confident assumptions of the past, but which set history inexorably on a path which would lead to even greater tragedies and horrors as that century ran its course. This book provides an excellent snapshot of what the British people, both at the front and back home, were thinking during the first full year of the war, as casualties mounted and hope faded for the quick victory almost all expected at the outset.

The book does not purport to be a comprehensive history of the war, nor even of the single year it chronicles. It covers only the British Army: the Royal Navy is mentioned only in conjunction with troop transport and landings, and the Royal Flying Corps scarcely at all. The forces of other countries, allied or enemy, are mentioned only in conjunction with their interaction with the British, and no attempt is made to describe the war from their perspective. Finally, the focus is almost entirely on the men in the trenches and their commanders in the field: there is little focus on the doings of politicians and the top military brass, nor on grand strategy, although there was little of that in evidence in the events of 1915 in any case.

Within its limited scope, however, the book succeeds superbly. About a third of the text is extended quotations from people who fought at the front, many from contemporary letters home. Not only do you get an excellent insight into how horrific conditions were in the field, but also how stoically those men accepted them, hardly ever questioning the rationale for the war or the judgement of those who commanded them. And this in the face of a human cost which is nearly impossible to grasp by the standards of present-day warfare. Between the western front and the disastrous campaign in Gallipoli, the British suffered more than half a million casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) (p. 597). In “quiet periods” when neither side was mounting attacks, simply manning their own trenches, British casualties averaged five thousand a week (p. 579), mostly from shelling and sniper fire.

And all of the British troops who endured these appalling conditions were volunteers—conscription did not begin in Britain until 1916. With the Regular Army having been largely wiped out in the battles of 1914, the trenches were increasingly filled with Territorial troops who volunteered for service in France, units from around the Empire: India, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and as the year progressed, Kitchener's “New Army” of volunteer recruits rushed through training and thrown headlong into the killing machine. The mindset that motivated these volunteers and the conclusions drawn from their sacrifice set the stage for the even greater subsequent horrors of the twentieth century.

Why? Because they accepted as given that their lives were, in essence, the property of the state which governed the territory in which they happened to live, and that the rulers of that state, solely on the authority of having been elected by a small majority of the voters in an era when suffrage was far from universal, had every right to order them to kill or be killed by subjects of other states with which they had no personal quarrel. (The latter point was starkly illustrated when, at Christmas 1914, British and German troops declared an impromptu cease-fire, fraternised, and played football matches in no man's land before, the holiday behind them, returning to the trenches to resume killing one another for King and Kaiser.) This was a widely shared notion, but the first year of the Great War demonstrated that the populations of the countries on both sides really believed it, and would charge to almost certain death even after being told by Lord Kitchener himself on the parade ground, “that our attack was in the nature of a sacrifice to help the main offensive which was to be launched ‘elsewhere’” (p. 493). That individuals would accept their rôle as property of the state was a lesson which the all-encompassing states of the twentieth century, both tyrannical and more or less democratic, would take to heart, and would manifest itself not only in conscription and total war, but also in expropriation, confiscatory taxation, and arbitrary regulation of every aspect of subjects' lives. Once you accept that the state is within its rights to order you to charge massed machine guns with a rifle and bayonet, you're unlikely to quibble over lesser matters.

Further, the mobilisation of the economy under government direction for total war was taken as evidence that central planning of an industrial economy was not only feasible but more efficient than the market. Unfortunately, few observed that there is a big difference between consuming capital to build the means of destruction over a limited period of time and creating new wealth and products in a productive economy. And finally, governments learnt that control of mass media could mould the beliefs of their subjects as the rulers wished: the comical Fritz with which British troops fraternised at Christmas 1914 had become the detested Boche whose trenches they shelled continuously on Christmas Day a year later (p. 588).

It is these disastrous “lessons” drawn from the tragedy of World War I which, I suspect, charted the tragic course of the balance of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first. Even a year before the outbreak of World War I, almost nobody imagined such a thing was possible, or that it would have the consequences it did. One wonders what will be the equivalent defining event of the twenty-first century, when it will happen, and in what direction it will set the course of history?

A U.S. edition is also available.

November 2006 Permalink

Mauldin, Bill. Up Front. New York: W. W. Norton, [1945] 2000. ISBN 0-393-05031-9.

December 2001 Permalink

Ministry of Information. What Britain Has Done. London: Atlantic Books, [1945] 2007. ISBN 978-1-84354-680-1.
Here is government propaganda produced by the organisation upon which George Orwell (who worked there in World War II) based the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. This slim volume (126 pages in this edition) was originally published in May of 1945, after the surrender of Germany, but with the war against Japan still underway. (Although there are references to Germany's capitulation, some chapters appear to have been written before the end of the war in Europe.)

The book is addressed to residents of the United Kingdom, and seeks to show how important their contributions were to the overall war effort, seemingly to dispel the notion that the U.S. and Soviet Union bore the brunt of the effort. To that end, it is as craftily constructed a piece of propaganda as you're likely to encounter. While subtitled “1939–1945: A Selection of Outstanding Facts and Figures”, it might equally as well be described as “Total War: Artfully Chosen Factoids”. Here is an extract from pp. 34–35 to give you a flavour.

Between September 1939 and February 1943, HM Destroyer Forester steamed 200,000 miles, a distance equal to nine times round the world.

In a single year the corvette Jonquil steamed a distance equivalent to more than three times round the world.

In one year and four months HM Destroyer Wolfhound steamed over 50,000 miles and convoyed 3,000 ships.

The message of British triumphalism is conveyed in part by omission: you will find only the barest hints in this narrative of the disasters of Britain's early efforts in the war, the cataclysmic conflict on the Eastern front, or the Pacific war waged by the United States against Japan. (On the other hand, the title is “What Britain Has Done”, so one might argue that tasks which Britain either didn't do or failed to accomplish do not belong here.) But this is not history, but propaganda, and as the latter it is a masterpiece. (Churchill's history, The Second World War, although placing Britain at the centre of the story, treats all of these topics candidly, except those relating to matters still secret, such as the breaking of German codes during the war.)

This reprint edition includes a new introduction which puts the document into historical perspective and seven maps which illustrate operations in various theatres of the war.

April 2008 Permalink

Neven, Thomas E. Sir, The Private Don't Know! Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. ASIN B00D5EO5EU.
The author, a self-described “[l]onghaired surfer dude” from Florida, wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life after graduating from high school, but he was certain he didn't want to go directly to college—he didn't have the money for it and had no idea what he might study. He had thought about a military career, but was unimpressed when a Coast Guard recruiter never got back to him. He arrived at the Army recruiter's office only to find the recruiter a no-show. While standing outside the Army recruiter's office, he was approached by a Marine recruiter, whose own office was next door. He was receptive to the highly polished pitch and signed enlistment papers on March 10, 1975.

This was just about the lowest ebb in 20th century U.S. military history. On that very day, North Vietnam launched the offensive which would, two months later, result in the fall of Saigon and the humiliating images of the U.S. embassy being evacuated by helicopter. Opposition to the war had had reduced public support for the military to all-time lows, and the image of veterans as drug-addicted, violence-prone sociopaths was increasingly reinforced by the media. In this environment, military recruiters found it increasingly difficult to meet their quotas (which failure could torpedo their careers), and were motivated and sometimes encouraged to bend the rules. Physical fitness, intelligence, and even criminal records were often ignored or covered up in order to make quota. This meant that the recruits arriving for basic training, even for a supposedly elite force as the Marines, included misfits, some of whom were “dumb as a bag of hammers”.

Turning this flawed raw material into Marines had become a matter of tearing down the recruits' individuality and personality to ground level and the rebuilding it into a Marine. When the author arrived at Parris Island a month after graduating from high school, he found himself fed into the maw of this tree chipper of the soul. Within minutes he, and his fellow recruits, all shared the thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”, as the mental and physical stress mounted higher and higher. “The DIs [drill instructors] were gods; they had absolute power and were capricious and cruel in exercising it.” It was only in retrospect that the author appreciated that this was not just hazing or sadism (although there were plenty of those), but a deliberate part of the process to condition the recruits to instantly obey any order without questioning it and submit entirely to authority.

This is a highly personal account of one individual's experience in Marine basic training. The author served seven years in the Marine Corps, retiring with the rank of staff sergeant. He then went on to college and graduate school, and later was associate editor of the Marine Corps Gazette, the professional journal of the Corps.

The author was one of the last Marines to graduate from the “old basic training”. Shortly thereafter, a series of scandals involving mistreatment of recruits at the hands of drill instructors brought public and Congressional scrutiny of Marine practices, and there was increasing criticism among the Marine hierarchy that “Parris Island was graduating recruits, not Marines.” A great overhaul of training was begun toward the end of the 1970s and has continued to the present day, swinging back and forth between leniency and rigour. Marine basic has never been easy, but today there is less overt humiliation and make-work and more instruction and testing of actual war-fighting skills. An epilogue (curiously set in a monospace typewriter font) describes the evolution of basic training in the years after the author's own graduation from Parris Island. For a broader-based perspective on Marine basic training, see Thomas Ricks's Making the Corps (February 2002).

This book is available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above, under the given ASIN. No ISBN has been assigned to it.

June 2013 Permalink

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, [1938, 1952] 1987. ISBN 0-15-642117-8.
The orwell.ru site makes available electronic editions of this work in both English and Русский which you can read online or download to read at your leisure. All of Orwell's works are in the public domain under Russia's 50 year copyright law.

January 2003 Permalink

Outzen, James D., ed. The Dorian Files Revealed. Chantilly, VA: Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance, 2015. ISBN 978-1-937219-18-5.
We often think of the 1960s as a “can do” time, when technological progress, societal self-confidence, and burgeoning economic growth allowed attempting and achieving great things: from landing on the Moon, global communications by satellite, and mass continental and intercontinental transportation by air. But the 1960s were also a time, not just of conflict and the dissolution of the postwar consensus, but also of some grand-scale technological boondoggles and disasters. There was the XB-70 bomber and its companion F-108 fighter plane, the Boeing 2707 supersonic passenger airplane, the NERVA nuclear rocket, the TFX/F-111 swing-wing hangar queen aircraft, and plans for military manned space programs. Each consumed billions of taxpayer dollars with little or nothing to show for the expenditure of money and effort lavished upon them. The present volume, consisting of previously secret information declassified in July 2015, chronicles the history of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the U.S. Air Force's second attempt to launch its own astronauts into space to do military tasks there.

The creation of NASA in 1958 took the wind out of the sails of the U.S. military services, who had assumed it would be they who would lead on the road into space and in exploiting space-based assets in the interest of national security. The designation of NASA as a civilian aerospace agency did not preclude military efforts in space, and the Air Force continued with its X-20 Dyna-Soar, a spaceplane intended to be launched on a Titan rocket which would return to Earth and land on a conventional runway. Simultaneous with the cancellation of Dyna-Soar in December 1963, a new military space program, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) was announced.

MOL would use a modified version of NASA's Gemini spacecraft to carry two military astronauts into orbit atop a laboratory facility which they could occupy for up to 60 days before returning to Earth in the Gemini capsule. The Gemini and laboratory would be launched by a Titan III booster, requiring only a single launch and no orbital rendezvous or docking to accomplish the mission. The purpose of the program was stated as to “evaluate the utility of manned space flight for military purposes”. This was a cover story or, if you like, a bald-faced lie.

In fact, MOL was a manned spy satellite, intended to produce reconnaissance imagery of targets in the Soviet Union, China, and the communist bloc in the visual, infrared, and radar bands, plus electronic information in much higher resolution than contemporary unmanned spy satellites. Spy satellites operating in the visual spectrum lost on the order of half their images to cloud cover. With a man on board, exposures would be taken only when skies were clear, and images could be compensated for motion of the spacecraft, largely eliminating motion blur. Further, the pilots could scan for “interesting” targets and photograph them as they appeared, and conduct wide-area ocean surveillance.

None of the contemporary drawings showed the internal structure of the MOL, and most people assumed it was a large pressurised structure for various experiments. In fact, most of it was an enormous telescope aimed at the ground, with a 72 inch (1.83 metre) mirror and secondary optics capable of very high resolution photography of targets on the ground. When this document was declassified in 2015, all references to its resolution capability were replaced with statements such as {better than 1 foot}. It is, in fact, a simple geometrical optics calculation to determine that the diffraction-limited resolution of a 1.83 metre mirror in the visual band is around 0.066 arc seconds. In a low orbit suited to imaging in detail, this would yield a resolution of around 4 cm (1.6 inches) as a theoretical maximum. Taking optical imperfections, atmospheric seeing, film resolution, and imperfect motion compensation into account, the actual delivered resolution would be about half this (8 cm, 3.2 inches). Once they state the aperture of the primary mirror, this is easy to work out, so they wasted a lot of black redaction ink in this document. And then, on page 102, they note (not redacted), “During times of crisis the MOL could be transferred from its nominal 80-mile orbit to one of approximately 200–300 miles. In this higher orbit the system would have access to all targets in the Soviet Bloc approximately once every three days and be able to take photographs at resolutions of about one foot.” All right, if they have one foot (12 inch) resolution at 200 miles, then they have 4.8 inch (12 cm) resolution at 80 miles (or, if we take 250 miles altitude, 3.8 inches [9.7 cm]), entirely consistent with my calculation from mirror aperture.

This document is a management, financial, and political history of the MOL program, with relatively little engineering detail. Many of the technological developments of the optical system were later used in unmanned reconnaissance satellite programs and remain secret. What comes across in the sorry history of this program, which, between December 1963 and its cancellation in June of 1969 burned through billions of taxpayer dollars, is that the budgeting, project management, and definition and pursuit of well-defined project goals was just as incompetent as the redaction of technical details discussed in the previous paragraph. There are almost Marx brothers episodes where Florida politicians attempted to keep jobs in their constituencies by blocking launches into polar orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base while the Air Force could not disclose that polar orbits were essential to overflying targets in the Soviet Union because the reconnaissance mission of MOL was a black program.

Along with this history, a large collection of documents and pictures, all previously secret (and many soporifically boring) has been released. As a publication of the U.S. government, this work is in the public domain.

November 2015 Permalink

Phares, Walid. Future Jihad. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, [2005] 2006. ISBN 1-4039-7511-6.
It seems to me that at the root of the divisive and rancorous dispute over the war on terrorism (or whatever you choose to call it), is an individual's belief in one of the following two mutually exclusive propositions.

  1. There is a broad-based, highly aggressive, well-funded, and effective jihadist movement which poses a dire threat not just to secular and pluralist societies in the Muslim world, but to civil societies in Europe, the Americas, and Asia.
  2. There isn't.

In this book, Walid Phares makes the case for the first of these two statements. Born in Lebanon, after immigrating to the United States in 1990, he taught Middle East studies at several universities, and is currently a professor at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of a number of books on Middle East history, and appears as a commentator on media outlets ranging from Fox News to Al Jazeera.

Ever since the early 1990s, the author has been warning of what he argued was a constantly growing jihadist threat, which was being overlooked and minimised by the academic experts to whom policy makers turn for advice, largely due to Saudi-funded and -indoctrinated Middle East Studies programmes at major universities. Meanwhile, Saudi funding also financed the radicalisation of Muslim communities around the world, particularly the large immigrant populations in many Western European countries. In parallel to this top-down approach by the Wahabi Saudis, the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated groups, including Hamas and the Front Islamique du Salut in Algeria, pursued a bottom-up strategy of radicalising the population and building a political movement seeking to take power and impose an Islamic state. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, a third stream of jihadism has arisen, principally within Shiite communities, promoted and funded by Iran, including groups such as Hezbollah.

The present-day situation is placed in historical content dating back to the original conquests of Mohammed and the spread of Islam from the Arabian peninsula across three continents, and subsequent disasters at the hands of the Mongols and Crusaders, the reconquista of the Iberian peninsula, and the ultimate collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate following World War I. This allows the reader to grasp the world-view of the modern jihadist which, while seemingly bizarre from a Western standpoint, is entirely self-consistent from the premises whence the believers proceed.

Phares stresses that modern jihadism (which he dates from the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923, an event which permitted free-lance, non-state actors to launch jihad unconstrained by the central authority of a caliph), is a political ideology with imperial ambitions: the establishment of a new caliphate and its expansion around the globe. He argues that this is only incidentally a religious conflict: although the jihadists are Islamic, their goals and methods are much the same as believers in atheistic ideologies such as communism. And just as one could be an ardent Marxist without supporting Soviet imperialism, one can be a devout Muslim and oppose the jihadists and intolerant fundamentalists. Conversely, this may explain the curious convergence of the extreme collectivist left and puritanical jihadists: red diaper baby and notorious terrorist Carlos “the Jackal” now styles himself an Islamic revolutionary, and the corpulent caudillo of Caracas has been buddying up with the squinty dwarf of Tehran.

The author believes that since the terrorist strikes against the United States in September 2001, the West has begun to wake up to the threat and begin to act against it, but that far more, both in realising the scope of the problem and acting to avert it, remains to be done. He argues, and documents from post-2001 events, that the perpetrators of future jihadist strikes against the West are likely to be home-grown second generation jihadists radicalised and recruited among Muslim communities within their own countries, aided by Saudi financed networks. He worries that the emergence of a nuclear armed jihadist state (most likely due to an Islamist takeover of Pakistan or Iran developing its own bomb) would create a base of operations for jihad against the West which could deter reprisal against it.

Chapter thirteen presents a chilling scenario of what might have happened had the West not had the wake-up call of the 2001 attacks and begun to mobilise against the threat. The scary thing is that events could still go this way should the threat be real and the West, through fatigue, ignorance, or fear, cease to counter it. While defensive measures at home and direct action against terrorist groups are required, the author believes that only the promotion of democratic and pluralistic civil societies in the Muslim world can ultimately put an end to the jihadist threat. Toward this end, a good first step would be, he argues, for the societies at risk to recognise that they are not at war with “terrorism” or with Islam, but rather with an expansionist ideology with a political agenda which attacks targets of opportunity and adapts quickly to countermeasures.

In all, I found the arguments somewhat over the top, but then, unlike the author, I haven't spent most of my career studying the jihadists, nor read their publications and Web sites in the original Arabic as he has. His warnings of cultural penetration of the West, misdirection by artful propaganda, and infiltration of policy making, security, and military institutions by jihadist covert agents read something like J. Edgar Hoover's Masters of Deceit, but then history, in particular the Venona decrypts, has borne out many of Hoover's claims which were scoffed at when the book was published in 1958. But still, one wonders how a “movement” composed of disparate threads many of whom hate one another (for example, while the Saudis fund propaganda promoting the jihadists, most of the latter seek to eventually depose the Saudi royal family and replace it with a Taliban-like regime; Sunni and Shiite extremists view each other as heretics) can effectively co-ordinate complex operations against their enemies.

A thirty page afterword in this paperback edition provides updates on events through mid-2006. There are some curious things: while transliteration of Arabic and Farsi into English involves a degree of discretion, the author seems very fond of the letter “u”. He writes the name of the leader of the Iranian revolution as “Khumeini”, for example, which I've never seen elsewhere. The book is not well-edited: occasionally he used “Khomeini”, spells Sayid Qutb's last name as “Kutb” on p. 64, and on p. 287 refers to “Hezbollah” and “Hizbollah” in the same sentence.

The author maintains a Web site devoted to the book, as well as a personal Web site which links to all of his work.

September 2007 Permalink

Podhoretz, Norman. World War IV. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-52221-2.
Whether you agree with it or not, here is one of the clearest expositions of the “neoconservative” (a term the author, who is one of the type specimens, proudly uses to identify himself) case for the present conflict between Western civilisation and the forces of what he identifies as “Islamofascism”, an aggressive, expansionist, and totalitarian ideology which is entirely distinct from Islam, the religion. The author considers the Cold War to have been World War III, and hence the present and likely as protracted a conflict, as World War IV. He deems it to be as existential a struggle for civilisation against the forces of tyranny as any of the previous three wars.

If you're sceptical of such claims (as am I, being very much an economic determinist who finds it difficult to believe a region of the world whose exports, apart from natural resources discovered and extracted largely by foreigners, are less than those of Finland, can truly threaten the fountainhead of the technologies and products without which its residents would remain in the seventh century utopia they seem to idolise), read Chapter Two for the contrary view: it is argued that since 1970, a series of increasingly provocative attacks were made against the West, not in response to Western actions but due to unreconcilably different world-views. Each indication of weakness by the West only emboldened the aggressors and escalated the scale of subsequent attacks.

The author argues the West is engaged in a multi-decade conflict with its own survival at stake, in which the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are simply campaigns. This war, like the Cold War, will be fought on many levels: not just military, but also proxy conflicts, propaganda, covert action, economic warfare, and promotion of the Western model as the solution to the problems of states imperiled by Islamofascism. There is some discussion in the epilogue of the risk posed to Europe by the radicalisation of its own burgeoning Muslim population while its indigenes are in a demographic death spiral, but for the most part the focus is on democratising the Middle East, not the creeping threat to democracy in the West by an unassimilated militant immigrant population which a feckless, cringing political class is unwilling to confront.

This book is well written and argued, but colour me unpersuaded. Instead of spending decades spilling blood and squandering fortune in a region of the world which has been trouble for every empire foolish enough to try to subdue it over the last twenty centuries, why not develop domestic energy sources to render the slimy black stuff in the ground there impotent and obsolete, secure the borders against immigration from there (except those candidates who demonstrate themselves willing to assimilate to the culture of the West), and build a wall around the place and ignore what happens inside? Works for me.

July 2008 Permalink

Ponting, Clive. Gunpowder. London: Pimlico, 2005. ISBN 1-8441-3543-8.
When I was a kid, we learnt in history class that gunpowder had been discovered in the thirteenth century by the English Franciscan monk Roger Bacon, who is considered one of the founders of Western science. The Chinese were also said to have known of gunpowder, but used it only for fireworks, as opposed to the applications in the fields of murder and mayhem the more clever Europeans quickly devised. In The Happy Turning (July 2003), H. G. Wells remarked that “truth has a way of heaving up through the cracks of history”, and so it has been with the origin of gunpowder, as recounted here.

It is one of those splendid ironies that gunpowder, which, along with its more recent successors, has contributed to the slaughter of more human beings than any other invention with the exception of government, was discovered in the 9th century A.D. by Taoist alchemists in China who were searching for an elixir of immortality (and, in fact, gunpowder continued to be used as a medicine in China for centuries thereafter). But almost as soon as the explosive potential of gunpowder was discovered, the Chinese began to apply it to weapons and, over the next couple of centuries had invented essentially every kind of firearm and explosive weapon which exists today.

Gunpowder is not a high explosive; it does not detonate in a supersonic shock wave as do substances such as nitroglycerine and TNT, but rather deflagrates, or burns rapidly, as the heat of combustion causes the release of the oxygen in the nitrate compound in the mix. If confined, of course, the rapid release of gases and heat can cause a container to explode, but the rapid combustion of gunpowder also makes it suitable as a propellant in guns and rockets. The early Chinese formulations used a relatively small amount of saltpetre (potassium nitrate), and were used in incendiary weapons such as fire arrows, fire lances (a kind of flamethrower), and incendiary bombs launched by catapults and trebuchets. Eventually the Chinese developed high-nitrate mixes which could be used in explosive bombs, rockets, guns, and cannon (which were perfected in China long before the West, where the technology of casting iron did not appear until two thousand years after it was known in China).

From China, gunpowder technology spread to the Islamic world, where bombardment by a giant cannon contributed to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. Knowledge of gunpowder almost certainly reached Europe via contact with the Islamic invaders of Spain. The first known European document giving its formula, whose disarmingly candid Latin title Liber Ignium ad Comburendos Hostes translates to “Book of Fires for the Burning of Enemies”, dates from about 1300 and contains a number of untranslated Arabic words.

Gunpowder weapons soon became a fixture of European warfare, but crude gun fabrication and weak powder formulations initially limited their use mostly to huge siege cannons which launched large stone projectiles against fortifications at low velocity. But as weapon designs and the strength of powder improved, the balance in siege warfare shifted from the defender to the attacker, and the consolidation of power in Europe began to accelerate.

The author argues persuasively that gunpowder played an essential part in the emergence of the modern European state, because the infrastructure needed to produce saltpetre, manufacture gunpowder weapons in quantity, equip, train, and pay ever-larger standing armies required a centralised administration with intrusive taxation and regulation which did not exist before. Once these institutions were in place, they conferred such a strategic advantage that the ruler was able to consolidate and expand the area of control at the expense of previously autonomous regions, until coming up against another such “gunpowder state”.

Certainly it was gunpowder weapons which enabled Europeans to conquer colonies around the globe and eventually impose their will on China, where centuries of political stability had caused weapons technology to stagnate by comparison with that of conflict-ridden Europe.

It was not until the nineteenth century that other explosives and propellants discovered by European chemists brought the millennium-long era of gunpowder a close. Gunpowder shaped human history as have few other inventions. This excellent book recounts that story from gunpowder's accidental invention as an elixir to its replacement by even more destructive substances, and provides a perspective on a thousand years of world history in terms of the weapons with which so much of it was created.

January 2007 Permalink

Pyle, Ernie. Brave Men. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, [1944] 2001. ISBN 0-8032-8768-2.
Ernie Pyle is perhaps the most celebrated war correspondent of all time, and this volume amply illustrates why. A collection of his columns for the Scripps-Howard newspapers edited into book form, it covers World War II from the invasion of Sicily in 1943 through the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris in 1944. This is the first volume of three collections of his wartime reportage: the second and third, Here is Your War and Ernie Pyle in England, are out of print, but used copies are readily available at a reasonable price.

While most readers today know Pyle only from his battle dispatches, he was, in fact, a renowned columnist even before the United States entered the war—in the 1930s he roamed the nation, filing columns about Americana and Americans which became as beloved as the very similar television reportage decades later by Charles Kuralt who, in fact, won an Ernie Pyle Award for his reporting.

Pyle's first love and enduring sympathy was with the infantry, and few writers have expressed so eloquently the experience of being “in the line” beyond what most would consider the human limits of exhaustion, exertion, and fear. But in this book he also shows the breadth of the Allied effort, profiling Navy troop transport and landing craft, field hospitals, engineering troops, air corps dive and light bombers, artillery, ordnance depots, quartermaster corps, and anti-aircraft guns (describing the “scientific magic” of radar guidance without disclosing how it worked).

Apart from the prose, which is simultaneously unaffected and elegant, the thing that strikes a reader today is that in this entire book, written by a superstar columnist for the mainstream media of his day, there is not a single suggestion that the war effort, whatever the horrible costs he so candidly documents, is misguided, or that there is any alternative or plausible outcome other than victory. How much things have changed…. If you're looking for this kind of with the troops on the ground reporting today, you won't find it in the legacy dead tree or narrowband one-to-many media, but rather in reader-supported front-line journalists such as Michael Yon—if you like what he's writing, hit the tip jar and keep him at the front; think of it like buying the paper with Ernie Pyle's column.

Above, I've linked to a contemporary reprint edition of this work. Actually, I read a hardbound sixth printing of the 1944 first edition which I found in a used bookstore in Marquette, Michigan (USA) for less than half the price of the paperback reprint; visit your local bookshop—there are wonderful things there to be discovered.

July 2007 Permalink

Rawles, James Wesley. Patriots. Philadelphia: Clearwater Press, 2006. ISBN 978-1-4257-3407-7.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Robert A. Heinlein

In this compelling novel, which is essentially a fictionalised survival manual, the author tracks a small group of people who have banded together to ride out total societal collapse in the United States, prepared themselves, and are eventually forced by circumstances to do all of these things and more. I do not have high expectations for self-published works by first-time authors, but I started to read this book whilst scanning documents for one of my other projects and found it so compelling that the excellent book I was currently reading (a review of which will appear here shortly) was set aside as I scarfed up this book in a few days.

Our modern, technological civilisation has very much a “just in time” structure: interrupt electrical power and water supplies and sewage treatment fail in short order. Disrupt the fuel supply (in any number of ways), and provision of food to urban centres fails in less than a week, with food riots and looting the most likely outcome. As we head into what appears to be an economic spot of bother, it's worth considering just how bad it may get, and how well you and yours are prepared to ride out the turbulence. This book, which one hopes profoundly exaggerates the severity of what is to come, is an excellent way to inventory your own preparations and skills for a possible worst case scenario. For a sense of the author's perspective, and for a wealth of background information only alluded to in passing in the book, visit the author's SurvivalBlog.com site.

Sploosh, splash, inky squirt! Ahhhh…, it's Apostrophe Squid trying to get my attention. What is it about self-published authors who manifest encyclopedic knowledge across domains as diverse as nutrition, military tactics, medicine, economics, agriculture, weapons and ballistics, communications security, automobile and aviation mechanics, and many more difficult to master fields, yet who stumble over the humble apostrophe like their combat bootlaces were tied together? Our present author can tell you how to modify a common amateur radio transceiver to communicate on the unmonitored fringes of the Citizens' Band and how to make your own improvised Claymore mines, but can't seem to form the possessive of a standard plural English noun, and hence writes “Citizen's Band” and the equivalent in all instances. (Just how useful would a “Citizen's Band” radio be, with only one citizen transmitting and receiving on it?)

Despite the punctuational abuse and the rather awkward commingling of a fictional survival scenario with a catalogue of preparedness advice and sources of things you'll need when the supply chain breaks, I found this a compulsive page-turner. It will certainly make you recalibrate your ability to ride out that bad day when you go to check the news and find there's no Internet, and think again about just how much food you should store in the basement and (more importantly), how skilled you are in preparing what you cached many years ago, not to mention what you'll do when that supply is exhausted.

December 2008 Permalink

Richelson, Jeffrey T. Spying on the Bomb. New York: W. W. Norton, [2006] 2007. ISBN 978-0-393-32982-7.
I had some trepidation about picking up this book. Having read the author's The Wizards of Langley (May 2002), expecting an account of “Q Branch” spy gizmology and encountering instead a tedious (albeit well-written and thorough) bureaucratic history of the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology, I was afraid this volume might also reduce one of the most critical missions of U.S. intelligence in the post World War II era to another account of interagency squabbling and budget battles. Not to worry—although such matters are discussed where appropriate (especially when they led to intelligence failures), the book not only does not disappoint, it goes well beyond the mission of its subtitle, “American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea” in delivering not just an account of intelligence activity but also a comprehensive history of the nuclear programs of each of the countries upon which the U.S. has focused its intelligence efforts: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, France, Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Libya, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran.

The reader gets an excellent sense of just how difficult it is, even in an age of high-resolution optical and radar satellite imagery, communications intelligence, surveillance of commercial and financial transactions, and active efforts to recruit human intelligence sources, to determine the intentions of states intent (or maybe not) on developing nuclear weapons. The ease with which rogue regimes seem to be able to evade IAEA safeguards and inspectors, and manipulate diplomats loath to provoke a confrontation, is illustrated on numerous occasions. An entire chapter is devoted to the enigmatic double flash incident of September 22nd, 1979 whose interpretation remains in dispute today. This 2007 paperback edition includes a new epilogue with information on the October 2006 North Korean “fissile or fizzle” nuclear test, and recent twists and turns in the feckless international effort to restrain Iran's nuclear program.

May 2008 Permalink

Ricks, Thomas E. Making the Corps. New York: Touchstone Books, 1998. ISBN 0-684-84817-1.

February 2002 Permalink

Ringo, John. Into the Looking Glass. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, 2005. ISBN 978-1-4165-2105-1.
Without warning, on a fine spring day in central Florida, an enormous explosion destroys the campus of the University of Central Florida and the surrounding region. The flash, heat pulse, and mushroom cloud are observed far from the site of the detonation. It is clear that casualties will be massive. First responders, fearing the worst, break out their equipment to respond to what seems likely to be nuclear terrorism. The yield of the explosion is estimated at 60 kilotons of TNT.

But upon closer examination, things seem distinctly odd. There is none of the residual radiation one would expect from a nuclear detonation, nor evidence of the prompt radiation nor electromagnetic pulse expected from a nuclear blast. A university campus seems an odd target for nuclear terrorism, in any case. What else could cause such a blast of such magnitude? Well, an asteroid strike could do it, but the odds against such an event are very long, and there was no evidence of ejecta falling back as you'd expect from an impact.

Faced with a catastrophic yet seemingly inexplicable event, senior government officials turn to a person with the background and security clearances to investigate further: Dr. Bill Weaver, a “redneck physicist” from Huntsville who works as a consultant to one of the “Beltway bandit” contractors who orbit the Pentagon. Weaver recalls that a physicist at the university, Ray Chen, was working on shortcut to produce a Higgs boson, bypassing the need for an enormous particle collider. Weaver's guess is that Chen's idea worked better than he imagined, releasing a pulse of energy which caused the detonation.

If things so far seemed curious, now they began to get weird. Approaching the site of the detonation, teams observed a black globe, seemingly absorbing all light, where Dr. Chen's laboratory used to be. Then one, and another, giant bug emerge from the globe. Floridians become accustomed to large, ugly-looking bugs, but nothing like this—these are creatures from another world, or maybe universe. A little girl, unharmed, wanders into the camp, giving her home address as in an area completely obliterated by the explosion. She is clutching a furry alien with ten legs: “Tuffy”, who she says speaks to her. Scientists try to examine the creature and quickly learn the wisdom of the girl's counsel to not mess with Tuffy.

Police respond to a home invasion call some distance from the site of the detonation: a report that demons are attacking their house. Investigating, another portal is discovered in the woods behind the house, from which monsters begin to issue, quickly overpowering the light military force summoned to oppose them. It takes a redneck militia to reinforce a perimeter around the gateway, while waiting for the Army to respond.

Apparently, whatever happened on the campus not only opened a gateway there, but is spawning gateways further removed. Some connect to worlds seemingly filled with biologically-engineered monsters bent upon conquest, while others connect to barren planets, a race of sentient felines, and other aliens who may be allies or enemies. Weaver has to puzzle all of this out, while participating in the desperate effort to prevent the invaders, “T!Ch!R!” or “Titcher”, from establishing a beachhead on Earth. And the stakes may be much greater than the fate of the Earth.

This is an action-filled romp, combining the initiation of humans into a much larger universe worthy of Golden Age science fiction with military action fiction. I doubt that in the real world Weaver, the leading expert on the phenomenon and chief investigator into it, would be allowed to participate in what amounts to commando missions in which his special skills are not required but, hey, it makes the story more exciting, and if a thriller doesn't thrill, it has failed in its mission.

I loved one aspect of the conclusion: never let an alien invasion go to waste. You'll understand what I'm alluding to when you get there. And, in the Golden Age tradition, the story sets up for further adventures. While John Ringo wrote this book by himself, the remaining three novels in the Looking Glass series are co-authored with Travis S. Taylor, upon whom the character of Bill Weaver was modeled.

June 2017 Permalink

Ronson, Jon. The Men Who Stare at Goats. London: Picador, 2004. ISBN 0-330-37548-2.
I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. If you take everything at face value, you're asked to believe that U.S. Army Intelligence harbours a New Age pentacle in the Pentagon cabal bent on transforming Special Forces soldiers into “warrior monks” who can walk through walls, become invisible, and kill goats (and presumably the enemy, even if they are not goats) just by staring at them. These wannabe paranormal super-soldiers are responsible for the cruel and inhuman torture of prisoners in Iraq by playing the Barney the Purple Dinosaur song and all-girl Fleetwood Mac covers around the clock, and are implicated in the Waco massacre, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the Heaven's Gate suicides, and have “re-activated” Uri Geller in the War on Terror.

Now, stipulating that “military intelligence” is an oxymoron, this still seems altogether too zany to be entirely credible. Lack of imagination is another well-known military characteristic, and all of this seems to be so far outside the box that it's in another universe entirely, say one summoned up by a writer predisposed to anti-American conspiracy theories, endowed with an over-active imagination, who's spent way too much time watching X-Files reruns. Anyway, that's what one would like to believe, since it's rather disturbing to contemplate living in a world in which the last remaining superpower is so disconnected from reality that its Army believes it can field soldiers with…super powers. But, as much as I'd like to dismiss this story as fantasy, I cannot entirely do so. Here's my problem: one of the central figures in the narrative is a certain Colonel John Alexander. Now I happen to know from independent and direct personal contacts that Colonel Alexander is a real person, that he is substantially as described in the book, and is involved in things every bit as weird as those with which he is associated here. So maybe all the rest is made up, but the one data point I can confirm checks out. Maybe it's time to start equipping our evil mutant attack goat legions with Ray-Ban shades! For an earlier, better sourced look at the Pentagon's first foray into psychic spying, see Jim Schnabel's 1997 Remote Viewers.

A U.S edition is now available, but presently only in hardcover; a U.S. paperback edition is scheduled for April 2006.

September 2005 Permalink

Roosevelt, Theodore. The Rough Riders. Philadelphia: Pavilion Press, [1899] 2004. ISBN 1-4145-0492-6.
This is probably, by present-day standards, the most politically incorrect book ever written by a United States President. The fact that it was published and became a best-seller before his election as Vice President in 1900 and President in 1904 indicates how different the world was in the age in which Theodore Roosevelt lived and helped define. T.R. was no chicken-hawk. After advocating war with Spain as assistant secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration, as war approached, he left his desk job in Washington to raise a volunteer regiment from the rough and ready horse- and riflemen of his beloved Wild West, along with number of his fellow Ivy Leaguers hungry for a piece of the action. This book chronicles his adventures in raising, equipping, and training the regiment, and its combat exploits in Cuba in 1898. The prose is pure T.R. passionate purple; it was rumoured that when the book was originally typeset the publisher had to send out for more copies of the upper-case letter “I”. Almost every page contains some remark or other which would end the career of what passes for politicians in today's pale, emasculated world. What an age. What a man! The bloodthirsty warrior who wrote this book would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for brokering an end to the war between Russia and Japan.

This paperback edition from Pavilion Press is a sorry thing physically. The text reads like something that's been OCR scanned and never spelling checked or proofread—on p. 171, for example, “antagonists” is printed as “antagon1sts”, and this is one of many such errors. There's no excuse for this at all, since there's an electronic text edition of The Rough Riders freely available from Project Gutenberg which is free of these errors, and an on-line edition which lacks these flaws. The cover photo of T.R. on his horse is a blow-up of a low-resolution JPEG image with obvious pixels and compression artefacts.

Roosevelt's report to his commanding general (pp. 163–170) detailing the logistical and administrative screwups in the campaign is an excellent illustration of the maxim that the one area in which government far surpasses the capabilities of free enterprise is in the making of messes.

February 2005 Permalink

Rumsfeld, Donald. Known and Unknown. New York: Sentinel, 2011. ISBN 978-1-595-23067-6.
In his career in public life and the private sector, spanning more than half a century, the author was:

  • A Naval aviator, reaching the rank of Captain.
  • A Republican member of the House of Representatives from Illinois spanning the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.
  • Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Economic Stabilization Program in the Nixon administration, both agencies he voted against creating while in Congress.
  • Ambassador to NATO in Brussels.
  • White House Chief of Staff for Gerald Ford.
  • Secretary of Defense in the Ford administration, the youngest person to have ever held that office.
  • CEO of G. D. Searle, a multinational pharmaceutical company, which he arranged to be sold to Monsanto.
  • Special Envoy to the Middle East during the Reagan administration.
  • National chairman of Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.
  • Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration, the oldest person to have ever held that office.

This is an extraordinary trajectory through life, and Rumsfeld's memoir is correspondingly massive: 832 pages in the hardcover edition. The parts which will be most extensively dissected and discussed are those dealing with his second stint at DOD, and the contentious issues regarding the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, treatment of detainees, interrogation methods, and other issues which made him a lightning rod during the administration of Bush fils. While it was interesting to see his recollection of how these consequential decisions were made, documented by extensive citations of contemporary records, I found the overall perspective of how decision-making was done over his career most enlightening. Nixon, Ford, and Bush all had very different ways of operating their administrations, all of which were very unlike those of an organisation such as NATO or a private company, and Rumsfeld, who experienced all of them in a senior management capacity, has much wisdom to share about what works and what doesn't, and how one must adapt management style and the flow of information to the circumstances which obtain in each structure.

Many supportive outside observers of the G. W. Bush presidency were dismayed at how little effort was made by the administration to explain its goals, strategy, and actions to the public. Certainly, the fact that it was confronted with a hostile legacy media which often seemed to cross the line from being antiwar to rooting for the other side didn't help, but Rumsfeld, the consummate insider, felt that the administration forfeited opportunity after opportunity to present its own case, even by releasing source documents which would in no way compromise national security but show the basis upon which decisions were made in the face of the kind of ambiguous and incomplete information which confronts executives in all circumstances.

The author's Web site provides a massive archive of source documents cited in the book, along with a copy of the book's end notes which links to them. Authors, this is how it's done! A transcript of an extended interview with the author is available; it was hearing this interview which persuaded me to buy the book. Having read it, I recommend it to anybody who wishes to comprehend how difficult it is to be in a position where one must make decisions in a fog of uncertainty, knowing the responsibility for them will rest solely with the decider, and that not to decide is a decision in itself which may have even more dire consequences. As much as Bush's national security team was reviled at the time, one had the sense that adults were in charge.

A well-produced Kindle edition is available, with the table of contents, footnotes, and source citations all properly linked to the text. One curiosity in the Kindle edition is that in the last 40% of the book the word “after” is capitalised everywhere it appears, even in the middle of a sentence. It seems that somebody in the production process accidentally hit “global replace” when attempting to fix a single instance. While such fat-finger errors happen all the time whilst editing documents, it's odd that a prestigious publisher (Sentinel is a member of the Penguin Group) would not catch such a blunder in a high profile book which went on to top the New York Times best seller list.

April 2011 Permalink

Salisbury, Harrison E. The 900 Days. New York: Da Capo Press, [1969, 1985] 2003. ISBN 978-0-306-81298-9.
On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany, without provocation or warning, violated its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and invaded from the west. The German invasion force was divided into three army groups. Army Group North, commanded by Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, was charged with advancing through and securing the Baltic states, then proceeding to take or destroy the city of Leningrad. Army Group Centre was to invade Byelorussia and take Smolensk, then advance to Moscow. After Army Group North had reduced Leningrad, it was to detach much of its force for the battle for Moscow. Army Group South's objective was to conquer the Ukraine, capture Kiev, and then seize the oil fields of the Caucasus.

The invasion took the Soviet government and military completely by surprise, despite abundant warnings from foreign governments of German troops massing along its western border and reports from Soviet spies indicating an invasion was imminent. A German invasion did not figure in Stalin's world view and, in the age of the Great Terror, nobody had the standing or courage to challenge Stalin. Indeed, Stalin rejected proposals to strengthen defenses on the western frontiers for fear of provoking the Germans. The Soviet military was in near-complete disarray. The purges which began in the 1930s had wiped out not only most of the senior commanders, but the officer corps as a whole. By 1941, only 7 percent of Red Army officers had any higher military education and just 37% had any military instruction at all, even at a high school level.

Thus, it wasn't a surprise that the initial German offensive was even more successful than optimistic German estimates. Many Soviet aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and German air strikes deep into Soviet territory disrupted communications in the battle area and with senior commanders in Moscow. Stalin appeared to be paralysed by the shock; he did not address the Soviet people until the 3rd of July, a week and a half after the invasion, by which time large areas of Soviet territory had already been lost.

Army Group North's advance toward Leningrad was so rapid that the Soviets could hardly set up new defensive lines before they were overrun by German forces. The administration in Leningrad mobilised a million civilians (out of an initial population of around three million) to build fortifications around the city and on the approaches to it. By August, German forces were within artillery range of the city and shells began to fall throughout Leningrad. On August 21st, Hitler issued a directive giving priority to the encirclement of Leningrad and linking up with the advancing Finnish army over the capture of Moscow, so Army Group North would receive what it needed for the task. When the Germans captured the town of Mga on August 30, the last rail link between Leningrad and the rest of Russia was severed. Henceforth, the only way in or out of Leningrad was across Lake Lagoda, running the gauntlet of German ships and mines, or by air. The siege of Leningrad had begun. The battle for the city was now in the hands of the Germans' most potent allies: Generals Hunger, Cold, and Terror.

The civil authorities were as ill-prepared for what was to come as the military commanders had been to halt the German advance before it invested the city. The dire situation was compounded when, on September 8th, a German air raid burned to the ground the city's principal food warehouses, built of wood and packed next to one another, destroying all the reserves stored there. An inventory taken after the raid revealed that, at normal rates of consumption, only between two and three weeks' supply of food remained for the population. Rationing had already been imposed, and rations were immediately cut to 500 grams of bread per day for workers and 300 grams for office employees and children. This was to be just the start. The total population of encircled Leningrad, civilian and military, totalled around 3.4 million.

While military events and the actions of the city government are described, most of the book recounts the stories of people who lived through the siege. The accounts are horrific, with the previous unimaginable becoming the quotidian experience of residents of the city. The frozen bodies of victims of starvation were often stacked like cordwood outside apartment buildings or hauled on children's sleds to common graves. Very quickly, Leningrad became exclusively a city of humans: dogs, cats, and pigeons quickly disappeared, eaten as food supplies dwindled. Even rats vanished. While some were doubtless eaten, most seemed to have deserted the starving metropolis for the front, where food was more abundant. Cannibalism was not just rumoured, but documented, and parents were careful not to let children out of their sight.

Even as privation reached extreme levels (at one point, the daily bread ration for workers fell to 300 grams and for children and dependents 125 grams—and that is when bread was available at all), Stalin's secret police remained up and running, and people were arrested in the middle of the night for suspicion of espionage, contacts with foreigners, shirking work, or for no reason at all. The citizenry observed that the NKVD seemed suspiciously well-fed throughout the famine, and they wielded the power of life and death when denial of a ration card was a sentence of death as certain as a bullet in the back of the head.

In the brutal first winter of 1941–1942, Leningrad was sustained largely by truck traffic over the “Road of Life”, constructed over the ice of frozen Lake Lagoda. Operating from November through April, and subject to attack by German artillery and aircraft, thousands of tons of supplies, civilian and military, were brought into the city and the wounded and noncombatants evacuated over the road. The road was rebuilt during the following winter and continued to be the city's lifeline.

The siege of Leningrad was unparalleled in the history of urban sieges. Counting from the fall of Mga on September 8, 1941 until the lifting of the siege on January 27, 1944, the siege had lasted 872 days. By comparison, the siege of Paris in 1870–1871 lasted just 121 days. The siege of Vicksburg in the American war of secession lasted 47 days and involved only 4000 civilians. Total civilian casualties during the siege of Paris were less than those in Leningrad every two or three winter days. Estimates of total deaths in Leningrad due to starvation, disease, and enemy action vary widely. Official Soviet sources tried to minimise the toll to avoid recriminations among Leningraders who felt they had been abandoned to their fate. The author concludes that starvation deaths in Leningrad and the surrounding areas were on the order of one million, with a total of all deaths, civilian and military, between 1.3 and 1.5 million.

The author, then a foreign correspondent for United Press, was one of the first reporters to visit Leningrad after the lifting of the siege. The people he met then and their accounts of life during the siege were unfiltered by the edifice of Soviet propaganda later erected over life in besieged Leningrad. On this and subsequent visits, he was able to reconstruct the narrative, both at the level of policy and strategy and of individual human stories, which makes up this book. After its initial publication in 1969, the book was fiercely attacked in the Soviet press, with Pravda publishing a full page denunciation. Salisbury's meticulously documented account of the lack of preparedness, military blunders largely due to Stalin's destruction of the officer corps in his purges, and bungling by the Communist Party administration of the city did not fit with the story of heroic Leningrad standing against the Nazi onslaught in the official Soviet narrative. The book was banned in the Soviet Union and copies brought by tourists seized by customs. The author, who had been Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times from 1949 through 1954, was for years denied a visa to visit the Soviet Union. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the work became generally available in Russia.

I read the Kindle edition, which is a shameful and dismaying travesty of this classic and important work. It's not a cheap knock-off: the electronic edition is issued by the publisher at a price (at this writing) of US$ 13, only a few dollars less than the paperback edition. It appears to have been created by optical character recognition of a print edition without the most rudimentary copy editing of the result of the scan. Hundreds of words which were hyphenated at the ends of lines in the print edition occur here with embedded hyphens. The numbers ‘0’ and ‘1’ are confused with the letters ‘o’ and ‘i’ in numerous places. Somebody appears to have accidentally done a global replace of the letters “charge” with “chargé”, both in stand-alone words and within longer words. Embarrassingly, for a book with “900” in its title, the number often appears in the text as “poo”. Poetry is typeset with one character per line. I found more than four hundred mark-ups in the text, which even a cursory examination by a copy editor would have revealed. The index is just a list of searchable items, not linked to their references in the text. I have compiled a list of my mark-ups to this text, which I make available to readers and the publisher, should the latter wish to redeem this electronic edition by correcting them. I applaud publishers who make valuable books from their back-lists available in electronic form. But respect your customers! When you charge us almost as much as the paperback and deliver a slapdash product which clearly hasn't been read by anybody on your staff before it reached my eyes, I'm going to savage it. Consider it savaged. Should the publisher supplant this regrettable edition with one worthy of its content, I will remove this notice.

October 2016 Permalink

Schlosser, Eric. Command and Control. New York: Penguin, 2013. ISBN 978-0-14-312578-5.
On the evening of September 18th, 1980 two U.S. Air Force airmen, members of a Propellant Transfer System (PTS) team, entered a Titan II missile silo near Damascus, Arkansas to perform a routine maintenance procedure. Earlier in the day they had been called to the site because a warning signal had indicated that pressure in the missile's second stage oxidiser tank was low. This was not unusual, especially for a missile which had recently been refuelled, as this one had, and the procedure of adding nitrogen gas to the tank to bring the pressure up to specification was considered straightforward. That is, if you consider any work involving a Titan II “routine” or “straightforward”. The missile, in an underground silo, protected by a door weighing more than 65 tonnes and able to withstand the 300 psi overpressure of a nearby nuclear detonation, stood more than 31 metres high and contained 143 tonnes of highly toxic fuel and oxidiser which, in addition to being poisonous to humans in small concentrations, were hypergolic: they burst into flames upon contact with one another, with no need of a source of ignition. Sitting atop this volatile fuel was a W-53 nuclear warhead with a yield of 9 megatons and high explosives in the fission primary which were not, as more modern nuclear weapons, insensitive to shock and fire. While it was unlikely in the extreme that detonation of these explosives due to an accident would result in a nuclear explosion, they could disperse the radioactive material in the bomb over the local area, requiring a massive clean-up effort.

The PTS team worked on the missile wearing what amounted to space suits with their own bottled air supply. One member was an experienced technician while the other was a 19-year old rookie receiving on the job training. Early in the procedure, the team was to remove the pressure cap from the side of the missile. While the lead technician was turning the cap with a socket wrench, the socket fell off the wrench and down the silo alongside the missile. The socket struck the thrust mount supporting the missile, bounced back upward, and struck the side of the missile's first stage fuel tank. Fuel began to spout outward as if from a garden hose. The trainee remarked, “This is not good.”

Back in the control centre, separated from the silo by massive blast doors, the two man launch team who had been following the servicing operation, saw their status panels light up like a Christmas tree decorated by somebody inordinately fond of the colour red. The warnings were contradictory and clearly not all correct. Had there indeed been both fuel and oxidiser leaks, as indicated, there would already have been an earth-shattering kaboom from the silo, and yet that had not happened. The technicians knew they had to evacuate the silo as soon as possible, but their evacuation route was blocked by dense fuel vapour.

The Air Force handles everything related to missiles by the book, but the book was silent about procedures for a situation like this, with massive quantities of toxic fuel pouring into the silo. Further, communication between the technicians and the control centre were poor, so it wasn't clear at first just what had happened. Before long, the commander of the missile wing, headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in Omaha, and the missile's manufacturer, Martin Marietta, were in conference trying to decide how to proceed. The greatest risks were an electrical spark or other source of ignition setting the fuel on fire or, even greater, of the missile collapsing in the silo. With tonnes of fuel pouring from the fuel tank and no vent at its top, pressure in the tank would continue to fall. Eventually, it would be below atmospheric pressure, and would be crushed, likely leading the missile to crumple under the weight of the intact and fully loaded first stage oxidiser and second stage tanks. These tanks would then likely be breached, leading to an explosion. No Titan II had ever exploded in a closed silo, so there was no experience as to what the consequences of this might be.

As the night proceeded, all of the Carter era military malaise became evident. The Air Force lied to local law enforcement and media about what was happening, couldn't communicate with first responders, failed to send an evacuation helicopter for a gravely injured person because an irrelevant piece of equipment wasn't available, and could not come to a decision about how to respond as the situation deteriorated. Also on display was the heroism of individuals, in the Air Force and outside, who took matters into their own hands on the spot, rescued people, monitored the situation, evacuated nearby farms in the path of toxic clouds, and improvised as events required.

Among all of this, nothing whatsoever had been done about the situation of the missile. Events inevitably took their course. In the early morning hours of September 19th, the missile collapsed, releasing all of its propellants, which exploded. The 65 tonne silo door was thrown 200 metres, shearing trees in its path. The nuclear warhead was thrown two hundred metres in another direction, coming to rest in a ditch. Its explosives did not detonate, and no radiation was released.

While there were plenty of reasons to worry about nuclear weapons during the Cold War, most people's concerns were about a conflict escalating to the deliberate use of nuclear weapons or the possibility of an accidental war. Among the general public there was little concern about the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in depots, aboard aircraft, atop missiles, or on board submarines—certainly every precaution had been taken by the brilliant people at the weapons labs to make them safe and reliable, right?

Well, that was often the view among “defence intellectuals” until they were briefed in on the highly secret details of weapons design and the command and control procedures in place to govern their use in wartime. As documented in this book, which uses the Damascus accident as a backdrop (a ballistic missile explodes in rural Arkansas, sending its warhead through the air, because somebody dropped a socket wrench), the reality was far from reassuring, and it took decades, often against obstructionism and foot-dragging from the Pentagon, to remedy serious risks in the nuclear stockpile.

In the early days of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, it was assumed that nuclear weapons were the last resort in a wartime situation. Nuclear weapons were kept under the civilian custodianship of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and would only be released to the military services by a direct order from the President of the United States. Further, the nuclear cores (“pits”) of weapons were stored separately from the rest of the weapon assembly, and would only be inserted in the weapon, in the case of bombers, in the air, after the order to deliver the weapon was received. (This procedure had been used even for the two bombs dropped on Japan.) These safeguards meant that the probability of an accidental nuclear explosion was essentially nil in peacetime, although the risk did exist of radioactive contamination if a pit were dispersed due to fire or explosion.

As the 1950s progressed, and fears of a Soviet sneak attack grew, pressure grew to shift the custodianship of nuclear weapons to the military. The development of nuclear tactical and air defence weapons, some of which were to be forward deployed outside the United States, added weight to this argument. If radar detected a wave of Soviet bombers heading for the United States, how practical would it be to contact the President, get him to sign off on transferring the anti-aircraft warheads to the Army and Air Force, have the AEC deliver them to the military bases, install them on the missiles, and prepare the missiles for launch? The missile age only compounded this situation. Now the risk existed for a “decapitation” attack which could take out the senior political and military leadership, leaving nobody with the authority to retaliate.

The result of all this was a gradual devolution of control over nuclear weapons from civilian to military commands, with fully-assembled nuclear weapons loaded on aircraft, sitting at the ends of runways in the United States and Europe, ready to take off on a few minutes' notice. As tensions continued to increase, B-52s, armed with hydrogen bombs, were on continuous “airborne alert”, ready at any time to head toward their targets.

The weapons carried by these aircraft, however, had not been designed for missions like this. They used high explosives which could be detonated by heat or shock, often contained few interlocks to prevent a stray electrical signal from triggering a detonation, were not “one point safe” (guaranteed that detonation of one segment of the high explosives could not cause a nuclear yield), and did not contain locks (“permissive action links”) to prevent unauthorised use of a weapon. Through much of the height of the Cold War, it was possible for a rogue B-52 or tactical fighter/bomber crew to drop a weapon which might start World War III; the only protection against this was rigid psychological screening and the enemy's air defence systems.

The resistance to introducing such safety measures stemmed from budget and schedule pressures, but also from what was called the “always/never” conflict. A nuclear weapon should always detonate when sent on a wartime mission. But it should never detonate under any other circumstances, including an airplane crash, technical malfunction, maintenance error, or through the deliberate acts of an insane or disloyal individual or group. These imperatives inevitably conflict with one another. The more safeguards you design into a weapon to avoid an unauthorised detonation, the greater the probability one of them may fail, rendering the weapon inert. SAC commanders and air crews were not enthusiastic about the prospect of risking their lives running the gauntlet of enemy air defences only to arrive over their target and drop a dud.

As documented here, it was only after the end of Cold War, as nuclear weapon stockpiles were drawn down, that the more dangerous weapons were retired and command and control procedures put into place which seem (to the extent outsiders can assess such highly classified matters) to provide a reasonable balance between protection against a catastrophic accident or unauthorised launch and a reliable deterrent.

Nuclear command and control extends far beyond the design of weapons. The author also discusses in detail the development of war plans, how civilian and military authorities interact in implementing them, how emergency war orders are delivered, authenticated, and executed, and how this entire system must be designed not only to be robust against errors when intact and operating as intended, but in the aftermath of an attack.

This is a serious scholarly work and, at 632 pages, a long one. There are 94 pages of end notes, many of which expand substantially upon items in the main text. A Kindle edition is available.

November 2014 Permalink

Scott, William B., Michael J. Coumatos, and William J. Birnes. Space Wars. New York: Forge, 2007. ISBN 0-765-31379-0.
I believe it was Jerry Pournelle who observed that a Special Forces operative in Afghanistan on horseback is, with his GPS target designator and satellite communications link to an F-16 above, the closest thing in our plane of existence to an angel of death. But, take away the space assets, and he's just a guy on a horse.

The increasing dependence of the U.S. military on space-based reconnaissance, signal intelligence, navigation and precision guidance, missile warning, and communications platforms has caused concern among strategic thinkers about the risk of an “asymmetrical attack” against them by an adversary. The technology needed to disable them is far less sophisticated and easier to acquire than the space assets, and the impact of their loss will disproportionately impact the U.S., which has fully integrated them into its operations. This novel, by a former chief wargamer of the U.S. Space Command (Coumatos), the editor-in-chief of Aviation Week and Space Technology (Scott), and co-author Birnes, uses a near-term fictional scenario set in 2010 to explore the vulnerabilities of military space and make the case for both active defence of these platforms and the ability to hold at risk the space-based assets of adversaries even if doing so gets the airheads all atwitter about “weapons in space” (as if a GPS constellation which lets you drop a bomb down somebody's chimney isn't a weapon). The idea, then, was to wrap the cautionary tale and policy advocacy in a Tom Clancy-style thriller which would reach a wider audience than a dull Pentagon briefing presentation.

The reality, however, as embodied in the present book, is simply a mess. I can't help but notice that the publisher, Forge, is an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, best known for their Tor science fiction books. As I have observed earlier in comments about the recent novels by Orson Scott Card and Heinlein and Robinson, Doherty doesn't seem to pay much attention to copy editing and fact checking, and this book illustrates the problem is not just confined to the Tor brand. In fact, after this slapdash effort, I'm coming to look at Doherty as something like Que computer books in the 1980s—the name on the spine is enough to persuade me to leave it on the shelf.

Some of the following might be considered very mild spoilers, but I'm not going to put them in a spoiler warning since they don't really give away major plot elements or the ending, such as it is. The real spoiler is knowing how sloppy the whole thing is, and once you appreciate that, you won't want to waste your time on it anyway. First of all, the novel is explicitly set in the month of April 2010, and yet the “feel” and the technological details are much further out. Basically, the technologies in place three years from now are the same we have today, especially for military technologies which have long procurement times and glacial Pentagon deployment schedules. Yet we're supposed to believe than in less than thirty-six months from today, the Air Force will be operating a two-storey, 75,000 square foot floor space computer containing “an array of deeply stacked parallel nanoprocessing circuits”, with spoken natural language programming and query capability (pp. 80–81). On pp. 212–220 we're told of a super weapon inspired by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan which, having started its development as a jammer for police radar, is able to seize control of enemy unmanned aerial vehicles. And so protean is this weapon, its very name changes at random from SPECTRE to SCEPTRE from paragraph to paragraph.

The mythical Blackstar spaceplane figures in the story, described as incoherently as in co-author Scott's original cover story in Aviation Week. On p. 226 we're told the orbiter burns “boron-based gel fuel and atmospheric oxygen”, then on the very next page we hear of the “aerospike rocket engines”. Well, where do we start? A rocket does not burn atmospheric oxygen, but carries its own oxidiser. An aerospike is a kind of rocket engine nozzle, entirely different from the supersonic combustion ramjet one would expect on an spaceplane which used atmospheric oxygen. Further, the advantage of an aerospike is that it is efficient both at low and high altitudes, but there's no reason to use one on an orbiter which is launched at high altitude from a mother ship. And then on p. 334, the “aerospike” restarts in orbit, which you'll probably agree is pretty difficult to do when you're burning “atmospheric oxygen”, which is famously scarce at orbital altitudes.

Techno-gibberish is everywhere, reminiscent in verisimilitude to the dialogue in the television torture fantasy “24”. For example, “Yo' Jaba! Got a match on our parallel port. I am waaay cool!” (p. 247). On p. 174 a Rooskie no-goodnik finds orbital elements for U.S. satellites from “the American ‘space catalog’ she had hacked into through a Texas university's server”. Why not just go to CelesTrak, where this information has been available worldwide since 1985? The laws of orbital mechanics here differ from those of Newton; on p. 381, a satellite in a circular orbit “14,674 miles above sea level” is said to be orbiting at “17,500 MPH”. In fact, at this altitude orbital velocity is 4.35 km/sec or 9730 statute miles per hour. And astronauts in low earth orbit who lose their electrical power quickly freeze solid, “victims of space's hostile, unforgiving cold”. Actually, in intense sunlight for half of every orbit and with the warm Earth filling half the sky, getting rid of heat is the problem in low orbit. On pp. 285–290, an air-launched cruise missile is used to launch a blimp. Why not just let it go and let the helium do the job all by itself? On the political front, we're supposed to think that a spittle-flecked mullah raving that he was the incarnation of the Twelfth Imam, in the presence of the Supreme Leader and President of Iran, would not only escape being thrown in the dungeon, but walk out of the meeting with a go-ahead to launch a nuclear-tipped missile at a target in Europe. And there is much, much more like this.

I suppose it should have been a tip-off that the foreword was written by George Noory, who hosts the Coast to Coast AM radio program originally founded by Art Bell. Co-author Birnes was also co-author of the hilariously preposterous The Day After Roswell, which claims that key technologies in the second half of the twentieth century, including stealth aircraft and integrated circuits, were based on reverse-engineered alien technologies from a flying saucer which crashed in New Mexico in 1947. As stories go, Roswell, Texas seems more plausible, and a lot more fun, than this book.

May 2007 Permalink

Smith, Michael. Station X. New York: TV Books, 1999. ISBN 1-57500-094-6.

July 2001 Permalink

Smith, Michael. The Emperor's Codes. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000. ISBN 1-55970-568-X.

August 2001 Permalink

Spotts, Frederic. Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58567-345-5.
A paperback edition is scheduled to be published in February 2004.

October 2003 Permalink

Stephenson, Neal. Cryptonomicon. New York: Perennial, 1999. ISBN 0-380-78862-4.
I've found that I rarely enjoy, and consequently am disinclined to pick up, these huge, fat, square works of fiction cranked out by contemporary super scribblers such as Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling. In each case, the author started out and made their name crafting intricately constructed, tightly plotted page-turners, but later on succumbed to a kind of mid-career spread which yields flabby doorstop novels that give you hand cramps if you read them in bed and contain more filler than thriller. My hypothesis is that when a talented author is getting started, their initial books receive the close attention of a professional editor and benefit from the discipline imposed by an individual whose job is to flense the flab from a manuscript. But when an author becomes highly successful—a “property” who can be relied upon to crank out best-seller after best-seller, it becomes harder for an editor to restrain an author's proclivity to bloat and bloviation. (This is not to say that all authors are so prone, but some certainly are.) I mean, how would you feel giving Tom Clancy advice on the art of crafting thrillers, even though Executive Orders could easily have been cut by a third and would probably have been a better novel at half the size.

This is why, despite my having tremendously enjoyed his earlier Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon sat on my shelf for almost four years before I decided to take it with me on a trip and give it a try. Hey, even later Tom Clancy can be enjoyed as “airplane” books as long as they fit in your carry-on bag! While ageing on the shelf, this book was one of the most frequently recommended by visitors to this page, and friends to whom I mentioned my hesitation to dive into the book unanimously said, “You really ought to read it.” Well, I've finished it, so now I'm in a position to tell you, “You really ought to read it.” This is simply one of the best modern novels I have read in years.

The book is thick, but that's because the story is deep and sprawling and requires a large canvas. Stretching over six decades and three generations, and melding genera as disparate as military history, cryptography, mathematics and computing, business and economics, international finance, privacy and individualism versus the snooper state and intrusive taxation, personal eccentricity and humour, telecommunications policy and technology, civil and military engineering, computers and programming, the hacker and cypherpunk culture, and personal empowerment as a way of avoiding repetition of the tragedies of the twentieth century, the story defies classification into any neat category. It is not science fiction, because all of the technologies exist (or plausibly could have existed—well, maybe not the Galvanick Lucipher [p. 234; all page citations are to the trade paperback edition linked above. I'd usually cite by chapter, but they aren't numbered and there is no table of contents]—in the epoch in which they appear). Some call it a “techno thriller”, but it isn't really a compelling page-turner in that sense; this is a book you want to savour over a period of time, watching the story lines evolve and weave together over the decades, and thinking about the ideas which underlie the plot line.

The breadth of the topics which figure in this story requires encyclopedic knowledge. which the author demonstrates while making it look effortless, never like he's showing off. Stephenson writes with the kind of universal expertise for which Isaac Asimov was famed, but he's a better writer than the Good Doctor, and that's saying something. Every few pages you come across a gem such as the following (p. 207), which is the funniest paragraph I've read in many a year.

He was born Graf Heinrich Karl Wilhelm Otto Friedrich von Übersetzenseehafenstadt, but changed his name to Nigel St. John Gloamthorpby, a.k.a. Lord Woadmire, in 1914. In his photograph, he looks every inch a von Übersetzenseehafenstadt, and he is free of the cranial geometry problem so evident in the older portraits. Lord Woadmire is not related to the original ducal line of Qwghlm, the Moore family (Anglicized from the Qwghlmian clan name Mnyhrrgh) which had been terminated in 1888 by a spectacularly improbable combination of schistosomiasis, suicide, long-festering Crimean war wounds, ball lightning, flawed cannon, falls from horses, improperly canned oysters, and rogue waves.
On p. 352 we find one of the most lucid and concise explanations I've ever read of why it far more difficult to escape the grasp of now-obsolete technologies than most technologists may wish.
(This is simply because the old technology is universally understood by those who need to understand it, and it works well, and all kinds of electronic and software technology has been built and tested to work within that framework, and why mess with success, especially when your profit margins are so small that they can only be detected by using techniques from quantum mechanics, and any glitches vis-à-vis compatibility with old stuff will send your company straight into the toilet.)
In two sentences on p. 564, he lays out the essentials of the original concept for Autodesk, which I failed to convey (providentially, in retrospect) to almost every venture capitalist in Silicon Valley in thousands more words and endless, tedious meetings.
“ … But whenever a business plan first makes contact with the actual market—the real world—suddenly all kinds of stuff becomes clear. You may have envisioned half a dozen potential markets for your product, but as soon as you open your doors, one just explodes from the pack and becomes so instantly important that good business sense dictates that you abandon the others and concentrate all your efforts.”
And how many New York Times Best-Sellers contain working source code (p, 480) for a Perl program?

A 1168 page mass market paperback edition is now available, but given the unwieldiness of such an edition, how much you're likely to thumb through it to refresh your memory on little details as you read it, the likelihood you'll end up reading it more than once, and the relatively small difference in price, the trade paperback cited at the top may be the better buy. Readers interested in the cryptographic technology and culture which figure in the book will find additional information in the author's Cryptonomicon cypher-FAQ.

May 2006 Permalink

Stumpf, David K. Titan II: A History of a Cold War Missile Program. Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press, 2000. ISBN 1-55728-601-9.

May 2002 Permalink

[Audiobook] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Vol. 1. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [c. 400 B.C.] 2005.
Not only is The Peloponnesian War the first true work of history to have come down to us from antiquity, in writing it Thucydides essentially invented the historical narrative as it is presently understood. Although having served as a general (στρατηγός) on the Athenian side in the war, he adopts a scrupulously objective viewpoint and presents the motivations, arguments, and actions of all sides in the conflict in an even-handed manner. Perhaps his having been exiled from Athens due to arriving too late to save Amphipolis from falling to the Spartans contributed both to his dispassionate recounting of the war as well as providing the leisure to write the work. Thucydides himself wrote:
It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs somewhat particularly.

Unlike earlier war narratives in epic poetry, Thucydides based his account purely upon the actions of the human participants involved. While he includes the prophecies of oracles and auguries, he considers them important only to the extent they influenced decisions made by those who gave them credence. Divine intervention plays no part whatsoever in his description of events, and in his account of the Athenian Plague he even mocks how prophecies are interpreted to fit subsequent events. In addition to military and political affairs, Thucydides was a keen observer of natural phenomena: his account of the Athenian Plague reads like that of a modern epidemiologist, including his identifying overcrowding and poor sanitation as contributing factors and the observation that surviving the disease (as he did himself) conferred immunity. He further observes that solar eclipses appear to occur only at the new Moon, and may have been the first to identify earthquakes as the cause of tsunamis.

In the text, Thucydides includes lengthy speeches made by figures on all sides of the conflict, both in political assemblies and those of generals exhorting their troops to battle. He admits in the introduction that in many cases no contemporary account of these speeches exists and that he simply made up what he believed the speaker would likely have said given the circumstances. While this is not a technique modern historians would employ, Greeks, from their theatre and poetry, were accustomed to narratives presented in this form and Thucydides, inventing the concept of history as he wrote it, saw nothing wrong with inventing words in the absence of eyewitness accounts. What is striking is how modern everything seems. There are descriptions of the strategy of a sea power (Athens) confronted by a land power (Sparta), the dangers of alliances which invite weaker allies to take risks that involve their guarantors in unwanted and costly conflicts, the difficulties in mounting an amphibious assault on a defended shore, the challenge a democratic society has in remaining focused on a long-term conflict with an authoritarian opponent, and the utility of economic warfare (or, as Thucydides puts it [over and over again], “ravaging the countryside”) in sapping the adversary's capacity and will to resist. Readers with stereotyped views of Athens and Sparta may be surprised that many at the time of the war viewed Sparta as a liberator of independent cities from the yoke of the Athenian empire, and that Thucydides, an Athenian, often seems sympathetic to this view. Many of the speeches could have been given by present-day politicians and generals, except they would be unlikely to be as eloquent or argue their case so cogently. One understands why Thucydides was not only read over the centuries (at least prior to the present Dark Time, when the priceless patrimony of Western culture has been jettisoned and largely forgotten) for its literary excellence, but is still studied in military academies for its timeless insights into the art of war and the dynamics of societies at war. While modern readers may find the actual campaigns sporadic and the battles on a small scale by present day standards, from the Hellenic perspective, which saw their culture of city-states as “civilisation” surrounded by a sea of barbarians, this was a world war, and Thucydides records it as such a momentous event.

This is Volume 1 of the audiobook, which includes the first four of the eight books into which Thucydides's text is conventionally divided, covering the prior history of Greece and the first nine years of the war, through the Thracian campaigns of the Spartan Brasidas in 423 B.C. (Here is Volume 2, with the balance.) The audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 14 hours and 50 minutes with more than a hour of introductory essays including a biography of Thucydides and an overview of the work. The Benjamin Jowett translation is used, read by the versatile Charlton Griffin. A print edition of this translation is available.

May 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Vol. 2. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [c. 400 B.C.] 2005.
This is the second volume of the audiobook edition of Thucydides's epic history of what was, for Hellenic civilisation, a generation-long world war, describing which the author essentially invented historical narrative as it has been understood ever since. For general comments about the work, see my notes for Volume I.

Although a work of history (albeit with the invented speeches Thucydides acknowledges as a narrative device), this is as much a Greek tragedy as any of the Athenian plays. The war, which began, like so many, over a peripheral conflict between two regional hegemonies, transformed both Athens and Sparta into “warfare states”, where every summer was occupied in military campaigns, and every winter in planning for the next season's conflict. The Melian dialogue, which appears in Book V of the history, is one of the most chilling exemplars of raw power politics ever expressed—even more than two millennia later, it makes the soul shiver and, considering its consequences, makes one sympathetic to those, then and now, who decry the excesses of direct democracy.

Perhaps the massacre of the Melians offended the gods (although Thucydides would never suggest divine influence in the affairs of men), or maybe it was just a symptom of imperial overreach heading directly for the abyss, but not long afterward Athens launched the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, which ultimately resulted in a defeat which, on the scale of classical conflict, was on the order of Stalingrad and resulted in the end of democracy in Athens and its ultimate subjugation by Sparta.

Weapons, technologies, and political institutions change, but the humans who invent them are invariant under time translation. There is wisdom in this narrative of a war fought so very long ago which contemporary decision makers on the global stage ignore only at the peril of the lives and fortune entrusted to them by their constituents. If I could put up a shill at the “town hall” meetings of aspiring politicians, I'd like to ask them “Have you read Thucydides?”, and when they predictably said they had, then “Do you approve of the Athenian democracy's judgement as regards the citizens of Melos?”

This recording includes the second four of the eight books into which Thucydides's text is conventionally divided. The audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 11 hours and 29 minutes with an epilogue describing the events which occurred after the extant text of Thucydides ends in mid-paragraph whilst describing events of 410 B.C., six years before the end of the war. The Benjamin Jowett translation is used, read by Charlton Griffin. A print edition of this translation is available.

August 2008 Permalink

Trevor-Roper, Hugh. Hitler's War Directives. Edinburgh: Birlinn, [1964] 2004. ISBN 978-1-84341-014-10.
This book, originally published in 1964, contains all of Adolf Hitler's official decrees on the prosecution of the European war, from preparations for the invasion of Poland in 1939 to his final exhortation to troops on the Eastern Front of 15th April 1945 to stand in place or die. The author introduces each of the translated orders with an explanation of the situation at the time, and describes subsequent events. A fifteen page introduction explains the context of these documents and the structure of the organisations to which they were directed.

For those familiar with the history of the period, there are few revelations to be gained from these documents. It is interesting to observe the extent to which Hitler was concerned with creating and substantiating the pretexts for his aggression in both the East and West, and also how when the tide turned and the Wehrmacht was rolled back from Stalingrad to Berlin, he focused purely upon tactical details, never seeming to appreciate (at least in these orders to the military, state, and party) the inexorable disaster consuming them all.

As these are decrees at the highest level, they are largely composed of administrative matters and only occasionally discuss operational items; as such one's eyes may glaze over reading too much in one sitting. The bizarre parallel structure of state and party created by Hitler is evident in a series of decrees issued during the defensive phase of the war in which essentially the same orders were independently issued to state and party leaders, subordinating each to military commanders in battle areas. As the Third Reich approached collapse, the formal numbering of orders was abandoned, and senior military commanders issued orders in Hitler's name. These are included here using a system of numbering devised by the author. Appendices include lists of code names for operations, abbreviations, and people whose names appear in the orders.

If you aren't well-acquainted with the history of World War II in Europe, you'll take away little from this work. While the author sketches the history of each order, you really need to know the big picture to understand the situation the Germans faced and what they knew at the time to comprehend the extent to which Hitler's orders evidenced cunning or denial. Still, one rarely gets the opportunity to read the actual operational orders issued during a major conflict which ended in annihilation for the person giving them and the nation which followed him, and this book provides a way to understand how ambition, delusion, and blind obedience can lead to tragic catastrophe.

January 2009 Permalink

Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. New York: Presidio Press, [1962, 1988] 2004. ISBN 978-0-345-47609-8.
In 1871 Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, chief of the Prussian General Staff and architect of modern German military strategy, wrote “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force”, an observation which is often paraphrased as “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. This is doubtless the case, but as this classic history of the diplomatic run-up to World War I and the initial hostilities from the outbreak of the war through the First Battle of the Marne demonstrates, plans, treaties, and military and political structures put into place long before open conflict erupts can tie the hands of decision makers long after events have proven them obsolete.

I first read this book in the 1980s, and I found upon rereading it now with the benefit of having since read a number of other accounts of the period, both contemporary and historical, that I'd missed or failed to fully appreciate some important points on the first traverse.

The first is how crunchy and rigid the system of alliances among the Great Powers was in the years before the War, and also the plans of mobilisation of the land powers: France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Viewed from a prewar perspective many thought these arrangements were guarantors of security: creating a balance of power in which the ultimate harm to any aggressor was easily calculated to be far greater than any potential gain, especially as their economies became increasingly interlinked and dependent upon international trade. For economic reasons alone, any war was expected to be short—no power was believed to have the resources to sustain a protracted conflict once its trade was disrupted by war. And yet this system, while metastable near the local minimum it occupied since the 1890s, proved highly unstable to perturbations which dislodged it from that perch. The mobilisation plans of the land powers (Britain, characteristically, had no such plan and expected to muddle through based upon events, but as the preeminent sea power with global obligations it was, in a sense, perpetually mobilised for naval conflicts) were carefully choreographed at the level of detail of railroad schedules. Once the “execute” button was pushed, events would begin to occur on a nationwide scale: call-ups of troops, distribution of supplies from armories, movement of men and munitions to assembly points, rationing of key supplies, etc. Once one nation had begun to mobilise, its potential opponents ran an enormous risk if they did not also mobilise—every day they delayed was a day the enemy, once assembled in battle order, could attack them before their own preparations were complete.

This interlocking set of alliances and scripted mobilisation plans finally proved lethal in 1914. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and began mobilisation. Russia, as an ally of Serbia and seeing its position in the Balkans threatened, declared a partial mobilisation on July 29. Germany, allied to Austria-Hungary and threatened by the Russian mobilisation, decreed its own mobilisation on July 30. France, allied with Russia and threatened by Germany, began mobilisation on August 1st. Finally, Britain, allied with France and Russia, declared war on Germany on August 4th. Europe, at peace the morning of Tuesday, July 28th, was, by the evening of Tuesday, August 4th, at war with itself, almost entirely due to treaties and mobilisation plans concluded in peacetime with the best of intentions, and not overt hostilities between any of the main powers involved.

It is a commonplace that World War I surpassed all historical experience and expectations at its outbreak for the scale of destruction and the brutality of the conflict (a few prescient observers who had studied the second American war of secession and developments in weaponry since then were not surprised, but they were in the minority), but this is often thought to have emerged in the period of static trench warfare which predominated from 1915 until the very end of the war. But this account makes clear that even the initial “war of maneuver” in August and September 1914 was characterised by the same callous squandering of life by commanders who adhered to their pre-war plans despite overwhelming evidence from the field that the assumptions upon which they were based were completely invalid. Both French and German commanders sent wave after wave of troops armed only with bolt-action rifles and bayonets against fortified positions with artillery and machine guns, suffering tens of thousands of casualties (some units were almost completely wiped out) with no effect whatsoever. Many accounts of World War I portray the mindless brutality of the conflict as a product of the trenches, but it was there from the very start, inherent in the prevailing view that the citizen was the property of the state to expend as it wished at the will of the ruling class (with the exception of the British, all armies in the conflict were composed largely of conscripts).

Although originally published almost half a century ago, this book remains one of the definitive accounts of the origins of World War I and the first month of the conflict, and one of outstanding literary merit (it is a Pulitzer prize winner). John F. Kennedy read the book shortly after its publication, and it is said to have made such an impression upon him that it influenced his strategy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, seeking to avoid actions which could trigger the kind of reciprocal automatic responses which occurred in the summer of 1914. Those who bewail the soggy international institutions and arrangements of the present day, where nothing is precisely as it seems and every commitment is balanced with a dozen ways to wiggle out of it, may find this book a cautionary tale of the alternative, and how a crunchy system of alliances may be far more dangerous. While reading the narrative, however, I found myself thinking not so much about diplomacy and military matters but rather how much today's globalised economic and financial system resembles the structure of the European great powers in 1914. Once again we hear that conflict is impossible because the damage to both parties would be unacceptable; that the system can be stabilised by “interventions” crafted by wise “experts”; that entities which are “too big to fail”, simply by being so designated, will not; and that the system is ultimately stable against an unanticipated perturbation which brings down one part of the vast interlocking structure. These beliefs seem to me, like those of the political class in 1914, to be based upon hope rather than evidence, and anybody interested in protecting their assets should think at some length about the consequences should one or more of them prove wrong.

October 2011 Permalink

Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. New York: Presidio Press, [1962, 1988, 1994] 2004. ISBN 978-0-345-47609-8.
One hundred years ago the world was on the brink of a cataclysmic confrontation which would cause casualties numbered in the tens of millions, destroy the pre-existing international order, depose royalty and dissolve empires, and plant the seeds for tyrannical regimes and future conflicts with an even more horrific toll in human suffering. It is not exaggeration to speak of World War I as the pivotal event of the 20th century, since so much that followed can be viewed as sequelæ which can be traced directly to that conflict.

It is thus important to understand how that war came to be, and how in the first month after its outbreak the expectations of all parties to the conflict, arrived at through the most exhaustive study by military and political élites, were proven completely wrong and what was expected to be a short, conclusive war turned instead into a protracted blood-letting which would continue for more than four years of largely static warfare. This magnificent book, which covers the events leading to the war and the first month after its outbreak, provides a highly readable narrative history of the period with insight into both the grand folly of war plans drawn up in isolation and mechanically followed even after abundant evidence of their faults have caused tragedy, but also how contingency—chance, and the decisions of fallible human beings in positions of authority can tilt the balance of history.

The author is not an academic historian, and she writes for a popular audience. This has caused some to sniff at her work, but as she noted, Herodotus, Thucydides, Gibbon, and MacCauley did not have Ph.D.s. She immerses the reader in the world before the war, beginning with the 1910 funeral in London of Edward VII where nine monarchs rode in the cortège, most of whose nations would be at war four years hence. The system of alliances is described in detail, as is the mobilisation plans of the future combatants, all of which would contribute to fatal instability of the system to a small perturbation.

Germany, France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary had all drawn up detailed mobilisation plans for assembling, deploying, and operating their conscript armies in the event of war. (Britain, with an all-volunteer regular army which was tiny by continental standards, had no pre-defined mobilisation plan.) As you might expect, Germany's plan was the most detailed, specifying railroad schedules and the composition of individual trains. Now, the important thing to keep in mind about these plans is that, together, they created a powerful first-mover advantage. If Russia began to mobilise, and Germany hesitated in its own mobilisation in the hope of defusing the conflict, it might be at a great disadvantage if Russia had only a few days of advance in assembling its forces. This means that there was a powerful incentive in issuing the mobilisation order first, and a compelling reason for an adversary to begin his own mobilisation order once news of it became known.

Compounding this instability were alliances which compelled parties to them to come to the assistance of others. France had no direct interest in the conflict between Germany and Austria-Hungary and Russia in the Balkans, but it had an alliance with Russia, and was pulled into the conflict. When France began to mobilise, Germany activated its own mobilisation and the Schlieffen plan to invade France through Belgium. Once the Germans violated the neutrality of Belgium, Britain's guarantee of that neutrality required (after the customary ambiguity and dithering) a declaration of war against Germany, and the stage was set for a general war in Europe.

The focus here is on the initial phase of the war: where Germany, France, and Russia were all following their pre-war plans, all initially expecting a swift conquest of their opponents—the Battle of the Frontiers, which occupied most of the month of August 1914. An afterword covers the First Battle of the Marne where the German offensive on the Western front was halted and the stage set for the static trench warfare which was to ensue. At the conclusion of that battle, all of the shining pre-war plans were in tatters, many commanders were disgraced or cashiered, and lessons learned through the tragedy “by which God teaches the law to kings” (p. 275).

A century later, the lessons of the outbreak of World War I could not be more relevant. On the eve of the war, many believed that the interconnection of the soon-to-be belligerents through trade was such that war was unthinkable, as it would quickly impoverish them. Today, the world is even more connected and yet there are conflicts all around the margins, with alliances spanning the globe. Unlike 1914, when the world was largely dominated by great powers, now there are rogue states, non-state actors, movements dominated by religion, and neo-barbarism and piracy loose upon the stage, and some of these may lay their hands on weapons whose destructive power dwarf those of 1914–1918. This book, published more than fifty years ago, about a conflict a century old, could not be more timely.

July 2014 Permalink

von Dach, Hans. Total Resistance. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, [1958] 1965. ISBN 0-87364-021-7.
This is an English translation of Swiss Army Major von Dach's Der totale Widerstand — Kleinkriegsanleitung für jedermann, published in 1958 by the Swiss Non-commissioned Officers' Association. It remains one of the best manuals for guerrilla warfare and civilian resistance to enemy occupation in developed countries. This is not a book for the faint-hearted: von Dach does not shrink from practical advice such as, “Fire upon the driver and the assistant driver with an air rifle. …the force of the projectile is great enough to wound them so that you can dispose of them right afterward with a bayonet.” and “The simplest and surest way to dispose of guards noiselessly is to kill them with an ax. Do not use the sharp edge but the blunt end of the ax.” There is strategic wisdom as well—making the case for a general public uprising when the enemy is near defeat, he observes, “This way you can also prevent your country from being occupied again even though by friendly forces. Past experience shows that even ‘allies’ and ‘liberators’ cannot be removed so easily. At least, it's harder to get them to leave than to enter.”

December 2003 Permalink

War Department. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. Oxford: Bodelian Library, [1942] 2004. ISBN 978-1-85124-085-2.
Shortly after the entry of the United States into the European war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. troops began to arrive in Britain in 1942. Although more than two years would elapse before the D-Day invasion of Normandy, an ever-increasing number of “overpaid, oversexed, and over here” American troops would establish air bases, build logistics for the eventual invasion, and provide liaison with the British command.

This little (31 page, small format) book reproduces a document originally furnished to U.S. troops embarking for Britain as seven pages of typescript. It provides a delightful look at how Americans perceived the British at the epoch, and also how they saw themselves—there's even an admonishment to soldiers of Irish ancestry not to look upon the English as their hereditary enemies, and a note that the American colloquialism “I look like a bum” means something much different in an English pub. A handy table helps Yanks puzzle out the bewildering British money.

Companion volumes were subsequently published for troops bound for Iraq (yes, in 1943!) and France; I'll get to them in due course.

February 2009 Permalink

Webb, James. Fields of Fire. New York: Bantam Books, [1978] 2001. ISBN 0-553-58385-9.

March 2002 Permalink

Weinberger, Sharon. Imaginary Weapons. New York: Nation Books, 2006. ISBN 1-56025-849-7.

A nuclear isomer is an atomic nucleus which, due to having a greater spin, different shape, or differing alignment of the spin orientation and axis of symmetry, has more internal energy than the ground state nucleus with the same number of protons and neutrons. Nuclear isomers are usually produced in nuclear fusion reactions when the the addition of protons and/or neutrons to a nucleus in a high-energy collision leaves it in an excited state. Hundreds of nuclear isomers are known, but the overwhelming majority decay with gamma ray emission in about 10−14 seconds. In a few species, however, this almost instantaneous decay is suppressed for various reasons, and metastable isomers exist with half-lives ranging from 10−9 seconds (one nanosecond), to the isomer Tantalum-180m, which has a half-life of at least 1015 years and may be entirely stable; it is the only nuclear isomer found in nature and accounts for about one atom of 8300 in tantalum metal.

Some metastable isomers with intermediate half-lives have a remarkably large energy compared to the ground state and emit correspondingly energetic gamma ray photons when they decay. The Hafnium-178m2 (the “m2” denotes the second lowest energy isomeric state) nucleus has a half-life of 31 years and decays (through the m1 state) with the emission of 2.45 MeV in gamma rays. Now the fact that there's a lot of energy packed into a radioactive nucleus is nothing new—people were calculating the energy of disintegrating radium and uranium nuclei at the end of the 19th century, but all that energy can't be used for much unless you can figure out some way to release it on demand—as long as it just dribbles out at random, you can use it for some physics experiments and medical applications, but not to make loud bangs or turn turbines. It was only the discovery of the fission chain reaction, where the fission of certain nuclei liberates neutrons which trigger the disintegration of others in an exponential process, which made nuclear energy, for better or for worse, accessible.

So, as long as there is no way to trigger the release of the energy stored in a nuclear isomer, it is nothing more than an odd kind of radioactive element, the subject of a reasonably well-understood and somewhat boring topic in nuclear physics. If, however, there were some way to externally trigger the decay of the isomer to the ground state, then the way would be open to releasing the energy in the isomer at will. It is possible to trigger the decay of the Tantalum-180 isomer by 2.8 MeV photons, but the energy required to trigger the decay is vastly greater than the 0.075 MeV it releases, so the process is simply an extremely complicated and expensive way to waste energy.

Researchers in the small community interested in nuclear isomers were stunned when, in the January 25, 1999 issue of Physical Review Letters, a paper by Carl Collins and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Dallas reported they had triggered the release of 2.45 MeV in gamma rays from a sample of Hafnium-178m2 by irradiating it with a second-hand dental X-ray machine with the sample of the isomer sitting on a styrofoam cup. Their report implied, even with the crude apparatus, an energy gain of sixty times break-even, which was more than a million times the rate predicted by nuclear theory, if triggering were possible at all. The result, if real, could have substantial technological consequences: the isomer could be used as a nuclear battery, which could store energy and release it on demand with a density which dwarfed that of any chemical battery and was only a couple of orders of magnitude less than a fission bomb. And, speaking of bombs, if you could manage to trigger a mass of hafnium all at once or arrange for it to self-trigger in a chain reaction, you could make a variety of nifty weapons out of it, including a nuclear hand grenade with a yield of two kilotons. You could also build a fission-free trigger for a thermonuclear bomb which would evade all of the existing nonproliferation safeguards which are aimed at controlling access to fissile material. These are the kind of things that get the attention of folks in that big five-sided building in Arlington, Virginia.

And so it came to pass, in a Pentagon bent on “transformational technologies” and concerned with emerging threats from potential adversaries, that in May of 2003 a Hafnium Isomer Production Panel (HIPP) was assembled to draw up plans for bulk production of the substance, with visions of nuclear hand grenades, clean bunker-busting fusion bombs, and even hafnium-powered bombers floating before the eyes of the out of the box thinkers at DARPA, who envisioned a two-year budget of USD30 million for the project—military science marches into the future. What's wrong with this picture? Well, actually rather a lot of things.

  • No other researcher had been able to reproduce the results from the original experiment. This included a team of senior experimentalists who used the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory and state of the art instrumentation and found no evidence whatsoever for triggering of the hafnium isomer with X-rays—in two separate experiments.
  • As noted above, well-understood nuclear theory predicted the yield from triggering, if it occurred, to be six orders of magnitude less than reported in Collins's paper.
  • An evaluation of the original experiment by the independent JASON group of senior experts in 1999 determined the result to be “a priori implausible” and “inconclusive, at best”.
  • A separate evaluation by the Institute for Defense Analyses concluded the original paper reporting the triggering results “was flawed and should not have passed peer review”.
  • Collins had never run, and refused to run, a null experiment with ordinary hafnium to confirm that the very small effect he reported went away when the isomer was removed.
  • James Carroll, one of the co-authors of the original paper, had obtained nothing but null results in his own subsequent experiments on hafnium triggering.
  • Calculations showed that even if triggering were to be possible at the reported rate, the process would not come close to breaking even: more than six times as much X-ray energy would go in as gamma rays came out.
  • Even if triggering worked, and some way were found to turn it into an energy source or explosive device, the hafnium isomer does not occur in nature and would have to be made by a hideously inefficient process in a nuclear reactor or particle accelerator, at a cost estimated at around a billion dollars per gram. The explosive in the nuclear hand grenade would cost tens of billions of dollars, compared to which highly enriched uranium and plutonium are cheap as dirt.
  • If the material could be produced and triggering made to work, the resulting device would pose an extreme radiation hazard. Radiation is inverse to half-life, and the hafnium isomer, with a 31 year half-life, is vastly more radioactive than U-235 (700 million years) or Pu-239 (24,000 years). Further, hafnium isomer decays emit gamma rays, which are the most penetrating form of ionising nuclear radiation and the most difficult against which to shield. The shielding required to protect humans in the vicinity of a tangible quantity of hafnium isomer would more than negate its small mass and compact size.
  • A hafnium explosive device would disperse large quantities of the unreacted isomer (since a relatively small percentage of the total explosive can react before the device is disassembled in the explosion). As it turns out, the half-life of the isomer is just about the same as that of Cesium-137, which is often named as the prime candidate for a “dirty” radiological bomb. One physicist on the HIPP (p. 176) described a hafnium weapon as “the mother of all dirty bombs”.
  • And consider that hand grenade, which would weigh about five pounds. How far can you throw a five pound rock? What do you think about being that far away from a detonation with the energy of two thousand tons of TNT, all released in prompt gamma rays?

But bad science, absurd economics, a nonexistent phenomenon, damning evaluations by panels of authorities, lack of applications, and ridiculous radiation risk in the extremely improbable event of success pose no insurmountable barriers to a government project once it gets up to speed, especially one in which the relationships between those providing the funding and its recipients are complicated and unseemingly cozy. It took an exposé in the Washington Post Magazine by the author and subsequent examination in Congress to finally drive a stake through this madness—maybe. As of the end of 2005, although DARPA was out of the hafnium business (at least publicly), there were rumours of continued funding thanks to a Congressional earmark in the Department of Energy budget.

This book is a well-researched and fascinating look inside the defence underworld where fringe science feeds on federal funds, and starkly demonstrates how weird and wasteful things can get when Pentagon bureaucrats disregard their own science advisors and substitute instinct and wishful thinking for the tedious, but ultimately reliable, scientific method. Many aspects of the story are also quite funny, although U.S. taxpayers who footed the bill for this madness may be less amused. The author has set up a Web site for the book, and Carl Collins, who conducted the original experiment with the dental X-ray and styrofoam cup which incited the mania has responded with his own, almost identical in appearance, riposte. If you're interested in more technical detail on the controversy than appears in Weinberg's book, the Physics Today article from May 2004 is an excellent place to start. The book contains a number of typographical and factual errors, none of which are significant to the story, but when the first line of the Author's Note uses “sited” when “cited” is intended, and in the next paragraph “wondered” instead of “wandered”, you have to—wonder.

It is sobering to realise that this folly took place entirely in the public view: in the open scientific literature, university labs, unclassified defence funding subject to Congressional oversight, and ultimately in the press, and yet over a period of years millions in taxpayer funds were squandered on nonsense. Just imagine what is going on in highly-classified “black” programs.

June 2006 Permalink

Weiner, Tim. Legacy of Ashes. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-51445-3.
I've always been amused by those overwrought conspiracy theories which paint the CIA as the spider at the centre of a web of intrigue, subversion, skullduggery, and ungentlemanly conduct stretching from infringements of the rights of U.S. citizens at home to covert intrusion into internal affairs in capitals around the globe. What this outlook, however entertaining, seemed to overlook in my opinion is that the CIA is a government agency, and millennia of experience demonstrate that long-established instruments of government (the CIA having begun operations in 1947) rapidly converge upon the intimidating, machine-like, and ruthless efficiency of the Post Office or the Department of Motor Vehicles. How probable was it that a massive bureaucracy, especially one which operated with little Congressional oversight and able to bury its blunders by classifying documents for decades, was actually able to implement its cloak and dagger agenda, as opposed to the usual choke and stagger one expects from other government agencies of similar staffing and budget? Defenders of the CIA and those who feared its menacing, malign competence would argue that while we find out about the CIA's blunders when operations are blown, stings end up getting stung, and moles and double agents are discovered, we never know about the successes, because they remain secret forever, lest the CIA's sources and methods be disclosed.

This book sets the record straight. The Pulitzer prize-winning author has covered U.S. intelligence for twenty years, most recently for the New York Times. Drawing on a wealth of material declassified since the end of the Cold War, most from the latter half of the 1990s and afterward, and extensive interviews with every living Director of Central Intelligence and numerous other agency figures, this is the first comprehensive history of the CIA based on the near-complete historical record. It is not a pretty picture.

Chartered to collect and integrate information, both from its own sources and those of other intelligence agencies, thence to present senior decision-makers with the data they need to formulate policy, from inception the CIA neglected its primary mission in favour of ill-conceived and mostly disastrous paramilitary and psychological warfare operations deemed “covert”, but which all too often became painfully overt when they blew up in the faces of those who ordered them. The OSS heritage of many of the founders of the CIA combined with the proclivity of U.S. presidents to order covert operations which stretched the CIA's charter to its limits and occasionally beyond combined to create a litany of blunders and catastrophe which would be funny were it not so tragic for those involved, and did it not in many cases cast long shadows upon the present-day world.

While the clandestine service was tripping over its cloaks and impaling itself upon its daggers, the primary intelligence gathering mission was neglected and bungled to such an extent that the agency provided no warning whatsoever of Stalin's atomic bomb, the Korean War, the Chinese entry into that conflict, the Suez crisis, the Hungarian uprising, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran/Iraq War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, and more. The spider at the centre of the web appears to have been wearing a blindfold and earplugs. (Oh, they did predict both the outbreak and outcome of the Six Day War—well, that's one!)

Not only have the recently-declassified documents shone a light onto the operations of the CIA, they provide a new perspective on the information from which decision-makers were proceeding in many of the pivotal events of the latter half of the twentieth century including Korea, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and the past and present conflicts in Iraq. This book completely obsoletes everything written about the CIA before 1995; the source material which has become available since then provides the first clear look into what was previously shrouded in secrecy. There are 154 pages of end notes in smaller type—almost a book in itself—which expand, often at great length, upon topics in the main text; don't pass them up. Given the nature of the notes, I found it more convenient to read them as an appendix rather than as annotations.

February 2008 Permalink

Wells, H. G. Little Wars. Springfield, VA: Skirmisher, [1913] 2004. ISBN 0-9722511-5-4.
I have been looking for a copy of this book for more than twenty-five years. In this 1913 classic, H. G. Wells essentially single-handedly invented the modern pastime of miniature wargaming, providing a (tin soldier) battle-tested set of rules which makes for exciting, well-balanced, and unpredictable games which can be played by two or more people in an afternoon and part of an evening. Interestingly, he avoids much of the baggage that burdens contemporary games such as icosahedral dice and indirect fire calculations, and strictly minimises the rôle of chance, using nothing fancier than a coin toss, and that only in rare circumstances.

The original edition couldn't have appeared at a less auspicious time: published just a year before the outbreak of the horrific Great War (a term Wells uses, prophetically, to speak of actual military conflict in this book). The work is, of course, long out of copyright and text editions are available on the Internet, including this one at Project Gutenberg, but they are unsatisfying because the text makes frequent reference to the nineteen photographs by Wells's second wife, Amy Catherine Wells, which are not included in the on-line editions but reproduced in this volume. Even if you aren't interested in the details, just seeing grown men in suits scrunching down on the ground playing with toy soldiers is worth the price of admission. The original edition included almost 150 delightful humorous line drawings by J. R. Sinclair; sadly, only about half are reproduced here, but that's better than none at all. This edition includes a new foreword by Gary Gygax, inventor of Dungeons and Dragons. Radical feminists of the dour and scornful persuasion should be sure to take their medication before reading the subtitle or the last paragraph on page 6 (lines 162–166 of the Gutenberg edition).

September 2006 Permalink

Wellum, Geoffrey. First Light. London: Penguin Books, 2002. ISBN 0-141-00814-8.
A U.S edition is available, but as of this date only in hardcover.

January 2004 Permalink

White, Rowland. Vulcan 607. London: Corgi Books, 2006. ISBN 978-0-552-15229-7.
The Avro Vulcan bomber was the backbone of Britain's nuclear deterrent from the 1950s until the end of the 1960s, when ballistic missile submarines assumed the primary deterrent mission. Vulcans remained in service thereafter as tactical nuclear weapons delivery platforms in support of NATO forces. In 1982, the aging Vulcan force was months from retirement when Argentina occupied the Falkland Islands, and Britain summoned all of its armed services to mount a response. The Royal Navy launched a strike force, but given the distance (about 8000 miles from Britain to the Falklands) it would take about two weeks to arrive. The Royal Air Force surveyed their assets and concluded that only the Vulcan, supported by the Handley Page Victor, a bomber converted to an aerial refueling tanker, would permit it to project power to such a distant theatre.

But there were difficulties—lots of them. First of all, the Vulcan had been dedicated to the nuclear mission for decades: none of the crews had experience dropping conventional bombs, and the bomb bay racks to dispense them had to be hunted down in scrap yards. No Vulcan had performed aerial refueling since 1971, since its missions were assumed to be short range tactical sorties, and the refueling hardware had been stoppered. Crews were sent out to find and remove refueling probes from museum specimens to install on the bombers chosen for the mission. Simply navigating to a tiny island in the southern hemisphere in this pre-GPS era was a challenge—Vulcan crews had been trained to navigate by radar returns from the terrain, and there was no terrain whatsoever between their launch point on Ascension Island and landfall in the Falklands, so boffins figured out how to adapt navigation gear from obsolete VC10 airliners to the Vulcan and make it work. The Vulcan had no modern electronic countermeasures (ECM), rendering it vulnerable to Argentinian anti-aircraft defences, so an ECM pod from another aircraft was grafted onto its wing, fastening to a hardpoint which had never been used by a Vulcan. Finding it, and thereby knowing where to drill the holes required dismantling the wing of another Vulcan.

If the preparations were remarkable, especially since they were thrown together in just a few weeks, the mission plan was audacious—so much so that one expects it would have been rejected as absurd if proposed as the plot of a James Bond film. Executing the mission to bomb the airfield on the Falkland Islands would involve two Vulcan bombers, one Nimrod marine patrol aircraft, thirteen Victor tankers, nineteen refuelings (including Victor to Victor and Victor to Vulcan), 1.5 million pounds of fuel, and ninety aircrew. And all of these resources, assembled and deployed in a single mission, managed to put just one crater in the airstrip in the Falkland Islands, denying it to Argentine fast jets, but allowing C-130 transports to continue to operate from it.

From a training, armament, improvisation, and logistics standpoint this was a remarkable achievement, and the author argues that its consequences, direct and indirect, effectively took the Argentine fast air fighter force and navy out of the conflict, and hence paved the way for the British reconquista of the islands. Today it seems quaint; you'd just launch a few cruise missiles at the airfield, cratering it and spreading area denial munitions and that would be that, without risking a single airman. But they didn't have that option then, and so they did their best with what was available, and this epic story recounts how they pulled it off with hardware on the edge of retirement, re-purposed for a mission its designers never imagined, mounted with a plan with no margin for error, on a schedule nobody could have imagined absent wartime exigency. This is a tale of the Vulcan mission; if you're looking for a comprehensive account of the Falklands War, you'll have to look elsewhere. The Vulcan raid on the Falklands was one of those extraordinary grand gestures, like the Doolittle Raid on Japan, which cast a longer shadow in history than their direct consequences implied. After the Vulcan raid, nobody doubted the resolve of Britain, and the resulting drawback of the Argentine forces almost certainly reduced the cost of retaking the islands from the invader.

May 2010 Permalink

Williams, Andrew. The Battle of the Atlantic. New York: Basic Books, 2003. ISBN 0-465-09153-9.

May 2003 Permalink

Wood, C. E. Mud: A Military History. Washington: Potomac Books, 2006. ISBN 978-1-59797-003-7.
Military historians from antiquity to the present day have examined innumerable aspects of human conflict in painstaking detail: strategy, tactics, morale, terrain, command structures, training of troops, logistics, mobility, weapons, armour, intelligence both before the battle and after the enemy is engaged, and a multitude of other factors which determine the outcome of the engagement. If you step back from the war college or general staff view from above and ask the actual combatants in land warfare, from privates to flag rank, what they often recall as dominating their contemporary memories, it will often be none of these things, but rather mud. This is the subject of this slim (190 page) but extensively researched and documented book.

When large numbers of men, equipment, and horses (or, in the modern era, mechanised vehicles) traverse terrain, unless it is totally dry, it is likely to be stirred up into a glutinous mix of soil and water: mud. The military mind cannot resist classifying things, and here the author draws the distinction between Type I mud, which is “bottomless” (well, not really, of course, but effectively so since it is deep enough to mire and swallow up any military force which attempts to cross it), Type IIa, which is dominated by liquid and can actually serve to clean hardware which passes through it but may make it impossible to dig trenches or build fortifications, and Type IIb, which is sticky and can immobilise and render ineffective everything from an infantryman's entrenching tool to a main battle tank.

The book illustrates the impact of mud on land warfare, examining its effects on engineering works such as building roads and fortifications, morale of troops, health, and wear and tear and reliability of equipment. Permanent mud (as exists in marshes and other wetlands), seasonal mud (monsoons and the horrific autumn rain and spring thaw mud in Russia which brought both Napoleon and Hitler's armies to a standstill), and random mud (where a downpour halts an advance as effectively as enemy action) each merit their own chapters.

Technical discussions of the composition and behaviour of mud and its effects upon soldiers and military equipment are illustrated by abundant examples from conflicts from antiquity to the most recent war in Iraq. Most examples date from the era of mechanised warfare, but the reader will rapidly appreciate that the reality of mud to the infantryman has changed little since the time of Thucydides.

In Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut has one of his characters asked to solve one of the greatest problems facing Marines in combat: mud. The solution, ice-nine, is fantasy, but generations of Marines would probably agree upon the primacy of the problem. Finally the importance of mud in military affairs gets its due in this book. One hopes military planners will not ignore it, as so many of their predecessors have with disastrous consequences.

September 2015 Permalink

Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004. ISBN 0-425-20040-X.
The author was an “embedded journalist” with Second Platoon, Bravo Company of the U.S. First Marine Reconnaissance Battalion from a week before the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003 through the entire active combat phase and subsequent garrison duty in Baghdad until the end of April. This book is an expanded edition of his National Magazine Award winning reportage in Rolling Stone. Recon Marines are the elite component of the U.S. Marine Corps—like Army Special Forces or Navy SEALs; there are only about a thousand Recon Marines in the entire 180,000 strong Corps. In the invasion of Iraq, First Recon was used—some say misused—as the point of the spear, often the lead unit in their section of the conflict, essentially inviting ambushes by advancing into suspected hostile terrain.

Wright accompanied the troops 24/7 throughout their mission, sharing their limited rations, sleeping in the same “Ranger graves”, and risking the enemy fire, incoming mortar rounds, and misdirected friendly artillery and airstrikes alongside the Marines. This is 100% grunt-level boots on the ground reportage in the tradition of Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin, and superbly done. If you're looking for grand strategy or “what it all means”, you won't find any of that: only the confusing and often appalling face of war as seen through the eyes of the young men sent to fight it. The impression you're left with of the troops (and recall, these are elite warriors of a military branch itself considered elite) is one of apolitical professionalism. You don't get the slightest sense they're motivated by patriotism or a belief they're defending their country or its principles; they're there to do their job, however messy and distasteful. One suspects you'd have heard much the same from the Roman legionnaires who occupied this land almost nineteen centuries ago.

The platoon's brief stay in post-conquest Baghdad provides some insight into why war-fighters, however they excel at breaking stuff and killing people, are as ill-suited to the tasks of nation building, restoring civil order, and promoting self-government as a chainsaw is for watchmaking. One begins to understand how it can be that three years after declaring victory in Iraq, a military power which was able to conquer the entire country in less than two weeks has yet to assert effective control over its capital city.

April 2006 Permalink