Military history

Book review: The Perilous Fight

The Perilous Fight
America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815
By Stephen Budiansky
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Stephen Budiansky likes to deeply explore a topic that is of interest to him, using an outsider's perspective to expose deeply cherished myths. In The Perilous Fight, he seeks to refocus the discussion of American naval successes in the War of 1812, from the traditional celebration of the frigate victories against the world's premier naval power, to a broader appreciation of the asymmetrical anti-commerce strategy pursued by the U.S. Navy Department. The book does not quite deliver on this promise, easily showing the plausibility of his thesis but not conclusively demonstrating that it had any effect in bringing the war to a close. At the same time, it is also a fresh and vivid account of the naval events of the War of 1812.

Intriguingly, Budiansky emphasizes the tenuous nature of American independence at the beginning of the 19th century. Very little progress had been made since the Revolution, cities had barely grown or even shrunk in size, and Southern planters lived in an environment of amidst "genteel poverty." This was before the Industrial Revolution, before the cotton gin. Yet America remained a large market for manufactured goods, and the merchant marine enjoyed the success that eluded the rest of the American economy. Indeed, British shillings remained more common than American coinage.

Since tariffs formed the basis of taxation, the Napoleonic Wars had severe effects on the U.S. Treasury, causing disruptions to the American merchant marine. Budiansky covers familiar ground from the history books: the debate over neutral rights, the British blockade of French-dominated Europe, Thomas Jefferson's pet project of Republican gunboats to replace Federalist frigates, etc. But he fleshes it out with details that rarely make it into the history books, describing the high interest rates that the Treasury was having to pay for debt, as well as appreciating the logistics behind navy operations. For example, Jeffersonian cutbacks had left the Constitution as the only American ship cruising on station in the Mediterranean. Thus, the Chesapeake affair was not only a national humiliation, to have a warship boarded by another power in sight of one's own shores. It also delayed the relief of the Constitution, whose crew grew near-mutinous as their original two-year enlistments were forcibly extended to four.

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Book Review: The Eastern Front

The Eastern Front, 1914-1917
by Norman Stone
Macmillan, 1976

In the West, World War I is remembered for the futility of trench warfare, as men died in the tens of thousands for gains of a few hundred yards. In an attempt to break that stalemate, the most industrially- advanced nations of the world applied their ingenuity towards developing industrial ways of killing on the battlefield. Men were asphyxiated by poison gas, burned alive by flamethrowers, and finally, crushed by tanks. Yet another First World War was also fought alongside the war in the trenches -- a war of movement, in which victorious campaigns led to advances of tens, even hundreds of miles. That was the war on the Eastern front -- a war forgotten by a Western Europe that was preoccupied with its own tragedies, a war whose results were overturned by later events, a war that ended up overshadowed by revolution, a war that Winston Churchill dubbed "the unknown war".

Decades after it was written in 1976, Norman Stone's meticulously researched book remains the most complete English-language account of the Eastern front of World War I. In the introduction, Stone summarizes the existing English- language literature as consisting of essentially two books, one of them being Churchill's book from 1931! Of course, by the time Stone was writing his book, the Eastern front of World War I had long since been overshadowed by the Eastern front of World War II, which saw the fiercest fighting of the war and ultimately decided its outcome. The same cannot be said of the Eastern front of World War I.

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Book Review: Infantry Attacks!

Infantry Attacks
by Erwin Rommel
Published in German in 1937.

English translation as "Attacks!": Athena Press, 1979.
Later editions are retitled "Infantry Attacks!"

 

"Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!"
          -- George S. Patton (in the movie)

Well, not quite. The movie shows General Patton reading Field Marshal Rommel's book on tank warfare, which he never got a chance to complete. But it's possible that Patton had read this earlier work on infantry tactics, which the US Army rediscovered and had translated into English in 1943.

Infantry Attacks! describes the engagements that Rommel participated in during World War I, as a young lieutenant in the Imperial German Army. The book is structured as a set of tactical problems, giving the disposition of friendly and enemy troops and setting out the objective. Rommel then describes the solution that he decided on, followed by the actual results, along with an assessment of the lessons he learned and suggestions for improvement. It is given largely in

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Book review: The First Team

This is a 500+ page book, and it is chock-full of details. There's even a table that lists every American carrier pilot who fought at the outset of the Second World War in the Pacific. Not just their names, but also the number of Japanese planes that each shot down, when and where some of them were killed, and — for those who survived — their date of retirement and final rank. There are quite a few Captains and Admirals on this list.

But it’s not just facts and figures. The profuse level of detail extends to the history of the fighter squadrons, which is recounted almost on a day-by-day basis. After all, wars is not just a matter of great battles and turning points. In-between the battles comes the daily routine of continual inner-air patrols, for there was always a reconnaissance threat from Japanese scoutplanes. Every once in a while, there would be minor engagements that do not decide the outcome of the war, but cumulatively advance the cause of victory.

Carrier aviation is a very dangerous field in which high-performance aircraft are flown off minuscule shipborne airfields. During the early days of World War II, it was even more hazardous, for the planes had shorter ranges and flew more slowly. Returning home from a mission and flying slow to conserve fuel, the pilots depended on the carrier's own 30-knot speed, for it was a sufficiently-substantial fraction of the airplane's own speed that it affected the navigational calculation. It was not uncommon for a routine scouting mission to run out of fuel and end up with the crew “on the beach,”, waiting to be rescued by the next passing destroyer. And that was if you were lucky, and your radio worked. If nobody heard from you, then the search party had to guess at your position. It was also hazardous on deck. A grizzled veteran may survive numerous encounters with the Japanese, only to be killed by a mechanical accident on a day that saw no combat.

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Book review: Air Power

Air Power
The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Iraq
by Stephen Budiansky
Hardcover: New York: Viking, 2004. ISBN 0-670-03285-9
Paperback: New York: Penguin, 2005. ISBN 014303474X

This is a long book at 518 pages including notes and index, and it has a subtitle that’s almost as long: "The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II."  It is significant that the beginning and the end both refer to American developments.  Not only did two American brothers develop the first heavier-than-air craft, but American forces have enjoyed air superiority in every war since the First World War.  Budiansky presents most of the debates on air doctrine in an American or British context, and undoubtedly it helps that these records would be available in English.  But he clearly believes that they set the pace of world developments.  The role of other world powers was to react — for example, there is very little discussion of the Soviet air force.

The book focuses on the great debate between strategic and tactical air power.  Should airplanes be used to bring war to the enemy's homeland, or should they be used to win quickly and decisively on the battlefield?  It would simply overwhelm the reader if Budiansky had covered a century of flight from every nation's viewpoint.  But when important developments occur overseas, the book travels there — to Spain as the Luftwaffe tests out its doctrines in preparation for World War II, to the Japanese carrier fleet in the run-up to Pearl Harbor, and to Israel as American air power wins overwhelming victories against Soviet technologies through the Arab-Israeli proxy wars.

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Film Review: Hell's Angels (1930)

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Hell's Angels (1930)
directed by Howard Hughes, dialog directed by James Whale
©1930 Caddo Company, Renewed 1958 Hughes Tool Co.
Restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive
Frames in this review are taken from the Universal DVD ©2004 Universal Studios.

There's no trailer on the Universal DVD for Hell's Angels, but it doesn’t matter. No trailer could possibly sell the film as well as Martin Scorsese's biopic The Aviatoralt. Some of the most spectacular scenes in this film are excerpted in The Aviator, most notably, the Zeppelin bursting into flame in a lengthy hand-colorized shot, as well as the dizzying climatic dogfight, featuring perfectly choreographed aerobatics and a surprisingly believable head-on collision of two planes.

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All in all, Hell's Angels is a rather enjoyable example of the type of film spectacle that was extraordinarily expensive then and would be prohibitively costly today. Were it not for the flying, the film could've been shot in a couple of weeks for far less money. It's far superior to most early-sound films, and with some allowance for the melodramatic story, remains quite watchable today.

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