Oct 5, 2014

Book Review: "The Lion's Gate", By Steven Pressfield

The Lion's Gate, by Steven Pressfield

With his latest book, "The Lion's Gate," best-selling author Steven Pressfield has added yet another masterpiece to a body of work that includes "Gates of Fire", "The Afghan Campaign", and "The Legend of Bagger Vance."

Different than the historical fiction on which he's built his reputation, in "The Lion's Gate" Pressfield tackles recent history; in this case Israel's preemptive strike against the massing Arab armies in the June 1967 "6-Day War." His thorough research is what makes the book so good; in addition to the books, magazines, and news clips of the 6-Day Way he read, Pressfield also traveled to Israel and interviewed 63 veterans of the fight. Talking with infantrymen, fighter pilots, half-trackers, helicopter pilots, Pressfield gives the reader a vivid understanding of the odds Israel was facing as the armies of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan gathered against the young country.

Most Marines today under the rank of Colonel were born after the June 1967 war, and while they may have studied Gen Ariel Sharon's brilliant advance across the Sinai Peninsula to the Suez Canal, few understand how tenuous was Israel's existence. Most Americans today associate Israel with an overwhelming combat supremacy, Bibi Natanyahu threatening a possible strike on Iran, or the ennui of never-ending Palestinian-Israeli bombings and counter-strikes.

But in 1967 Israel had been a country for only nineteen years and it's survival remained in doubt; the country was outnumbered 40-1, the Israeli Defense Forces were using WW2 leftover American M3 halftracks, surplus Patton and Centurian tanks, and in May, pro-Arab French President Charles DeGaulle reneged on his 1957 promise to support Israel. "This is 1967," he said, and cut off all arms shipments. More important, with Lyndon Johnson a lame-duck president mired in Vietnam, there was hope, but no guarantee of American military support.

In "Lion's Gate" the veterans Pressfield interviewed recount the massive odds they faced; the Egyptians had moved one thousand Soviet T-55 tanks to Israel's south, the Jordanians and Iraqi's were moving mechanized infantry, armor, and fighter squadrons to Israel's western border, and Syrian artillery was already shelling Israel from the north. When Egypt's President Nassar sent paratroops to seize Sharm-el-Shiekh and close the Gulf of Aqaba, the Arab world exploded in joy; dozens of thousands across North Africa and the Middle East demonstrated, screaming "Death to the Jews."

Pressfield, a former Marine infantryman, is a skilled researcher and historian. As the Israeli combat veterans talk about the sense of purpose they felt knowing if they failed, their wives and children would be slaughtered by the on-coming Arab hordes, Pressfield elicits such sobering stories of how the streets of Tel Aviv, Ashdod, and other cities were empty - all the city buses and even dairy trucks had been commandeered to carry the reservists. The call-up was so thorough, one veteran relates, that if the Egyptian Tupelov and Ilyushian bombers attacked the Israeli cities; there would be no one able to halt the cities from burning; both the fire trucks and firemen had been mobilized.

But what makes "The Lion's Gate" such a compelling story is how Pressfield wove the context of the survival of Israel into the veteran's boots-on-the-ground stories of El Arish, Jiradi Pass, and recapturing Jerusalem. In relating how Israel needed to fight and win both the near battle and the far battle, Pressfield uses Gen Moshe Dayan, to narrate why the war needed to be fought. But with Dayan dying in 1981, Pressfield reached out to Dayan's first wife, Ruth, and his daughter Yael, for insight into Dayan's thinking. "The only was to handle a bully," Dayan told Yael, "is to punch him in the face. Strike now, as soon as possible, and destroy him."

But as Marines, typically outnumbered but over-motivated, will understand, it's necessary to win decisively, and Pressfield digs out of Dayan's archives his quotes that "The enemy must be dealt such a blow that he will be deterred from striking again, for as long as possible...it must be the destruction of the Egyptian Army in a straight-up fight; tank against tank, man against man."

"The Lion's Gate" is one of Pressfield's finest books. In the backs-against-the-wall theme of "Gates's" Spartans at Thermopylae, Pressfield relates the true story of an entire country's courage while facing overwhelming odds. You won't put it down unfinished.

“The Lion’s Gate,"
by Steven Pressfield
Sentinel-Penguin Group, 2014
ISBN # 1-59523-091-1

Book Review: "Before the First Shots are Fired, by Gen Tony Zinni, USMC (ret) and Tony Klotz

"Before the First Shots Are Fired"
By Gen Tony Zinni, USMC, ret, and Tony Klotz

Today's foreign policy world seems like the bad old days of American indecision under Jimmy Carter; the Israel-Hamas war, Putin annexed the Crimea, President Obama's red-lines in Syria are repeatedly ignored, and the Americans killed in Iraq seem to have been sacrificed for a country whose people wanted democracy far less than the “Neocon's wanted it for them...clearly General Tony Zinni's USMC (ret) latest book, “Before the First Shot is Fired; How America can win or lose off the battlefield,” is being published at a most opportune time.

Writing with an honesty rare in Washington, D.C, “Before the First Shot” is Zinni's assessment of why America's foreign and military policy-making is ineffective, if not harmful, to America's national interests. In conjunction with co-author Tony Koltz, he discusses why the complex question “Are we warriors, peacekeepers, or liberators?” of Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond needs to be honestly discussed and answered when military actions are being considered.

A combat infantry officer in Vietnam, Zinni is no stranger to foreign policy's effects on the military. He finished his 40-year Marine career commanding Centcom, from where he led HA-DR missions into Somalia, worked with our NATO allies, and dealt with enough local potentates he was jokingly referred to as “America's Proconsul.” Whether 3rd or 4th Generation Warfare, Zinni's fought both, and the book is filled with real-time examples that validate his thoughts on how how America's foreign policy should best be implemented.

One of the biggest issues, Zinni writes, is that warfare has changed and neither the American military, the public, or the politicians understand how it has changed. It's the politicians inability to decide on America's role, coupled with a DoD who prefers to act on a huge scale or not at all, that is paralyzing America's foreign policy. As the many Marines who dealt with Mullahs, Elders, and gang leaders will confirm, it's a different battlefield than Tarawa, and the politicians need to realize the term 'bad guy' is relative. He equally faults the Pentagon; technology is a tool, not an end-state, and Zumwalt-class destroyers or forever-developing F-35's are not the weapons needed to keep small wars from becoming bigger.

But today's world, Zinni acknowledges, is vastly more complex than defeating the Axis powers; unlike beating the Japanese, the American people need to be convinced the war, or military action, is worth supporting – and it's up to the president to marry the mission to American interests. With technology enabling the media to beam video of gassed children and bleeding women worldwide, it's the president's role to decide if the situation is merely horrific or is of sufficient importance to justify America's involvement.

But unlike WW2, when America rallied to FDR; today's politicians fill the 24-hour news cycle in ways that often negatively impact American foreign policy-making. While the GOP routinely castigates President Obama for 'losing' Iraq, it's worth remembering the Iraqi's refused to sign a status of forces agreement – and by 2011, after 4,476 KIA and a trillion-plus dollars borrowed and spent on the war, the only support for continued American involvement came from a small group inside the Beltway.

Such constant negativity serves to weaken the president's ability to lead, Zinni argues, and serves to make future intervention's more difficult. As the lies and deliberate misinformation used by the Bush Administration “Neocons” to justify the war in 2003 came unraveled, it became more difficult to convince Americans of the need to intervene in other conflicts. Harriers over Syria three years ago might have given Assad second thoughts about gassing his fellow citizens. How ironic if those same lies used to justify the 2003 invasion halted an intervention in Syria that led to ISIS-ISIL's fracturing of Iraq.

Does a president need military experience to run a viable foreign policy, Zinni asks? Polio kept Franklin Roosevelt from serving, but he was Ass't Sect of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson and under his leadership the Allies won. Carter was a Naval officer, but missed or mishandled world events. Obama never served, yet picked Gen James Jones as his first National Security Advisor, hugely boosted the Marine presence in Afghanistan in 2009, sent Marines to Darwin as an integral part of his “Pacific Pivot,” and freely uses drones to kill those in Pakistan and Somalia who threaten American interests. It would seem the value of prior service depends on the individual.

A president needs an innate curiosity, Zinni says; one cannot be passive and disengaged when discussing the potential use of military force and it's follow-on effects. “Before the First Shot” makes an interesting comparison between Bush Jr, who served briefly in the Texas National Guard, and Clinton who accepted a student deferment during Vietnam. He castigates Bush (“the Decider”) as simply making decisions on the recommendations being presented by like-minded people, with Clinton, who Zinni believes 'got it right.'

Zinni credits Clinton for studying plans, grasping their complexities, and understanding where he might be needed to make critical decisions. Clinton also understood that his “OK” didn't mean he could then just stand back and watch; he had to follow events should he need to call an audible. Zinni also credits then-Sect of Defense William Cohen with building relationships between Clinton and the military, he and his fellow co-com commanders briefed Clinton several times annually; a far cry from “hyper-controlling secretaries like McNamara and Rumsfeld who limited the direct contact with generals and admirals. When that happens, presidential decisions suffer.”

Political leadership and the military commanders need to be synced, Zinni argues, as anything less ends in bloody and expensive disaster. “Before the First Shot” should be mandatory reading for every president and politician involved in the decision to send America's PFC's and LCPL's into harms way; our young men and women will give America their best – if only the politicians and bureaucrats would do the same.

Before The First Shot is Fired
By Gen Tony Zinni & Tony Koltz
Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014

ISBN # 978-1-137-27938-5, $ 27.00

Book Review: "Blue-Eyed Boy" A Memoir, by Robert Timberg

There are two types of courage, both equally worthy of our respect and admiration. We all know the first; it's the battlefield courage that enables John Basilone on the 'Canal, Dan Daly at Belleau Wood, and Jason Dunham in Western Anbar to rise to the occasion. It's the second type of courage that's perhaps more difficult; it's looking into a mirror at 0355 and seeing your shattered visage staring back as you wonder who might hire you, will anyone ever love you, and if life is worth continuing – and then stubbornly pushing though another day. That's Bob Timberg type of courage.

“Blue-Eyed Boy” is Robert Timberg's story, and one of the best memoir's you'll ever read. The story of his life since being catastrophically burned outside of Danang in January 1967, Timberg presents a story that is simultaneously funny, sardonic, and painfully honest. A short-timer with only 13 days remaining in Vietnam, his story begins when his Amtrac rolled over a landmine outside of Danang “I felt myself lifted from the top of the Amtrac, as if in the eye of a hurricane, except in place of wind and rain I was being carried aloft by flames.”

Timberg survived, but needed to rebuild both his head and his life. In painfully vivid writing, he describes not understanding the severity of his injuries until overhearing a nurse casually ask “where's The Burn?” when referring to him, the 35 operations he endured (one without anesthesia that saved an eye), and learning how his skin would not only never grow back, but would instead contract his face with thick, ropey, hideous scars. The only constant in his life besides post-operative pain, and an increasing depression, was the unflagging attention and love of his wife Janie. He also writes how after 18 months of constant operations of finally accepted reality; that he was “horribly disfigured and plastic surgery could only do so much.” But Timberg's time as a casualty was coming to a close; the Marine Corps discharged him as 100% disabled (calling his wounds 'highly repugnant'), while the hospital prepared to discharge him. It was “nut-cutting time,” he wrote; “how would skills such as shooting Expert with a .45 handgun or field-stripping an M14 translate into a civilian job?” And a job was suddenly important; his wife was pregnant.

Call it Fate, call it Opportunity, or call it constant reinforcement from his wife, but Timberg threw a dart and it landed on Journalism...he was accepted at Stanford and despite the fact he couldn't even type; Timberg quickly discovered he could surely write. Stanford also taught him tolerance, and forced him to begin to confront the inequalities of the Vietnam War. Few American males fought, fewer volunteered, and as a disfigured Marine combat veteran on a liberal campus, Timberg had little in common with either the students or the professors. But surprisingly, he developed a respect for anti-war protestors like the former Stanford student body president David Harris. Instead of fleeing to the cushy confines of Sweden or Canada, or faking a sanity issue like chickenhawk singer Ted Nugent, Harris refused his draft notice, was arrested, and jailed for three years. That worked for Timberg, who believed 'there was no free lunch...you had to put yourself in peril, in either the Big House or the Boonies.” Guys like Harris were OK by Timberg.

Life was becoming a series of benchmarks for Timberg: an initial job at Annapolis's Evening Capital where he quickly discovered that when in the field interviewing cops and citizens for a story he had no sense of being disfigured – one hurdle successfully negotiated. Timberg soon discovered he was a very good reporter – another hurdle jumped. A new job as the Baltimore Evening Sun's political reporter...and in the Spring of 1979, after nine years working as a reporter, Timberg was selected as one of Harvard's prestigious Nieman Fellows, an award given to a dozen promising American mid-career journalists annually. It wasn't a Pulitzer, Timberg writes, but a recognition that he could excel in his chosen field. “I'd broken the plane of the goal line...I knew now I could run with anyone.”

In “Blue-Eyed Boy” Timberg recounts scoring a game-winner with his first book “The Nightingale Song,” the New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1995. Written following the Iran-Contra scandal in which Marines Ollie North, and Bud McFarlane, along with Admiral John Poindexter, were accused of trading weapons for hostages with Iran, Timberg finally realized there was no reason for him to think of himself as a victim of the Vietnam War; that he was a national-class author and journalist. This awakening was due in part to his new friendship with then-junior Senator John McCain, who decided that his life would not be directed by his time as a POW, and insights from fellow Vietnam Marine (and Sect of the Navy) Jim Webb, who also had a respect for the anti-war protestors like Harris who went to jail for their beliefs.” The book enabled Timberg to come full-circle, he wrote, “he'd fought a war, became a casualty of that war, and was now chronicling the impact of his generation's uneven response to it.”

Although written by a member of the Vietnam War generation, “Blue-Eyed Boy” is a book worth reading by everyone, especially those many thousands wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Timberg says, and every Marine will understand, 'what I needed to do was not to hide from the world, but to take it on.” Well done, Capt Timberg; “Blue-Eyed Boy” is the ultimate example of “Keep Attacking!"

Blue-Eyed Boy A Memoir by Robert Timberg Penguin Group, 2014 ISBN # 978-1-59420-566-8 $ 27.95