Saturday 22 December 2018

Book Review: Tiger Force, Sallah & Weiss


Many, many years after Seymour Hersh shocked America with the revelations of what President Nixon described as the 'isolated incident' of My Lai [1], Tiger Force presents another example of the fascinating but by now sadly familiar tale of war crimes by US soldiers in Vietnam, revealing such actions to be far from singular occurrences.

Tiger Force in fact tells four distinct stories, interwoven. The major story is a narrative of the actions of The titular Tiger Force, in two particularly nasty episodes in '67, with heavy use of firsthand accounts, focussing on numerous individual soldiers. These range from those like Lt. Hawkins, Sgt. Doyle and Pvt. Ybarra, who appear to revel in the violence, to men such as Medics Causey and Bowman, and Pvt. Bruner, who attempt to stem (and report) a rising tide of wanton butchery. 

Pvt. Sam Ybarra, infamous for his human-ear necklaces.

A very minor counterpoint, in terms of the space given over to it, is the view from the victims and relatives, the Vietnamese whose 'hearts and minds' the US allegedly hoped to win over [2]. How anyone in the American chain of command imagined forced resettlement and indiscriminate killing would achieve this beggars belief. 

In addition to these two contemporary threads there are two later developments, the CID* investigation under Guy Apsey and, much later, the final breaking of the story in the media, by the authors of this book, in a series of newspaper features.

Jungle conditions were made worse by such delights as punji sticks. [3]

Tigers on patrol in the jungle.

Compared with the WWII and Napoleonic history I usually read, this 'Nam material is delivered in a more pulpy thriller type manner, exciting to read but less scholarly, and quite basic, occasionally veering into repetitiveness. The latter perhaps a result of a series of articles being turned into a book? That said, it's a compelling easy read. 

Tiger Force were an almost secret semi-guerilla unit, designed to fight the Viet Cong on their own turf and in their own way, using methods ordinary US line units wouldn't employ. Unfortunately, but very predictably, things quickly got out of hand. Or, and worse still, a culture of racist imperialist violence was actively fostered, not always overtly or in such stark terms, but sometimes hidden under such elastic euphemisms as 'free-fire zones'

Medic, Rion Causey.

Sgt. Barnett.

What's perhaps most puzzling to someone like me is that anybody's surprised that war encourages such things: the grunts and the peasants are always on the sharp end. The former, young men, many from the lower sections of society, often from poor or rough backgrounds, get to vent their unresolved adolescent anger upon the hapless civilian innocents, both soldiers and civilians being caught in the crossfire of huge vague ideological currents that are stoked and fanned by older men, miles away from dirt and death on the ground. It's an obvious recipe for hell on earth.

Still, as Thomas Hardy famously said, peace makes dull reading. The horrors of war keep the pages turning. Despite My Lai, this is a story that needs constant retelling, every time it happens. But the prolonged atrocities of Tiger Force were swept under the carpet. The depressing thing one can't help but conclude is that we learn precious little from our mistakes, and therefore seem doomed to keep repeating them.

Tiger Force troops in more amiable mood. [4]

Tiger Force is a fascinating product of investigative journalism, based on true and disturbing events.  Books like this, whilst also giving the reader something very engaging to read, also offer us a sobering challenge for the future. Not an out and classic. But certainly worth reading.

* Obviously not our UK CID (Criminal Investigation Department), but the US Army's Criminal Investigation Division!


A shorter piece by Sallah on this topic can be read here.

[1] Read Hersh on this subject here.

[2] It was LBJ, president Johnson, who famously used the 'hearts and minds phrase'. There's also a 1975 documentary on Vietnam by that name, which is worth watching.

[3] This picture shows a member of a Tiger Force having a punji stick wound dressed in the field. Punji sticks are sharpened bamboo stakes which were often smeared with human faeces, designed to cause infections of the wounds they would cause if stepped upon.

[4] At the time Apsey started his investigations Tiger Force was a shadowy unit, with hardly any official trace to be found. That's no longer true. As well as the infamy of this sad story, it should also be remembered that the unit served with distinction in Vietnam. It wasn't all rampant butchery. Now there's a website devoted to the unit, past and present (visit it here). And yes, there is still a Tiger Force unit in existence as part of the 101st Airborne.

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Book Review: The Iron Marshal, Gallagher

Having just finished this excellent account of the life of Louis Davout, I feel I have to remark on how surprisingly good so much Napoleonic history is. I'm constantly reading in this vast subject, and frequently encountering an author who's new to me. And, by and large, most of what I read is very good.

John G. Gallagher is such an author, i.e. new to me, and his biography of Louis-Nicolas Davout, The Iron Marshal, is better than merely very good, it is superb. We get the whole story, from his birth into a thoroughly military family of the lesser nobility, through the upheavals of the Revolution, and on into the glory years of the Napoleonic era, finally passing to the restoration of the Bourbons and, not long after that, Davout's decline and death.

Louis-Nicolas Davout, Prince Eckmuhl, Duc d'Auerstedt.

Gallagher perfectly balances all the elements, writing in an easy going yet authoratative manner, with a turn of pace brisk enough to keep the read exciting, and thorough enough to keep it fascinating. Of course the major interest for readers like myself are Davout's great successes, chief of which is Auerstedt. But all his campaigns and battles are adroitly covered. 

After the Russian debacle Napoleon perhaps fails to employ Davout, arguably his most capable lieutenant, to best advantage. Firstly leaving him stranded in Hamburg as the Allies sweep westward, prior to his first abdication. And then choosing to employ him in Paris as Minister of War, during the 100 Days Campaign, when he might've been better employed in the field, and thus perhaps hastening his second and final abdication?.

Vanquished Prussians retreat after Jena-Auerstedt (R. Knotel).

If not universally loved, then certainly greatly and widely respected, Davout emerges as a capable and judicious leader. Not as colourful or ambitious as your Murats or Bernadottes, perhaps, but instead a more devoted and more principled man, less self-interested and more duty-bound, whose belief in discipline and organisation meant troops under his care were second only to the Guard. 

Gallagher's book has proven to be the perfect way for me to learn more about one of Napoleon's most capable commanders. Highly recommended.

Davout in the Kremlin, Moscow, 1812 (V. Vereshchagin).

Thursday 29 November 2018

1/76 Airfix Bren Gun Carrier & 6pdr Gun

Crikey, it's been aeons since I've managed to do any model making at all. A shameful state of affairs! 

Anyway, on a recent trip into Ely my wife wanted to pop into the haberdashers, which is tucked away in the back of the Ely City Cycle Centre. This fab shop, a proper old-fashioned department store, also has a large model and railway section, up on the top floor. So I snuck in there and quickly and quietly bought me a few models!

Damn, such a cool looking beast!

My other Airfix 1/76 two-fer.

I got the Zvezda snap-fit Sd. Kfz. 184, or Ferdinand/Elefant. One of my favourite German armoured vehicles of WWII. I have versions by Fujimi (built, 1/76), Trumpeter (1/72, unbuilt), and now this'un (ditto). And then I spotted that they had a stack or two of the Airfix 1/76 'Vintage Classics' range of re-releases. I posted about these a while back, and mentioned that I might make some British stuff.

So I've made good on this promise to myself, and bought the 25pdr Field Gun & Quad, and the Bren Gun Carrier & 6pdr. Both kits have the added bonus of being two-fers, in that you get both a gun (& crew), and a vehicle. Today I started building the Bren Gun Carrier. In a fit of madness I decided to follow ye olde instructions to the extent of washing the sprues, and even painting the parts whilst still attached to the aforesaid.

Grey undercoat.

Olive drab base-coat.

After giving the sprues a wash and scrub in warm soapy water, and letting them dry, I undercoated and base-coated them all, first in grey, then olive drab. Khaki clothing, black boots and tires followed. It was then, alas, time for bed. So even now that I've clawed back a moments modelmaking, 'twas ever such a brief one!

Painting bits whilst still on the sprues, as per instructions!

Overcome with the urge to cut stuff of the sprues.

Amidst all the recent redecorating and DIY I reconfigured my mini-military workspace. It's not yet optimal, particularly in terms of lighting. I found painting this lot, even just blocking in basic colours, very difficult and draining, even with one of those magnifying headband doodads on... Well, until tomorrow... I must be patient!

Well, back to the modelling workbench; I built the 6pdr gun. A fiddly little thing. I've also got a bit further with the Universal Carrier. The idea of painting the parts on the sprue? Which I've never done before...

Obviously when you remove parts from the sprue you wind up with an unpainted bit, where it was formerly connected. Then there's the way lots of the paint rubs off, as you handle the parts. And finally, any tight or ill fitting parts will fit even less well, or simply not fit at all, with the paint bulking things up. So, not a good idea, and I shan't be doing it again. Still, worth a try!

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Book Review: Marengo, T.E. Crowdy

In this excellent and exciting new book on the battle of Marengo by Terry Crowdy, published by Pen & Sword, the 'victory that placed the crown of France on Napoleon's head', as Kellerman had it (his resounding phrase also giving the book it's subtitle), we have Napoleonic history - always colourful and exciting - at its most dramatic.

The story starts with an introduction to the role of espionage in the events of 1799, a bad year for the French in Italy, before moving to the coup of Brumaire, which left Bonaparte at the helm of both the French state and the army, as First Consul. The cloak and dagger doings of the mysterious double agent Gioelli loom large in this account of events, and are appropriately intriguing.

LeJeune's fabulous painting.

Events leading up to the battle are no less dramatic, with Napoleon rather naughtily assembling a secret army, at Dijon, over which he will have personal (and unconstitutional) control, with the nominal gloss of Berthier as commander as the public fig leaf. The subsequent dramatic crossing of the Swiss Alps, and the logistical and tactical gambling that this involves, keep the excitement levels high, such that one is whisked along in the unfolding drama.

Another nice contemporary painting.

And, before one knows what has happened, rather like the men on the ground, from the humble soldiers (the memoirs of Coignet are already a useful and colourful resource) to the 'big hats' themselves, the battle of Marengo is underway. Seemingly almost accidentally, with neither side in full control of events, or with a full understanding of their opponents aims and objectives.

The death of Desaix, depicted on a rather handsome plate.

Once battle is underway, Crowdy relates the confusing ebb and flow of events with admirable clarity. And there are plenty of maps to help the reader track the potentially confusing unfolding drama. My only criticism of this book - and it's a criticism I would level at most contemporary military history books - is that, even where maps are provided, as they are in this case, they are rather plain and perfunctory looking if one compares them to the handsome old maps of yore (such as the gorgeous Alison maps partially reproduced below). And sometimes places mentioned in the text are not marked on the maps that are closest to hand. Meaning one is obliged to refer to other maps, or is left in the dark a little geographically.

Alison's attractive maps: phase one.

Phase two.

I'm still reading this, in the thick of battle, and loving it. I'll post the review anyway. But I may return to further fiddle with or augment this once I'm finished. In the meantime, however, this is highly recommended.

Jacques Louis David's iconic Napoleon Crossing The Alps.

Ok, so I'm back to revise or update my review, having now finished this extremely impressive book.

When I posted the first part, I'd read as far as, guestimating somewhat, the point where the French were beginning to have to consider withdrawing. They'd given the Austrians a bloody nose, at the crossing of the Fontenone. But Austrian weight of numbers, and in particular artillery superiority, were beginning to tell.

As the French pull back, the further they retreat, the greater their predicament. Even an attack by the then Consular (as opposed to Imperial) Guard fails to stem the Austrian tide. The French are almost in rout, and the jubilant Austrians start relaxing their guard prematurely (elderly and reluctant C-in-C Melas declaring it's all over and he's off to bed!), when Desaix's troops arrive, and quite suddenly the fortunes of war are dramatically reversed.

Melas was in his seventies, when he led Austria against Napoleon.

The timely arrival of the French reinforcements galvanises the whole armies' resolve, disintegrating units reforming and returning to the attack. Having relaxed too soon, the Austrian centre collapses and gives way, and by late evening the French are back in possession of Merngo, athwart their enemies line of supply, with the cavalry of Kellerman and Murat harrying the Austrian rout as it flees
back towards the 'awful ditch' of the Fontenone, and beyond that the Bormida.

One of the chief factors in this sudden and disastrous turnaround, aside from the intrigues of Gioelli, was the lack of team spirit in the Austrian command. Whereas the French united behind Napoleon, and were quick to bounce back from setbacks, the Austrians bickered, failing to cooperate or support each other effectively, giving up quickly and looking to blame others.

Anton Von Zach, whose plans failed, was captured during the battle.

All in all, a terrifically exciting and informative read. And a useful addition to the enormous ever expanding literature on this colourful and endlessly fascinating era. Highly recommended.


The author, Terry Crowdy.

Crowdy has a blog of his own, where you can read about his various activities, including the publication of this book (here).

Monday 12 November 2018

Media: They Shall Not Grow Old, 2018

Usually I miss this sort of thing, as I discuss on my other blog (here). But at 9.25 pm last night I discovered that at 9.30, that same Nov' 11th evening, BBC2 would be showing a Remembrance Day programme I simply had to see. This is my photo-essay tribute to an amazing film about an amazing time.

They Shall Not Grow Old is Peter Jackson's superb WWI centennial commemoration, the heart of which is brilliantly colourised and enhanced archival footage. The 90 minute programme eases us in gently. First there's a slow full-screen fade in, from the stark title, via pale ghostly moving images,  in shades of grey, before the framing and aspect ratio changes to that shown immediately below, evoking old-fashioned TV formatting.

Pre-WWI England, very 19th century.

The soundtrack to the entire film is veterans sharing their memories of their experiences. We start with general memories of involvement in The Great War, before winding back to just before the outbreak, and feelings that arise when that occurs. In a time less saturated with worldwide or even local media coverage of events, a simple conformist patriotism dominates.

News of the outbreak of war arrives.

The rush to join up.

Many lied about their age, in order to serve.

Reality starts to sink in, abroad transports to the continent.

By this point the film has already subtly shifted into enhanced footage, only it's remained black and white. Now, as the troops arrive in France and Belgium, the film goes into colour. Unenhanced archival footage of this era tends to be played back with a frame-rate that produces quick jerky movement, and picture quality is poor. Jackson and co. have achieved a more realistic smoother tempo, with a clearer quality picture. And then there's the colourisation. It really is supremely well done.

Arrival in the zig-zag trenches.

The trench system from above.

It's a new and strange environment.

And not a very hospitable one, at that.

Petroleum flavoured water.

The stench of death is everywhere.

Adding to the fragrant bouquet at the front, the behind.

Camaraderie. When not fighting, or under bombardment, it's an adventure.

Grub's up!

Equine corpses stink, but they make tolerable furniture.

Supplies and logistics.

Food for the guns.

Food for the mincer, delivered by rail.

What were the mysterious 'tanks'?

Aha! So that's what they are!

Marching to and from the front.

Wow! Traction engines in the supply lines.

Sappers at work, maintaining the trenches. 

Getting ready for the push.

Officers brief the men before they go over the top.

Anxiety is clear in the faces of troops about to go over.

The pre-attack artillery barrage, supposed to 'soften them up'

Tanks mass for the attack.

A backward glance. Will I be coming back?

And then it happens, over the top

Tanks roll over the trenches.

The colour restoration is great. 

Tanks also handle barbed-wire better than ground troops.

A direct hit. The iron beast is gutted.

The situation for the wounded is dire.

Medics are greatly appreciated

This guy's had a bullet through the chest, a bad wound.

The guy on the left was clearly shell-shocked. Trembling, and so on.

Wounded Germans are treated.

German prisoners often did stretcher duty.

There was quite a lot of camaraderie between prisoners and captors.

The dastardly Hun.

This one does look a bit like a hobgoblin.

Group pictures often capture the happier moments.

Happy campers, lived like trolls.

The end in sight.

War is over. Many are too burnt out to celebrate.

And finally, at the 'eleventh hour', it's all over. The overall consensus amongst the veterans whose testimony we hear at this point is that there's are two major reactions to the armistice. Several state that there was no euphoria or cheering, or anything like that. Instead there was a kind of shell shocked numbness and exhaustion, and a sense of 'now what?'

At this point the film reverts to the smaller old-fashioned screen shape, and black and white footage, as we hear how veterans returned to indifference, unemployment, and the slow road to incorporation back into normal civilian life.

Troops returning home.

Only to find mass unemployment, sometimes even active discrimination against ex-servicemen.

In many ways, little appeared to have changed.

Another point of agreement was that war is a bad thing, and that this war was, ultimately, a pointless waste of life. Tough things to come to terms with, if you've given some of the best years of you life, or returned physically or psychologically scarred for life. And then there are those millions, and this film is dedicated to the million or so English or Commonwealth service men and women who died in WWI, of whom the title speaks, who gave their lives, and shall not grow old.

This is a terrific piece of documentary film-making that shkws both the positive and negative sides of war. The positive includes the sense of belonging and purpose, the training that builds physical strength, self-reliance, and communal bonds, and the advances in technology, from weapons on the one hand, to medicine and communications on the other. And then there's the social changes that come abought, as women go to work, and as the old class-system crumbles.

The negative include the destruction of so much, both natural and man-made, and the incredible cost in lives, and all over what? For what? The war against Fascism looks a lot easier to justify with hindsight, even though, rather ironically, it helped consolidate the rise and extend the spread of Communism. But World War One? That looks more like the last unadulterated gasp of 19th Century colonialism. 

Anyway, Jackson's technological finesse, the resources he can marshal, have helped him, with the backing of numerous U.K. based heritage organisations, a terrific testimony to this crazy and titanic war, and in particular the part played by ordinary servicemen. Thought provoking, and essential viewing