Monday, February 25, 2013

Book R&R - We Were Soldiers Once

Earlier this month I talked about going back and reading some of what I considered had become "classics" of military history that had gotten by me when they first came out. Admittedly this idea was spawned in part by all of the great books I was finding at used bookstores and my local library sales. I decided to start calling these posts "Book R&R," for review and recommendation. I hope you will find these books as meaningful as I did (or perhaps in some cases, take my recommendation to pass them by). I believe readers should review books as often as possible and recommend the ones they like to others. There are just so many outstanding books, and a good number of stinkers too, that we could all use a tip once in a while.

Book Review and Recommendation: "We Were Soldiers Once...And Young: Ia Drang - The Battle That Changed The War in Vietnam" by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway.

"We Were Soldiers Once" came out the year I left the Army (1992) and for a few years I had gotten away from reading any subject after WWII so this incredible book got by me. I suppose like many people I can thank Mel Gibson's movie for bringing this book back onto my radar. There is a reason this book is on the Center For Military History's Recommended Professional Reading List for Junior NCOs and is also on the United States Army Chief of Staff's Professional Reading List for 2013. Actually, General Odierno is joined by two previous Chiefs of Staff in recommending this book to his officers. I humbly join them. This is an amazing book. Not just a war story, but I believe an honest morality tale. It is both fascinating and disturbing at the same time.

There is probably nothing I can add to the hundreds of reviews of this book (367 on Amazon alone). However, I'd just like to tell you what lessons I took from this book. First of all, at the risk of hyperbole, I must say that I wish every American would read this book. In it, the reader will learn about the bravery of the American soldier and the real cost of war in terms of the sacrifice of those who have to fight it. It is a story that transcends the conflict in Vietnam and is very applicable to our modern military adventures, where the burden of war is carried by only a small number of our citizens.

The first half of the book describes the formation of what would become the 1/7 Cavalry, part of the first air mobile division (1st Cavalry Division) and its deployment to Vietnam in 1965. The 1/7th Cavalry is commanded by the co-author, Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore. Moore's battalion is sent into LZ X-ray and survives a battle against what would have been overwhelming odds if it were not for massive American artillery and close air support, along with the expert leadership of the officers and NCOs in the battalion from Moore down and the undisputed bravery of each individual soldier. Witness to this battle is reporter Joe Galloway, the other author of "We Were Soldiers Once." The fight for LZ X-ray is significant for study and analysis (both then and now) as the first major engagement between American air mobile infantry and the North Vietnamese Army.

The second half of the book, however, was not portrayed in the Mel Gibson movie. It tells the story of Moore's sister battalion, the 2/7th Cavalry, that was marching toward LZ Albany to be extracted after reinforcing the 1/7th at X-ray. While approaching the LZ, unprepared for meeting the enemy, the battalion was attacked by three battalions of NVA soldiers. The chain of command was not able to bring artillery and air support to their rescue in this engagement for several hours. The results were devastating. Both fights constitute the Battle of the Ia Drang, not just the part stylized in the movie version.

The most moving part of the book is revealed in the closing chapters. The stories of two of the soldiers' widows and two fatherless daughters bring to light how the sacrifices on the battlefield not only take the lives of amazingly talented soldiers, but also dramatically affect the loved ones at home, who also pay the price and for the rest of their lives. Reading about the aftermath and the effect on the veterans and their family members is a very emotional experience. However, even more amazing and anger inducing is the way the battle was treated by the leadership of the country. The upper management of the Army and the government refused any lessons to be learned from this battle, and the country continued on a path that we now know was already decided upon before the 1st Cavalry Division even arrived in Vietnam.

If anything I took away an amazing respect and gratitude for the soldiers who fought at LZ X-ray and LZ Albany. I was disturbed at the failure of our leadership and our citizens to take away the lessons offered by the event at the time. Although they were not heeded back in 1965, they are still there for us today. If you enjoyed the movie, I hope you will read the book. Only by knowing about it can we understand the whole and true story of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. History is rife with examples of the need for a citizenry that is engaged in our country's foreign policy. This is one of them.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Hotel Le Negresco

A contemporary picture of the Hotel Le Negresco.
The January/February edition of The History Channel Magazine has a nice article about the Negresco Hotel in Nice, France. Writer Kelly E. Carter did a wonderful job of laying out the historical significance of the stylish hotel along the French Riviera that is once again becoming a popular tourist destination for those not overly concerned with a budget. The article highlights the history of the building, notes some of the artwork that can be found there. The author also points out many of the celebrities that are known to have stayed there over the years.

Unfortunately, and much to my disappointment, Carter's only mention of the Hotel Le Negresco's witness to WWII history was one simple sentence:
"During World War II, the Negresco was seized by American soldiers and used as a rest home."
I thought that this period in the hotel's history deserved a bit more explanation, so I will quickly review that here.

This photo was simply labeled "Nice, 1944." But I believe that is the
Negresco Hotel down the boardwalk. Courtesy Edward R. Reuter.
Operation Dragoon, the U.S. Seventh Army's liberation of southern France, began on August 15th with beach landings centered around St. Tropez and airborne landings inland in the area of Le Muy. While French forces turned south to take the ports of Marseilles and Toulon, Seventh Army moved inland. Working up the coast of southern France, covering the right flank of Seventh Army, was the 1st Airborne Task Force (FABTF) that included the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion. Cannes and Nice were liberated by the 509th Combat Team (the Gingerbread Men with the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion attached) at the end of August 1944. These cities along the Côte d'Azur jubilantly welcomed the Allied forces with parades and parties. The Negresco Hotel (mentioned on page 238 of "The Boldest Plan is the Best," if you'll forgive a shameless plug) was indeed occupied and operated as an officer's club and R & R center for the remainder of the war. While the 509th PIB and other units in Seventh Army operated in southern France, soldiers were able to visit the Negresco and others like it for a well earned respite from combat and living in the field.

The boardwalk in Nice, 1944 from the other direction.
Image courtesy of Edward R. Reuter.
Although I'm sure that the men would have rather seen places like Naples, Rome, Cannes, and Nice in happier times, these areas brought unforgettable memories for many of the veterans I interviewed. Most of these "country boys" had never seen anything so spectacular and most never went back. I might also mention that one of the celebrity guests Kelly Carter forgot to put on her list was Audie Murphy, but his stay in 1945 was as a new second lieutenant commissioned on the battlefield, not as a famous actor or author. Of course in my opinion, not just the Geronimos but all of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who stayed in the Hotel Le Negresco and places like it are celebrities.

The photograph at the top of the post is of the Negresco today. I've included a couple of pictures of the boardwalk in Nice from the collection provided for "The Boldest Plan is the Best: The Combat History of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion during WWII" from Mr. Edward R. Reuter; these photos were taken in 1944. You can find out more about the Negresco Hotel in Nice at the Hotel's website.

Friday, February 1, 2013

"War is a Racket" by Smedley Butler

The other day I picked up a copy of Steinbeck's "Cannery Row" and gave it a read. I kind of feel like my cultural literacy is lacking somewhat because I haven't read all the greats of American literature, especially Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Twain. Often I feel the same way about the classics of military history. You know, there are books out there that have been talked about for decades, but I never got around to reading them. Like Robert Leckie's "Helmet for my Pillow" or Cornelius Ryan's "The Longest Day." (No, just watching the movie doesn't count.) So I decided to start working some of these books into my reading pile. It's really pretty easy to acquire a large selection, between the library, Amazon, and used book sales. The other day I found a copy of Pappy Boyington's "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" at my library's used book sale and picked it up for only fifty cents! But before I could even begin reading it, something (I don't remember what now) reminded me of this quote:
“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.” 
- Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC 
Smedley D. Butler
I first heard that quote in a Military History class at Cal State Fresno (a requirement for the ROTC program) in 1983. The professor read that quote to the class and he immediately had my attention. Thirty years later it popped in my mind again and I had to go to the library and check out General Butler's book and read it... again. That's a classic: a book that speaks to you so loudly you are compelled to read it again decades later.

Smedley Darlington Butler served in the United States Marine Corps for 34 years. He was awarded the Marine Corps Brevet Medal (one of only twenty to receive it) and two Medals of Honor. At the time of his death, he was the most highly decorated Marine in U.S. history. He served and fought in the Philippine-American War, the Boxer Rebellion in China, the "Banana Wars" in Central America and the Caribbean that included service in Haiti and Nicaragua. He was part of the occupation of Veracruz, Mexico in 1914, and served in France during WWI. In the later part of the 1920s, Butler commanded the Marine Expeditionary Force in China. I suppose that you can draw the conclusion that Smedley Butler knew about war.

Butler was an outspoken man. Because of his progressive views about big business capitalism, defense, and military spending in the early days of the Great Depression, he ran afoul of the Hoover administration. Butler was threatened with court martial for public statements criticizing the new fascist dictator in Italy, Benito Mussolini (in the early 1930s some folks in this country admired fascism as an effective methodology for dealing with the worldwide economic depression). Although he was obviously the best choice for Commandant of the Marine Corps, he was passed over for the job. Major General Butler quietly retired from the Marine Corps in 1931.

After his military service, Smedley Butler became an outspoken isolationist during the 1930s. He gained notoriety after being called to testify before a Congressional Committee investigating charges that there had been a fascist plot to overthrow President Roosevelt. Butler claimed that a group of businessmen had approached him about leading the insurrection army. (This is the subject of Jules Archer's book "The Plot to Seize the White House." I find the concept believable, but I admit I have not read the book.) During this period, some of Butler's speeches were combined into a short - 66 page - book that became an antiwar classic.

"War is a Racket" by Smedley Butler was first published in 1935. In the book, Butler lays out an argument that America's wars of the twentieth century were all fought for the profit of corporations, culminating with his listing of facts and figures on the profits made by industry as a result of supplying Allied armies (and in some cases alleging that we sold equipment to the enemy) during WWI. In his view, Butler saw the same situation occurring with the world gearing up for WWII. He advocated strictly using our military for defensive purposes only. His plan to ensure it included a constitutional amendment that forbade ground troops from every leaving the continental United States.

Smedley Butler did not live to see the mood of the country turn from isolationism in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. He passed away on June 24, 1940. But his book became an antiwar classic, and also a military history classic. Because, despite the fact that in my opinion his message rings as true today as it did when he wrote it, "War is a Racket" also lets us see a viewpoint held by a large segment of the American population during the Depression years and the build up to the Second World War. A view that is often downplayed in historical texts of today. And in case you're wondering, reading this antiwar book did not make me question my decision to become an Army officer. It actually had the opposite affect. If anything, hearing both sides of any argument is a good thing. 

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