Shadow Commander by Mike Guardia



Mike Guardia, the author of  Shadow Commander: The Epic Story of Donald D. Blackburn—Guerrilla Leader and Special Forces Hero (Casemate, 240 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle), is a military historian who served in the U. S. Army as an armor officer.  His previous books include Hal Moore:  A Soldier Once… and Always.

When Donald Blackburn was a young Army officer in World War II in the Philippines he escaped taking part in the infamous Bataan Death March, and organized Filipinos to fight the Japanese. Later Blackburn helped set up U.S. Special Forces operations in Vietnam.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I thought that the first part of the book would be a lot like the tales my grandfather, Homer Willson, regaled me with as a boy.  Grandpa pursued Moros in the jungle of Mindanao in 1910 when he was an Army private in the aftermath of the Philippine War. There is little of that immediacy and danger communicated, however, in this book’s Philippine section.

“It was an excruciatingly slow process fraught with betrayals, intrigue, manhunts and the inevitable close calls with the Japanese,” Guardia says, describing  Blackburn’s work organizing guerrillas scattered about Northern Luzon. Much of the time Blackburn was seriously ill with malaria.

The weapons his men had were not always the best. Many of his soldiers preferred to fight with Bolo knives rather than use the unreliable Enfield rifles. Plus, he was outgunned by the Japanese. Provisions were delivered by submarine. That included dynamite, Thompson submachine guns, rifles, bazookas, grenades, and grenade launchers.

Blackburn fought in more than fifty battles, large and small, throughout Northern Luzon. His war in the Philippines ended on August 14, 1945, after four years of fighting. He had started as a lieutenant and came home a colonel. Col. Blackburn went home and received no ticker tape parade, but he did not want or expect one.

Blackburn began his involvement in Vietnam in the summer of 1957 at the U.S. Military Advisory Assistance Group headquarters in Saigon. The author tells us that “Blackburn’s first tour (1957-58) was not a very gratifying year.”


Mike Guardia

Later, in 1964, Blackburn was part of Studies and Observation Group (SOG), a secret, deceptively named group that had (among other missions) the disruption of the Ho Minh Trail. Guardia tells us that the war in Vietnam was hamstrung by political mismanagement from the beginning, over-cautious rules of engagement, and the dubious strategy of “hearts and minds,” as well as too much emphasis on high-tech gizmos and not enough thought about boots on the ground.

Blackburn was part of the raid on Son Tay Prison, during which no American POWs were rescued. The military considered it a tactical success, but an intelligence failure.  After that, Blackburn returned to Sarasota, Florida, and retired.  He died on May 24, 2008, “A true hero of the Army Special Forces,” Guardia writes.

I’m sure that Donald Blackburn had exciting tales to tell of his time in the Philippines and in South Vietnam. I also believe he was highly trained to be modest and also circumspect, so those tales never got told. I wish I could have heard him tell them.

—David Willson

Why Spy? by Brian Stewart and Samantha Newbery


Why Spy? The Art of Intelligence (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 288 pp., $29.95 ) makes a strong argument for the proper use of intelligence in determining a nation’s course of actions. The British authors, Brain Stewart and Samantha Newbery, examine several cases—including the American wars in Iraq and Vietnam—to prove their point.

The discussion on Iraq focuses on Great Britain’s “Butler Review.” Its conclusions are nothing new. Basically, the authors show that the decision to invade Iraq relied on weak information. The UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee placed too much emphasis on input from dissident and émigré sources with an interest in returning to Iraq and made questionable interpretations of objective data, Stewart and Newbery say.

Furthermore, No. 10 Downing Street provided input in drafting the committee’s report. That interference was a major error, the authors say, because rules of good intelligence forbid the customer from tainting the findings.

Overall, the conclusions parallel what Americans have determined to be the truth: that although facts should have proved otherwise, we still invaded Iraq based on contrived fear that weapons of mass destruction existed there.

In reference to the Vietnam War, the authors write that beyond a failure to recognize the willingness of the North Vietnamese to fight on forever, the U.S. ignored the absence of an effective South Vietnamese government upon which we could build the nation our presidents desired. In four pages of personal reflection, with perfect logic, Stewart ties together that idea and other well-known U.S. intelligence shortcomings.

The book’s arguments often rely on the first-hand experiences of Stewart, who served worldwide in the intelligence community for seventy years. In 1967-68, he was the British Consul General in Hanoi, and afterward met with the CIA. His career began with the British Military Administration in Malaya in 1945. He devotes a section of the book to the use of good intelligence in quelling the 1949-60 communist-inspired insurgency in that nation.

The Prince Of Wales And The Duchess Of Cornwall Visit 'The Last Of The Tide' Exhibition

Brian Stewart with Prince Charles

Co-author Samantha Newbery lectures in Contemporary Intelligence Studies at the University of Salford, in Manchester, England.

The authors provide a short course in the machinery and methodology of intelligence, including collection methods and assessment problems and fallacies. They illustrate lessons with real-life examples, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The book provides little new information on world events, but is important because it examines the extreme means used by political and military leaders to reach the ends they desire, regardless of contradictory intelligence findings.

—Henry Zeybel