Two events dominated the thirty-five-year career of Gen. Donn Starry. The first took place during the Vietnam War in May of 1970 when he led the 11th Armored Cavalry’s Blackhorse Regiment into Cambodia. The second occurred when the Army adopted Starry’s AirLand Battle strategy in 1982, a year before he retired.
Historian Mike Guardia highlights these events in Crusader: General Don Starry and the Army of His Time (Casemate, 193 pp.; $32.95). The book builds a framework for Starry’s success. Its interest lies in how he applied his leadership theories to real-world problems and thereby improved armored units’ operational readiness worldwide. Starry believed that armored cavalry troops were better soldiers than infantrymen—including airborne infantrymen.
Starry’s voice dominates the book. Guardia quotes him extensively, including many half-page passages from the general’s personal papers. Starry was a talented writer on his own. Guardia also interviewed members of Starry’s family and people who knew and worked with him. Starry died in 2011.
A formula for success was forced onto Starry during his initial active-duty assignment as a second lieutenant under LTC Creighton Abrams in 1949. Abrams commanded a tank battalion in Germany and demanded perfection. Most of all, Abrams did not tolerate a complaint unless it included a solution to the problem in question. Starry followed that directive throughout his career. He went on to work for Abrams several times before he died in 1974 while serving as Army Chief of Staff.
Because the Army prioritized Cold War needs ahead of those in the Korean War—particularly those related to armor—Starry remained in Germany during that conflict. He did, however, serve twice in the Vietnam War. During his first tour, he was disappointed with the employment of mechanized forces after he saw tanks used as little more than “battlefield taxis” delivering infantrymen to the front. Mythology dictated that the terrain and climate were unsuitable for “anything except dismounted infantry and the animals that lived in the jungle,” Starry once said.
On his second tour as a colonel with Blackhorse, Starry assembled his own armor and helicopters for the five-month incursion into Cambodia. “A cavalry regiment, even in a jungle environment, could cover as much ground and deliver more firepower than two airmobile divisions,” he said.
The kind of leader who placed himself on the ground at the front of his forces, Starry led his men into Cambodia, overran Snuol, and captured one of the war’s larges caches of North Vietnamese arms and supplies. Wounded multiple times by shrapnel at Snuol, Starry refused evacuation to Japan, designed his own in-hospital rehabilitation program, and returned to Blackhorse within twelve days.
After the war Starry mainly worked on creating the AirLand Battle strategy. Guardia includes pages of Starry’s writings to justify the strategy. Basically, it was designed to destroy follow-on echelons of overwhelming forces, which comprised the greatest Soviet Union threat at the time. Published in FM 100-5 Operations, the strategy did not receive universal acceptance.
Unfamiliar with the AirLand Battle concept before reading Crusader, I interpreted the strategy as a wishful dream for success in war rather than concrete guidelines on how to defeat an enemy. Because its logic revolved around defending Europe from superior Soviet forces, it lacked worldwide application. Furthermore, its reliance on synchronization of operations with the Air Force made me question its effectiveness.
I felt that 1980 armor leaders used the AirLand Battle to take Cold War control of the Army exactly as tactical air leaders had grabbed control of the Air Force following the Vietnam War. Armor thinkers used the Air Force in a way similar to how tactical air leaders had agreed on thirty-one initiatives with the Army to help wrest control from strategic air theorists, as explained in The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam by Brian D. Laslie.
Guardia credits the 1990 Desert Storm victory to AirLand Battle strategy, but that seemed wrong to me. In my opinion, the size of Iraqi forces fell far short of enemy expectations in the AirLand Battle scenario. Nevertheless, the claim parallels my earlier argument: Fighter pilots also took credit for winning Desert Storm, which validated their control of the USAF.
Crusader closes with the transcripts of four of Starry’s speeches. “Fifty Years at the Business End of the Bomb” was my favorite.
Mike Guardia has written four other biographies of Army leaders, five books about weapon systems, and a children’s book. He spent six years as an armor officer and holds a master’s degree in American history.
Reading his new book brought me to the conclusion that Americans are highly unlikely to participate in a war of the magnitude and design envisioned in the AirLand Battle. Instead, we appear doomed to fight at the lowest level of combat according to whims of weaker opponents and follow rules that favor them.
The author’s website is mikeguardia.com