Our Man by George Packer

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“Idealism,” writes George Packer, “without egotism is feckless; egotism without idealism is destructive.” This was the central tension of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s life and death, a struggle to balance a blinding ambition with American virtue.

Packer is a writer at The New Yorker and The Atlantic whose best-selling book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, won a National Book Award in 2013. Producing his latest book, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century (Knopf, 609 pp., $30), was not a dispassionate undertaking for him. He starts Our Man with: “Holbrooke? Yes I knew him. I can’t get his voice out of my head.”

This initial conversational prose continues throughout the book, primarily in the first person by Packer, but occasionally by a third-person narrator. At times, Packer cedes narrative control to Holbrooke, using the former diplomat’s diary to fill an entire chapter.

George Packer’s simpatico relationship with Richard Holbrooke is underscored by their mutual support for the war in Iraq. That influenced Holbrooke’s third wife and widow to allow Packer unfettered access to her husband’s previously private papers and diaries. Packer also conducted more than 250 interviews for the book.

The brilliance of the end product is in revealing the essence of Holbrooke. He is not necessarily a likable figure, and Packer is unafraid to portray the more profane aspects of his personality. Yet Holbrooke’s ambition propelled him into achieving great things for his country, most notably negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict in Bosnia.

Richard Holbrooke arrived in South Vietnam in the spring of 1963 as a Foreign Service Officer in the JFK mold. He stayed for three years before leaving for Washington to work for pacification czar Robert (“Blowtorch Bob”) Komer. He would stay in Washington long enough to write a volume of The Pentagon Papers and participate in the Paris Peace Talks in 1968.

Under President Carter, Holbrooke became the youngest Assistant Secretary of State. He met his match in National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, though, who bested Holbrooke bureaucratically and consistently proscribed more-effective policies. Exiled during Reagan-Bush years, Holbrooke would fail in his life-long goal of becoming Secretary of State. He served in the Clinton and Obama presidencies in various roles, including as special envoy to the Balkans, and as special representative to Afghanistan.

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Holbrooke in South Vietnam in the early sixties

As it was during his time in Vietnam, Holbrooke’s ambition was sweeping and shameless, a characteristic Packer finds humanizing—but one that others may find revolting. Packer seemingly spares no salacious detail in the book. “He didn’t want to miss a minute of life,” Packer writes. He carried on many affairs (one famously with Diane Sawyer), played video games, watching an endless stream of movies, and wooed his best friend’s wife.

The journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson contends that if one was to read only one book about America’s foreign policy in the past fifty years, Our Man should be the book. This may be too sanguine, but it is not without merit.

Holbrooke’s perspective on foreign policy was forged by the Vietnam War, with its paradoxical mélange of exploited patriotism and sincere idealism, of earnestness and hubris, which has established the rhetorical framework for the use of American force since. His support for the war in Iraq showed that Holbrooke did not learn this lesson, allowing his egotism to destroy his idealism. When he tried to apply these lessons to his time as Special Representative to Afghanistan, he lacked the temperament to work with President Obama.

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Holbrooke at the table at the Paris Peace Talks

Our Man is a biographical masterpiece, but Packer’s history lacks a serious analytical framework. The second half of the title, “The End of the American Century,” seems to have been absorbed from others as a commentary about the current administration. In the scope of this magisterial effort, this seems like trifling criticism.

Our Man is captivating, infuriating, and engrossing. Much like Holbrooke himself.

–Daniel R. Hart

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Hal Moore: A Life in Pictures by Mike Guardia

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The journalist and former Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway gave legendary status to Lt. Gen. Hal Moore by joining with him to write We Were Soldiers Once… and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam (1992). Hollywood turned the book into a popular movie starring Mel Gibson as the general and sanctified Moore’s leadership.

Military historian Mike Guardia, who serves as a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, further fortified Moore’s stature by writing  Hal Moore: A Soldier Once… And Always in 2014 and Hal Moore on Leadership: Winning when Outgunned and Outmanned in 2017. His latest book is Hal Moore: A Life in Pictures (Magnum, 192 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $25.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle).

Guardia calls his new book “the definitive biography of this revered leader,” who died in 2017, two days short of ninety-five years of life. With nearly three hundred photographs, many of them “never-before-published,” Guardia says, A Life in Pictures leads the reader through the stages of Moore’s life:

  • Childhood in rural Kentucky
  • West Point during World War II
  • Occupied Japan
  • War in Korean
  • The Vietnam War
  • Peacetime training supervision
  • Building a loving family with his wife, Julie and their five children

The nearly sixty photographs from the Vietnam War interested me the most. They primarily focus on the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang in which Moore led the 1/7th Cavalry. Captions provide concise accounts that show Moore’s commitment to his men. They also emphasize his remarkable ability of leading from the front, particularly throughout the 1966 search-and-destroy Bon Song Campaign.

The overall effect of the book created a strong admiration within me for Hal Moore’s life and career. Before opening the book, I anticipated seeing a bunch of pictures of soldiers standing around in uniforms. Instead, I met the memory of a man filled with compassion for his troops. Moore’s humility overwhelmed me. For example, the press’ comparing him to Gen. George Patton “horrified him,” according to Guardia. Perhaps best of all, Hal Moore had a sense of humor.

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LTC Moore at Ia Drang in November 1965 (U.S. Army photo)

Guardia is an avid fan of Hal Moore, but he portrays Moore’s behavior in war and peace with low-keyed vignettes that fully justify the general’s legendary recognition as a soldier’s soldier.

The author’s website is

—Henry Zeybel

Wisconsin’s 37 by Erin Miller  

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In Wisconsin’s 37: The Lives of Those Missing in Action in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 251 pp., $29.95, paper) Erin Miller, a young, first-time author, has skillfully parlayed an extensive and exhaustive research project—the outgrowth of a homework assignment—into a quite readable effort to tell the life stories of the men noted in her subtitle, some of whose remains were recently returned from the battlefield.

Miller is an admitted military neophyte who had to develop a glossary of people, places, and terms, to begin her research. The book stems from a response to an innocuous social media entry and is based on Miller’s deep dive into countless documents, as well as interviews with family members and comrades of the thirty-seven Wisconsin men listed as missing in action in the Vietnam War.

She wrote the book with the help of University Wisconsin U.S. History Professor John Sharpless, who calls the experience at once an “emotionally draining, and deeply rewarding.”

Miller and Sharpless present the story chronologically, from 1965-73, and add post-war information about individual histories and repatriation efforts. As of the time of publication in May of this year, twenty five of thirty seven remain unaccounted for.

The book is a thoroughly commendable memorial to the lives of these men. The biographies allow us to vicariously visit with each of them. We learn of their hopes, dreams and plans, as well as their families’ unanswered questions and loss.

–Tom Werzyn

Straining Forward by Michelle Layer Rahal

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Finding a niche in life might require a lifetime. Imagine the difficulty of that task for an adolescent woman suffering feelings of responsibility for her parents’ unhappiness; who sees her loving father and two siblings shot dead by a Vietcong soldier; endures war and the indignities of prison, torture, rape, starvation, and homelessness; and loses her mother to prostitution.

Michelle Layer Rahal accepts the challenge of unraveling such a life in the biography, Straining Forward: Minh Phuong Towner’s Story (Xulon Press, 374 pp. $19.49, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Born in 1958 to an upper-class Vietnamese family in Saigon, Minh Phuong Towner attended a Catholic school that conducted lessons in French. When the communists won control of Vietnam in 1975, her world collapsed, and her mother ordered her to flee the country with her younger brother Thanh.

The escape of Minh and Thanh from Vietnam is a spellbinding story and sets the stage for all that follows. Searching for freedom and identity, Minh traveled through Taiwan, France, and Australia, ending up in the United States. Her life is a study in coping with emotional and physical trials by adapting to the demands of her environments.

Along the way, Minh experienced nearly every pain and privation that could befall a defenseless young woman. Her naivety led to repeated victimization. She suffered, but never gave up.

To win acceptance in each country, she learned the local languages and analyzed herself. At the end of a torture session in Vietnam, she thought: “God has abandoned me.”

In Taiwan, she decided: “I know how to care for others, I do not know how to care for myself.” France taught her that “Working to stay alive is not the same as working to live, and [she] wanted to live.”  In Australia, after becoming a registered nurse, she asked herself: “Who am I? What do I want out of life?”

She married an American in Australia, and had a son and daughter. Her brother Thanh’s death from cancer made Minh consider suicide: “Death would have been easy,” she says, “but I chose the harder route. I chose life.” When the marriage failed, she moved to the United States.

She married for a second time and evolved spiritually. Diagnosed with PTSD, she learned to manage. She earned a graduate degree and attained a satisfying life in ministry and became a United States citizen.

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Michelle Rahal

The pace of this uplifting book slows after Minh reaches Australia. Activities during her nearly thirty years in that nation relate mainly to repetitive domestic conflicts. Thankfully, Rahal’s fluid writing style sustained my interest.

Twenty photographs that perfectly span sixty years show Minh and her family from childhood to the present.

Mihn’s story reminded me of Thuhang Tran’s Standing Up After Saigon. Both books focus on young women facing life-changing challenges and provide information about the assimilation of Vietnamese people in other nations, as well as their acceptance into the United States.

—Henry Zeybel

John McCain: American Maverick by Elaine S. Povich

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Elaine S. Povich’s John McCain: American Maverick (Sterling, 208 pp, $24.95) is a coffee-table-like tome featuring large, glossy (and evocative) photographs on nearly every page. The photos are used to good effect to cover the many highlights of McCain’s notable life, including the five-and-a-half years he was held as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

Povich, a Washington, D.C. journalist who has covered the nation’s capital for UPI, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, wrote a conventional bio of McCain—John McCain: A Biography—in 2009. This go-round she mainly uses McCain’s own words, including more than a few pithy pull quotes, to accompany the bare-bones text and the great many photographs from throughout McCain’s eventful personal and political lives.

Ken Burns, Mr. Documentary, provides a Foreword that—like the book itself—is a paean to McCain’s heroism and service.

McCain is, “without doubt,” Burns writes, “a genuine American hero—complicated, brave, flawed, sacrificing, confounding, inspiring—and above all human. I have had the great privilege of spending time with him on many occasions over the last two-plus decades and each meeting has only reinforced my conviction about his unique and inspirational greatness.”

Povich agrees.

“Above it all,” in McCain’s life, she writes, there is “honor—the code by which he has always lived. The worst times of his life were when he felt that honor tarnished, yet they were rare. McCain tries to do what he feels is right. He doesn’t always succeed. But he surely has a hell of a time trying.

“If he is remembered for anything, McCain has said, he would like it to be that he ‘served his country. And I hope, we could add, honorably.’

“He has done so. And honorably.”

—Marc Leepson

Danger 79er by James H. Willbanks

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James F. Hollingsworth began his military career in 1940 as a United States Army lieutenant. He retired thirty-six years later as a lieutenant general. The long list of his awards and decorations staggered my imagination.

James H. Willbanks has recreated Hollingsworth’s life in Danger 79er: The Life and Times of Lieutenant General James F. Hollingsworth (Texas A&M University Press, 256 pp. $32). “Danger 79er” was Hollingsworth’s call sign in the Vietnam War. The book is an exciting and informative read because it examines the leadership qualities of a man who advocated destroying enemies without compromise despite being accused of overzealousness in delivering death and destruction on the battlefield where his actions matched his theories.

Willbanks is a retired Army infantry officer who was an adviser to the ARVN at An Loc during the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive. Since 1992, he has directed and taught at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. A tireless researcher, he has written fifteen military history books, specializing in the Vietnam War.

Hollingsworth, who died in 2010 at the age of ninety-one, earned his commission through the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets (as did Willbanks). He commanded 2nd Armored Division tanks from platoon to battalion level in World War II under Gen. George S. Patton. At the war’s end, Hollingsworth was a twenty-seven-year-old lieutenant colonel with a Distinguished Service Cross, four Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, and five Purple Hearts.

In World War II, his bravery in North Africa, Sicily, and Europe had no bounds, according to people Willbanks interviewed. Writing about Hollingsworth leading his troops in the field, Willbanks says, “Holly was a soldier’s general,” and (to me) that says it all.

Time after time, Hollingsworth’s performance set standards for combat that few men are brave enough or competent enough to follow. Willbanks provides many stirring examples of Hollingsworth’s affinity with grunts in both wars. All amount to lessons in leadership.

Critics challenged Hollingsworth’s approach to combat when he became assistant commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1965 under Maj. Gen. William DePuy. The two thought and acted alike and were labeled “unguided missiles” and “hip shooters.” Bending to public sentiment against the war, some fellow officers—up to and including the Army Chief of Staff—believed that Hollingsworth and DePuy projected an unacceptable eagerness to kill opponents. Nevertheless, neither man backed down. They lived on the battlefield.

For his second tour in Vietnam in 1971-72, Hollingsworth was assigned by Gen. Creighton Abrams to revitalize the troops in I Corps whose morale plummeted during Vietnamization. Before Hollingsworth completed the task, Abrams moved him to help the ARVN commander at the battle for Loc Ninh and An Loc. Shortly thereafter, Hollingsworth assumed command of the area. His use of air power showed a talent for targeting as if foreseeing enemy movements. Relentless B-52 strikes decided the outcome by stymieing NVA ground attacks, according to Willbanks, who was at the scene. The NVA lost nearly three infantry divisions.

Criticism of Hollingsworth intensified when he received command of combined forces in South Korea in 1973 and turned a defensive master battle plan into a hyper-aggressive offensive strategy. That prevented his earning a fourth star and led to his retirement. As a civilian he continued to speak out on behalf of national defense.

Willbanks presents insightful looks into relationships between general officers. He also shows that, between wars, Hollingsworth served tours at the Pentagon in positions where he met, befriended, and exchanged philosophies with members of Congress and cabinet heads. His devotion to duty and outspoken manner pleased many people while irritating others. With this information, Willbanks provides excellent lessons in management.

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The “Danger 79” statue on the Texas A&M campus

The book’s World War II maps of North Africa and Europe are annotated so that they practically tell the story of the fighting there by themselves. Photographs also enhance the text.

Although Danger 79er primarily tells the story of Hollingsworth, Willbanks expands its scale to history book proportion. He talks about the design and execution of World War II strategy. He also includes inside views about two vital issues of the Vietnam War: the importance of leadership in executing search-and-destroy tactics, and the effects of Vietnamization and what they portended after the Americans departed.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that the writing was on the wall; too few people bothered to read it.

I enjoyed all aspects of the book.

—Henry Zeybel

Crusader by Mike Guardia

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

—Henry Zeybel