The Principles of War Podcast

2019 – The best PME Books I read this year.

James Eling
PME Books

Here is a list of the highlights of the books that I have read in 2019. I try to structure my reading to support the production of the podcasts, but invariably I find that one book leads onto another. I’ve made an effort to be much more Joint PME in my approach, with a current series looking at the Battle of the Bismarck Sea predominantly from an Air perspective and an upcoming series on Jutland rounding out the services.

Some of these books have been for current podcast research, like many of Phil Bradley’s great books. Some have been for background knowledge, like Strategy by Freedman and Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations and some are for future podcasts like the books on Jutland and the Falklands.

I bought this book, but didn’t actually read it.  In an effort to save time I bought the audio book and I am gald that I did.  The Russian voices make the story so much more real and for me this was the book of the year.  The stories highlight the barbarity of war on the Eastern Front along with the way that women faced it.  I’ve have distilled some of the learnings into a 2 part podcast, one focusing on the female experience in war, and one looking at why they fought so well.  The stories of Aleksandra Samusenko, Natalya Meklin, Lyudmila Pavlichenko (Lady Death), Roza Shanina, and hundreds of thousands of other women deserve a much more prestigious place in the history of the Second World War.

I had the please of touring some of the later New Guinea battlefields with Phil Bradley.  He is probably the best living historian for the later New Guinea Campaigns.  D-Day New Guinea tells the story of the Divisional landing at Red Beach and the move to Lae and the opposed landing 18 days later at Scarlett Beach.  It demonstrates the scale at which the Australian Army was able to operate and highlights important lessons to learn regarding large scale amphibious operations.

This is the book that I am listening to at the moment.  Some of the reviews have found the early part of the book to be slow, but I think these are non-military readers or those unaware of the development of military strategyin the twentieth century.  It cealry links the development of the work of Fuller and Liddell Hart and discusses their differences from Clausewitz and the relationship to Sun Tzu.  A great book that I’ve learn’t a lot from about the nuances of current doctrinal thinking.

I am a big fan of Max Hastings’ work and this is a very important book.  His ability to deconstruct the strategy and reinforce it with pivotal tactical examples creates a lucid description of where things went wrong in Vietnam.  There is a strong undercurrent of a lack of understanding about the moral centres of gravity at play in Vietnam.  From the ascension of the US forces role in Vietnam following the French defeat at Dien Ben Phu, through the management of media by the North and the South, to crucial battles like Ap Bac and FSB Mary Ann, details like the decay of the US Military and the self serving SVN government and military hierarchy highlight the fact that if a counter revolutionary war is a political action with military elements, then having the military with primacy of control is using the wrong tool for the job.  The foundations for that counter revolutionary war were highly understable and unlikely to be ever able to support the components of Government required to withstand the Communists.

My reading of Max Hastings’ Vietnam lead me to these 2 books. A Bright and Shining Lie is a fascinating look at what could have been. John Paul Vann, a complicated character, had a different way of fighting the war, and his clashes with General Harkins highlight the fundamental strategic issues with the conduct of the war and the lack of a feedback mechanism in it’s planning. Bright and Shining Lie won a Pullitzer Prize for non Fiction. H R McMaster’s book looks at the prosecution of the War from Washington and details why he thinks, “The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C.” Both a fascinating books with key messages for the employment of military force and the relationship between the civilian authority and the military command.

I learnt a couple of interesting lessons from Max’s Nemesis.  Firstly, and sadly, the lack of strength in the Australian moral centre of gravity.  Despite the dramatically more dire situation in World War II, we did not seem to be able to mobilise the public to support the military effort.  The interplay between Curtin and McArthur is complex,but certainly played out to the detriment of the best strategic employment of Australian forces.  Apart from that, there is an excellent comparison between US Strategic Bombing, a well resourced capability looking for a function to perform, as the USAAF looks to the future and create an independant Air Force and the submarine force.  I went on to read Sink ‘Em All by Rear Admiral Lockwood.  A combination of internal power plays and the slow process of determining the correct industrial output saw an excess of Bomber capability looking for a role, compared to the high effectively role of the Submarines (there contribution would have been greater with better torpedoes.)  Excellant coverage of Burma and China as well.

I bought this and was intimidated by it’s size, but it sat at the top of the not insignificant pile of books I had to read, and I continued to hear it’s siren song.  Once started, it was unstoppable and thoroughly enjoyable.  There is a tremendous amount for everyone to learn about this.  Some excellent learnings about mission command, how a service atrophies over time, risk, communications, the vagaries of promotion and a little too much about the Royal Yacht.  Especially important are the lessons about training under warlike conditions.  The differences between Beatty and Jellicoe are clearly laid out as well as the conduct of the actual battle.

A great book that highlights the creeping sickness of the canker of a long peace.

On the RAN Chief of Navy’s Reading List for 2019, this is an excellent book from the point of view of someone slanted towards land operations.  Reading about the considerations for Naval Operations with many historic examples signifcantly broadens the understanding of the complexity of Naval Operations and in particular the changing way that littoral operations will be conducted into the future and the implications of that for amphibious warfare.  There is also interesting discussion about how some fundamental strategic and tactics considerations differ between land and maritime operations.  Very accessible for non Naval types and has given me what I think is a much better understanding.

Incidently, I really like the way the Navy reading list is laid out.  It highlights why each book should be read as well.  I read this as a part of my comittment towards Joint PME this year and I am glad that I did.  As I prepare for my Falklands War series next year, this should hold me in good stead.

Commodore Mike Clapp was CATF, Commander Amphibious Task Force, for the Falklands Campaign.  This is an excellent book detailing the issues that he faced.  My 2 big take aways was the ad hoc way that the British rebuilt capability that had withered away through budget cuts and the role of Commanders in building interpersonal relationships.  CLF and CATF appeared to work hand in glove together.  Each strove to understand the other’s job and support it in every way possible.  In many respects I think that the relationship between BRIG Thompson as the Commander, Land Forces in the early part of the war and CATF, Commodore Clapp was fundamental to the success of the Falklands War for the British.

I am not sure how Garth Pratten managed to write this book, but it is an incredibly useful volume when it comes to Australian Army operations in WW2.  Understandly the nature, personality and performance of the Battalion Commanders is fundamental to learning the lessons for training, doctrine, performance and winning and Garth’s book provides many useful insights in one place that are incredibly useful.