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review 2018-09-23 18:39
The best explanation of the hows and whys of the air war over North Vietnam
Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 - Marshall L. Michel III

During the eight years of its engagement in the Vietnam War, the airpower of the United States was involved in a bifurcated conflict. In the south American warplanes enjoyed an uncontested dominance of the skies, which they used to deploy American resources and surveil and attack the enemy. Air Force and Navy planes entering North Vietnam airspace, however, found themselves in a much different situation, as they faced an air defense network that grew increasingly sophisticated as the war went on. In his book Marshall Michel analyzes the air war fought over the skies of North Vietnam, detailing its twists and turns as both sides sought an advantage in a key front in the conflict.

 

As Michel notes, given the tactics and technology employed, the air war in North Vietnam "was the one area of the Vietnam War that has military significance in the global balance of power." There both sides deployed planes and weapons designed for a potential war in Europe between the Soviet Union and NATO. For the United States Air Force, this meant using F-105 fighter-bombers designed to strike their enemies quickly, relying upon speed for protection. Armed with heart-seeking and radar-guided missiles, they were designed without cannons in the belief that, in the new age of missiles, dogfighting was obsolete. This was soon proved mistaken, as the smaller and more agile MiG-17s posed a challenge for which the F-105s were poorly equipped. Armed with cannons as well as missiles the Navy's F-8s proved much more capable of meeting the threat, though their pilots were also frustrated by technical problems with the missiles and rules requiring visual confirmation before attacking, which often inhibited the ability to launch their weapons.

 

As the war went on, all sides adapted in response to what they learned. For the North Vietnamese, this involved developing an elaborate ground control interception (GCI) system that employed both North Vietnamese fighters and growing numbers of anti-air cannons and missiles. While both the Air Force and the Navy sought improved weapons and supporting technology, the Air Force's exclusive reliance on technical fixes contrasted with the Navy, which in 1968 established the Topgun School in an effort to improve dogfighting abilities. New aircraft were also introduced — the F-4 for the U.S., the MiG-21 for the North Vietnamese — which also represented an escalation in ability prior to the termination of the North Vietnamese bombing campaign by President Lyndon Johnson in March 1968.

 

When Johnson's successor Richard Nixon resumed the bombing in North Vietnam in 1972, the new lessons were employed in full. The Air Force found themselves launching ever-larger missions to bomb tough North Vietnamese targets, while North Vietnamese pilots adopted new tactics to contest control of the air. By now the superiority of the Navy's approach was becoming more indisputable, reflected as it was in the superior kill ratios of North Vietnamese places to their Air Force counterparts. As a result, once the war ended in 1973 the Air Force moved to establish their own Weapons School to teach the hard-won lessons of the now-concluded conflict and employ them to secure American air superiority in future wars.

 

As a former F-4 pilot who flew in Vietnam, Michel brings a firsthand familiarity to his subject. This he uses to interpret the mass of staff reports, expert assessments, and personal narratives that he draws upon to detail the various airborne engagements that defined the war. His is a dispassionate approach that favors analysis over dramatic narrative, yet his book engages the reader with its clearheaded insights and perceptive conclusions. While it suffers from the lopsided nature of his coverage favoring the Americans (understandable, given the relative inaccessibility of North Vietnamese records), this is nonetheless the best history of its subject, one that explains the hows and whys of the air war in North Vietnam better than every other book out there.

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review 2018-08-04 02:47
The human side of an epic battle
Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943 - Antony Beevor

Though the Second World War was decided in battles waged over several years and in multiple regions, the most important front of the war was the one in eastern Europe. There the German war machine which had conquered so much of Europe with seemingly little effort was ground down in an extended clash against the Soviet Union. Millions of soldiers not just Germans and Russians, but Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Croats, Italians, and others fought and died on an unprecedented scale, with the slaughter ending only with the final defeat of the Nazi regime in the ruins of Berlin.

 

While numerous battles defined the course of events, the decisive clash on the Eastern Front came in the autumn of 1942 in the city of Stalingrad. There the German Sixth Army fought a grinding campaign to conquer the industrial center, only to be encircled by a surprise Soviet counter-offensive in November. Debilitated by the twin forces of battle and winter, tens of thousands of troops surrendered in February 1943, inflicting the greatest defeat yet suffered by the Third Reich. One of the strengths of Antony Beevor's history of the battle is in its detailing of the experiences of the men who fought and died on both sides. Drawing upon letters, diaries, and other records, he describes the nearly unimaginable conditions they faced during their long months of struggle against each other. To this he adds a perceptive explanation of both the events leading up to the battle and how is was that the sides sustained such a debilitating effort, both on the national and personal level.

 

By clearly detailing its events and recounting the lives of the soldiers who fought in it, Beevor has written an excellent history of the battle that is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand it. And yet the book falls short in one important respect. For while Beevor conveys well the human side of the conflict, it doesn't quite capture its truly epic nature. Scale is missing, as the war-defining nature of the event lost amid the stories of the men and the details of the campaign. While the effort to do so would result in a very different book, perhaps only then might it be possible to fully appreciate the importance of the titanic struggle waged there, both for the people involved and for the broader war itself.

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review 2018-07-18 18:44
Good, if somewhat dated, overview of America's war in the Pacific and Asia
Eagle Against The Sun: The American War With Japan - Ronald H. Spector

In the 1960s Macmillan began publishing a series entitled "The Macmillan Wars of the United States." Written by some of the nation's leading military historians, its volumes offered surveys of the various conflicts America had fought over the centuries, the strategies employed, and the services which fought them. Ultimately fourteen volumes were published over two decades, with many of them still serving as excellent accounts of their respective subjects.

 

As the last book published in the series, Ronald Spector's contribution to it serves as a sort of capstone to its incomplete efforts. In it he provides an account of the battles and campaigns waged by the United States against Japan in the Second World War, from the prewar planning and the assumptions held in the approach to war to the deployment of the atomic bombs that ended it. In between the covers all of the major naval battles and island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific, as well as America's military efforts in the China-Burma-India theater. He rounds out his coverage with chapters discussing both the social composition of the forces America deployed and the complex intelligence operations against the Japanese, ones that extended beyond the now-famous codebreaking efforts that proved so valuable.

 

Though dated in a few respects, overall Spector's book serves as a solid single-volume survey of the war waged by the United States against Japan. By covering the efforts against the Japanese in mainland Asia, he incorporates an important aspect of the war too often overlooked or glossed over in histories of America's military effort against the Japanese, one that often influenced developments elsewhere in the theater. Anyone seeking an introduction to America's war with Japan would be hard pressed to find a better book, which stands as a great example of what Macmillan set out to accomplish when they first embarked upon the series.

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review 2018-07-15 17:45
The First World War from a different perspective
Pandora’s Box A History of the First World War - Jörn Leonhard,Patrick Camiller

For the English-language reader today there is no shortage of histories surveying the First World War. Thanks to the centenary, several new volumes have been added to the fine books written over the years, giving readers a choice of works ranging from those of contemporary authors such as Winston Churchill, C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, and Basil Liddell-Hart to more modern studies by historians such as John Keegan, Hew Strachan, David Stevenson, and G. J. Meyer. Yet even when these authors have pursued a balanced approach and incorporated available German-language sources into their account, they usually have an inherent British or Allied focus resulting from a combination of factors.

 

This is just one reason why Jörn Leonhard's book stands out as a history of the conflict. Originally published in German in 2014, its translation into English offers readers of the language a survey of the war from an historian coming from a perspective rooted in a different set of sources and influences than those of his British and American counterparts. Yet this is just one of the many distinguishing characteristics of his fine work, which offers what is easily the most comprehensive single-volume history of the war yet written. Within its pages he offers an account that begins with an examination of the factors that lead to the war and ends with its postwar legacy. Along the way he discusses the war in all of its myriad aspects, from the politics and economics of the conflict to its effects on society and culture. No front is left unexamined, and all of it is integrated into a narrative that moves with considerable fluidity from topic to topic.

The result is a work that is massive in scope yet one that offers an insightful account of the war that defined the 20th century. There is little that escapes his coverage, which is informed throughout by a perspective that will be fresh for many English-language readers of the war. It makes for a book that has set the new standard by which histories of the First World War are judged, and one likely to remain the standard for some time to come.

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url 2018-07-09 16:16
Podcast #110 is up!
Bayly’s War: The Battle for the Western Approaches in the First World War - Steve R. Dunn

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Steve R. Dunn about his account of the Royal Navy's battle against the U-boats off the coast of Ireland during the First World War (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!

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