11 Days in December Audio Book Review

11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944

Authored by Stanley Weintraub, Narrated by Patrick Cullen

Audiobook, 5 hours and 28 minutes

Published by Blackstone Audio

Language: English

ASIN: B000NA6M72

11 Days in December is set in the Battle of the Bulge, starting in the days immediately before the Germans launched their Ardennes offensive and ending at Christmas.  This book is not the history of an individual unit nor a description of the overall campaign, instead it is a series of individual anecdotes set within the context of the battle.

Many of these are from Generals and senior staff, likely due to the preservation of their correspondence.  It was surprising how many senior Allied officers (and their extensive staffs) were planning on taking extended Christmas holidays in Paris.  Many of their letters center around political intrigue and preserving or enhancing their reputations.  For their part, the Allied leadership was caught completely unaware by the German offensive.

At the level of the common soldier the period was characterized by the cold and lack of logistical support.  Allied airpower was grounded by the weather, and the troops lacked basics such as ammunition and food, many lacked proper winter clothing.  Often it proved impossible to evacuate the wounded and medical supplies were scarce.

By telling the story of the Battle of the Bulge through individual anecdotes the author has sacrificed any semblance of continuity.  The narrative jumps around from place to place, unit to unit.  Loose ends are not tied up.  This makes it hard to put all the little snippets into context.  If the reader is not already familiar with the progress of the battle it would be helpful to have the Osprey Campaign 115 & 145 books handy.  However, if you are looking for personal perspectives this book can provide them.

Tribe Audio Book Review

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Authored and Narrated by Sebastian Junger

Audiobook, 2 hours and 59 minutes

Published by Hachette Audio, May 2016

Language: English

ASIN: B01D57FNZG

Sebastian Junger’s Tribe is a natural sequel to his War.  Soldiers in combat develop a communal bond in which each puts the welfare of the group above his own, often resulting in what we would commonly refer to as bravery.  Throughout human history people have naturally formed themselves into communities with an upper number of approximately 160 individuals (not coincidentally, a historically Company-sized unit many armies).  Above that number, the community divides into two groups which are often allied, but separate.  All the members of the group are known to the others, and conduct themselves broadly for the benefit of the group as a whole.  Withholding resources from the group, or taking more than one’s share of the resources are considered among the most serious of offences, punishable by banishment or even death.

Contrast the natural inherent instinct for humans to form small tribal groups with the structure of modern societies.  Nations are huge, neighbors do not know neighbors.  Those who take from the community through manipulating Government programs, theft, or outright fraud go unpunished or are even applauded far more often than not.  There is little opportunity for an individual to feel he or she has done something important, or even belongs to a community where a sense of brotherhood exists, with the one notable exception often being military service.

The yearning for a sense of belonging is intrinsic and strong, its absence is a primary driver in PTSD among veterans.  Benjamin Franklin noted that European settles captured by Indian tribes assimilated into Indian culture, and even when ”rescued” would slip away to re-join their tribes, while the reverse was not true.  Junger cites several examples of groups forming tight bonds when faced with life-threatening adversity, and individuals missing the bonds they formed after the crisis had passed.  Humans appear to need the shared adversity at some level, mental health facilities in Paris during both World Wars were nearly empty, and in the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks both violent crime and suicide rates dropped sharply.

It appears Junger became interested in the topic of PTSD among returning veterans after writing War, and some of the statistical background for Tribe appears in his earlier work explaining the bonds of small units in the military.  The implications for broader society are thought-provoking.  This is a short work, but a natural follow on after reading War, highly recommended.

War Audio Book Review

War

Authored and Narrated by Sebastian Junger

Audiobook, 7 hours and 21 minutes

Published by Hachette Audio

Language: English

ASIN: B003LTOIIC

Author Sebastion Junger was a journalist and documentarian who was embedded with a detachment from the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment.  In 2010 the men were assigned to an outpost in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley named Restrepo after a Medic from the unit who was killed.  Junger’s job there was to observe and record.  He lived alongside the soldiers from the unit, went where they went, slept where they slept, and ate what they ate.  He did everything everybody else there did except engage the enemy.

Some military units perform better than others, and the reasons for this have been studied and debated for centuries.  Often units which outperform others are said to have “esprit de corps” or better “unit cohesion” or even the nebulous “right stuff”.  Trying to pin down what these terms mean (and how to duplicate their requisite virtues) is like trying to squeeze water.

Junger comes closer than any other author I have read in identifying what makes soldiers tick.  Shared experiences (the more arduous the better) develop into a sense of brotherhood within the unit, until each soldier identifies more as a part of the unit than as an individual.  At that point the soldier fears failing his comrades more than death or injury to himself.  Throughout the book the soldiers are introspective about any events which have gone wrong, or even could have gone wrong, and what they might have done differently to prevent it.  Everything in that environment is important, any mistake, however small, could potentially result in injury or death to someone.  Each soldier’s greatest fear is letting their comrades down, their greatest security is knowing everyone has their back.  The feeling of belonging to something bigger than themselves is what they miss when returning to the civilian world, and one reason so many have trouble adjusting.

This is a seminal work and one of the top-tier books on what makes a combat unit effective.  Junger just nails it.  I will read this book again to see what I’ve missed.  My highest recommendation.

Lieutenant Dangerous Audio Book Review

Lieutenant Dangerous: A Vietnam War Memoir

Authored and Narrated by Jeff Danziger

Audiobook, 5 hours and 43 minutes

Published by Steerforth

Language: English

ASIN: B0979N77JY

Jeff Danziger is probably better known as a political cartoonist, but earlier in life he was drafted into the U.S. Army and did a tour in Vietnam.  Like many draftees, he was a reluctant participant.  His story is not an epic tale of combat heroism, Danziger readily volunteers that one of his primary motivations was to wait out his term of service without having to deploy to Vietnam.

To that end, he parlayed his high aptitude scores into assignments to a series of specialized training schools, all of which he hoped would preclude him having enough time left to actually be sent overseas.  He attended a year-long program to learn to speak Vietnamese, an irony not lost upon him.  While he was able to master the basics, Vietnamese is a tonal language and his instructors spoke the Southern dialect, not the version predominantly used in the North by the NVA.  An opportunity for Officers’ training presented itself after language school, and Danzinger was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.  Then on to more training as an Officer.

Rotations to Vietnam were to last a year, and with a year left in his time in the Army Danzinger’s machinations failed and he was sent to Vietnam as an ordinance officer.  Eventually he sent a letter to his Representative questioning why the Army trained him in the Vietnamese language but employed him replacing artillery tubes, which resulted in some chewing-outs but reassignment as an Intelligence Officer.

In the wide range of Vietnam memoirs in print today, this one is unique as it was written by someone who had no real desire to serve and makes no bones about it.  It is cynical but honest, and Danzinger’s style is very tongue-in-cheek which makes it an enjoyable read.  There are several “why are we doing this?” moments which will be familiar to anyone who has been in the military.  This is a different perspective on military service, written by someone who was just trying to get through their enlistment.  If you’re looking for a combat memoir this is not your book, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Every Man a Hero Audio Book Review

Every Man a Hero: A Memoir of D-Day, the First Wave at Omaha Beach, and a World at War

Authored by Ray Lambert and Jim DeFelice, Narrated by Kaleo Griffith

Audiobook, 7 hours and 39 minutes

Published by Harper Audio

Language: English

ASIN: B07PDHWXJF

Ray Lambert grew up during the Great Depression in Clanton, Alabama.  From a young age, he helped with the family lumber business and held a variety of odd jobs to make ends meet.  Eventually the lack of job prospects drove him to enlist in the U.S. Army, which was then mobilizing as Europe moved closer to war.  Lambert had some experience working as a veterinary assistant, so naturally the Army selected him for training as a combat Medic.

He was assigned to the First Division, 2nd Battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment, “The Big Red One”.  People skills and a knack for finding the right job for each of his men soon led to promotions and increasing responsibilities, and soon he was filling senior enlisted billets.  He was responsible for the training and organization of the battalion’s Medics, as well as selecting sites for the forward aid stations.  The need to closely follow the combat troops as they advanced meant that the aid stations were never more than a few hundred yards from the fighting, and the Medics were as exposed to enemy fire as the Infanty they supported, and often more so as they had to remove the wounded from the battlefield.

Lambert participated in all three of First Division’s combat landings – North Africa, Sicily, and Omaha Beach at Normandy.  By the time the Division landed at Normandy he was a combat veteran and already had two Silver Stars for bravery and three Purple Hearts for wounds.

The book was written when Lambert was 98 years old, one of the few remaining men alive who had landed at Omaha Beach.  It covers his life both before and after the war, but focused on his experiences in the army.  He does a good job of including world events and “the big picture”, providing context but not wandering too far from the matters at hand.  The narration is top quality and gives the impression of a man sitting on his front porch telling his life story.  In spite of the title, the Normandy landing is not the only focal point in his narrative, and his experiences in North Africa and Italy are just as important and cover more pages.  This is an outstanding first-person narrative, I can highly recommend it both as a combat tale and as the life story of an average American living through some of the roughest times in our history.

Up Front Book Review

Up Front

By Bill Mauldin

Hardcover in dustjacket, 228 pages, numerous illustrations

Published by The World Publishing Company, August 1945

Language: English

Dimensions:  6.0 x 9.0 x 0.7 inches

Bill Mauldin started drawing his famous cartoon panels for the 45th Division’s newspaper before the war.  His illustrations depicted Army life from the perspective of the common soldier.  The featured characters Willie and Joe are seen before the Division landed at Sicily, but became more defined as the war in Italy progressed.  They came to represent the common Dogface, dirty and tired, and Mauldin used them to satirize life in the Army from the infantryman’s perspective.  In many ways his cartoons have withstood the test of time and are still relevant today.

Mauldin was a cartoonist by trade, not a trained journalist.  His Up Front is not a masterpiece of historical literature, but is written in the style of a soldier relating his experiences over a pitcher of beer.  The text is a series of anecdotes and his own experiences, illustrated with several of his Willie and Joe cartoons.  The narrative often detours off to explain what was happening in the Italian campaign or in Southern France, and why Mauldin chose to draw what he did.  He also reveals the reactions to his work and the political fallout when he hit a nerve.  There are no chapter breaks, the text jumps from one story to another.

Mauldin was 23 when he wrote Up Front, and he had been in the Army since he was 18.  His cartoons are very relatable.  The text is interesting, but there is no central plotline or developing story, it reads almost like a series of letters home and I would not be surprised if that were not the inspiration behind several parts of this book.  Still, I found it very engaging and a good compliment to the many cartoons.  I finished the book in one sitting (bookmarks are for quitters!)  My copy was from one of the printings made just as the war ended, it has been reprinted several times and is still easily found today.  Recommended!

This is said to be Mauldin’s favorite cartoon.
This one is my favorite. It would make an outstanding diorama subject if you could make Willie & Joe easily visible.

Bill Mauldin Book Review

Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front

By Todd DePastino

Hardcover in dustjacket, 325 pages, notes, and index.  Illustrated.

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, May 2009

Language: English

ISBN-13: 978-0-393-06183-3

Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.3 inches

Bill Mauldin grew up during the Great Depression in New Mexico.  His parents had an unstable marriage, he and his brother Sid could be described as “wild children” who often were left to fend for themselves.  He joined the Arizona National Guard’s 45th Division in 1940 as America began to mobilize for the Second World War.  His artistic talents soon led him to work part-time as a cartoonist for the Division’s newspaper in addition to his other military duties.

The 45th was part of the U.S. invasion force which landed in Sicily in 1943.  By this time Mauldin was a Sergeant and on the Division paper’s staff full-time.  It was here that Mauldin created his best-known characters, Willie & Joe, two infantrymen.  Mauldin depicted his characters tired, wet, and unshaven, and used them to point out the ironies and petty inequities of Army life, always on the side of the common soldier.  He was given great editorial latitude and his own Jeep, which allowed him to venture to the front for inspiration and to scrounge for supplies to draw his cartoons and engrave them for printing.

Mauldin’s work was picked up by the Stars and Stripes and was syndicated to papers back in the States.  He moved from the Italian Front to France as the war progressed.  While he enjoyed the support of much of the high brass who saw his work as a way for the average “dogface” to let off steam, some saw the unmilitary appearance and attitudes of Willie and Joe as an affront to military discipline, most notably General Patton.  Mauldin famously had a meeting with Patton who had threatened to throw him in the stockade, but Eisenhower sided with Mauldin.

After the war Mauldin won the Pulitzer for Willie and Joe, and published a book named “Up Front” with his cartoons which was a best seller.  He continued as an editorial cartoonist for a variety of papers, authored several articles, acted, and ran for Congress but lost.  He won a second Pulitzer for a cartoon depicting Soviet author Boris Pasternik in a Gulag.  Perhaps his best-known drawing is of a weeping statue at the Lincoln Memorial after the Kennedy assassination.  Mauldin died in 2003.

This book pulls no punches with Mauldin’s life, and shows all the highs and lows, the struggles and successes.  Mauldin was married three times, and often got in his own way both personally and professionally.  Nobody is perfect, and author DePastino portrays his human side well.  The book is illustrated with photographs and several cartoons.  Recommended.

The Reaper Audiobook Review

The Reaper: Autobiography of One of the Deadliest Special Ops Snipers

By Nicholas Irving with Gary Brozek

Read by Jeff Gurner

Unabridged Audibook

Published by Macmillan Audio, January 2015

Length: 7 hours 40 minutes

Language: English

Nicholas Irving was a sniper with the 3rd Ranger Battalion, in this book he describes his experiences during a single deployment to Afghanistan.  On a typical operation, the Rangers would be assigned a specific objective such as capturing a Taliban operative, then inserting into the area at night.  Sgt. Irving’s role as a sniper was to provide overwatch to the assault team, supplying information and eliminating threats.  He was credited with thirty-three confirmed kills, which he modestly attributes to being in the right place at the right time.

Two incidents stand out from the rest of the narrative.  One is a stand-off with a Taliban sniper known as “The Chechen”, a veteran with years of experience fighting in Afghanistan.  Irving vividly describes the terror and frustration of being on the receiving end of a sniper’s attentions, the paradox of the role reversal is not lost on him.  The other incident occurred on a raid when he suddenly realized his teammate and fellow sniper was not following behind him in the dark and no one had seen him go missing.  I won’t reveal the details (read the book), suffice to say movement in the dark can be hazardous in and of itself, and loyalty to a teammate and dedication to completing mission objectives can conflict.

There are many sniper books and many Special Operations books which have come out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is the only one I have read (or in this case listened to) which was written by a Ranger.  There are some differences in the way Rangers deploy and conduct operations, but much in this book will be familiar to readers of previous accounts.   I enjoyed this book, recommended.