Across the landscape of a nightmare: Kwajalein, 1944

Not long after the conclusion of Operation Flintlock, the American invasion of the Marshall Islands in early 1944, the Army tried a new method of documenting the course of the battle: “company interviews” during which a historical officer and his staff held session with individual rifle companies, allowing the soldiers themselves to tell the story of the battle, with the narrative being passed from one man to another as they relived events. The result of this series of interviews was Island Victory by Lt. Col. S. L. A. Marshall, first published in Infantry Journal in 1944 and now available on Kindle. The book recounts the actions of 7th Infantry Division, which was assigned to capture the southern half of Kwajalein Atoll (the northern half was taken by the 4th Marine Division).

The unsanitized narrative created a vivid account of close combat in the Pacific War, and a pattern that would be repeated in battles to come. Like many Japanese-held islands along the Central Pacific axis, Kwajalein was small, flat and densely fortified. Subjected to a massive bombardment prior to the landings, the terrain awaiting the soldiers was a tangled mass of destroyed structures, rubble, blast craters and felled vegetation. Movement on the island “was like trying to steer a true course through a thousand-acre garbage dump.”


The tempo of the battle was set by the combination of nightmarish landscape and confined geography. Maneuver was impossible. The only option was to establish a single “skirmish line,” shared by two regiments, that extended the entire width of the island and gradually advanced the entire length. The Japanese had sustained heavy casualties from the bombardment and their defense was completely disaggregated and uncoordinated.

Part of their numbers fought on with some fierceness but their resistance was hysterical and cataleptic and expressed itself chiefly in the effort to kill one or two Americans before the Japs themselves died. In this state of mortal deterioration, they became blinded and deaf to developments of battle which would be likely to have a marked effect on more self-collected troops.

However, thousands of Japanese soldiers were still deeply embedded in ruined fortifications, rubble piles, collapsed trenches and any other cover available. As the Americans advanced, every potential enemy position had to be flushed with grenades, satchel charges and flamethrowers.

More than fifty per cent of the garrison were killed below ground with high explosives planted by our engineers and Infantry. Most of the corpses counted above ground had been brayed to death by the Field Artillery.

The nightmarish terrain made traditional fire and movement tactics impossible and communications between units extremely difficult. Combat devolved to small groups of men, rarely larger than squad size, improvising their own actions as the line gradually moved forward. “Such was the chaotic state of the ground and such the nature of the fighting that the Infantry often could not see its own neighboring elements at distances greater than fifteen or twenty yards.” Higher headquarters could do little more than delineate boundaries between units and maintain a vague awareness of the situation. At one point an entire company was thought to have been annihilated and its fate was only revealed when the missing Captain walked into his battalion CP to report that his company was in position to hold for the night.

This and many other peculiarities of the operation would be hardly understandable to those who had not witnessed the Kwajalein battle. The action was indescribably chaotic; it was like trying to fight your way across the landscape of a nightmare.

I am reminded of Eugene Sledge’s haunting memoir of his Pacific service on Peleliu and Okinawa, where heavy Japanese resistance slowed operations into something akin to static trench warfare. Brutal combat day after day on the same shattered terrain gave the Marines an intimate familiarity with the land: every stump, boulder, depression, knoll, etc. had a name and a significance in the course of the battle. Combat completely transforms the meaning of the landscape. Mundane terrain features that are not even noticed in peacetime can suddenly become linchpins upon which the outcome of the battle depends.

On Kwajalein, 10 yards was an operationally significant distance and 100 yards may as well have been a different planet.

As the day wore on past noon, the battle lost its sweat for the men of 1st Platoon. The fires still blazed around the island but a strong wind from the eastward was whipping the smoke to the lagoon side. The men saw no sign of the enemy. They were through shooting for the day. They idled behind the palm stumps and in small shell craters and if they snoozed now and then in the strong sunlight, the enemy took no action to rouse them from their slumber. They knew that the left must be having some trouble because they could hear the rattle of automatic fire and snort of grenades exploding on that flank. But that was someone else’s fight and the sounds signified little more to them than did the distant rumble of the artillery breaking over Kwajalein Island where the battle of the 32d and 184th Regiments was wearing into its third day. That one hundred yards of mangled palm forest which separated the two platoons made all the difference, and their imaginations could not bridge the distance. It was as well so. They could do nothing to help the 2nd Platoon and rest is good for weary feet wherever it is to be had. They marked time and they enjoyed the afternoon.

Lt. Col. Marshall’s interviews also recorded some of the visceral moments of war that would never appear in contemporary official battle histories: the soldier who – understandably – loses composure and vomits uncontrollably after being splattered with the gore of a Japanese soldier he killed at close range with a grenade; the unnamed sergeant who starts speaking and behaving erratically after mentioning that fate was catching up to him for an evil deed he committed in his past, and is eventually killed; the eerie nighttime encounters between Americans and Japanese stragglers behind the line of battle, when both would go on their way instead of risk shooting their own side in the darkness; the squealing sound that the Japanese made in the mistaken belief that it would frighten the Americans, who actually found it hysterical. Moments like these help define battles, but they are often ignored in official accounts that emphasize a strictly tactical narrative that usually does not reflect the chaotic reality.

Island Victory is an obscure book about an obscure battle, but it effectively describes the chaos of battle, the “fog of war,” and how units adapt to combat in difficult terrain.

Landing craft approach Kwajalein

Landing craft approach Kwajalein

China in Alaska, part II: turning the other cheek

If foreign warships intruded into American territorial waters near a critical and undefended military base, you might expect that reasonable countermeasures be taken, like shadowing the vessels with military aircraft, dispatching some troops to shore up the garrison, and summoning the ambassador of the offending state to demand an explanation. But this is 21st century America, where NASA’s primary mission is offering therapy to the Muslim world and international LGBT rights are considered a national security priority.

Nothing frustrates this Administration more than the intrusion of great power politics on its post-modern foreign policy agenda. Recently this was on display by President Obama’s reaction to the Russian intervention in Syria (“This is not some superpower chessboard contest”). Last month it was visible in the confused response to the PLAN’s Alaskan pleasure cruise.

Continue reading

China in Alaska, part I: sending a message

Nearly seven years ago, when China deployed ships to the Gulf of Aden to join international counterpiracy operations, I remarked on the historical significance of the occasion as China resumed blue water operations for the first time in centuries.

We’ve come a long way in seven years. In August, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sent seven ships to conduct exercises with the Russian navy in the waters near Vladivostok, including an ampbibious landing drill with 200 Chinese marines. Joint exercises of this sophistication and ambition are newsworthy in their own right, but the real story occurred after the training concluded on 28 August. The PLAN flotilla took a bit of a detour on the way home.

On 2 September the flotilla was reported to be operating in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, coinciding with President Obama’s visit to that state. This caused a great deal of confusion and consternation among U.S. officials, who purported to be baffled as to why the PLAN was operating so far north:

US government officials acknowledged the curious timing of the Chinese ships navigating in the waters near Alaska at a time when President Obama is there, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Beijing’s intent was still unclear.

The Pentagon official said there were a “variety of opinions” on how to interpret the Chinese ships’ deployment.

“It’s difficult to tell exactly, but it indicates some interest in the Arctic region,” the official said. “It’s different.”

Not to worry, though. White House spokesman Josh Earnest reassured the press, three different times, that the vessels were not behaving in a threatening manner and were staying in international waters.

Except they were not. On 4 September the Wall Street Journal reported that the flotilla had, in fact, entered U.S. territorial waters as it transited the Aleutian Islands and steamed south into the Pacific. This seemed to increase the confusion among American observers:

“This is clearly a signal,” said David Titley, a retired rear admiral who is a professor at Penn State University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Of what, Titley said, it’s difficult to say, but he suggested that China may be seeking to establish itself as a player in the growing commercial activity in the Arctic.

There are two interesting dimensions to this story. First, what Beijing was actually signaling by its foray into U.S. waters; second, the bemused and feeble American reaction, which suggests an unspoken political imperative to avoid giving offense to China.

Continue reading

Another one bites the dust

"Don't let the door hit you on the way out..."

“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out…”

President Obama has now lost his third Secretary of Defense in a six-year period, the latest in a series of unusually short-tenured leaders at the Pentagon. There are widespread reports that Chuck Hagel was frustrated by interference and micromanagement from the White House – a pathology of the Obama administration that was described in detail by Robert Gates. It appears that Hagel has been essentially marginalized in the Administration due to disagreements with President over US policy toward ISIS, Russia and China (in other words: all major policy issues). It seems as if President Obama considers the National Security Advisor to have responsibility for the country’s defense and military portfolios, while the Secretary of Defense is a bureaucratic functionary to execute orders and keep the Pentagon in line. It was recently revealed that Hagel authored a letter detailing his criticisms of the Administration’s Syria policy; the recipient was not his boss, President Obama, but Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor. Apart from any actual strategic disagreement between the Pentagon and the President, this dysfunctional command and control arrangement can be largely understood in light of the President’s background in academia. It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the military is an obsessive topic in the political science and constitutional law departments of America’s universities, where Eisenhower’s warnings about the “military-industrial complex” are repeated ad nauseam as a form of secular prophesy. Naturally, these discussions do not concern strategic issues such as the military’s proper structure or employment, but rather how a democratic society is to maintain control over a massive, professionalized, all-volunteer force. At one extreme are dark and outlandish fears about a coup led by a reactionary and anachronistic military. Most attention goes to the more prosaic issues of bureaucratic insubordination and the growing disconnect between the military and the society it defends. But for a professor on his way the White House, the lesson is clear: the military is going to be a political problem. Thus, when the President receives strategic pushback from the Pentagon, he does not engage with it on a policy level, but rather interprets it as the runaway insubordination he was warned of so many times back in the academy. From the Wall Street Journal:

“The White House fears what the Pentagon is going to say and do. The Pentagon fears how the White House will react. Both sides are nervous of the other,” said a longtime Pentagon official. “It has persisted through three secretaries now – Gates, Panetta and Hagel – and it will probably persist through a fourth secretary.”

This paranoia extends to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Even if he was a personal confidant of the President – as Hagel was – the first disagreement between them is considered symptomatic of the dreaded bureaucratic capture, and from that point on the Secretary will be marginalized (if political considerations forbid his outright dismissal) while the more politically reliable – but strategically incompetent – commissars on the National Security Council staff intrude directly into the management of the DoD. I am very sympathetic to the President’s inclination to avoid becoming further entangled in the Syrian quagmire. But he needs to articulate his policy more clearly than just “I’m the President. I’m in charge. You’re not.” He also needs to realize that policy tussles over policy and strategy do not constitute insubordination or rogue bureaucracy. Civilian control of the military is a foundational plank of the Republic. Without it, America ceases to be. But a paranoid overzealousness in its enforcement has contributed to the dysfunctional strategy of this Administration.

A Language Putin Understands

Following Russia’s overt intervention in eastern Ukraine late last month the rhetoric from Kiev has dramatically shifted in favor of peace, with President Petro Poroshenko himself pushing legislation to grant the rebellious areas a high degree of autonomy. Vladimir Putin has been largely victorious, for he has accomplished his objective of weakening Ukraine, stalling its integration with Europe and keeping it subservient to Moscow. Aside from the hopelessly outclassed Ukrainian military, the only opposition faced by Putin has been a mild and entirely ineffective sanctions regime. With a ceasefire apparently holding, European leaders will hasten to remove even these limited sanctions and resume normal relations with Moscow. The liberal understanding of foreign policy that informs most EU and NATO capitals does not equip them for dealing with an outlier like Putin, who understands the world through a vastly different paradigm. The debellicized nature of European policymaking has denied the West political instruments that had the potential to resolve the Ukraine crisis on much more favorable terms. Instead of surrendering the initiative to Putin by responding to each aggression with token sanctions, the US and Europe should impose costs on Russia asymmetrically. Two possibilities come to mind immediately:

1. Transnistria

h/t The Economist

h/t The Economist

This small, heavily industrialized sliver of land east of the Dneister river achieved de facto independence from Moldova following a brief war in 1992 when Russian troops intervened on the side of Transnistrian separatists. Still host to a small garrison of Russian troops, Transnistria’s economy has major steel, agricultural, textile and criminal sectors. It also has very long and open border with Ukraine. The enclave is completely isolated from Russian territory, though the recent annexation of Crimea has closed the distance significantly. Conceivably, Ukraine could threaten to occupy the entire territory. Short of that, it could attack Russian forces in the territory, forcing them to surrender and thus giving Kiev a major bargaining chip against Moscow.

2. Kaliningrad

A thorn in NATO's side

A thorn in NATO’s side

The speciousness of the Russian pretext for intervening in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (protection of Russian minorities from neo-Nazi hordes in historically Russian territory) is thrown into sharp relief by Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave along the Baltic coast that was historically German before being conquered by the Soviet Union in World War II, whereupon the population was decimated and expelled. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO eastward, Kaliningrad is now completely surrounded by NATO states. If 3 to 5 NATO brigades were to deploy to Poland for “joint exercises” near the Kaliningrad border, the Kremlin would be forced to redeploy assets away from Ukraine in order to respond and its propaganda would be undermined.


In the last six years Russia has destabilized, invaded and dismembered two Western-leaning states along its frontier. There is a very real possibility that Putin’s next confrontation will be with NATO itself. It need not be overtly military in character; the modus operandi for revisionist powers in the 21st century is a campaign of incremental actions, each action falling below the threshold that would provoke response, which cumulatively results in a change to the status quo. Putin’s most likely course of action is to subvert the Baltic states by covertly mobilizing their ethnic Russian minorities to agitate for special political rights and possibly autonomy. Open rebellion – like what occurred in eastern Ukraine – will not be necessary. Protests, demonstrations, strikes and rioting should be sufficient. The objective is to force the Baltic capitals to grant political concessions to their Russian minorities without NATO invoking Article 5 or otherwise responding in a significant fashion. If NATO does not back them up and the Baltics capitulate, the credibility of the alliance will be shattered and the states of eastern Europe will begin aligning themselves with the Kremlin out of self-preservation, thus reestablishing a Russian sphere of influence.

The threat to NATO is significant. Pro-Russian placards and sit-ins on the streets of Tallinn will not seem a threat to most observers, but what is at stake is the future of the European order. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic need to be prepared to move things up the escalatory ladder, beyond the level that Putin is willing to accept.

US special operations directing airstrikes against ISIS

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters along with Iraqi special forces have retaken the Mosul dam from ISIS, who captured it earlier in the month. However, reports filed by journalists who visited the aftermath of the battle suggest that the Kurds and Iraqis were not alone:

Several compounds bore the marks of airstrikes, their walls collapsed and blackened. A large armored personnel carrier sat belly up, its body little more than strands of metal connected to a frame. The force of the blasts tore trees in two, spreading a blanket of branches and needles over a sloping road leading into the community.

The airstrikes were directed with what seemed a high degree of accuracy. Single homes were leveled, while neighboring ones stood in good order, exhibiting only the scars of shrapnel.

This level of coordination and accuracy can be achieved only with US personnel operating on the ground with their Iraqi counterparts, directing close air support against ISIS vehicles and strongpoints. This should not be a surprise; the US military and intelligence community has decades of experience in Iraq and has developed a large number of experienced cadres capable of close liaison with Iraqi personnel. 

Furthermore, the “Afghan model” – supporting indigenous forces with airpower coordinated by small numbers of embedded special operations personnel – offers a great deal of potential for rolling back ISIS: Iraq is much closer to US air power, many of the networks and contacts established by the US during the war are still intact, infrastructure is still in place, local forces are much more sophisticated than the Northern Alliance was, and all the regional governments would support the campaign. Unlike the urban Iraqi insurgents that US forces battled for almost a decade, ISIS has assembled into battalion-sized formations that are vulnerable to annihilation from the air.

Overall, this strategy strikes a balance between the need to confront ISIS on one hand, and President Obama’s disinclination to become deeply involved in a Third Iraq War on the other. I expect to air strikes continue for several weeks, and President Obama to stretch his self-imposed mandate in creative ways.

Probably no horses this time

Probably no horses this time

More from O’Sullivan and Miller

Patrick O’Sullivan and Jesse Miller conclude a now-dated regional analysis of the Middle East with comments that still ring prescient:

Mackinder’s pivot was the region which the horsemen of the steppes swept out of under pressure of limited resources and internecine competition. The prize they most keenly sought lay in the region we have just delineated, now divided among the fragments of Islam, created by these riders from the plains. The source of instability now lies in the confusion of Islam. People who have been sheltered from changes in the west by the conservative, legalistic code of Islam now have to face accommodation with 400 years of technical, social and political evolution all at once. One possible reaction is to deny the morality of what has come to pass and retreat into the past as the Wahabis did and Khomeini would do. At the other extreme is a radical embracing of change in the fashion of Ataturk. Shah Reza Palavi attempted this but did not succeed. Whatever the ploys of government, the people will be caught in the quandary of going both ways at once, and social schizophrenia can lead to savage action and reaction. This imbalance, plus the presence of oil and Israel, turns this into the percussion cap of the world. (p 155)