Countdown bin Laden

Twenty years ago this morning, our hearts crumbled simultaneously with New York’s Twin Towers. Osama bin Laden orchestrated an attack that would scar the face of the Earth and change history forever. After the heartless attacks that left 2977 people dead and countless families grieving, it was inevitable that the terrorist leader would be brought to face justice.

In his new book, Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace offers the gripping story of this historic manhunt and the commendable sacrifices made by those who planned and executed it over a period of 9 months.

In the same manner he wrote his authoritative Countdown 1945, the renowned journalist (with Mitch Weiss) details the nitty-gritty of what will certainly be remembered as one of the most famous and consequential special operation in the history of warfare in Countdown bin Laden: The Untold Story of the 247-Day Hunt to Bring the Mastermind of 9/11 to Justice. Tremendous sacrifices were consented by these intelligence officials who sacrificed their family lives. SEAL Team 6 operators faced their own mortality as they were ordered to descend in the Devil’s Den at the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden had taken refuge between 2005 and May 1st, 2011.

More than the military aspects of the mission to bring back OBL dead or alive, what impressed me most in this book was the decision-making process of the operation. It is easy to associate the warlord tag to President George W. Bush for his decision to launch a war against Al Qaida in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. His successor, Barack Obama, appears as a more dovish character, at least in the public’s perception.

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Wellington took care of his soldiers

A few months ago, I reviewed the very insightful book Wellington’s Command by G. E. Jaycock. Being interested in anything related to the Iron Duke, it was therefore natural for me to read S. P. G. Ward’s Wellington’s Headquarters: The Command and Administration of the British Army during the Peninsular War (Pen & Sword).

While the objective of the author was to detail and explain the functioning of the Peninsular Army and give a portrait of the overall machinery of war, the most interesting aspect of the book is the portrait of the warlord. Wellington, it is a known fact, was a micromanager. For instance, the author explains that “[…] he was his own Director of Military Intelligence”. One doesn’t need to be a psychologist to understand that he must have been quite a difficult character to deal with – like most famous personalities in history. About the interrogation of prisoners of war, he reduced one of his subordinates, Stewart, to tears because the latter wrongfully thought it fell within the province of his responsibilities.

But, overall, “Wellington was careful, so far as the standards of the age allowed, of their lives. By French standards he was niggardly and unenterprising.” The best advantage Wellington provided his men with was at the level of supplying them. While the French took the route of a requisition system that “fomented guerilla resistance”, the British general favored a depot system which had the advantage of making his army “[…] as independent as possible of local resources.” The whole method could be slowed down if financial resources – over which Wellington had no control whatsoever – did not show up in a timely manner because “[…] it involved payment by cash at no very distant date from the transaction […]”, but, by and large, the Wellington system “[…] was measurably superior to the French.”

Another adaptation that enhanced the soldiers’ condition was “[…] the adoption of tents and encampments […] in the latter years of the war, as distinguished from its commencement, and the sickness and loss sustained by the French from never putting their men under canvas in the field.” In that regard, Wellington’s personality comes to life when he requisitions a Carmelite monastery to billet his staff.

All in all, the victor of the Peninsular War and Waterloo might have said that his soldiers were “the scum of the Earth”, but he took good care of them. And that’s one of the things I was amazed to discover between the covers of the book.

I was nevertheless astonished to learn that each soldier was only allowed two pairs of shoes per year, one of which could easily be destroyed while “[…] engaged in braking some guns down a sharp incline […]”. Given the importance of footwear in daily life – even more so at war – that information enhances my admiration for the soldiers of this era.

Overall, my favorite chapter is the one devoted to “Wellington and his staff”, in which the author details the Duke’s daily schedule, his capacity for work (he never missed a day of work during the whole Peninsula campaign), dislike of his subordinates using notes when they met him, the fact that “[…] everything that he touched – and he touched everything – bore the mark of his own personality” and his loyalty to his subordinates. The historian also informs the reader about the fact that Wellington was an avid reader and consumer of books. “Few generals have devoted their spare hours so advantageously to utilitarian scholarship”, he writes.

“A commander’s plan is no more than a choice of difficulties”, proclaimed the Iron Duke. On the battlefields of war and life, the wisdom and methods of Wellington are enlightening at many levels. And S. P. G. Ward’s work is an essential addition to any serious student of military history. The first edition of the book was published in 1957 and was reprinted in 2017 by Pen & Sword, but it lost none of its interest, quite the contrary.

Sir Arthur Wellesley might have been aloof and cold at the personal level and might not have been prone to engage in informal chit-chat with the rank and file like Napoleon adroitly did, but his autocratic and conservative character clearly served one purpose: safeguard the men who brought him to victory. Cynics might respond that a soldier was expensive to lose and replace. Fair enough. But being thrifty with the blood of others certainly can’t make a leader demerit in the eyes of history. The conclusions one can take from this book are yet another manifestation that Wellington suffers from having been too discreet about his record. He hasn’t built a memorial to his glory before his death, notably in leaving us memoirs or contributing to his legend. But S. P. G. Ward unquestionably demonstrates that he deserves much more attention – and credit – than he receives.

I can’t wait to put my hands on another book about the fascinating Duke. Suggestions are naturally welcome.

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S. P. G. Ward, Wellington’s Headquarters The Command and Administration of the British Army during the Peninsular War, Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2017, 240 pages.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Daniel Yesilonis, Marketing Manager of Casemate Group, for offering me a copy of that book and for his continued assistance and kindness. Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, is also very supportive of this blog and it is much appreciated.

In Afghanistan “with bayonet and kukri”

HRH Prince Harry (right) pictured while he was deployed with Gurkha soldiers in Afghanistan (source: Nepal News Blog)

Having devoured General Sir Peter Duffell’s book The Gurkha Odyssey (which I reviewed here recently) and being interested in anything related to these élite and legendary soldiers, I was extremely worried about the evacuation of the 100 Nepalese Gurkhas who had been tasked with guarding the Canadian embassy in Kabul. I was relieved when I heard that they had been safely taken away from the country.

Nonetheless, the whole episode reminded me of the chapter Sir Peter devoted to the Gurkhas contribution to Britain’s fight in Afghanistan – during the 1st Afghan War (1839-1842), the Second Afghan War (1878-1880), the Third Afghan War (1919) and the Fourth Afghan War (2001-2021). Since 2001, the Gurkhas took part in no less than 24 deployments!

“In the last two hundred years”, writes the former Commander of British Forces in Hong Kong, “the Gurkha rifleman has soldiered four times on behalf of the British Crown in the beautiful, dangerous and perfidious country of Afghanistan – always at some cost and never for much discernible gain.”

Against all odds, “forgetting their fatigue” and fighting alongside the Gordons, the Highlanders and the Seaforths at the sound of bagpipes, the Gurkhas were a “dangerous battlefield adversary” whom the Afghan fighters did “[…] all they could to avoid.” Despite all the gallantry in the world, Sir Peter comes to the heartbreaking conclusion (in light of all the blood and treasure spent in that part of the world) that “[…] no country has the means to impose its will on Afghanistan.”

On the bright side of things, the Gurkhas’ performance in Afghanistan contributed to the edification of their “[…] strong and respected position in the heart of the British Army.”

Let us now hope that statesmen and influencers of the future will spend more time in libraries and bookstores before they decide on the whim of political circumstances to risk the life and valor of men (and women) whose mission it is to give their everything for us.

For the time being, I strongly recommend The Gurkha Odyssey, not only as an excellent book about military history, but also a powerful story of exceptional courage in the most gruesome circumstances. Blood should never be sacrificed in vain.

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The title of this post comes from General Sir Peter Duffell’s book, Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown, Yorkshire, Pen & Sword, 2019, 290 pages.

Mr. Daniel Yesilonis, Marketing Manager of the Casemate Group, has generously provided me with a copy of this excellent book. Daniel is a joy to collaborate with for a blogger.

« Je suis un mauvais tsar; un bon tsar, c’est celui qui tue » – Mikhaïl Gorbatchev

19 août 1991. Il y a trente ans aujourd’hui. Je me souviens de cette journée comme si c’était hier. Fan de Mikhaïl Gorbatchev, malgré mon jeune âge et les admonestations de mon père qui ne voulait pas me voir devenir communiste, j’apprends au bulletin de nouvelles qu’un putsch est ourdi en URSS. Les chars d’assaut ont fait déambuler leurs chenilles dans Moscou et tout peut arriver. Mon héros (avec Reagan et Thatcher) est assigné à résidence dans sa demeure estivale en Crimée. Rien ne va plus dans mon univers. Je resterai rivé aux bulletins de nouvelles, téléphonant – à peu près à toutes les heures – à la salle de rédaction de mon quotidien local pour m’enquérir de l’évolution de la situation.

Gorbatchev m’a toujours fasciné. Et en ces jours où des corollaires sont inévitablement établis entre le retrait américain d’Afghanistan ordonné par le président Joe Biden et celui effectué par l’Armée rouge entre mai 1988 et février 1989 sous la gouverne de « Gorby », le dernier livre de Vladimir Fédorovski permet de mieux comprendre ce personnage adulé en Occident, mais clivant (c’est le moins que l’on puisse dire) chez lui.

Pour tout dire, Le Roman vrai de Gorbatchev (Flammarion) brosse un portrait tout en nuance d’un politicien d’exception. Avant d’endosser les habits du réformateur, le futur chef d’État devait grimper au mât de cocagne de la politique soviétique, ce qu’il sut faire avec brio en annotant avec flatterie les projets de discours de Brejnev ou en dégustant poisson et gâteau au fromage sous la véranda avec le chef du KGB – et futur numéro un soviétique – le redoutable Iouri Andropov.

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“If we’re going to withdraw, then my husband died for literally nothing”

This quote from the widow of Special Forces engineer sergeant Matthew McClintock has been haunting me over the last couple of days as I watch events unfold in Afghanistan. “Mick” was killed during his tour while trying to secure the medevac of one of his comrades. I’ve never been to Afghanistan, but I have always been a staunch supporter of the missions deployed there. When Canada sent a contingent of Canadian soldiers from the “Vandoos” (the legendary Québec’s Royal 22e Régiment) to Kandahar, I drove with my wife and daughter to Québec City to applaud them on their departing parade. As we hold our breath in expectation of what will happen in Afghanistan, I have a hard time coming to terms with recent developments.

Just last week, I finished reading Jessica Donati’s excellent but tragic book Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War (PublicAffairs). Her exposé is depressing, to say the least. Over the last couple of years, Washington sent the best of the best, the Special Forces, under the guise of “a training and assistance mission” in order to maintain deniability. In reality, they were there in combat mode, although denied certain tools to accomplish their mission properly, such as not authorizing air strikes that could have proven crucial at certain times, or that “no GPS-guided parachutes [which could efficiently deliver supplies in combat zones, ensuring they would not fall into enemy hands] were left in the country because the US military was no longer supposed to be in combat.” These guys fought an enemy that proved adept at using clouds to articulate its strategy (no air support can be offered when skies are not clear, therefore denying Special Forces with much-needed air support). When you ask people to do such a crucial job, the least you can do is give them the tools to do it.

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“The epicenter of the Cold War”

In June 1987, just shy of my 13th birthday, international affairs were already part of my daily interests. I would clip newspaper articles about the Cold War from our local paper before my parents even had the chance of reading it, much to their despair. During that month, on the 12th to be more precise, US President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and pronounced a major speech calling for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall. “He’ll never do that”, my father replied to me. Retrospectively, anything is possible of course. But few people could imagine back then what would happen only two years later when the Wall crumbled without a single shot being fired.

Fast-forward to 2015. After 9 grueling months stranded as administrative prisoners in Poland due to lack of efficient bureaucracy (to put it mildly), we finally received our coveted residency cards. First order of business was to plan a serious change of scenery for everyone. I could finally take a few days off. Berlin was just a couple hours away by train and I knew this was an opportunity not to be missed.

On December 19th, we got off the train and I will always remember the sense of freedom and exhilaration that engulfed me. I had made it to the city that had always fascinated me as a child. The morning after, nothing in the world could have prevented me to finally realize the long-held dream of visiting the iconic Checkpoint Charlie. I was not disappointed. I was therefore very excited and impatient to read Iain MacGregor’s book about this legendary landmark of the Cold War.

The main two criterions by which I consider a book are 1) whatever new material and information it contains and 2) the style of the author. On both counts, Iain MacGregor doesn’t disappoint. The Wall having been a tragic feature for 28 years, it is easy to imagine that it was a static border frozen in time. At least, that’s what I had always been prone to think. The author made me realize it was everything but. While East German security forces deployed daily efforts to prevent escapes and breaking up of the socialist fabric, “Special Forces […] attached to the US Berlin Command [were given the mission] to range more than one hundred miles deep into Communist territory and [be] ready to take the fight to the Soviet armed forces. It was the Allies’ secret weapon should World War Three commence in Europe.” Reading about this unit’s actions and about the Allies intelligence gathering operations is as fascinating as watching James Bond, even if sometimes much more tragic such as when you read about the fate of Major Arthur Nicholson, a US officer who “was shot dead by a Soviet sentry at a training area” in the German Democratic Republic.

By far, the most impressive character of the cast portrayed by the author is Sir Robert Corbett, the young Irish Guards Lieutenant who was at the head of a reconnaissance platoon attached to a train destined to West Berlin passing through East Germany in the Fall of 1961. He was later to be appointed the last Commandant of the British sector in Berlin 1989. At the very end of the book, Iain MacGregor quotes him as saying that “[…] it is worthwhile remembering that the small things are those on which so much can turn.” This is probably history’s most enduring lesson.

60 years ago today, when the East German régime started to erect the wall on August 13, 1961, border guards were “carrying their weapons but had no ammunition. They were under strict orders from the Soviets to retreat immediately should they be confronted by Allied military forces.” If the American, British, and French leaders had shown more resoluteness in preventing the carving of Berlin with concrete and barbed wire, the Wall as we came to know it might never have been built. They didn’t call Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s bluff. While I don’t want to fall in revisionist history, that revelation left me speechless.

On the morning of 10 November, 1989, Major General Corbett walked to the Soviet War Memorial, where thousands of civilians were regrouped after the opening of the Wall. “[…] The Soviets [being] notoriously trigger-happy”, the military leader was eager to prevent a bloodbath. He went to speak to the Soviet soldiers in charge of safeguarding the physical remembrance of their forebears, telling them that both they and the monument they oversaw would be safe. In an extremely tense and volatile situation, this amicable chat might have defused a potentially catastrophic scenario.

Finally, there is the inevitable and fateful role played by Mikhail Gorbachev. Iain MacGregor recounts that former US Secretary of State James A. Baker III confided to him that “[…] events could easily have spiraled out of control had it not been for the foresight of Bush’s opposite number in the Kremlin.” In these fateful hours when the fate of Berlin, Europe and, to a certain extent, the world hanged in the balance, the chieftain of the Kremlin decided that fear and terror would no longer be the dominant values of his régime. On that score, I’m happy to say my father was wrong.

Berlin could breathe in peace and become a lasting symbol for freedom-loving people. In a sense, that might be what I felt when I got off the train on that memorable December evening. And thanks this exceptional author, I now grasp the full magnitude of what Checkpoint Charlie meant for all those years. It was never meant to be permanent, like the régime it opposed, but always determined to be a beacon of freedom for every citizen trapped behind the Iron Curtain but also of the world.

For anyone fascinated by the Cold War, special operations or simply an enthralling read, Checkpoint Charlie is a memorable book. It will now stand beside the piece of the Berlin Wall I was offered by a German diplomat when I was a teenager.

To quote one of my favorite past US Presidents, Ich bin ein Berliner!

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Iain MacGregor, Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth, New York, Scribner, 2019, 352 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Athena Reekers of Simon & Schuster Canada for proving me with a review copy of this exceptional book.

« Xi Jinping est, hélas, le chef d’État actuel le plus impressionnant » – général Henri Bentégeat

Le Général (à la retraite) Henri Bentégeat (source: Alchetron)

Dans la foulée de ma recension de l’excellent livre Les ors de la République (Éditions Perrin) du général d’armée (à la retraite) Henri Bentégeat, j’ai soumis quelques questions à son attachée de presse. Très aimablement, il s’est empressé d’y répondre. C’est donc avec grand plaisir que je partage cet entretien avec vous.

Mon général, j’ai dévoré Les ors de la République avec énormément d’intérêt et de fascination. Vous y brossez un portrait fascinant des présidents François Mitterrand et Jacques Chirac. Mais comme vous avez naturellement côtoyé des chefs d’État étrangers, je me demandais lequel vous avait le plus impressionné et pourquoi?

Ayant côtoyé de nombreux chefs d’État, avec Jacques Chirac ou en tant que chef d’état-major des armées, j’ai quelque peine à désigner celui ou celle qui m’a le plus impressionné. Avant la campagne aérienne contre la Serbie qui a révélé son messianisme exalté, j’aurais volontiers cité Tony Blair, tant son enthousiasme souriant, sa simplicité et sa maitrise des dossiers me séduisaient. Je retiens donc plutôt Cheikh Zayed que j’ai rencontré au soir de sa vie. Celui qui présidait au destin des Émirats arabes unis, avait un charisme peu commun et sa sagesse proverbiale s’exprimait avec une douceur ferme et souriante, ouverte au dialogue sans céder sur l’essentiel. Chirac vénérait ce grand modernisateur respectueux des traditions et faiseur de paix.

Les présidents et leurs conseillers ayant pris goût à la disponibilité et à la discrétion du personnel militaire, le ministère de la Défense a été invité à détacher à l’Élysée des chauffeurs, des secrétaires, des maîtres d’hôtel et des rédacteurs pour le service du courrier…
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Le « général Morphée », vainqueur de la Révolution française

Questionné un jour dans un entretien privé à savoir s’il était impatient d’apprendre un jour la rédaction et la publication de sa biographie, un ancien ministre canadien des finances me répondit : « Pas du tout. J’aime mieux demeurer dans la légende que passer à l’histoire. » Cet épisode m’est immédiatement venu en mémoire lorsque j’ai débuté la lecture de La journée révolutionnaire : Le peuple à l’assaut du pouvoir 1789-1795 (Passés Composés) de l’historien Antoine Boulant.

Tout au long de son propos, l’auteur s’emploie à départager l’histoire de l’imaginaire. « Alors que l’imaginaire collectif associe volontiers la journée révolutionnaire à des combats sanglants et des tueries collectives, une analyse plus nuancée s’impose. » À plusieurs endroits, on mesure à quel point les journées révolutionnaires étudiées dans ces pages n’avaient rien de spontané. Seulement quelques centaines d’insurgés se retrouvaient devant les murs de la Bastille le 14 juillet 1789. La majorité des Parisiens ne faisaient pas partie de la foule révolutionnaire, les franges les plus misérables de la société y étaient minoritaires et ce n’est pas « une foule déguenillée » qui a pris d’assaut la Bastille et les Tuileries.

Quel ne fut pas également mon étonnement de constater à quel point la prise des armes servait les intérêts de personnages importants de l’establishment comme le duc d’Orléans, que l’on soupçonne notamment d’avoir financé les émeutiers. Et que dire du rôle déterminant des rumeurs, comme par exemple tout le bruit entourant le « banquet des gardes du corps » propagées dans une véritable campagne de relations publiques. De véritables Fake News qui n’ont rien à envier aux tribulations d’un certain politicien américain. Aussi bien l’avouer, je me suis senti à des années lumières du film culte La Révolution française de Robert Enrico et Richard T. Heffron que j’ai longtemps vénéré.

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La sérénité de Jacques Chirac

Le général Henri Bentégeat (à droite sur la photo) accompagnant le président Jacques Chirac dans son command-car le 14 juillet 2005 (Photo par Sebastien DUFOUR / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Allons enfants de la patrie…

Chaque 14 juillet, une partie de mon cœur se tient aux abords de l’avenue des Champs-Élysées et bat au rythme du magnifique défilé militaire qui y déambule. La fête nationale de la France a toujours été un moment fort pour moi. Un jour, je me promets d’y assister en personne.

Cette année, j’ai donc pensé solliciter le concours d’un auteur français dont j’admire beaucoup le parcours et le talent à nous livrer ses impressions sur cette journée importante.

Dans son excellent livre Les ors de la République, le général Henri Bentégeat, qui fut chef de l’état-major particulier du président de la République du 30 avril 1999 au 2 octobre 2002 et chef d’état-major des Armées (CEMA) du 30 octobre 2002 au 3 octobre 2006, partage avec ses lecteurs plusieurs aspects fascinants et révélateurs de la personnalité du président Jacques Chirac. Je pense notamment au fait où mention est faite que « ses voyages préférés » étaient « ses visites aux armées ». Et que la Défense était l’un des domaines « qu’il aimait le plus ». Dit autrement, Jacques Chirac était à l’aise et heureux auprès de la troupe. Il était donc naturellement dans son élément lors du défilé du 14 juillet.

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The Pacific Theatre should no longer take a backseat to the war in Europe during WW2

Author Kevin Maurer with and ANCOP officer (Afghan National Civil Order Police) in Kandahar in 2010 (source: Kevin Maurer)

In the aftermath of my review of the impressive book Rock Force, author Kevin Maurer kindly accepted to answer questions for this blog. Here is the content of our interesting exchange.

Rock Force is an excellent book and now ranks among my favorites. Where did the idea of this book come from?

The idea came from my editor, Brent Howard. We were talking about World War II books and he mentioned his grandfather jumped with the 503rd. He said no one had really told the story in a narrative fashion, so I took the challenge. It was great working with Brent because from the start, it was clear he was as invested in the success of the book as I was. He was an amazing collaborator and the book is much better thanks to his edits.

I wrote Rock Force at night from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Continue reading “The Pacific Theatre should no longer take a backseat to the war in Europe during WW2”