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Letters from Readers - April/May 2009 Military History

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: February 27, 2009 
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'I grew up with little knowledge about [my father's] life or experiences as an ambulance driver for the American Medical Bureau in the Spanish Civil War'

Recalling the Spanish Civil War
[Re. "For Whom the Ambulance Rolls," by James Neugass, Feb/Mar:] Thank you for publishing excerpts from my father's book, War Is Beautiful. In 1949 he died of a heart attack when I was 18 months old. I grew up with little knowledge about his life or experiences as an ambulance driver for the American Medical Bureau in the Spanish Civil War.

For more than 60 years the unpublished manuscript gathered dust in a writer's attic in Vermont and the rare book collection of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2007 the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, in New York, expressed their desire to publish his manuscript. The book represents a major find because of my father's poetic and narrative gifts and the historical perspective of horrific events in this war. War is not beautiful, and his title symbolizes the contrast between the horrors of war and the beauty, idealism and camaraderie that motivated those who volunteered in Spain.

Reviewers have hailed the book as an important addition to Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. His story has brought new meaning to my life and will preserve his legacy for future generations.

Jim Neugass
Matthews, N.C.

As a Puerto Rican who had relatives fighting on both sides of the 1936–1939 war, it vexes me that, 70 years after the end of that war, you are still so willing to take at face value the propaganda line of communists who betrayed the Republic. Whoever says the communists fought for the liberty and the democracy of Spain is at best very foolish, at worst a dissembler and a deceiver.

The 1936–1939 war was strictly a Spanish affair, in the same way the 1861–1865 war was strictly an American affair. Foreigners such as Neugass were nothing but intruders meddling in affairs that were no concern of them.

In this 70th anniversary of the end of the war, you have the obligation to do better.

Juan Jose Morales
Tampa, Fla.

Whole Nine Yards
Jon Guttman's article [Power Tool, Feb/Mar] on the M2 .50-caliber machine gun is excellent, and, as usual, I learned a few things, which happens each time I pick up the magazine. It continues to be an excellent source of my own professional military continuing education.

Given the number of Scots in my family, I would be remiss (or worse) if I did not mention this: Guttman states that when the M2 was used in fighter aircraft, the ammunition belts normally totaled 27 feet worth of linked ammo, which reportedly gave rise to the phrase "give it the whole nine yards."

Based on what I have been told the past number of years, that phrase rises from another use—the length of tartan used for a kilt. Although many kilts could be made with eight yards of material, it was always thought wise to use nine yards, as the kilt could also double as a covering or blanket at night. While I would never want to say either is absolutely correct or incorrect, I did want to step up to the plate.

Brig. Gen. William D.R. Waff
U.S. Army Reserve
Deputy Commanding General
U.S. Army Human
Resources Command
Alexandria, Va.
St. Louis, Mo.

Editor responds: Thanks for sharing your Celtic twist on "the whole nine yards." We couched our definition with "reportedly," as no one can agree on the origin of the phrase, which has been attributed to yards of fabric and ammunition, sailing ship yardarms, even the Montagnard hill tribes of Vietnam.

Terrain vs. Brain
Re. David T. Zabecki's article "Why Terrain Matters" [Nov/Dec]: He is right—terrain is the one constant in warfare. But he misses how important the relationship is among terrain, technology and the human mind.

Terrain can be divided into macro and micro. Macro terrain is unobstructed. Micro terrain is the mass of cover and concealment that occurs within that terrain: rocks, trees, grass, buildings, rooms inside buildings, furniture inside rooms, etc. Technology dominates the macro terrain. While technology can control the micro terrain, it cannot dominate it. Micro terrain is dominated by the human mind. Soldiers who are more highly disciplined, motivated, lead, trained, have better morale, are psychologically motivated and who are fighting for a cause or belief will dominate the micro terrain.

The Hürtgen Forest is a perfect example. Having done a staff ride there myself, one could see the German positions deep into the wood where the Americans' artillery, armor and air—technology—were negated, dragging soldiers into a squad-on-squad fight where training and tactics prevailed.

The fourth generation of warfare—insurrection, insurgency, unconventional or guerrilla warfare—has been fought in the micro terrain. Armies around the world have realized they cannot defeat Western armies in the macro terrain—our technology is too great. So they focus on individual and squad training and drag fighting into jungles (Vietnam), mountains (Afghanistan) and cities (Iraq). While terrain is a constant, so are technology and the human mind, and it is the relationship among the three that has driven all of history.

Captain Anthony Rose
U.S. Army
Fort Knox, Ken.

David T. Zabecki responds: Captain Rose has an interesting point about the various subcategories of terrain, but his suggestion of what it takes to dominate those various subcategories focuses too simplistically on just the tactical level of warfare and ignores the critical linkages to the operational, and then the strategic, levels. The problem with the Hürtgen Forest was that the overall operational concept was flawed from start to finish. The problem with Vietnam was that the strategic concept was not just seriously flawed, it was nonexistent. Amazingly, we made the same colossal blunder going into both Afghan-istan and Iraq the second time, having no clearly articulated strategy and absolutely no plan for conflict termination. Under such circumstances, even the best-trained and motivated soldiers cannot win wars. They might be able to dominate a local piece of "micro terrain," but that fact still will not pass war's "So what? test." If having "soldiers who are more highly disciplined, motivated, lead, trained, have better morale, are psychologically motivated and who are fighting for a cause or belief" was the decisive element in winning wars, Germany would have won both world wars by a wide margin. And in Vietnam, we won all the battles, but we still lost the war.

Off Target
Jon Guttman's article [Power Tool, Nov/Dec] regarding the Norden M-1 bombsight was very good. His data and descriptions were right on. However, I must take exception to his assessment that the Norden proved highly overrated. [It] was an extremely accurate device when used as it was designed to be used.

The Norden was designed to drop bombs from a plane flying level and on a straight course onto a fixed-position target from almost any altitude. When we attacked with B-17s, the Japanese simply plotted our course and moved.

In Europe, American bombers flew in defensive box formations through the entire mission. Unless there were multiple aiming points in the same target area, the bombardier in the lead plane in the lead squadron was the bombardier for the 21-plane group. That means 20 of the planes in the group were at varying distances to the right or left of the lead bombardier's target aiming point, [and] each group bombed on a different heading at different intervals. This tactic was referred to as "carpet bombing" and was akin to firing a shotgun at a birdhouse. A lot of bombs were off target.

In addition, operating the Norden bombsight made many bombardiers wish they had an extra right hand, because both crosshair control knobs were on the right side of the "football." With only two minutes to get lined up with the aiming point, the bombardier had to control both crosshairs with both hands. And the bombardier didn't use a manual bomb release switch like in the movies. He had a selector switch panel with which he could control the number of bombs to be dropped from one to a salvo. He did have a manual control switch, but it had to be selected before it could be used on rare occasions.

Richard J. Strode
Springfield, Ill.



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