Book Reviews: June 2003

By Frank Iannamico

Johnson Rifles and Machine Guns
By Bruce Canfield
with Robert L. Lamoreaux
and Edward R. Johnson,
Hardback, 272 printed pages,
ISBN: 1-931464-02-2, $49.95,
Andrew Mowbray Publishers,
PO Box 460,
Lincoln, Rhode Island 02865,
Phone: 1-800-999-4697.
Reviewed by Frank Iannamico.

Melvin Maynard Johnson Jr. was a Harvard educated attorney who came from a prominent New England family. He also served as a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. Although he was a successful practicing attorney, his enthusiasm for shooting, firearms and the military would take his life’s work in a different direction.

In 1935, the Garand rifle was the leading candidate for adoption as the standard service rifle of the US military. Johnson felt that the Garand rifle was inherently flawed and was not pleased by the fact that it was going to be adopted. In 1936, with $500 he borrowed from his father, Melvin Johnson set out to build a better rifle. After several years of setbacks, problems and various prototype weapons, the recoil-operated, semiautomatic Johnson Rifle emerged. The rifle was followed by a light machine gun that worked on the same recoil operation principal. The recoil system of operation eliminated the need for gas operation, as well as the linkages and other parts associated with it. The result was a weapon with fewer parts that could be easily manufactured and was easier to maintain in the field.

The recoil-operated Johnson rifle and machine gun had one major obstacle to overcome, that being the US Army Ordnance Department. In January of 1936, the .30 M1 Garand Rifle had just been adopted. This semiautomatic rifle had been developed “in house” at the Springfield Armory after a number of years, mostly due to the efforts of John Garand, an employee of the Armory. Johnson felt there were many disadvantages with the Garand rifle, the most prominent being the 8-round enbloc clip and the gas system. After the Ordnance Department rejected his rifle, Johnson publicly voiced his opinion of the Garand rifle. Johnson’s statements criticizing the Garand started a heated media controversy, which led to a Congressional investigation. Because of the negative publicity generated by the controversy, Johnson made a lot of enemies within the United States Army, particularly in the Ordnance Department. Not one to give up easily, Johnson persisted and eventually sold a number of his rifles and light machine guns to several foreign countries, most notably the Netherlands. Eventually the USMC procured both Johnson’s rifles and machine guns in limited numbers.

Virtually unknown by many collectors just a few short years ago, the Johnson rifles and light machine guns are highly sought after by collectors today. Information about Melvin Johnson and his unique weapons has heretofore been a mystery for the most part. Thanks to Bruce Canfield’s new book about the Johnson firearms many new facts regarding these interesting weapons have been uncovered. The author had the unique opportunity to gather insight from none other than Melvin Johnson’s son Edward R. Johnson. Also assisting with the project was Robert Lamoreaux, a long time Johnson arms researcher. Bruce Canfield is a well-known author with a number of books on small arms to his credit.

The book contains a lot of history about the origins and development of the Johnson weapons. Included are details of the various foreign contracts, USMC testing and use in World War II. The book also contains many “collectors notes” to help today’s collector identify the different variations of the Johnson guns and their accessories. Also covered are some of Johnson’s lesser-known weapons like the recoilless mortar, aircraft cannon and the post war Spitfire 5.7 mm police carbine. There are over 285 photos of the weapons in use, as well as detailed close-up photos of the guns themselves. Many of the vintage photographs have not been previously published. Overall, the book is well researched and documented. Highly recommended reading for those interested in World War II weaponry.

The Gulf War: The Complete History
By Thomas Houlahan.
New London, NH:
Schrenker Military Publishing,
1999. viii + 471 pp., maps, illus.,
list of interviews, bib.
USD $21.00 pb
(ISBN 0-9668456-0-9).
Reviewed by Vic Fogle.

George Bush is in the White House, clamoring for war with Iraq, assisted by cheerleaders Richard Cheney and Pentagon strategists Lawrence Eagleberger and Paul Wolfowitz. Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, and most of the military are attempting to avoid war. In the memorable words of Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

There has been much in the news recently about the possibility of another war with Iraq, this time for a “regime change.” Most readers of these pages were alive when Iraq last entertained the American military, but perhaps time and controversy have dimmed their memories. Moreover, so much was said about war concerning anticipated horrific casualties that some may have forgotten how the conflict ended. To most participants, the Persian Gulf War was probably not much of a religious experience, but to some it was. It was an exorcism. It exorcised the ghosts of Vietnam.

The Gulf War is the product of Thomas Houlahan’s interviews of American fighting men in Operation Desert Storm. Because he believes that “the nature of the fighting was determined largely by the decisions of brigade and battalion commanders,” he interviewed 49 generals of various grades and 85 full colonels in the belief that the true picture of the war has not yet been revealed.

Published in 1999, well after the dust had settled and after most other Gulf War books had appeared, this one is almost a composite of two books. One, the more successful, in an exposition of the methods and the means by which war was fought in 1991. It shows recent changes in weapons and their employment and contrasts the American arsenal with the obsolete hand-me-downs Saddam Hussein had bought from the USSR. The second part, less successful, is a description of the military actions and Houlahan’s attempts to describe the efficiency with which they were fought. These descriptions are noticeably pro Army: the Air Force contribution is minimized by the author’s emphasis upon its extravagant claims of vehicle kills, and the Navy’s participation in barely acknowledged. These parts of the book often depart from the recounting of military engagements and become attempts to explain away criticism, especially that which appears in The Generals War.

Houlahan portrays Saddam Hussein as a provincial thug of limited intelligence whose goal was to unite the Arab world in a new pan Arabism led by Iraq, in order to crush Israel, and to drive western influence from the Near East. After mismanaging the war with a vulnerable, divided Iran, Saddam decided to annex Kuwait and to use its oil revenues for his military buildup. President George Bush saw that Saddam’s control of Kuwait would bring another 15% of the world’s oil under Saddam’s domination. Worse, if he could use his presence there to intimidate Saudi Arabia, his power would extend to more than 50% of oil reserves, and he could dictate petroleum prices. Moreover, Bush was haunted by the memory of Britain’s appeasement at Munich.

The men who would become Bush’s principal military commanders, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell, Army General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, and Air Force Lt. General Charles Horner, were haunted by ghosts of their own from Vietnam. They pressed for a soldier’s war without constant civilian interference and micromanagement, one in which the American military could take full advantage of all its new technologies. The extent to which they were successful may be seen from a later comment made by Schwarzkopf: “We have a toolbox that’s full of tools...and I brought them all to the party.”

To those of us who served before the 1990’s and/or were in different branches of the military, surely the best part of the book is Houlahan’s description of how war has changed since Vietnam, with emphasis upon computer analyses; the targeting of air defense, command, and control; and importance of knocking out the enemy’s electrical generating, communications, and computer systems; higher elevation bombing; attack by cruise missiles; guided munitions, etc. The author also spends considerable time describing American planes, tanks, armored personnel carriers, missiles, and artillery in use in 1991.

Much the same description is given to Iraqi equipment. Unfortunately for Saddam, his general unpredictability had discouraged the Russians from supplying him with their latest technology during those periods of the 1980’s when they did not embargo him. He appears not to have known the difference. On a weapon-by-weapon comparison, such as tanks, artillery, missiles or radar, Iraqi equipment was obsolescent or inferior to Coalition equipment. Houlahan does a particularly good job of comparing Coalition and Iraqi weapons, so that we can understand how American tanks, for instance, could destroy their Iraqi counterparts from beyond the range of the latter.

As to the Iraqi army itself, its problems go all the way back to Saddam and the terror state he created. Houlahan remarks that “(a)rmies tend to exhibit the characteristics of, and reflect the limitations of, the societies from which they are raised.” The Iran-Iraq War confused many observers who carelessly equated the two peoples as “a mass of religious fanatics who would fight to the death for Allah.” But Iraq’s government is socialism delivered by a single dictatorial party (Ba’ath) that merely acknowledges Islam. The Iraqi army was held together by fear of its leaders. Officers were retained on the basis of political reliability, and most of the troops were illiterate. Because of Iranian ineptitude, the Iraqis formed overly favorable ideas of both their own abilities and of the value of defense. Moreover, the war bled Iraq of manpower and traumatized much of the generation that fought it. The Republican Guard got the best men and the most and best equipment, but the majority of its soldiers either walked or rode in soft skinned trucks, which were not of much value in the sand. Houlahan states that “the Iraqi regular army’s heavy units ultimately proved little more than a speed bump to advancing Coalition forces, (and t)he 5th Mechanized Division’s short lived success at Khafji was the only bright spot in a sea of military disaster.” The Coalition forces that the Iraqis faced had designed their own tanks, trained extensively in them, and had evolved tactics to defeat the USSR when the latter was using the same tanks as the Iraqis used in 1991. Consequently, Coalition forces were able to destroy Iraqi armor from positions beyond its range.

When Houlahan mentions the first launches of Scud missiles, he does not tell the entire story. One of the first mornings of launches against Israel, the Israeli Minister of Defense told Richard Cheney that he wanted the IFF (Identification: Friend of Foe) codes for the day or else a four hour cessation of Coalition air operations so that Israel could attack Iraq. Had Cheney acceded to either request, the Coalition would surely have fallen apart, for no Arab country wanted to fight alongside Israel against other Arabs. Instead, Cheney immediately provided Patriot missile launchers for defense.

As to postwar criticism about the effectiveness of the Patriot, Houlahan sidesteps the issue and says that nobody really knows. Ideally, since the Patriot is a proximity weapon, it will either detonate the Scud’s warhead or ignite its fuel tank. Sometimes the Patriot’s explosion damaged the Scud’s warhead so that it didn’t explode when it hit the ground. Some Scuds broke up by themselves. So if a Scud detonated from any cause, “what happened is almost never absolutely certain.”

One of the anomalies of which Houlahan took note was the unrealistically high claim of Air Force destructiveness, that “air power had not performed as advertised.” While the Air Force claimed that it had accounted for over 2,600 Iraqi armored vehicles, the correct number was about 600, or just over 10% of the total. Houlahan explains this disparity by saying that pilots may have claimed kills on armor already knocked out, or that Iraqis were skilled at deception, or that air attacks frightened away vehicle crews while leaving vehicles intact. But in light of this gross exaggeration, does the air war still deserve to be called the “most memorable” part of the Gulf War and a “stunning success?”

Houlahan also felt that the ground war was not as easy for the Coalition as it appeared on television and that “there was a lot more fight in the Iraqis than we have been led to believe.” These are not the impressions that emerge from The Gulf War. Rather, Houlahan’s presentation depicts illiterate, frightened, sleep-deprived men caught up in a maelstrom of unimagined fury, often deserted by their officers, poorly supplied even with food and water, and completely outgunned-men who were desperate to escape further combat by any means possible, including desertion and surrender. “(P)risoners indicated that they never wanted to be in Kuwait in the first place, did not want to fight fellow Arabs, and were certainly not willing to die to keep Kuwait.” Some Iraqis were so overwhelmed by the speed of the war that they were buried alive in their trenches by the armored bulldozers and plow tanks of the 1st Infantry Division. Moreover, it is difficult to harmonize Houlahan’s impressions of strong Iraqi resistance with his final assessments that “the Republican Guard was severely mauled,...(and) the regular army had seen all six armored divisions, all three mechanized divisions and two armored brigades annihilated” - and all that in just a 100-hour ground war.

Almost all of the ground engagements he describes appear to follow a pattern: superior Coalition reconnaissance perceives and assesses the Iraqi threat, the tanks and artillery attack the Iraqi forces before they can get within their guns’ range, then round up the prisoners and move on to the next encounter. But in dealing with one of the most disturbing aspects of the Gulf War, Houlahan leaves the impression that for at least some Americans, their worst enemies were other Americans. He writes that 35 of 148 American combat deaths were by “friendly fire.” The figures for wounded were 72 of 496. Equally disturbing is the fact that Americans killed 75% (nine of twelve) of all Britons who died in the ground war. Attempting to rationalize these figures by stating that “about 15,000 Americans (equivalent of a large division) were killed or wounded by their fellow Americans during (World War II)” does not make us feel any better. Similarly unsatisfying is his default position that “(e)very person who sets foot on or over a battlefield runs the risk of losing his or her life one way or another.” Combat is one thing, but friendly fire is quite another. It’s Houlahan’s belief that most friendly fire resulted from actions at increasingly long distances, both ground to ground and air to ground. Indeed, the potential for “fratricide” was so well known among commanders that some ordered the use of infrared lights or chemical lights so that they could distinguish each other. Houlahan does not tell us why these vehicles were not made with some sort of IFF equipment.

In a departure from his customary praise of Army operations, Houlahan concedes that there is much laxity and laziness in military maintenance, but it turns out that this is an excuse for some of the weapons that were criticized after the war for not being sufficiently rugged and reliable, such as the Apache helicopter. It is his belief that the war vindicated the armed services’ purchases of expensive, high tech weaponry because it worked so much better than the Soviet bloc counterparts that it faced.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from one of the faults that Houlahan most wished to avoid when he warned, “heavy reliance upon small unit anecdotes cannot produce a coherent picture of a major battle, or of a war.” By breaking his recital into so many different narratives and each one into so many different actions, he essentially makes them all into small unit anecdotes, so that there is no sense of the relative importance of each action.

Of especial interest is Houlahan’s presentation on chemical and biological agents and why Saddam did not employ them. He downplays the effects of the former and says that Iraq lacked the means of delivering them in the necessary quantities. Moreover, the kinds Iraq had were for harassing, not killing. Coalition forces had both gas monitoring equipment and protective suits issued to troops. The U.S. was much better supplied with far deadlier gases and had the means to deliver them against the unprotected Iraqis. And if Iraq could have found enough un-bombed capacity to produce anthrax or any other threat of equal seriousness, Saddam could not be certain that the U.S. would not respond with nuclear weapons. So with either chemical or biological weapons, Houlahan says that Iraq stood to lose more than it could gain.

The most vexatious aspect of this book is its lack of an index. Houlahan is generally good about defining his terms the first time he uses them, but if you fail to make notes as you go, there is no efficient way to return to his point of first usage. Consequently, if you think you might forget what MiCLiCs or BMP-2’s are, it is necessary either to record Houlahan’s topics along with page numbers and/or resort to other volumes that do have indexes. There is no excuse for omitting an index in a book containing this much information.

This book is, on balance, a useful supplement to any inquiry into the Persian Gulf War.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V6N9 (June 2003)
and was posted online on November 8, 2013


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