Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II through Iraq

John C. McManus

Caliber, New York, 2011, 544 pages

Book Review published on: April 28, 2017

Published in 2010 while the simultaneous Iraq and Afghanistan wars continued, Dr. John C. McManus assembled a collection of ten American military operations from 1944 through 2005, arguing the unequivocal necessity of the foot soldier. Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II through Iraq challenges the modern worship of technology and asserts that “the most powerful, effective weapon in modern war is … the well-trained, well-armed, and well-led infantry soldier.” Regardless of technological advances, the reader will see that the foot soldier remains essential in current and future conflicts.

Presently named as curators’ professor of U.S. military history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, McManus is one of the nation’s leading military historians. He holds a doctorate in American and military history, and serves as the official historian for the U.S. Army 7th Infantry Regiment. An award-winning author of eleven books, his expertise is frequently sought by local and national news, television, radio, and fellow authors. For Grunts, McManus extensively researched firsthand accounts of American veterans through memoirs, oral histories, national and military archives, periodicals, and personal interviews.

McManus chronicles select operations from World War II’s Pacific and European theaters of operation, the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War, and Iraq, clearly presenting the need for ground troops despite advanced firepower and air superiority. Naval firepower had little impact on the Japanese who smartly defended Guam and Peleliu, but required costly and hard won small-unit battles before the marines gained control of both islands. In Europe, infantrymen and mortarmen together seized and defended key terrain objectives from the urban city of Aachen to the Ardennes forest against Hitler’s armored divisions. In Vietnam, the difficult-to-find guerilla insurgency wisely eliminated fixed terrain objectives, compelling the Americans to ground combat in close proximity to limit artillery and close air support. The strategy undergirding the Gulf War and Iraq falsely asserted precision munitions and air superiority as the “silver bullet.” Time revealed that it still required ground troops to seize terrain, influence local population, and fight a highly effective insurgency that used more primitive technology to counter American advanced weaponry. These operations successfully reinforce McManus’s thesis that the foot soldier is the most effective and sometimes only appropriate weapons system, especially when supported with timely resupply and combined arms execution. He also made the strong counterpoint that an astute enemy can equalize advanced technology, weapons superiority, and air and naval capabilities with wise use of terrain and tactics.

Leadership and training are the two remaining factors underwriting an effective infantry that McManus addresses more subtly and less effectively. His narrative style knits examples of excellent and poor leadership without clearly delineating the essential characteristics of an effective leader. He treats training in the same fashion. Instead of detailing critical skills or training methodologies, he describes the successful results of the well-trained soldier through recorded accounts of individual and unit courage, determination, and grit. McManus relies upon the reader to infer the essential qualities as opposed to explicitly presenting his analysis.

Despite the shortfalls in fully presenting his analysis, McManus’s narrative style, accompanying maps, and pictures make for an engaging and pleasurable read. Its organization as a collection allows each individual tale to stand alone, making its lengthy 443 pages more manageable. His descriptive and personalized storytelling draws readers into connection with the individual soldier or marine and sparks true appreciation for the necessity and sacrifice of the American soldier and marine. Overall, Grunts is an outstanding read for the military and nonmilitary student of history and leadership.

Book Review written by: Maj. Lisa Argo, U.S. Army, Joint Base San Antonio, Texas