A Contemporary History of U.S. Special Operations
N. W. Collins
Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 2021, 320 pages
Book Review published on: September 24, 2021
We have all heard the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” However, those who have read their fair share of books know the saying needs to be a little more specific. Clearly, it should be expanded to “Don’t judge a book by its cover or its title.” This is clearly the case with N. W. Collins’ outstanding volume, Grey Wars: A Contemporary History of U.S. Special Operations.
My initial thought after picking up Grey Wars was that it would be a standard history of (pick a subject) volume. Consequently, it would be a chronologically organized and impersonal review of U.S. Special Operations. It did not take long to discover Collins had crafted a volume that was anything but my first impression. I had clearly fallen into the trap despite my experience. I had judged this book by its title.
After I finished reading Grey Wars, I realized the book’s title did not totally prepare readers for its content. After contemplating for some time, I believe Collins has interwoven several main subjects with her discussion on U.S. Special Operations. For a less-skilled writer, this conglomeration could prove disastrous for the reader. However, Collins pulls it together for a variety of reasons.
Before I delve into the volume itself, I will highlight the author’s credentials, valuable in understanding the subject matter of the volume. Collins is presently a senior fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute. In this position, she focuses her research and writing on U.S. defense and national security and military technology. She additionally is the chair of the Columbia Seminar on Defense and Security. If her name is familiar, it is because she has been published numerous times in publications including Forbes, the New York Times, Time, U.S. News and World Report, and the Wall Street Journal.
As addressed earlier, Collins incorporates several main subjects into her discussion on U.S. Special Operations. First, she spends a significant portion of the initial part of the book remembering a visit she made with a contingent to U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command in 2010. During the visit, she received several briefings by senior leadership of the above organizations. This visit obviously had an effect on her and provided her excellent background for the volume. Her discussion of the visit also greatly personalizes the book and sets the tone for the rest of the volume.
The second subject the author focuses on is American foreign policy since the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis in late 1979. Collins is clearly well-equipped to tackle this area based on her credentials. Within the discussion, she focuses on some of the major policy decisions made during the period. She then analyses the effect the decisions had on U.S. Special Operations.
I found Grey Wars to be an excellent, albeit extremely concise history of the Global War on Terrorism. Collins focuses on the key events and doesn’t go in significant detail. However, she does explore aspects of these events rarely found in other volumes. I believe many readers will find this to be some of the most beneficial text within the book.
Finally, throughout her discussion on the above subjects, Collins skillfully weaves in her narrative regarding U.S. Special Operations. Within this account, she touches on numerous aspects tied to U.S. Special Operations. These include discussing the formation of the organization, highlighting some of their more famous missions, analyzing the challenges they have faced, addressing their changing roles in the Global War on Terrorism, and finally, examining the future of U.S. Special Operations.
I believe there are three key three strengths which enable Collins to make this a cohesive and absorbing book for the reader. To begin with, readers will not find a more conversant volume than Grey Wars. This is one of those unique books in which readers feel like they are actually in a conversation with the author. Collins writes in a very informal style and is able to get key points across to readers in minimal verbiage. Within these points, she is refreshingly honest and is clearly not hesitant to share her views.
With many main subject areas, it is imperative that the reader is afforded a well-organized volume. Anything less would simply confuse the reader and greatly diminish the reading experience. Collins clearly delivers in this regard. This a book that seamlessly transitions to the major subject areas and has a great flow to it. Combine this with the conversant writing style and this is a volume that is an incredibly quick read.
The last strength I want to highlight is the impressive quality and quantity of research Collins conducted in crafting the volume. The author makes reference to this when she states, “I set out–and received authorization–to work inside U.S. Special Operations Command to conduct this research. Over five years, I embraced varied sources, from scribbled notes to formal analyses, from historical photographs to informal discussions.” A significant amount of this research is displayed in the book’s note section.
One of the ways Collins is able to keep the book highly conversant is she does not inundate the reader with a significant amount of details and facts. Instead, she provides these details in the large notes section (over eighty pages in length). Not only does this section present detail, but in many cases it also tells the rest of the story and provides readers with recommendations for further study.
In the closing pages of her volume, Collins states, “A lot is missing from this book–deliberately. This is not the place to find out who first shot bin Laden or how that night ended in the Benghazi annex. Nor does this narrative peel apart the stories of American Sniper or Lone Survivor. It is neither an airbrush nor a whitewash. This book is not an exposé.”
As Collins indicates above, there is a significant amount of “stuff” not covered in the book. In the case of Grey Wars, that is a good thing. What is covered delivers a book perfectly blending several intriguing major topics for readers. It is a volume that quickly draws readers in and keeps them engaged until its conclusion. Collins achieves this by taking her exhaustive research and transforming it into highly readable text. Readers will find Grey Wars unquestionably delivers far more than its title may suggest.
Book Review written by: Frederick A. Baillergeon, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas