Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/March 2021/Book reviews

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Rise of the Rocket Girls

Computers at their desks in the 1960s number-crunching required for launch windows, trajectories, fuel consumption and more. They are using early electronic calculators.

4.0/5 stars

By Hawkeye7

Once upon a time, a "dishwasher" was not a device, but rather a person that restaurants hired to wash the dishes. Similarly, a "computer" was a person that was hired to perform calculations by hand using a pencil and paper. In the 1930s, the pioneers of the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—colourful characters like Frank Malina, Qian Xuesen and Jack Parsons—hired women to handle the computing chores. Female graduates in mathematics had few options at the time, and the work was challenging and interesting. The girls worked on their calculations while the boys blew things up. Occasionally, the girls would make a mistake and blow things up too.

The book charts the work of the computers from the 1930s to the 2010s through the lives and careers of several of them. It covers the early work of the JPL for the US Army's Army Ballistic Missile Agency on the Corporal, Sergeant and Jupiter missiles, and the later work for NASA on the Ranger and Surveyor missions to the Moon that paved the way for Apollo, the Mariner missions to Venus, Mars, and Mercury, and the Voyager missions to the outer planets. The work was so fascinating that many mothers with young children chose to return to work—something unusual at the time. Sexism and racism are ever-present below the surface of the bubbly narrative, though.

Over time, the computers adopted new technology, becoming early computer programmers. Ultimately, this aspect took over the job entirely. Much of their code, written in the archaic FORTRAN and HAL/S languages, remains in use today. As opportunities for women opened up in NASA in the 1980s, many of the computers moved on to managerial positions. Sadly, not only has the number of computer science graduates halved since the 1980, but the proportion that are women has declined from 36% to 17%.

The book is an easy read, based largely on interviews. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

Publishing details: Nathalia, Holt (2016). Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars. New York: Back Buy Books / Little Brown and Company. ISBN 978-0-316-33890-5. OCLC 969388193.

An Army Like No Other - Haim Bresheeth-Zabner

Israeli tanks during the 2006 Lebanon War

2/5 stars

By Nick-D

An Army Like No Other is a critical study of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Israel's security policies more broadly. It was written by Haim Bresheeth-Zabner, an academic who focuses on film studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

From the book's blurb, I was expecting this to be a critical expert assessment of the IDF similar to Martin Van Creveld's useful but flawed 2002 work The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force. Unfortunately, it wasn't. The author—as I really should have expected—doesn't have strong expertise in military matters (though he did serve as an officer in the IDF), and the work ends up being a fairly generic critique of Zionism and Israel's security policies. The strongest material is the book's early chapters, which provide an interesting and convincing assessment of the role of armed forces in the establishment of Israel and its history up to the 1956 Suez Crisis.

The book falls to pieces from its coverage of the Six-Day War onwards. The narrative becomes hard to follow, and becomes less focused on the IDF as it goes along. While one of Bresheeth-Zabner's central themes is that the IDF has had an undue and self-defeating influence on Israel's foreign and domestic policies, his narrative becomes distracted by other topics rather than expanding upon this point. These are generally fairly generic criticisms of the Israeli Government, and it's not clear why some of the material is in this book—a more a strict editor was desperately needed for some parts. Some of the material in the later chapters on the role of the IDF in modern Israeli society is much better, but I ended up skimming the last third of the book as it was repetitive and frequently went off on tangents.

Overall, I was very disappointed by this book and can't recommend it.

Publishing details: Bresheeth-Zabner, Haim (2020). An Army Like No Other: How the Israeli Defense Force Made a Nation. London: Verso. ISBN 9781788737845.

Recent external reviews

A 1943 illustration encouraging Americans to grow Victory gardens

Timirev, S.N. (2020). The Russian Baltic Fleet in the Time of War and Revolution, 1914–1918: The Recollections of Admiral S N Timiryov. Barnsley, United Kingdom: Seaforth Publishing. ISBN 9781526777027.

Sumner, Judith (2019). Plants Go to War: A Botanical History of World War II. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 9781476676128.

  • Ward, Thomas E. (February 2021). "Plants Go to War". Military Review. Army University Press.

Stur, Heather Marie (2020). Saigon at War: South Vietnam and the Global Sixties. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781316614112.

Harkness, Kristin A. (2018). When Soldiers Rebel: Ethnic Armies and Political Instability in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781108500319.

Akam, Simon (2021). The Changing of the Guard: The British Army Since 9/11. London: Scribe. ISBN 9781913348489.

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