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Posted on Apr 21, 2006 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

To Dare and To Conquer – Book Review

By Rick Baillergeon

dareandconquer.jpgTo Dare and To Conquer: Special Operations and the Destiny of Nations. From Achilles to Al Qaeda
Derek Leebaert
Little, Brown and Company, 2006

“Special operations can be thought of in dynamic terms, like a single plank atop a fulcrum. Consider a heavily muscled man in full combat gear and cradling a Squad Automatic Weapon who squats on one side of a seesaw. There are two ways to catapult him from his seat: place even heavier bruisers with even more equipment on the other side or deftly move the fulcrum, thereby enabling one light, casually dressed fellow with a K-bar knife to launch him skyward.” With this analogy, Derek Leebaert begins to take his readers on an account of the role of special operations during the history of the western civilization (Leebaert does not include eastern civilization in the scope of this volume). Certainly, this is a challenging endeavor, but Leebaert proves up to the task.

Leebaert, whose last book The Fifty Year Wound (a history of the Cold War and its aftermath) was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, is sure to achieve the same results with To Dare and To Conquer. In roughly 600 pages, Leebaert interweaves analysis and examples of how ‘special operations’ have impacted military operations from the Greeks use of the Trojan horse in 1200 BC to current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In between, readers will find fascinating vignettes, exhaustive research, superb writing, and thought provoking insight. Yes, this is high praise, but I believe readers will share my enthusiasm after completing Leebaert’s effort.

I found To Dare and To Conquer to be in essence three distinct books (of course at 600 pages he does have some maneuver room). First and foremost, he shares with readers dozens of examples of the use of special operations in the past 3,000 years. Although some may question Leebaert’s definition of what constitutes a special operation (he includes actions ranging from today’s Special Forces to pirates in rowboats in 1500s); it is all intriguing material. Leebaert consistently displays the ability to tell just enough of the story to allow you to understand the full impact of their use without getting into too much unnecessary detail.

Within the pages of To Dare and To Conquer, there is discussion on many people (Alexander, Cortes, John Mosby, Robert Rogers, T.E. Lawrence, and Otto Skorzeny, etc.) and events (Dieppe Raid, Mussolini Rescue, and Desert One) that most readers will be familiar with. However, more interesting is Leebaert’s treatment of more obscure personalities. Names such as Francisco Pizaaro, Murad Rais, Baron Adrian von Foelkersam, and Donald Nichols may not ring many bells. However, these and many more are introduced to readers by Leebaert.

The ‘second book’ is a concise history of wars and conflicts occurring in western civilization during the 3,000 years. Leebaert sets the conditions for his discussion on special operations by giving thumbnail descriptions of the bigger conflict. This enables readers to put in perspective the impact (or non-impact) of special operations on the conflict as a whole. The author obviously does not provide great details, but it is effective for his purpose. Again, Leebaert shows an innate ability to give readers just enough copy to form a good understanding.

The final book within a book is the author’s use of the volume as a forum to express his opinions on various current topics regarding special operations. In particular, Leebaert focuses his final two chapters to discuss issues involving U.S. Special Forces today and their future use. These topics include the military/government relationship, command and control challenges, the egos of various players, and what is their needed role in future conflicts. I must acknowledge I was somewhat initially surprised to find this type of commentary in the book. However, I quickly reminded myself that we must look to the past to see the future. With that surprise eliminated, I found Leebaert’s analysis thought provoking and persuasive. You will not agree with all his beliefs, but he will without a doubt make you think!

Prospective readers should not let the length of the book steer them away from reading To Dare and To Conquer. Although it is lengthy, the book is extremely fast paced and the pages do turn quickly. I would suggest that readers look at the length as being a lot of a good thing. That good thing being a book filled with information and insight. Truly, Derek Leebaert’s new volume will add to his superb reputation.