Another weighty tome from the noted journalist and historian, this one chronicling the sometimes confused, always complex junction of foreign policy and military might.
Halberstam (The Children, 1998, etc.), a familiar explainer of the ways of Washington, here turns his attention to an ongoing matter: the reshaping of the US military following the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War. When the armed services faced its first major test after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was in the one-sided Persian Gulf War, “a devastating four-day land war, a rout preceded by five weeks of lethal, high-precision, high-technology air dominance.” Halberstam focuses closely on John Warden, a “brilliant, truly innovative, and equally difficult” air force colonel who, having been sharply critical of the conduct of the Vietnam War, developed a doctrine of absolute air supremacy and of bombing the enemy into submission; he also looks closely at Warden’s civilian counterparts, who imposed political conditions on the military and, some critics have charged, prevented the Allied forces from taking Baghdad and putting an end to Saddam Hussein’s regime. Other recent military ventures, Halberstam observes, ended less successfully than the Gulf War, among them the disastrous American intervention in Somalia and the inconclusive invasion of Haiti; no international conflict exposed the weakness of American resolve and the ongoing legacy of the so-called Vietnam Syndrome than the outbreak of the war in Bosnia, about which the first Bush administration did next to nothing and the Clinton administration merely dithered. As always, Halberstam’s cast of characters numbers in the high dozens, and his fondness for encyclopedic detail lends a daunting air to an already dense discussion. Still, well-written and lucid, his narrative reveals a military that continues to be ill-coordinated to meet—and sometimes opposed to—the political ends of its civilian overseers, who in turn often seem terminally confused about the rest of the world.
Excellent, as is Halberstam’s custom, and instructive for those seeking to understand geopolitical realities.