Scores of books have been written about the American military. Virtually none, however, has dealt directly with its high command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Journalist Perry (Washington correspondent for The Nation) bridges this gap with an illuminating appraisal that documents the evolving roles played by a secrecy-shrouded institution. In recounting the history of the JCS from passage of the National Security Act of 1947 (which also created the CIA, DoD, NSC, and US Air Force) through the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, the author dispels any notion that the armed forces have been willing or even obedient servants of civilian masters. Indeed, he shows in considerable detail how the officer corps (in addition to engaging in interservice rivalries that have sapped the country's military strength and jeopardized its preparedness) has campaigned vigorously for a greater voice in foreign policy. Among his more dramatic revelations is that in August 1967 the Joint Chiefs (then led by Army General Earle G. Wheeler) voted unanimously to resign in protest over the conduct of operations in Southeast Asia. Nearly two decades later, the Joint Chiefs won their point when Congress enacted reform legislation that made the JCS chairman a member of the National Security Council--and duty-bound to advise his commander in chief, the President. In many respects, Perry notes, the military lost as much as it gained in the political infighting--individual branches, for example, no longer control their own budgets. On the whole, though, he reckons the new law a plus for the country since it promises to end the ""incessant power struggles"" that have led to the chaos of Vietnam, the humiliation of Desert One, the massacre of Marines in Beirut, the embarrassment of the poorly planned invasion of Grenada, and other untoward events, including the dismissal of General MacArthur. A judicious, absorbing inquiry that helps clarify contemporary military history. The text includes 16 pages of photographs (not seen).