Woodward on President Bush's military decisions

May 19, 1991|By Harry G. Summers Jr.

THE COMMANDERS. Bob Woodward. Simon & Schuster. 398 pages. $24.95. Even though they have never heard of him, when it comes to things military most Americans are followers of Brevet Maj. Gen. Emory Upton, a Civil War hero and 19th century military theoretician, who preached that war and politics are diametrically and fundamentally things apart. Until a generation ago, so was the military. Warning against "the tendency of statesmen to meddle," a 1936 Army Command and General Staff School manual emphasized in Uptonian terms that "All soldiers ask is that once the policy is settled, strategy and command shall be regarded as being in a sphere apart from politics.

President Harry Truman disabused the military of that notion when he relieved General of the Army Douglas MacArthur from command during the Korean War for failure to heed Truman's political guidance. Since that time, U.S. military theory has rested on the teachings of another 19th century philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz. The exact opposite of Upton, Clausewitz emphasized that war was a political act. "It is clear," he said, "that was should never be thought of as something autonomous but always as an instrument of policy."

That precept is key to an understanding of American military operations. For that reason alone Bob Woodward's "The Commanders" is worth reading, for it illuminates in some detail the inner workings of our national security decision-making process, and especially the key role played by the White House.

Although he had served in the Pentagon as a Navy lieutenant, 1969-'70, Mr. Woodward began his research with an Uptonian mind-set. But his viewpoint soon changed. "The more I learned about the military through this project," he says, "the more it was apparent to me that the Pentagon is not always the center of military decision making."

He continues: "So this is not a book about the Pentagon, although the building and the military play central roles. This book is not about most of the things the military does. . . . It is above all a book about how the United States decides to fight its wars before shots are fired. The main setting is Washington, and the main action is the tug-and-pull among the players in the military decision-making process, both inside and outside Washington."

Unfortunately, it also is not "The Best and Brightest," reporter David Halberstam's documented account of Vietnam War decision-making, or Gen. Bruce Palmer's "The 25-Year War," about the inner workings of the Pentagon during that conflict. You have to take Mr. Woodward on faith rather than footnotes.

"The sources are not identified in the text," he says. "Nearly all the [more than 400] interviews were conducted under journalistic ground rules of 'deep background.' . . . This book falls somewhere between newspaper journalism and history."

Not quite. The more apt comparison is between newspaper journalism and historical fiction. It is most comparable not to meticulously documented historical accounts that can be cross-checked and verified, but to historical fiction. Its closest kin is novelist Gore Vidal's epic "Lincoln," his novel about the Civil War. But Mr. Vidal's work is clearly fiction embellished with historical facts. He doesn't expect you to take his quotation marks seriously.

Mr. Woodward, on the other hand, contends that his quoted BTC remarks are facts, "com[ing] from at least one participant who specifically recalled or took notes on what was said." According to him, the book is "an account of U.S. military decision making during the 800 days from November 8, 1988, when George Bush was elected President, through January 16, 1991, the beginning of the Persian Gulf War."

The prologue begins with a purported verbatim account of a November 1990 luncheon conversation between Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his predecessor, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., where both expressed reservations about going to war in the Persian Gulf. And the same "fly on the wall" reporting continues for the rest of the book.

Part 1 -- the first 15 chapters -- opens on Nov. 9, 1988, with General Powell, then the president's national security adviser, talking with then Vice President George Bush (whom Mr. Woodward acknowledges he never interviewed) about the general's future in the forthcoming Bush administration. It continues with an account of the failed nomination of John Tower as secretary of defense and the subsequent appointment of Dick Cheney to that post. But the main topic is the turmoil in Panama.

Particularly interesting is the account of the relief of Gen. Frederick F. Woerner Jr., the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, one of the most despicable acts of the Bush administration. Called a wimp by White House toadies for resisting Washington's juvenile schemes to unseat Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega, General Woerner was one of the best-qualified Latin American specialists in the government.

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