Halberstam's 'War': still in his top form

September 23, 2001|By Ray Jenkins | By Ray Jenkins,Special to the Sun

War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals, by David Halberstam. Scribner. 544 pages. $28.

For an author who wrote the hugely acclaimed earliest book defining the Vietnam War, it surely took considerable courage to undertake a sequel 30 years later. Yet that is what David Halberstam has produced, and he has pulled it off wonderfully well.

His new book exploring the intractable tensions between the political and military cultures of America is every bit as good as The Best and the Brightest. And that's quite an achievement, considering that the role of national defense at the dawn of American supremacy in the post-Cold War period is more fraught with peril and ambiguity than ever.

The overarching theme to War in a Time of Peace is the struggle within the U.S. military -- the Army, in particular -- to come to terms with the trauma of the Vietnam defeat. It was more than a decade after the last American troops evacuated Saigon in 1974 before the military leadership settled on the "doctrine" which bears the name and imprint of Gen. Colin Powell.

"The Powell Doctrine" states: In the future soldiers would fight wars only when their commanders were given full authority to use overwhelming force, in situations where a successful outcome would be swift and certain, and the troops would marching in homecoming parades in no time at all. And, furthermore, the Army is not to be used for "peacekeeping" or "nation-building."

That comes pretty close to putting the political leaders on terms and puts the civilian policymakers in a perpetual state of conflict with the soldiers. These simmering tensions boiled to the surface, especially, in the anguished decision of the Clinton administration to exert American military might in the treacherous region of the Balkans.

Halberstam tells his story mainly in a series of deftly crafted profiles of the major players, military and civilian. The author takes care to allow the reader to draw his own conclusions about the role of these players, but clearly there are heroes. One is former Sen. Bob Dole, who took courageous positions about the use of American military force even when it was against his political interest to do so. Another is Madeleine Albright, a mere woman who had the temerity to ask General Powell what was the point of having such a wonderful military if we weren't going to use it. (Interestingly, it was pretty much the same question President Lincoln asked General McClellan in the early stages of the Civil War.)

But others are less famous. There was John Warden, the Air Force colonel who, over the intractable opposition of the conservative generals with a famous propensity to fight today's wars with yesterday's strategies, devised the war plan which prevailed so spectacularly in the Gulf War in 1991. And above all, there was Gen. Wesley Clark, the brilliant young NATO commander who devised the strategy that ultimately ended brutality in the Balkans and brought the loathsome Slobodan Milosevic into the dock as a war criminal. Both Warden and Clark were forced into early retirement by a resentful military establishment.

And there are clear villains -- chiefly, the encrusted traditional military leadership which has come more to resemble a public-employees union than a fighting machine.

This is a fairly hefty book, but after a bit of a sluggish start, it picks up such steam that the reader turns the last page almost before he knows it. But just as that reader closed The Best and the Brightest 30 years ago with a sense that there had to be more to come, so it is that we close War in a Time of Peace with a sense that there is yet more.

So let us assume -- and hope -- that this intrepid old "working reporter," as Halberstam modestly calls himself, is already at work to tell us, at some date in the problematical future, how the military waged a war against an insidious enemy in which a handful of terrorist guerrillas can strike a blow that kills thousands of defenseless Americans within a single hour. In such an hour, David Halberstam is truly a national resource.

Ray Jenkins began in 1951 as a reporter for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger. He won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his coverage, with another reporter, of the 1954 Phenix City, Ala., upheaval. He has worked for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser-Journal, The New York Times in Alabama, and was editorial page editor of The Evening Sun. He wrote Blind Vengeance, published in 1997 by the University of Georgia Press.

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