Fighting The Last War Essay, Research Paper
Fighting the last warWar in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the GeneralsDavid HalberstamIn the ranks of American journalism, David Halberstam is a four-star general. About 25 years ago, he published The Best and the Brightest, the definitive inside story of how America went to war in Vietnam. Overnight, he became the spokesman for his generation and also the chief critic of government policy-makers. Perhaps only in America, where the constitutional role of the press is so fiercely honoured, could a journalist acquire such national gravitas.Halberstam has since kept away from the subject that made him rich and famous. He wrote a book about the American press (The Powers That Be) and he wrote about the American economy and its impact on politics (The Reckoning). Otherwise, like Achilles, he sat in his tent, studiedly not participating in the cut and thrust of civil-military relations. Now he has broken his long silence with the kind of massive analytical sit-rep befitting a grizzled veteran.His argument, in a sentence, is an exhaustive variation on the old truth that generals and politicians almost always find themselves fighting the last war. He gives this line a bit of top spin by arguing passionately that America has failed to live up to its obligations as a superpower, failing to do so chiefly as a result of the baleful influence of Vietnam.In the years since the end of the Cold War, he says, Vietnam has dominated American foreign relations and the minds of American policy-makers, shaping the American response to a series of international crises, large and small: the Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia (’the issue from hell’), Haiti and Kosovo. This is all very well argued, but it’s Halberstam’s bad luck that since 9/11, from Foggy Bottom to Downing Street, the map of international relations has been torn up. Although his publisher has done its best (there is a new post-9/11 introduction), this book speaks of conflicts and tensions that now seem as remote as the Thirty Years War.Halberstam’s narrative has two, rather contradictory, thrusts. As a civil-military analyst, he wants to mark the moment at which a new generation of American generals and politicians began to break free from the spell of Vietnam. As a commentator on a great national trauma, he wants to demonstrate the immense and continuing significance of that terrible conflict. At times, he sounds in sympathy with the late John Chancellor, the veteran ABC anchorman, who complained of ‘a world I no longer recognise and a world I do not very much like’.So much for the agenda. War in a Time of Peace starts with the dying moments of Bush I and closes with the dodgy beginnings of Bush II. The guts of the book are devoted to the shameful waste of the Clinton presidency in all its drama and chaos.The Capitol gang’s all here: George Stephanopoulos, Warren Christopher, Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright, Tony Lake, Bill Perry, Generals Schwarzkopf, Clark and Powell. It’s a measure of the degree to which this is a post-Cold War narrative that Yeltsin hardly gets a look-in. Putin is not even mentioned.Halberstam’s interests are almost exclusively American and, at times, he cannot resist getting drawn into the quagmire of ‘the Lewinsky matter’ and Clinton’s impeachment nightmare. There’s a revealing moment when he quotes Stephanopoulos on Dick Morris, ‘the dark Buddha’ whose belly Clinton would rub for good luck in these desperate years. Quoting Stephanopoulos, he describes Morris as ‘a small sausage of a man encased in a green suit with wide lapels’. In truth, his own account could have benefited from some similarly crisp characterisations.General Halberstam’s narrative tactics, it must be said, are school of Haig and Wellington not Rommel or Prince Rupert. Not for him the thrust of light armour or the audacious dawn raid. His tank divisions roll into position only after the reader has been softened up by a terrific preliminary barrage. His journalistic arsenal is not laser-guided. There’s a lot of collateral damage.The editing, in which Americans usually take pride, is shocking. (In one shortish paragraph on page 262, we are told no less than three times about the ‘dead bodies’ of American GIs being ‘dragged through’ the streets of Mogadishu.)As in The Best and the Brightest, he deploys his field intelligence at awesome length. Where Clinton famously reduced his foreign policy manifesto to 141 words, Halberstam prefers to drop the prose equivalent of the Daisy Cutter – paragraphs that can leave the reader numb, disoriented and losing the will to live.In years to come, War in a Time of Peace will be an invaluable source book on the backstage dramas of Bill Clinton’s faltering foreign policy, but right now it is of special interest chiefly to those for whom Dayton is a peace conference, not a Midwestern town.