Please find part one of this series here. As that article explains: “This list will give you the sweep and span of American foreign policy and military intervention, with a focus on actions of presidents after World War II. These books are lessons in overreach, optimism, misuse of power, and misreading of reality.”
‘The Guns at Last Light,’ Rick Atkinson
Not every military intervention is a failure. Rick Atkinson is a startlingly talented reporter, journalist, and writer, and in the finale of his World War II trilogy he lays out an airtight case for invasion, violence, destruction, and conquest. The Nazis are the perfect foil for such an intervention, of course, and our military services yet pine for such an enemy, one around whom the entire country can unite.
Vaulting the English Channel and taking the fight to the Germans in the summer of 1944, Allied forces showed what can happen when national will is clear, direct, and determined. Ernest Hemingway opined, “You know all there is to strategy is to always be strong—and then always to be strong at the right place.” Indeed. There was no nuance here, no discussion, no negotiation, no soft power. The only deterrence for evil of Hitlerian magnitude is the focused effort of the whole of government, and only America can do it.
The logistics stagger the imagination: eight million men under arms; 86 oil tankers per day supplying Allied columns driving toward Berlin; tens of thousands of planes in the air and ships at sea all at once; all of this to the same objective. Atkinson does not pine for the days of pure evil to fight, nor does he accuse presidents Roosevelt and Eisenhower of going abroad searching for monsters to destroy. Only the United States could liberate the world from tyranny. And that is just what we did.
‘Truman,’ David McCullough
What Arthur Schlesinger calls the “Imperial Presidency” has become an even more personalized office. If he is to be a true leader, the president must be able to convince the American people of the moral imperative for difficult actions, and, if he cannot do so, he must forge ahead nonetheless. He must carry the moral gravitas to get things done with Congress and world leaders.
Truman had been a farmer— “a real farmer, let it be remembered,” emphasizes McCullough—and rose through the rough-and-tumble Kansas City political machine. Taking the presidency upon the death of a beloved icon who had led for 145 months, Truman was an apparatchik, a politician with little experience in charge of anything. On top of that, he was the first president of the twentieth century to have a prolonged opposition Congress.
In over his head as president, he could have puffed himself up into the office…but he didn’t. He was calm and decent, “honest to a fault,” says McCullough. Truman was a throwback to George Washington, his biggest hero: Cincinnatus leaving the farm for service to his country.
His successes grow bolder in hindsight: dropping the atomic bomb to forestall a bloody attack on the Japanese mainland; driving through the Marshall Plan, the crowning American achievement of the twentieth century; asserting his prerogative as commander-in-chief in time of war to seize steel mills from striking workers; tacking into the wind of public sentiment and firing the insubordinate but wildly popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur. When the Soviets closed off Berlin and everyone around him seemed paralyzed, Truman’s iron determination to do the right thing with an airlift of supplies is “a model of presidential character proving decisive.”
All these are actions of a man with the moral fiber to make tough decisions, the moral authority to carry them out, and the weight of character to keep Congress and the public, if not enthusiastic, at least respectful. This is object lesson in leadership.
‘The Killer Angels,’ Michael Shaara
William Faulkner, patron saint of southern causes, said any 14-year-old Southern boy can imagine that it is one o’clock in the afternoon on July 3, 1863, with the most important battle in our history about to begin. The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975 went to this novel about the men who led, fought, suffered, and died in the bloodiest war in American history. This book is the North Star of writing about war. Focused on Gettysburg, Shaara writes with feeling and anguish, bringing to life what it means to command in causes whether lost or just.
This was brother against brother, a cause soaked in blood, one in which the idea of nation was seconded to loyalty to tribe. Remember, for example, that Robert E. Lee, a man of rock-ribbed American stock—West Pointer, commander of West Point, son of a Revolutionary War hero, married into George Washington’s family—was first offered command of the Union Army. But he was a Virginian first.
War is tactics and operations and weapons and movement….but most of war is men. Never forget it.
‘The 9/11 Report’
Here is the cornerstone of everything, from that day to this, which drives American foreign policy. Here are mistakes, assumptions, misreading of clues, and analysis of the wrong lessons, capped by our systematic alienation of tens of millions in the world’s worst neighborhoods.
Ignore the minutiae of missed signals and warning from field agents and analysts. Overreaction to these findings has led to the rage for “fusion” and “interagency” directorates, panels, committees, centers, teams, and agencies, all overseen by the newest and by far worst federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security: incompetent at best and an impediment at worst. The people around Bush—several of them, in the most marvelous three words out of a Washington memoir, “crack-smoking stupid”—had too much weight and those in the field did not have enough. Period.
Think instead about reaction. We reacted to 9/11 precisely as Osama bin Laden hoped we would: lashing out with our military, killing Muslims in country after country, invading the same, playing directly into his narrative, slashing our own wrists, ankles, and throat. In our disaster in Vietnam, we did the right thing for the wrong reasons. Here, we did the wrong thing for the right reasons. We waded out into a rising Islamist tide and were quickly in over our heads. The polar explorers knew what we do not: in going into the unknown, always start from the known.
‘Homage to Catalonia,’ George Orwell
“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” George Orwell once wrote. Orwell was one of a small tribe of writers who both observed and participated in the wars they covered. In 1936, poverty-ridden, a Communist if not Trotskyist, an intellectual without an audience, he left for the front of the Spanish Civil War to learn about the movement. He grew in short order disillusioned, angered, and changed, and nearly died from a gunshot through the throat. Unique among the writers of his time, he saw up close what fascism meant….and what it would soon mean to the world.
Orwell was a man in search of the truth: for himself; for all of us. He gave lie to the soft indifference and willful ignorance of the late 1930s European intellectual classes unconcerned with—if not quietly in support of—Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini. He warned the world of what was to come, and was ignored.
This book sold far better long after both Orwell (at 46) and the comfortable prewar order passed. “One man’s truth,” Lionel Trilling called this work. It is truth, nonetheless.
‘The Best and the Brightest,’ David Halberstam
Halberstam combines the best of history, military journalism, war reporting, and White House insider gossip to analyze the Kennedy administration’s failures in miring the United States in the growing guerrilla war in Vietnam. Halberstam’s seething, righteous anger spikes this punch: the smarter-than-thou Camelot courtiers blunder from one disaster to the next, all of them of their own making, all of them reactive, every Latin American incursion the same in political science theory but going sideways and horrible in its own way.
The Bay of Pigs apparently taught the White House senior staff nothing about reliance upon the advice of the can-do United States military, while Jack Kennedy, himself a combat veteran of the WWII Pacific theater, knew better. The appalling Robert McNamara and his Whiz Kids drove the destruction of the United States Army, which for ten years in their demented game of hide and seek in the jungle in Vietnam was forced to falsify, if not invent, casualty statistics to give higher-ups something to measure.
The Kennedy White House rotted Vietnam from the outside and America from within, leaving Lyndon Johnson in a corner from which he never emerged. McNamara admitted as early as 1965 that “the war could not be won militarily,” yet continued to try to do just that, at the cost of more than 57,000 Americans. The title of the book is bitter, ironic truth.
‘Personal Memoirs,’ Ulysses S. Grant
The finest memoir yet written about what it means to be president of the United States. Thoughtful and reflective, his compassion never more in evidence than the day he gently accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Grant linked the frontier bootstrap ethic of Lincoln to America’s post-bellum future.
Grant shares with Washington and Eisenhower the distinction of having ridden at the head of the American phalanx in heavy combat and then having served as leader of the republic. Such experience makes a president mature, careful, stingy with wars costing lives of American boys, and wary of foreign entanglements leading to same. Grant took office in 1869, with more than 600,000 boys dead and the country gutted, burned over, and exhausted. He did what he could. Not a great president; a magnificent book.
‘Dispatches,’ Michael Herr
When Tom Wolfe points you out as one of the best writers of the New Journalism generation, you have arrived. The time of the angry, brilliant 25-year-olds was the late 1960s, with the civil rights movement and Vietnam competing as the fields of Pulitzer play for aggressive reporters, writers, and photographers. Herr got himself sent to Vietnam as a reporter for Esquire…an absurd twist in an absurd war, summed by a combat Marine who said, “Esquire, wow, they got a guy over here, what the f*** for, you tell ‘em what we’re wearing?”
“Dispatches” is combat writing as good as it gets: drugs and blood, muddy boots and helicopters as taxis, bodies in the jungle. This is foreign policy at the business end, base and raw, Herr’s staccato essays flashing like parachute flares. Remember the helicopter door gunner shooting civilians in “Full Metal Jacket”? Herr saw that and wrote it down. The druggy Do Lung bridge scene in “Apocalypse Now,” Martin Sheen watching the fan in his room through a haze of dope? Herr.
Weigh this book against the smooth gotta-get-to-a-meeting arrogance of the men who ran the Vietnam War in Halberstam’s “Best and The Brightest” and decide who is closer to the truth.