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Book Review
Last Updated: 08/11/2003
Nice portraits

David Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals, Simon and Schuster, 2002. ISBN 0-7432-2323-3 (Pbk) pp. 557

This book explores the relationship between the Commander-in-Chief of the USA, the President, and his generals in the decade immediately following the end of the Cold War. The War of the title refers mainly to the so-called first Gulf War and to the violence in the former Yugoslavia including Kosovo and the bombing of Belgrade. Somalia and Haiti get mentions.


David Halberstam, who has been writing for decades and first hit the headlines with his Pulitzer Prize winning account of Vietnam and the US intervention there, is a skilled writer and a thorough researcher. His particular skill is to weave personal accounts of the all too human players and great world events together. He does not quite produce a seamless web.  He identifies pronounced entrances and, usually, abrupt exits of many Guildensterns and Rosenkrantzes: Lloyd Bentsen, Les Aspin, Bill Perry, William Cohen and so on.  At times, too, the narrative is somewhat repetitive, useful for keeping the reader on track if he puts the 500+ page book down too often but slightly irritating if the number of sittings are limited.


Unfortunately for the author and his analysis the 1990s do not seem to have formed a discrete historical period, and despite his many insights and pen portraits, the book is incomplete without discussion of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Halberstam develops a number of important points. The press is influential, but mainly the TV and not the print media, which has massively declined in influence. This means the weighty opinions of the New York Times and Washington Post count for less and less, and the TV, especially cable TV, count for more and more. To Halberstam this is generally bad, though he demonstrates that the bravery and insistence of individual journalists can turn opinion around with great speed. He identifies Christiane Amanpour and Roy Gutman and Ed Vulliamy as playing crucial parts in influencing greater and firmer intervention in the former Yugoslavia to prevent genocidal scale killings.


He is also at pains to describe and attest to the alarming decline in interest in foreign policy issues among US politicians and the among the wider US electorate. Clinton, Halberstam insists, was influenced largely by Robert Kaplan’s journalistic based Balkan Ghosts which largely insists that as the Balkan peoples have been killing each other for centuries, they are best left to get on with it. Given that Clinton had no wish to commit US ground troops, this was a good book to select. It is a good reminder, too, to all students of peace studies not to be simple minded about the nature of ethnic conflict.


While the story in this book, does not have an all out hero, it does have one clear villain: Milosevic. While other men of violence are named here and there, the real villainy is done by this man. And is well described and analysed. The reader is left with the distinct impression that what the world does need from time to time is firm leadership and the willingness to use force. Jacques Chirac , John Major, and Clinton and others left to themselves, did not constitute sufficient firmness. Blair’s election in 1997 changed the scene dramatically. Peaceniks, therefore, might do well to read this book carefully, to judge whether not going to war is always the best option. On the other hand the use of force clearly has its limits. Knowing exactly when to act with adequate strength is crucial. What is absent from policies and prescriptions are ways of dealing with aftermaths. In other words, the afterwards requires more skills and insights than the actual use of force. These considerations, now much higher on the agenda than previously (one hopes!), are not matters for the author of War in Time of Peace.


Somewhat to the author’s surprise he discovered that Vietnam experience was still the major brake on pursuing a fully developed foreign policy in the 1990s. The simple question was in the nineties (and still is): under what circumstances should the US exercise its military strength? The answers came up in varying forms: protecting vital national interests; protecting national interests dropping the vital, only when you use overwhelming force, confident of goals and of exit; when pressed to do so by public opinion. Halberstam deals, then, with those major military actions of the US in the nineties, but he deals much less with why the US did not intervene where it might have done so.


Reading the news day by day that reports the outbreak or development of recurring wars in Africa and many threats of war elsewhere on other continents one is led to feel that the world demands that the US act as its hegemon, and that it should act generously, efficiently and humanly. On the other hand, Halberstam’s story is one of White House and Pentagon uncertainty, avoidance of issues, ad hoc decisions, grandstanding by individuals and so on. It is fascinating and insightful, but worrying and, above all, unfinished, but that’s because history is unfinished. His short supplementary chapter on terrorism ends with a reference to muddling through in the past, but in the end “we” (the USA) got there. One is left to wonder where “there” is? Thousands of troops posted in Afghanistan and Iraq. What were the vital interests? What is the plan for easy exit? Who planned the aftermath?


While Halberstam tells us the inside story of how the Pentagon came to accept that airpower could win wars alone, thus allowing for the possibility for US policy makers to escape the shadow of Vietnam, the nineties has given way to another decade being marked increasingly by US soldiers asking what are they doing in Iraq and can they go home. Let’s hope, they can but that would mean much more thought has to be given to the effects of military intervention and to the possibilities for and means of peace-building.


In short, nice portraits, not quite the whole picture, but well worth reading.