Commentary Magazine


The Commanders, by Bob Woodward; Hazardous Duty, by John K. Singlaub

War and Warriors

The Commanders.
by Bob Woodward.
Simon & Schuster. 398 pp. $24.95.

Hazardous Duty: An American Soldier In The Twentieth Century.
by John K. Singlaub With Malcolm McConnell.
Summit Books. 574 pp. $24.95.

Why should these two books be read together? One reason has to do with their subject matter. Retired Major General John Singlaub describes nearly 50 years’ involvement in America’s wars, much of it at high levels, while Bob Woodward describes how top U.S. officials made their decisions regarding the last two of America’s wars: Panama in 1989 and Iraq in 1991. Yet the two authors and, generally, the people they describe speak starkly different languages. It is as if once upon a time the tribe to which Singlaub belongs had conducted American statecraft according to its ways, while now it runs by the rites of Woodward’s tribe. Hence another reason for reading the two books together: this clash of cultures is worth pondering.

Bob Woodward, a fixture in Washington and of the Washington Post since his “insider” stories helped bring down Richard Nixon in 1974, has been routinely accused of using phantom sources for his reportage and of putting too-specific words into his subjects’ mouths. But no one disputes that Woodward is an accurate painter of Washington portraits. A reviewer of The Commanders in the New York Times rightly reproached Woodward with being no more than “a camera”—one might better say, a tape recorder. He himself goes no deeper into the events in Panama and the Gulf than do the people whose words and thoughts he reports.

That is, not deeply at all. The Commanders is, indeed, less a history of events than a history of the conversations among President Bush, Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, and General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), plus assorted generals, ambassadors, and intelligence analysts. And to judge by those conversations, even to the individuals involved, the events themselves are of secondary importance; primary is interpersonal jockeying. Washington’s conventional wisdom is that perception is reality. Each of Woodward’s “commanders” has his eye firmly fixed on how he looks to each of the others, and above all to the Boss, George Bush. As for Bush, he emerges from this book as a willful but empty man.

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In October 1989, Panama intruded on George Bush’s inner circle just as Colin Powell was taking over as chairman of the JCS. A Panamanian major was asking for minimal American help in deposing his dictator. There followed three days of nonstop meetings and phone calls among America’s great men. The stakes were high: somebody might get killed in Panama, and somebody might look bad in Washington. Therefore (!), no one chose to take responsibility for making the coup succeed or for letting it fail.

At the end, the “commanders” had not stepped on one another’s toes, but Noriega had weathered the coup and they all looked silly. Sensing that the Boss wanted to expunge the humiliation, they prepared a plan for using two U.S. divisions to crush the Panamanian army. When all was ready, another round of conversations centered on whether the conduct of a Panamanian military policeman toward the wife of an American officer was sufficient provocation to warrant executing the plan.

Nowhere, in Woodward’s report, was there formal consideration of the United States’s interest in the region: no identification of our enemy, of our objectives, of the most efficient means of reaching them. Everywhere, subordinates scrambled to send “options” to their superiors, who chose among them à la carte, with an eye primarily to their own backsides.

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Thoughtlessness was again glaring in the case of the Gulf War. Never does Woodward record the President asking his advisers: “What are we after in the Gulf, and whom do we have to kill to get it?” There was, it seems, no discussion of the connection between the political ends sought and the military means employed. As a consequence, the U.S. government moved over a half-million people and 12 million tons of material (about 20 tons for every human being), killed tens of thousands of Iraqis at the cost of dozens of American lives, put in jeopardy the lives of millions of innocent Kurds, Shiites, and Palestinians, but managed to spare the regime of Saddam Hussein. In the end, Operation Desert Storm might well have lived up to its name—a disturbance that blows the sand dunes around, but changes nothing.

One obstacle preventing President Bush and his first team from addressing the simple-but-difficult questions is the language they speak. Indeed, Woodward’s book is most interesting in its exposition of that language, which is the language of allusion: words and silences are meant to make an impression on the listener while giving him as little ammunition as possible.

The “commanders” do not so much speak or hear as send and receive signals. They feel each other out, presenting views as their own only after having made sure that their interlocutor will approve. When it comes to dealing with the Boss, they may stab him in the back but they will never argue with him. They try to lead him along, but if they sense that he is leaning in a different direction, they will suppress their own option or, at most, present it impersonally. Instead of explaining their view of something, they characterize it with words that have no inherent meaning—as when Colin Powell, referring to a statement by George Bush, remarked that he “had six-shooters in both hands and he was blazing away.” And Bob Woodward, like a good tape recorder, never says whether any of this is good or bad for the country, only how it serves the actors in the great game of insider politics.

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One can imagine no greater contrast than John Singlaub, who speaks in one declarative sentence after another and whose words refer to real actions and real things. Some of those words are honor, shame, courage, cowardice, right, wrong, yes, and no.

Fresh out of college in 1943, Lieutenant John Singlaub was parachuted behind Nazi lines in France to gather intelligence and lead guerrillas. His supervisor in the wartime Office of Strategic Services was another lieutenant, William Casey. As the war ended, Singlaub parachuted into a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp to confront its commander and rescue its victims. In 1948, as a member of a small mission of intelligence and assistance to the Chinese Nationalists in Manchuria, Singlaub watched as Washington tilted the civil war to Mao’s “agrarian reformers.” As a combat officer in Korea and Vietnam, and in increasingly responsible jobs in Germany, Washington, and, finally, Korea, Singlaub lived by simple standards: take responsibility, and serve your boss, above all by telling him the truth. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his politics, it is refreshing to read the words of someone who has lived through a government career clean and with his back straight.

Nor, in his time, was Singlaub alone. Typical of his portraits is that of General Harold Johnson, Army chief of staff in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had asked the Army for a plan to deploy forces to Vietnam without calling up the reserves and without extending tours of duty. Singlaub presented the plan to General Johnson, together with the comment that implementing it would ruin the Army and hurt the war effort. General Johnson went off to argue against McNamara. When he lost, General Johnson put on his best uniform and drove to the White House with the intention of resigning in protest. But then he talked himself out of it. Thereafter, General Johnson was burdened with a sense of shame and responsibility for a disaster he did not try hard enough to prevent.

Incident after incident in these memoirs instructs us that the business of national security demands absolute clarity about the ends being sought, and leaders willing to speak their minds on issues of substance. The now-common Washington practice of exercising influence through “signals” and press leaks rather than argument is simply foreign to Singlaub. The mere possibility that a fellow officer might not be telling him the truth is unacceptable to him.

All of which would no doubt strike Woodward’s “commanders” as naive. They would chuckle condescendingly. But could anyone, after reading these two books, doubt the old truth that the greatest form of sophistication is simplicity?

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