Waging Modern War

Feigned Artlessness and the Wild Contortions of Ass-Covering
New books dissected over email.
July 17 2001 5:58 PM

Waging Modern War

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Dear Chris,

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"Quivering with terror at the thought of physical violence and harsh words, Colin Powell begged me to reconsider. 'No!' he wailed, 'We can't say that. We mustn't! We must always ensure that U.S. troops are used as sitting ducks destined to give their lives in twos and threes while we take pointless meetings with important foreigners. We must always, always, commit our forces as gradually as possible so that America's sons and daughters give their lives most futilely and ingloriously. Viet Nam wasn't so bad, Wes.'"

That's what I would have liked for Colin Powell to have responded to Gen. Clark's duh-inducing pronouncement on military strategy--overwhelming force, fight to win--that you mentioned in your posting. Correctly or not, few post-Viet Nam GIs believe anything else. When I read that, I thought, deja bloody vu. This--the feigned artlessness, the self-congratulation, the stolen credit, the wild contortions of ass-covering, "doing" trumped by the flashy paper chase (briefings, talking papers, memos), Amen-corner banalities tossed off like gems of Talmudic brilliance--I don't miss.  

I didn't follow the Kosovo crisis that closely, so I enter this discussion without an attitude problem toward Gen. Clark. Having spent 12 years on active duty in U.S. Air Force intelligence as well, I like the military. A lot. In fact, I dedicate my memoir to my parents and the USAF. I will encourage my 10-week-old son to do a hitch. All of that to say this: It was people like Gen. Clark who made me realize that I had no real future in the military if only because I didn't have the stomach for its particular brand of competition. Probably not the talent either, but definitely not the stomach.

To ascend to even medium levels, let alone the highest, you have to be political, crafty, opportunistic, and shameless, among many other things (excellent duty performance not always being one of them). Clark is clearly all those things, not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that. It takes certain kinds of folks to prosecute wars and run complicated organizations like the military of the planet's most powerful nation, so please, let's cut the organization men some slack. If sweet, befuddled Kurt Vonnegut were chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the USSR would reform, and we'd all have to learn Russian and dialectical materialism. Still, I began Waging Modern War expecting a vicarious trip down memory lane and was immediately annoyed. What got my hackles up (and I hate when that happens) was the "gee golly, ain't I just a country boy, how on earth did l'il ole me end up with all these purty stars?" tone of the book. Slick as a fox, he belittles that still prevalent GI fakery explicitly in discussing his early rise through the ranks, then engages in it in the very same paragraph.

It was a time of the "country-boy" and "jes' plain solderin'." Lots of people with fancy master's degrees and Ph.Ds kept it quiet if they could. It was the Vietnam backlash, though it took a long time to develop. I couldn't help what I had already done or how I had worked my way up. After the Rhodes scholarship and finishing at the top of the class in the Command and General Staff College, I had gotten an Army-wide reputation, and I was stuck with it, for better or worse.

Queasy yet? So, Chris, do I think his record of the conflict is straight or slanted? Guess. No one slings BS, shifts blame, and steals glory like a GI because the culture harshly punishes failure and mistakes even when no one is really to blame. Or when everyone is. Simultaneously, it so richly rewards whomever wins that the nature of the competition, I found, often seemed dishonorable. So what I must be saying is that I was too ambitious to stay when it was clear that I couldn't "win," so maybe I had the stomach after all. Just not the talent. Golly gee whiz.

Yours,
Debra

This week, Slate's Book Clubbers examine Waging Modern War, Gen. Wesley Clark's treatise on the future of combat. Click here for an explanation of our format and here to buy the book.