Review: War in a Time of Peace

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War in a Time of PeaceDavid Halberstam. Touchstone: New York, 2002.

Summary: A history of the post-Cold War conflicts of the first Bush and the Clinton administrations, with extensive coverage of the Balkan conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

David Halberstam wrote one of the first major accounts of how the United States became bogged down in the Vietnam War in The Best and the Brightest, studying the various persons involved in U.S. decision-making. There, Halberstam offered at once a meticulous and riveting account of the succession of events and decisions that both led into the war, and led to the concealing of the full implications of those decisions from the American public.

Halberstam accomplished a similar feat in this work, nominated for a Pulitzer in 2002. He takes us through the succession of events from fall of Communist rule, the brilliantly executed Gulf War, a triumph of American technology, and the simmering “teacup” wars in Somalia and the Balkans, the human rights implications of which could not be ignored by one administration tired of war, and another administration preferring to focus on domestic issues.

Halberstam gives us an account thick with all the personalities — the presidents, the policy makers, the military leaders. We meet Larry Eagleburger, on the ground as Yugoslavia breaks up into its ethnic components, watching the rise of Milosevic and warning of the trouble to come with an administration fighting to meet an unexpectedly tough electoral challenge from Bill Clinton. There is a new administration, not particularly interested in foreign policy with a competent bureaucrat but not visionary Warren Christopher, the aloof Tony Lake, Richard Holbrooke, facing the diplomatic challenge of a lifetime.

The abject failure of leadership in Somalia leaves the Clinton administration all the more reticent to assert itself in the Balkans, hoping for European leadership instead. Meanwhile the situation degenerates into genocide in Bosnia. We see a military conflicted with the memories of Vietnam, and the accomplishments of its forces in the Gulf War, and its rapidly improving aerial technology. Around them are hawks like Al Gore and Madeleine Albright, deeply disturbed by the human rights violations, while others from Christopher to Clinton struggle to define an American interests, and Colin Powell from another Vietnam. Eventually, the use of American airpower brought Milosevic to Dayton and Holbrooke’s shining hour negotiating the Dayton Peace accords.

Halberstam’s account does not paint a favorable picture of Clinton. He identifies a key concern of the military–a president who will remain loyal to them and give them what they need to do what he has asked of them as commander-in-chief. Perhaps nowhere is this so evident as the case of General Wes Clark, who brilliantly led the subsequent conflict against Milosevic and the Serbs in Kosovo, working with European allies, and cajoling a cautious president into sufficient use of their air and ground forces to give a growing Kosovar resistance a chance. For his successes, he was shunted aside by Defense Secretary Cohen, who never liked him.

The book also raises questions, particularly in its closing epilogue, written after 9/11, of the changes in American society from a resilient and resolute one of the post Depression years to an indulgent society, glutted on entertainment, accustomed to wars without casualties that are over in a matter of weeks. Little did Halberstam envision at the time the conflicts going on two decades in both Afghanistan and Iraq for which the conflicts of the Nineties were just rehearsals. What Halberstam understood is the growing consensus in political circles that these wars are fine as long as the American people could continue to live on an untroubled peacetime footing, apart from the occasionally troubling news of another soldier from one’s local community lost in a distant part of the world in a conflict no one really understood. He also recognizes the short-sightedness of planners who did not see the threat from terrorist in their obsession with great, or even regional power conflicts.

Writing close to the events gave Halberstam access to all the key players. Clinton was one of the few he did not personally interview. Yet closeness to the events did not obscure for Halberstam the big issues. No administration has the luxury to ignore foreign policy–it will seek you out. Political pragmatism without overarching principle will lead to betrayal of loyalties and America’s best interests.

Like every decade, the decisions of the Nineties shaped those that followed. Halberstam gives us a rich and readable account of this important period when some of today’s leaders were coming of age.

Review: The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy

unfinished odysseyThe Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy, David Halberstam. New York, Open Road, 2013 (originally published in 1969).

Summary: This is a classic account of Robert Kennedy’s last campaign tracing his decision to run, primary campaigns and evolving political vision that ended on the night of his primary victory in California.

We are entering primary season again. So I turned to this classic account by distinguished journalist David Halberstam, who traveled with Robert Kennedy during his 1968 campaign for the presidency, cut short on the night of his primary victory in California.

He begins with Kennedy’s struggle with the decision to run, which initially meant challenging the incumbent President in his own party. Veteran politicos still urged him to wait until 1972. Yet ever since Kennedy had broken with the Johnson administration on Viet Nam, many younger political advisers and many among the young and disaffected looked to him as a new kind of politician. Yet Kennedy kept waiting, allowing Eugene McCarthy to run a strong second to Johnson in New Hampshire. Halberstam traces the tormented realization that 1972 would be too long to wait. His entry and the continually eroding support for the war led to Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for another term.

Halberstam narrates the mad scramble to mount campaigns in Indiana and Nebraska, where Kennedy won victories. Then on to Oregon with neither the labor vote, nor large populations of disaffected. It was particularly chilling to read one narrative of Kennedy’s encounter with gun rights advocates who he accused of deception on the issue of passing gun registration and background check laws. He said,

“If we’re going to talk about this legislation, can’t we do it honestly and not say it does something that it doesn’t do? All this legislation does is keep guns from criminals and the mentally ill and those too young. With all the violence and murder and killings in the United States I think you will agree that we must keep firearms from those who have no business with guns or rifles.”

Halberstam’s comment is that the crowd “was not impressed.” I could not miss the ironic and almost prophetic character of Kennedy’s words, reading them a few days after the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon and the sadness that 47 years later and after a record number of mass shootings, we are still in the deadlock Kennedy faced in 1968.

The concluding chapter chronicles the exhausting campaign across California, Kennedy’s growing support among Blacks and Hispanics, his courageous engagement with radicals who tried to shout him down while they advocated anarchy, and the continued challenges of strategy as McCarthy turned more to media interviews rather than big but exhausting rallies. The book concludes with the Kennedy team plotting strategy to block Humphrey, who inherited Johnson’s delegates, while Kennedy headed to the hotel ballroom to give his victory speech only to be cut down by an assassin.

The “unfinished odyssey” was not simply about the tragically interrupted campaign. It was also about the evolution of Bobby Kennedy’s vision of and for America. As he distanced himself from the Johnson administration, he not only spoke out more against the quagmire of Viet Nam but also for the minorities struggling to find a place at America’s table. His family’s wealth freed him from the rich political patrons and enabled him to see the “other America”. We see his evolution from an aide to Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s and the oft-considered ruthless brother during John Kennedy’s presidency to an outsider with a breadth of vision and compassion that captured the imagination of the young and the disaffected. We’re left wondering what kind of president he might have been, where his odyssey would have ended, and how different America might be today.

The Open Road edition also includes a brief biography and photo spread chronicling the life of David Halberstam, who died tragically in an auto accident in 2007.

Reading this narrative is risky because one cannot help comparing Kennedy with today’s field. I suspect our judgments may vary with our political commitments. For me it reminded me of that tragic spring of 1968 (I was in eighth grade at the time) when we lost King and Kennedy. Read this if nothing else to understand the “Kennedy mystique” narrated by one of the great journalists and writers of this period.

Best Reads of 2013

Here it is at last! My “best reads” of 2013. These are not necessarily, or even in most cases, books published in 2013 but rather the books I read in 2013 that I gave a 5 star rating to on GoodReads. These only reflect my own reading tastes of course, which might seem eclectic or eccentric to some. But what can I say? Each title is linked to my review of the book. Enjoy, and I hope you find something good here.

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1. A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, by Mark Shriver . This is a moving memoir of the life, character, and faith of Sargent Shriver, adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and first director of the Peace Corps, written by his son.

2. Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam. Always love a good baseball book, and this chronicles the pennant race between the ’49 Yankees and Red Sox that came down to the last game of the season between these two teams.

3. Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith. Smith explores the important role liturgical practices have in shaping our desires toward kingdom ends. A clarifying book for me.

4. The Pursuit of God by A. W. Tozer. Tozer writes in plain language about our relationship with God in this little gem.

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5. 4:50 From Paddington by Agatha Christie. Christie at her best, complete with Mrs. McGillicuddy!

6. The Bible Study Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to an Essential Practice by Lindsay Olesberg. The title says it all and this is a very helpful resource for anyone who wants to learn how to study the Bible on their own or with others.

7. The World is Not Ours to Save by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. A “save the world” complex is why most activists burn out. This author writes well about the change in his own perspective that sustains his activism.

8. Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves. This is a clearly, and if I may say, delightfully written book about the doctrine of the Trinity, a stumbling block to belief for some, a conundrum for many believers, but indeed a source of delight for Christians.

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9. The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis. Nine messages by Lewis that are absolute gems, including “Learning in War-time”.

10. The First Thanksgiving by Robert Tracy McKenzie. A wonderful new book about what we can know historically about the first Thanksgiving and how this challenges us in our contemporary setting.

11. John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger. This one just made this list. Unger brings John Quincy out from under the shadow of his father as statesman, president, and an early abolition leader.

I’d love to hear about your “best reads” for the year.