Bob Woodward. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. 464 pp. Illus. Gloss. Notes. Index. $30.
Reviewed by James Kitfield
With Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward has again written a book that suggests a parallel universe, where reporters’ phone calls are always returned, and senior officials are willing to share their innermost thoughts about the messy sausage-making of governance, even in a time of war. Conjuring that universe is more difficult than Woodward makes it seem.
The trick lies in the author’s meticulous research and unmatched access to the top players themselves. Quite simply, senior government officials are by now afraid not to talk to Woodward for fear that their version of events will be omitted from what every few years now is Woodward’s much-anticipated first draft of history. Or, as President Barack Obama tells Woodward in a moment of candor, “Sounds like you have better sources than I do.”
If these were more ordinary times, the “he said, she said, he said again” nature of these narratives would be tedious at book length. Participants are always off to the next meeting or dry strategy review, and there is relatively little descriptive action to add color to the bureaucratic pallor. Unfortunately, America has not seen anything approaching “normal” since 9/11, and the momentous tenor of the times fits perfectly Woodward’s skills as a meticulous chronicler of Washington’s inside game. When the stakes involved include many thousands of lives and the fate of the nation at war hangs in the balance, the conflicts over policy that form the core of Obama’s Wars have an inherent tension and drama.
We learn many things from the book, much of it already reported elsewhere but fleshed out in more depth here. There are also a few revelations. Woodward reports that the CIA is running a 3,000-man paramilitary force inside Afghanistan that occasionally crosses the border into Pakistan’s extremist sanctuaries. He leaves no doubt that the Pakistani intelligence services continue to play a double game. They offer sanctuary and succor to some extremist groups who are killing American Soldiers and plotting terrorist attacks, all as a strategic hedge against an Afghan-Indian alliance and the day the United States inevitably leaves.
The reader learns most about the key players involved and especially about Obama himself. This President is a cool, detached, and occasionally very tough customer—one insider compares him with Mr. Spock of “Star Trek” fame—who has evolved his own carefully reasoned beliefs about how the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan should be waged.
Obama regularly exhorts the U.S. military and intelligence communities to push the envelope in terms of taking the fight to the extremists in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He quickly sees through the Pentagon’s trick of seeming to offer three “troop surge” options, two of which are patently unworkable. When the U.S. military command refuses his repeated requests to devise a more realistic set of options for him to consider, Obama crafts his own. Thus is born the Obama troop surge of a final 30,000 troops (rather than the 40,000 the Pentagon wanted) with an expiration date of July 2011, easily the most controversial aspect of the strategy.
Obama’s Wars also makes clear how the key players line up on the issue of the full Afghan troop surge. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, and the top commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, predictably lobby hard for an all-out counterinsurgency campaign. They are somewhat surprisingly joined by a Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is as hawkish as anyone in the cabinet.
In the camp of wary skeptics are civilians such as Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, Deputy National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon, and Vice President Joseph Biden. A number of key players with extensive military experience, however, also oppose the “double down” strategy, including National Security Adviser and retired Marine Corps General James L. Jones; Afghan “war czar” and Army Lieutenant General Douglas Lute; U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and retired Army Lieutenant General Karl W. Eikenberry; and General James E. Cartwright, the four-star Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
In the end, the President is left to try and split the difference, judging that the public will not support a continued open-ended commitment to what is already the nation’s longest war.
For anyone hoping for a positive outcome in Afghanistan, Obama’s Wars is disheartening. The skeptics make a convincing case that the inability to pressure Pakistan to deny the insurgents and extremists sanctuary is a deal-breaker, as are the corruption and incompetence at the heart of President Hamid Karzai’s Afghan government.
Perhaps the most discouraging revelation is that after months of agonizing deliberations, the President and General Petraeus remain in fundamental disagreement about the strategy. Petraeus continues to believe he has a writ to wage a holistic counterinsurgency campaign as he did in Iraq in 2007-8 and that progress will put more time on the clock. He may prove right, but Obama said “no” to counterinsurgency and the nation-building at its core, and he wants badly to begin winding the U.S. effort down in 2011. Obama’s Wars suggests that the exit date papered over those differences for a time. The clock is ticking toward next July, however, and potentially a fateful showdown between a young President and his famous commander.
The Korean War: A History
Bruce Cumings. New York: Modern Library, 2010. 320 pp. Intro. Maps. Illus. Notes. Index. $24.
Reviewed by Colonel Allan R. Millett, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)
On 25 June 2000 I sat in the sun in front of the War Memorial in Seoul to watch President Kim Dae-jung, fresh from a triumphal trip of reconciliation to Pyongyang, announce a new era of peace between the two Koreas. Little did we know that President Kim had paid Kim Jong-il $200 million for a peace charade. In essence, Kim Dae-jung bought himself the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize. Reconciliation was not at hand.
Bruce Cumings’ The Korean War, dedicated to President Kim, is a similar bit of “spin” that tries to argue that there was no fundamental difference between North and South Korea in the 1950s and that Kim Il-sung’s version of the Hermit Kingdom was an unfortunate product of unremitting United States–Republic of Korea (ROK) hostility. Cumings’ position has remained consistent since he published his seminal two-volume history of modern Korea, Origins of the Korean War 1945-1950 in 1981 and 1991. His more recent books and essays reprise his arguments that American understanding of the Korean War is dangerously skewed by Cold War anti-communism and anti-Asian racism.
The author is a master of inference and omission. His account of the war’s first week combines rumor, errors in the official histories since corrected, and flawed after-the-fact recollections of Korean and American principals. He dismisses contemporary operational accounts that give the ROK army credit for fighting the Korean People’s Army. He also ignores recent scholarship that doesn’t support his interpretations.
Cumings is quick to make military judgments that sound expert and are, in fact, wrong. In condemning the ROK army’s poor performance in 1950, he argues that the South Korean soldiers knew their cause was illegitimate and thus doomed. He even finds mutinies and defections where none occurred. The defense of Chunchon and Pohang are ignored. He does not discuss the significant operational differences in ROK army and Korean People’s Army (KPA) artillery numbers and ranges. He condemns ROK soldiers for failing to fight to the last truck and howitzer as GIs did—to their deaths. He writes that the 1st Marine Brigade “halted the KPA advance”—which will be news to the veterans of the 5th, 23d, and 27th Regimental Combat Teams as well as the ROKA, which held more than half the Masan-Taegu-Pohang perimeter.
Cumings, however, is deft in explaining the political culture of North Korea. He traces Korean xenophobia back to the impact of Chinese and, especially, Japanese imperialism. Certainly much of the Koreans’ national identity is based on resistance to the Japanese that predated annexation in 1910. In Pyongyang’s view, the United States was and is simply an ignorant servant of Japanese neo-imperialism. On these points, Cumings is worth reading. He also is correct in stressing that the Koreans fought each other over the postcolonial future of their country.
The author pillories the U.S. armed forces for a genocidal air war against North Korea and for minor participation in and broad tolerance of South Korean massacres of suspected Communists (broadly defined) on both sides of the 38th Parallel. While condemning wartime cover-ups and official disinterest in ROK war crimes, Cumings is selective in his parade of horrors. There are two Taejon massacres, the first, of 1,500 former guerrillas and Communist operatives (and some innocents to be sure) by the Korean National Police and ROK MPs, which occurred in July 1950. The second massacre, of 5,000 civilians, ROK soldiers, and some American GIs, took place in September 1950 as the defeated KPA fled north. Cumings uses the numbers of the second Taejon massacre to condemn the first. Both events are well documented by observers and survivors. When Cumings admits that the North Koreans murdered thousands of “state enemies” in 1950, South and North, he implies that the victims deserved execution for their counterrevolutionary roles.
Cumings shows his contempt for the U.S. armed forces throughout the book in his ignorance of their organizations and leaders. He cites an X Corps memo “from an intelligence officer named McCaffrey” suggesting the summary execution of guerrillas. The author was the late Lieutenant General William McCaffrey, X Corps Assistant G-3, then a lieutenant colonel. Without checking Eighth Army JAG records, Cumings charges uncounted GIs with rape and murder in 1950-1951.
Proclaiming that the Korean War transformed the United States into a militaristic, anti-revolutionary power, Cumings charges that this country has done incalculable harm to the rest of the world. This breathtaking assertion undervalues the former Soviet Union as an imperial nuclear power, the People’s Republic of China as a patron of revolution in Asia and Africa, and the course of the wars of decolonization. He concludes by explaining current tensions between the ROK’s “new generation” of scholars and leaders and “elite Americans” as a product of the revelations of American complicity in the massacres of South Korean dissidents and innocents between 1945 and 1953. It may be so in the coffeehouses of Kwangju and Sinchon, Seoul, but I suspect that trade issues, status-of-forces problems, and the management of relations with North Korea have more influence.
Cumings once wrapped his version of the Korean War in the body bag of Vietnam. Now he adds Iraq and Afghanistan to the list of grievances stemming from the war. He urges Americans to join the Koreans in confronting the U.S.–ROK evils in the conduct of the war and in killing hundreds of thousands of innocents. He argues that at least we should understand North Korea’s institutionalized hatred of the U.S.–ROK–Japan neo-imperialists and the durability of the Fortress Goguryeo the Kim family created. This is not an unreasonable request, but Cumings clothes it with such ahistorical philosophizing that only his disciples will find The Korean War persuasive.
Maritime Dominion and the Triumph of the Free World: Naval Campaigns that Shaped the Modern World 1852-2001
Peter Padfield. New York: The Overlook Press, 2010. 369 pp. Intro. Illus. Maps. Notes. Bib. Index. $35.
Reviewed by Jeremy Black
This is the third of three volumes that eminent naval historian Peter Padfield has written covering naval campaigns from 1588 to 2001. Such a series raises the question of what should be addressed and in how much depth. There is of course no easy answer, and doubtless the books were not written for academics. Indeed, as a breezy approach to leading episodes in naval history, there is much here that is well-written and finely paced. In the present volume, covering the period 1852 to 2001, the discussion of World War I is particularly promising.
This period is in many ways the centerpiece of the book, not least because it draws together Padfield’s particular interests, notably both battle and British naval power. The author makes a good case for the significance of the latter and, indeed, there is little doubt that the French army’s defensive strength would have been negligible had the Royal Navy not been available to provide protection of the Atlantic sea lanes along which Britain and France received vital supplies from their colonies and the United States. Thanks to this naval dimension, the United States was in effect a one-sided participant in the conflict from the outset, and this participation helps explain the significance of the war at sea.
In November 1916, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote, “The submarine has already profoundly modified naval tactics . . . . It was a very evil day for this country when this engine of naval warfare was discovered.” The greater emphasis on submarines altered the nature of war at sea, as submarine conflict did not offer the prospect of a decisive victory in a climactic engagement. Instead, the submarine conflict ensured that war at sea became attritional, and indeed more so than that on land. Combined with the British blockade of Germany, the submarine combat ensured that the war was more clearly one between societies.
Yet there is much in Padfield’s history that is less satisfactory. The discussion of the period after 1945, rushed through in one brief chapter, is especially poor. This is disappointing, because the use of naval power by the American-led West in this period is both important and germane to Padfield’s thesis of a struggle between liberal maritime cultures and autocratic, army-based systems. Indeed, any reading of this section of the book should leave one wondering not only about whether the author has bothered but also about the caliber of editorial oversight.
To consider the series as a whole, it is best to return to the first volume, published in 1999, which stated the series’ thesis: “In the unrelenting struggle of peoples, those ascendant at sea have, at least in the modern era, proved consistently successful either singly or in alliance against those with a territorial power base; hence it is the system of beliefs and of government associated with supreme maritime power that has prevailed.”
Padfield consistently links naval supremacy to trade and freedom and contrasts them with the characteristics of territorial powers. His books focus on the “supreme maritime powers of the modern age”—the Dutch, the British, and the United States. The political history, however, is less than reliable. It is heavily Whiggish and reveals only a limited grasp of recent literature on, for example, the Glorious Revolution. Furthermore, throughout, his central thesis is asserted rather than demonstrated.
There were, as Padfield is doubtless aware, numerous examples of failures by naval powers, whether “supreme” or not, to prevail over their territorial rivals. Japan’s failure in the 1590s to conquer Korea and advance on Beijing is instructive, and both Napoleon and Hitler had to be defeated on land. The British were able to check Napoleon, but the decisive campaigns of 1812, 1813, and 1814 were all land struggles by territorial powers. Indeed Padfield’s series falls into long traditions both of regarding maritime power through Western eyes and of underrating the role of “territorial” allies in struggles in Europe. It tells us more about a certain type of Western view than it does about the nature of maritime power. As far as naval power is concerned, Padfield’s work is vivid rather than perceptive.