The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran
David Crist. New York: Penguin, 2012. 656 pp. Illus. Maps. Notes. Index. $36.
Reviewed by J. Furman Daniel III
In this massive new book, government historian and Marine Corps Reserve officer David Crist chronicles the three-decade quasi-war between the United States and Iran. According to the author, Iran’s quest to develop nuclear weapons is only the latest development in an undeclared conflict that has defined the history of the modern Middle East. Crist’s explanation for this poisonous association is simple: “distrust permeates the relationship.” To provide context for the mistrust that few Americans understand, the book analyzes in detail the numerous proxy-wars, state sponsorship of terrorism, sanctions, covert actions, and deception that shaped the opinions of a generation of Iranians and beguiled six American presidents.
The central theme of this work is that three decades of undeclared war and inconsistent diplomacy have created a complex and nearly intractable strategic morass. Crist maintains that the U.S.-Iran relationship was fundamentally altered by the 1979 revolution and has been in disarray ever since. Almost overnight, the friendly government of the shah was replaced, Americans were taken hostage, and the existing “twin pillars” policy for balancing the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia was in ruins. While President Jimmy Carter ultimately became defined by the continuing hostage crisis and his seeming inability to provide effective leadership, Crist is sympathetic, claiming that Carter was simply the first victim in a tragic cycle of violence.
By a wide margin, the administration of President Ronald Reagan garners the most attention as Crist provides an engrossing narrative of the rise of Hezbollah, the bombings in Beirut, the Iran-Iraq war, the tanker wars (attacks on merchant shipping from 1980 through 1988, during hostilities between Iran and Iraq) and the arms-for-hostages negotiations. Reagan is portrayed as an “American Hamlet” who genuinely wanted to provide firm leadership but was constrained by a combination of indecision and “Cold War naiveté.” His desire for action resulted in vicious undeclared wars and the Iran-Contra affair, a scandal that nearly destroyed his presidency, “scuttle[d] any hope of rapprochement for the next two decades,” and transferred numerous high-tech weapons to U.S. adversaries.
While Crist is critical of Reagan, he is clear in his assertion that subsequent presidents have fared no better. George H. W. Bush largely continued the policies of his predecessor and was unable to reciprocate on a series of tit-for-tat hostage exchanges. Bill Clinton inadvertently stoked Iranian fears of U.S.-backed regime change, gave in to congressional demands to cancel a joint pipeline venture between Conoco and Iran, and failed to respond to the Iranian-backed attack on Khobar Towers. George W. Bush missed some potential diplomatic openings with Iranian moderates, failed to follow up on the goodwill generated by U.S. aid to Iran following a 2003 earthquake, and stunned Iranians by including their nation in his “Axis of Evil.”
Finally, Barack Obama promised to approach Iran more diplomatically than his predecessors, but was quickly rebuffed and began to use more aggressive measures such as cyber attacks, drone overflights, and covert action. Ultimately, Crist concludes that throughout the past three decades, “Washington invariably took the wrong course with Iran. When diplomatic openings appeared, hardliners refused to talk and advocated overthrowing the Islamic Republic. When Iran killed U.S. soldiers and Marines in Lebanon and Iraq, successive administrations showed timidity when hardliners called for retribution.”
Although this work is enjoyable and enlightenting, it is suffers from three noteworthy blemishes. Factual errors are relatively few and minor (Walter Lord’s 1955 work of nonfiction, A Night to Remember, was not a “novel”), but distracting and unfortunate. Also, the book is considerably more detailed in its treatment of the Carter, Reagan, and H. W. Bush administrations than their successors. This imbalance may be the result of many factors, such as a more overt U.S.-Iranian antagonism during that early period, better access to declassified and open-source information from the 1980s, or the fact that Crist wrote his PhD dissertation on the role of Iran in Ronald Reagan’s Middle East policy. Whatever the reason, the unevenness is noticeable and may give the inadvertent impression that Iran has been less of a foreign-policy quandary in the past two decades. Finally, the work is at times unnecessarily personal, even gossipy. Although Crist’s inclusion of details is generally illuminating, minutiae such as General George Crist’s [the author’s father] smoking habits, CIA Director William Casey’s sartorial style and table manners, or the saga of Admiral James “Ace” Lyons’ forced retirement distract from the otherwise purposeful narrative.
Despite these flaws, The Twilight War is an extremely impressive work that will likely be the definitive word on the subject for years to come. What distinguishes this volume is its broad scope and ability to incorporate an extensive history into a cohesive, convincing narrative. I strongly recommend it for any reader interested in the troubling history of U.S.-Iranian relations and the influence of the conflict on the broader Middle East.
James D. Bulloch: Secret Agent and Mastermind of the Confederate Navy
Walter E. Wilson and Gary L. McKay. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2012. 368 pp. Illus. Maps. Notes. Bibliog. Index. $55.
By Howard J. Fuller
Students of American Civil War history have to keep in mind that the South was so averse to manufacturing and high technology in lieu of human muscle power (specifically, slaves) that it could scarcely produce or repair maritime steam engines. Most of the transatlantic carrying trade in cotton was likewise a British and Northern business. So it’s little wonder that the new Confederate States Navy of 1861 had to literally import a naval war against the Union. Of all the agents and representatives sent out to achieve this difficult and often dangerous task, none was more successful than James D. Bulloch.
As the authors of this volume rightly note, “there has never been a dedicated biography of his life and influence.” They go to great lengths to argue that Bulloch was a veritable one-man wrecking machine, “responsible for the destruction of 130 ships, Confederate logistics (i.e., running the Union blockade) and ironclad construction.” Surely there were others involved; few suggest that Abraham Lincoln singlehandedly won the war for the North or that Stonewall Jackson alone saved the day for the South at the First Battle of Bull Run (though if you see his oversized, muscular statue at the battlefield today you have to wonder . . . ). As a biography, a little narrative excess is forgivable. But it might have made an even better history had the authors chosen to broaden their analytical focus to include other major players.
This includes, most obviously, the British themselves. It’s surprising that this work does not seem to have explored the National Archives in Kew, London, for example. Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell’s papers are there, along with a mountain of Admiralty files. After all, Bulloch’s efforts would have been utterly pointless without their help—or at least their willful ignorance.
As it was, Bulloch and his Confederates made many English entrepreneurs rich off the blockade-running business, operating from imperial bases such as Nassau and Bermuda. He also exploited a large hole in Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of Neutrality during the Civil War by making sure Russell obstinately followed the Foreign Enlistment Act to the letter. This is what allowed the “290” or CSS Alabama to escape from Liverpool in the first place, with devastating consequences to Northern commercial shipping worldwide.
In fact, things got so bad that the British vice admiral in charge of the naval forces in North American waters, Sir Alexander Milne, wrote to the Admiralty that they were practically “aiding” the Confederate war effort, while Russell wrote to Prime Minister Lord Palmerston that they had better break English law anyway and seize the Laird rams being built in Liverpool to stop this sort of “neutral hostility” on their part. The alternative by 1863 was not disappointing the South so much as a war of revenge against Britain by the North. Bulloch could do little to influence British decision-making in this respect, when the threat of an all-out clash with the Union outweighed any conceivable benefits of continuing to blithely whistle Dixie.
Even then, the Alabama Claims following the Civil War saw the United States sue Great Britain for over $15 million in damages—and this was considered a bargain when angry Republicans like Charles Sumner wanted something more like $2 billion for “indirectly prolonging” the conflict itself.
Still, there is much to admire here. The work is sprinkled liberally with fine photos and illustrations as well as appendices. The authors write in a sort of jaunty, History Channel–speak that might irritate academics, but makes for an informative yet entertaining read. They write with the assumption that their audience is fascinated by the Civil War and naval history in general, and is fairly well-read but knows more about the ironclads Monitor and Virginia or Admiral David Farragut’s defiant cry “damn the torpedoes!” at Mobile Bay than they do about the cunning exploits of a Confederate purchasing agent across the Atlantic. Most people don’t know where blockade-running started, and this book goes a long way toward telling that story.
Hell in the Pacific: A Marine Rifleman’s Journey from Guadalcanal to Peleliu
Jim McEnery with Bill Sloan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. 320 pp. Illus. Maps. Index. $27.
Reviewed by Chief Warrant Officer Ronald W. Russell, U.S. Navy Reserve (Retired)
Having previously digested other books on the Pacific War by Marine combat veterans like Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge, I had to wonder if Hell in the Pacific could say anything more on the subject that didn’t look much like those earlier accounts.
It could. Bill Sloan’s latest work on the saga of 1st Marine Division veteran Jim McEnery deserves a spot in any collection of the best such tales. It’s told entirely in the first person by McEnery himself, from a rugged boyhood in Brooklyn to an unplanned enlistment in the Marine Corps in 1940 (the Army recruiting station was closed that day), through his almost unbelievable, death-defying experiences in more than 28 months of near-constant combat action in three of the Corps’ bloodiest campaigns: Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, and Peleliu.
That said, the book begins with a couple of weaknesses that might give some readers pause, such as the tedious narration of McEnery’s early years. One can understand why it’s there: this is his personal biography, and those memories constitute the foundation for all that came later—except that latter part is really what this book is supposed to be about. I found myself breezing through those pages in order to get there.
Then, in the authors’ overview of the Solomons Campaign, I was disappointed to see a disproven myth repeated yet again: that Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, commander of the Navy’s carriers during the Guadalcanal invasion, deliberately abandoned the men ashore while much of their vital supplies remained unloaded on board the transports. McEnery can be excused for recounting that old canard if it’s all he’s ever been told, but a historian like Sloan might have corrected the record. The Marines’ woes on Guadalcanal were due to far more than anything attributable to Fletcher, as detailed in John Lundstrom’s Black Shoe Carrier Admiral (Naval Institute Press, 2006).
Once the reader gets past those hurdles, the book excels. McEnery was a member of Company K, 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (K/3/5), which hit the beach with the first wave at Guadalcanal (the same outfit Sledge later joined). From there McEnery plunged headlong into more than four terrible months of combat in the vicinity of the Matanikau River, enduring not only Japanese snipers, banzai charges, and naval and air bombardments, but also Guadalcanal’s oppressive heat and torrential rains and the grinding misery of malaria. One gathers from McEnery’s graphic descriptions of those awful days that Guadalcanal was indeed the hell emblazoned on the book’s cover.
Not really. K/3/5 discovered hell’s next level at Cape Gloucester, where Guadalcanal’s wretchedness was surpassed by shin-deep red mud that resembled glue, voracious giant land crabs that owned the night, and the company’s bitter firefight at Suicide Creek. However, that was only a precursor to what would become McEnery’s worst nightmare: the horrific Peleliu campaign, fought for a solid month over treacherous volcanic terrain defended by 10,000 Japanese troops. His account of the ceaseless casualties occurring around him is almost too heart-wrenching to read. Time after time he witnessed the violent death of a respected combat-savvy officer, a buddy he’d known since boot camp, a Marine hero for whom a ship would ultimately be named, or any number of green recruits. Some died while McEnery was trying to stop the flow of blood from grotesque wounds.
By the time K/3/5 was withdrawn from Peleliu, McEnery was one of only five of the company’s sergeants left standing. He summarizes the experience as “thirty days of the meanest, around-the-clock slaughter that desperate men can inflict on each other when the last traces of humanity have been wrung out of them and all that’s left is the blind urge to kill.”
Passages from other works are quoted frequently to extend the narrative beyond the limits of McEnery’s personal experiences. Some readers might judge the many excerpts from Sledge’s book and others as excessive, rendering this one less than authentic. But on balance, the added content from McEnery’s contemporaries serves to flesh out the story more completely than his own recollections could have provided by themselves, particularly at Guadalcanal. The result is a fine mix of Marine Corps history and an absorbing personal chronicle of desperate combat to an inconceivable extreme.
Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power
David E. Sanger. New York: Crown, 2012. 496 pp. Notes. Index. $28.
Reviewed by Lieutenant (junior grade) John A. Gans Jr., U.S. Navy Reserve
At an April 2009 press conference, less than three months into Barack Obama’s presidency, he was asked to define his foreign policy “doctrine.” His platitude-heavy answer means less than the question itself, which was posed more directly and much earlier than it had been to his post–Cold War predecessors, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. With the constraints on U.S. power after a decade of crises and war, many wanted to know how Obama would handle his difficult inheritance.
New York Times chief Washington correspondent David Sanger’s best-selling 2009 book, The Inheritance, described those challenges. In Confront and Conceal, Sanger tries to define the foreign-policy doctrine Obama used to deal with them. Avoiding the temptation to hand out grades, he does, perhaps inadvertently, establish in one phrase, “good enough,” the prevailing approach to and results of the post-9/11 statecraft that has persisted from Bush to Obama.
The qualifier comes from a White House staff committee organized in 2010 to find a politically and strategically viable way out of the war in Afghanistan. The group, calling itself “Afghan Good Enough,” met weekly to ask unpalatable questions such as “What’s the least we can spend on training Afghan troops and still get a credible result?” Sanger labels the committee’s name “indisputably offensive” but suggests that these deliberations are the type of realpolitik needed at a tough time for the United States.
The author uses his remarkable access inside the U.S. government and capitals around the world (which has led to questions about national-security leaks) to frame President Obama’s foreign-policy decisions in the real environment in which they are made. On one page readers are in the White House Situation Room; a few pages later they are in a nondescript Abu Dhabi townhome used for informal conversations with Pakistani military leaders. Sanger’s contacts and his newspaperman’s feel for narrative allow him to show readers Obama’s policy in practice rather than simply telling them it relies on adaptability, a preference for a lighter American global footprint, and greater reliance on coalition partners.
But the qualifier “good enough” can apply in some ways to Sanger’s analysis. The book promises a tour of the current global state of affairs, but the author’s presentation is frustratingly uncomprehensive. Readers get more than they want on North Korea and less than they need on China. The cause appears to be more one of Sanger’s specializations—nuclear-weapons proliferation—than his sources. The result is detailed chapters on cyberweapons but, to name one thin area, too little discussion of an expanded drone war.
For some readers, the consistency between the Obama and Bush foreign policies may be the biggest of the surprises promised in the book’s subtitle. That continuation is the outcome of the perpetuation of presidential political concerns, national-security threats, and bureaucratic and legal realties. For example, during the U.S. and Israeli cyberattack on Iranian nuclear facilities, the Obama administration found it did not have the time to rewrite Bush-administration authorizations for covert actions, including the secretive Olympic Games cyber program. Instead, the previous administration’s “findings were simply amended”—adjusted to fit the current circumstances.
“Good enough” is not actually the Obama doctrine, as Sanger demonstrates; rather, it characterizes the reality of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy. The United States has been chasing the elusive stability and supremacy it thought it had found in the post–Cold War world, but that pursuit and the blunders and crises along the way have increasingly constrained U.S. power. While he never says so explicitly, Sanger clearly believes “good enough” is the best for which the nation can hope on many of its challenges. The book is written with an eye on the “very clear limits of American power in reshaping the world to our will,” as he writes vis-à-vis Pakistan.
If daily newspapers are the first draft of history, then books like Sanger’s are a close second. He is right: It is “too early” to know whether Obama’s approach will prove lasting in a complicated world. Despite this, he wonders why the President has been so reticent on foreign policy, of which his vague answer to that April 2009 question is one example. But the Obama administration clearly thinks, and events have shown, that it is too soon to declare victory. In the end, only later drafts of history will tell whether this President’s choices have been good, bad, or simply enough.