Welcome to “The Book Club” ‘s first meeting of the post-Labor Day year. Though we don’t celebrate this particular holiday here in England, every day being an unspoken tribute to the New Labor government, my internal clock is still set to American time, and it knows that today constitutes the first day of autumn, even if English leaves tend to fall off without ever turning nice colors.
Today seems especially back-to-schoolish to me, as we wend our way through this formidable Slate homework assignment, David Halberstam’s War in a Time of Peace. I’ve been spending the summer with a variety of carefully selected fiction (when the sustained narratives got too taxing, I scaled down to short stories and then to staring idly into space), and if anything could have brought me back to earth with a jolt, this book was it.
This big, chunky work would come as an even ruder shock if not for Halberstam’s accessible writing style and ability to present the colorful personalities and massive egos–complete with rich side stories that plumb motivations, biases, feuds, and the like–behind major world events. I’d far rather learn foreign policy from an elegant writerly pro like Halberstam than from, say, a staid public-affairs journal that gives you all the dust-dry policy arguments without any people to back them up. (Is it fair to assume that your job requires you to read a lot of that dry stuff from those staid journals? How do you handle it–how do you remain engaged without getting up to wax your keyboard or make more coffee or go back to bed–when the writing is hideously clunky or abstruse?)
True to Halberstamian form, War in a Time of Peace is a large-canvas, ambitious work about a meaty subject: American foreign policy in the 1990s. It begins with President Bush and the fall of the Soviet Union, moves on to the U.S. success in the Gulf War, discusses the origins of the Balkans crisis, and dissects Bill Clinton’s campaign for the presidency and the formulation of the two parties’ foreign policy strategies in the 1992 election. It deals with the Somali crisis, the Haitian crisis, the internal foreign policy debates that raged behind the scenes in the Clinton administration, the disputes that eventually coalesced into an American response to the growing aggression of Slobodan Milosevic, and Clinton’s cultural unease with the military (even his salute was sloppy). There is no important foreign policy issue in this period, it seems, that Halberstam does not address in his book, which is being marketed as a sequel of sorts to The Best and the Brightest, his seminal work about the Vietnam War.
I don’t know how old Halberstam is by now, but I think it’s remarkable that he’s been able to produce one ambitious book after another, some of them on politics, some on social history, some on sports, for more than three decades. Does he do anything besides work? Doesn’t he want to take a break? Be that as it may, he peppers this book with the sort of rich anecdotes, telling asides, and incisive analysis that makes him, after all this time, one of America’s most authoritative and engaging chroniclers of politics. His research and thoroughness are awe-inspiring, and his details are often delicious. Toward the beginning, for instance, there’s a great story about how Air Force Col. John Warden tried to present his innovative air-strike strategy for the Gulf War to Lieut. Gen. Charles Horner, the man in charge of American air power during the war. Horner was a traditionalist angry that his authority was being threatened–Warden had already cleverly gotten Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf on board with his plans–and he was not at all happy when Warden met with him in Riyadh to outline the strategy.
“Knowing that he might have a tough sell, [Warden] had brought some goodies he had been told were hard to get in Saudi Arabia, Chap Stick and sunscreen,” Halberstam writes. “He tried to give them to Horner as a peace offering at the beginning of their briefing, but Horner asked, ‘What is this shit?’ and swept the goodies off the table.” Later, Horner rudely turned his chair away from Warden, forcing Warden to talk to his back.
I love all that–though, for what it’s worth, Halberstam includes Warden, but not Horner, on his list of interviewees in the back of the book. That having been said, I have a number of complaints about War in a Time of Peace that I will happily enumerate after you’ve had your say.
Meanwhile, I wonder how many of Halberstam’s books you’ve read, and how you think this compares. I wonder if you think he left holes anywhere that you would have liked to see filled. And I wonder if, when you first heard the title, you thought of Love in the Time of Cholera?
All best to you,