Sunday, January 19, 2014

CW Book Reviews

With the rollout of the eSabbath around my place, I've been able to read a bit more--which fills another New Year's resolution.  I recently finished two books, and I want to recommend them both to you.

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence  by Joseph J. Ellis

Joseph Ellis is probably the most readable historian of the Founding of the United States, and this book is no exception.  Set against the backdrop of both the political and the military questions of the Summer of 1776, Ellis makes a convincing case that the one cannot be properly understood without the other.  In that effort, he uses the words of the primary actors to paint a compelling picture of just how fragile the new nation was, and how close it appeared to come to annihilation in and around New York.  John Adams, George Washington, and the Howe Brothers figure prominently in these pages, and Ellis has convinced me of just how strategically wrong the British were (the Howe Brothers, specifically) in believing that the support of the people for the Revolution was soft, and so the center of gravity for their efforts should be to wage a limited campaign designed to preserve something of a relationship between Britain and the Colonies while winnowing support for Independence.  To his great credit, General George Clinton--one of the Howe's subordinates--never wavered from his contention that destroying George Washington's Army was the main effort, something that was well-within the grasp of the Redcoats in the Summer of 1776. 

Don't buy this book if you are looking for the great sweep of the Revolution.  It is quite limited in its focus and for readers without much grounding in the history of the Revolution, more questions will be raised than answered.  But if you have a pretty good foundation in that history, this book drills deeply into one of the more fascinating six months of the conflict.

Duty:  Memoirs of a Secretary at War  by Robert M. Gates

Along with Leon Panetta, I believe Robert Gates deserves to be considered one of the most skillful and effective bureaucrats of the past 25 years, and I use the term "bureaucrat" with no malice.  Let's face it folks, we pay a lot of money for the government we have, and we have a right to expect some people to become very good at making it happen. 

Gates has had an amazing Washington career, first as a CIA Analyst, then at the National Security Council, then back to the CIA as Chief of Staff, Deputy Director and Director.  President Bush enticed him away from his position as the President of Texas A&M University to replace Don Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense.  He served in that capacity for 4.5 years, two and a half of which were in the Obama Administration.

The news has been aflame with excerpts from the book, in which Gates appears to settle scores with his bureaucratic opponents, including Tom Donilon (NSC), Vice President Biden, and Harry Reid.  And while some of these snippets are delicious to read, one comes away from this book with the impression of Gates that probably matches the impression one had before reading it--that he was a man of the moderate middle, that he was a patriot who got along well with others, that he was an amazingly skillful Mandarin, and that he is possessed of preternatural fairness. Yes, he takes a shot or two at some of his colleagues in both the Bush and Obama Administrations. But in almost all cases, he is careful to put the relationship AND the comment in context, circling back soon after (or later) to ensure that the reader is not left solely with a clownish or nefarious view of the commenter. 

I was most interested in Gates' assessments of the men who hired him, George Bush and Barack Obama.  Gates is very fair to both, ensuring that the reader gets a full picture of the goods and others.  His assessments feed my own political biases, but he is blunt about cautioning the reader not to go too far with the view.  For instance, George Bush comes out of this treatment as almost without any sensitivity to the political ramifications of his decisions, while Barack Obama (and his team) seem obsessed with them.  Of course I believe this is an accurate portrayal of both men's approach to governing, but in truth, Gates came to work for Bush after Bush had no elections left in him and after the serious political partisans of his first term had long since faded (including the Vice President).  Barack Obama was a new President when he worked with him, and his team reflected a campaign vibe--which is to be expected.

Gates clearly admires both men, which is to me a comforting thought.  His portrayal of George Bush's courage in replacing a Secretary of Defense, a Central Command Commander, an Iraq Forces Commander and overruling his SecDef, CJCS, and all the Joint Chiefs to undertake the 2007 Surge tracks closely with my own assessment of the magnitude of that effort.  Mr. Obama's decision to surge in Afghanistan was no less opposed, primarily by the politically oriented White House staff.  And the decision to go after Bin Laden--one Gates opposed--continues to stand out to me as an example of Presidential courage of the highest order. 

What I didn't realize before reading this is what a seething cauldron of emotion Mr. Gates was.  He spends a good portion of this book MAD about things.  He is often "furious".  And when he isn't "furious", he is weepily emotional about the ardors and rigors of what the troops in the field were undertaking at his direction.   None of these are bad things, they simply represent a side of him that I as a detached observer did not know.

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