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Long, dull military history's thesis is only window dressing


By Geoffrey Perret.

Random House, 629 pp., $22.50


THE TRUISM THAT A NATION is a product of its history has exercised a peculiar fascination over Geoffrey Perret, whose latest book on the subject is long, dull, and not even terribly relevant. Nine major wars in 200 years, he writes, have been "like the rungs on a ladder by which [the United States] rose to greatness. No other nation has triumphed so long, so consistently, or on such a vast scale, through force of arms."

In more than 600 pages of A Country Made By War, however, Perret succeeds only in providing a strangely disjointed American military history replete with tactical descriptions of major battles and assessments of relative technological and strategic advantage, but lacking an overall framework within which to make a historical analysis.

The very simplicity of Perret's thesis leaves him open to ridicule, a possibility that only strikes the author near the end of his work. "To describe any great power as being in some way `made' by war risks being dismissed as offering no more than a glimpse of the obvious," he writes.

Too true. Perret's justification of his theme consists of listing the great powers that have been unmade by war and pointing out that the United States has avoided their fate. This facile explanation not only completely overlooks economic factors, but in crediting American global pre-eminence almost wholly to force of arms it inflates the importance of the armed forces beyond all reasonable limits. A quick dose of Paul Kennedy might be in order.

A telling instance is Perret's treatment of Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address, the famous warning about the "military-industrial complex." In a work devoted to placing the armed forces in the context of American history, it would hardly be improper to question the growing dominance of defense-related research and its consequences for the civilian economy and the health of the nation as a whole. Eisenhower's speech gets all of one paragraph in the book, however, and Perret sweeps modern criticism of the MIC under the rug in extolling the virtues of "dual use" technologies.

The brief introduction to the work reinforces the suggestion that Perret's true interests lie with the fire and smoke of the battlefield, and not with rarefied historical study. Describing an infantryman immortalized in a Belleau Wood war memorial, he lingers over the figure's grim determination in the theater of war: "He is stripped to the waist, his naked flesh exposed to maiming and violent death, a raw expression of the savagery of hand-to-hand fighting. He is ready to kill or be killed."

Unfortunately, Perret lacks the narrative skill to really make his battlefield scenes interesting. Short, choppy sentences and inappropriate generalization ("What saved Savannah was treachery. The plan of attack was betrayed. The British prepared a huge killing ground.") obscure more than they reveal. Furthermore, Perret's writing often falls into clich'e and chatty colloquialisms that only draw attention away from the subject matter.

Even worse, the book is home to at least one factual error and many more questionable assertions. Describing the battle of Midway in World War II, Perret tells how an American submarine torpedoed the "unsalvageable" carrier Yorktown after the Japanese withdrawal. Unfortunately, Perret isn't even really close. The Yorktown was sunk by the Japanese submarine I-168 even as a salvage crew was attempting repairs.

In a similar fashion, odd statements of "fact" arise en masse when Perret turns his attention to nuclear strategy. Confidently brushing aside the public pronouncements handed down by a generation of nuclear analysts, Perret writes that a pre-emptive first-strike strategy has dominated US war planning for decades. Electronic intelligence can provide American leaders with enough advance warning of an intended Soviet launch to prepare an American first strike, Perret suggests.

If it actually existed, such a policy would explain a great deal about the rationale behind highly accurate, silo-busting weapons such as the MX and Trident D-5 missiles. But American doctrine has long been predicated on the ability of strategic forces to "ride out" a Soviet first strike -- thus the development first of hardened silos and later of submarine-launched weapons. Such a posture not only reduces the threat of accidental war due to misinterpretation of intelligence, but it's less threatening to the Soviets and helps keep itchy fingers off the nuclear trigger.

Taken together, Perret's inattention to detail, his clumsy prose, and the utterly inadequate treatment of his "theme" (which warrants all of eight pages, or just over one percent of his book) easily lead one to believe that A Country Made By War is just another glorified military history with enough window dressing masquerading as "serious analysis" to lend the book a veneer of respectability. There's no doubt that Perret cares deeply about his subject, but his sloppy and heavy-handed approach makes this a book to avoid.