By Max Boot
Gotham. 624 pp. $35
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Reviewed by Mark Yost
The war on terror is entering its sixth year, and George W. Bush's most recent tactical move is to surge 20,000 troops into Iraq to secure Baghdad and other al-Qaeda safe havens. I say "tactical move" because the latest plan put forth to the nation is nothing more than that. In the bloody chess match between Western civilization and militant Islam, which has been simmering for at least two decades and may rage for another 10, it is but one move in many thousands. For Washington's chattering class, far more interested in how Iraq and the war on terror can be used for their own personal political gain than what it means for the present or future evolution of military doctrine, it is but the latest sound bite with which to tar their opponents and further empower their own party.
Someone who is keenly interested in the bigger implications of the strategies and tactics of the war on terror is Max Boot, a senior fellow in national-security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and one of today's most astute observers of RMA, Pentagon-speak for the Revolution in Military Affairs.
His first book, The Savage Wars of Peace, looked at the long-term impact of some of the "little wars" that took place in between the Revolutionary, Civil, two World, and Cold Wars. His latest book, War Made New, looks at the larger trends that defined and advanced warfare and doctrine over the last six centuries. He is, all hyperbole aside, a modern-day Thucydides, telling the story of war and why it matters.
In this rich and highly readable tome, he focuses on four revolutions in technology and doctrine: The Gunpowder Revolution, the two Industrial Revolutions and, the one we're currently in, the Information Technology Revolution. While Boot looks at some of the larger conflicts that engulfed continents and redrew maps, he also looks at some of the lesser conflicts that had implications well beyond their immediate scope and aftermath - battles and wars that may have involved but two minor combatants, but whose lessons and developments resonated for centuries.
Lest you think this is dull, dreary stuff that only doctoral students of martial minutiae could appreciate, rest assured, it is not. Boot is not only an excellent historian, but also an excellent writer. Furthermore, he explains the implications not just for armed conflict, but also for military and political alliances, coronations, and redrawn boundaries around the globe.
"The French invasion of Italy in 1494 inaugurated the modern age in which warfare, which had been relatively static for a thousand years, was to change with bewildering and accelerating rapidity," Boot writes. "This process would lead some states to domination, others to oblivion. It would profoundly disturb the balance of power first within Europe and then in the rest of the world, giving rise to the Western hegemony that has not been eclipsed even to this day."
Boot also is smart enough to know that, regardless of what Nancy Pelosi and Anderson Cooper tell us, we cannot possibly understand the full implication of what's going on in Iraq today. Boot does offer a few well-reasoned deductions in the book's final chapters, based on his thorough understanding of military history.
For instance, Boot understands that former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was fighting more than al-Qaeda. He was waging war against a military bureaucracy that in some ways was still wedded to the doctrines that were developed to defeat the Soviets on the plains of Eastern Europe and was slow to adapt to the insurgent warfare of urban Iraq. In short, Rumsfeld was trying to change the way America fights wars.
Like Boot, Rumsfeld does not believe technology alone can defeat an enemy. Despite all our stealth aircraft and smart bombs, the thinking soldier is still the greatest weapon we have. But Rumsfeld understood that if we could leverage both our advanced information technology and our vastly superior Special Operations Forces, we could defeat a numerically superior enemy with a smaller, lighter, more-lethal force.
The Rumsfeld doctrine has largely been a success in Afghanistan: ". . . the U.S. military showed in Afghanistan that a combination of highly trained commandoes and precision weaponry - a high-low mix of technologies - could subdue, at least temporarily, even a land renowned as a graveyard of empires," Boot writes.
Where Rumsfeld may have overplayed his hand is in Iraq. In his unflinching desire to prove that the doctrine could work in the hostile urban environments of Ramadi and Fallujah, he perhaps lost sight of the politics of the war in Iraq. The Democrats, aided by their ever-willing accomplices in the media, didn't have the patience to see the strategy through. Instead of embracing the revolution Rumsfeld was trying to foment at the Pentagon, they used it and his enemies within to drive him out of office and convince the American people that Iraq was a debacle - the wrong war, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. Unfortunately, as Boot makes clear, it may be 100 years before we know who was right.