Heirs Apparent

Bob Woodward, The Commanders (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991).

Bob Woodward, The Commanders (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991).  398 pp., $24.95.

Since his book-writing debut with All The President's Men seventeen years ago, Bob Woodward's technique has become increasingly novelistic.  This newest peep behind Washington scenes, at the way the Pentagon led the nation to war in Panama and the Persian Gulf, is especially smooth and seamless.

It reads a little like a Tom Clancy novel, the reader pulled irresistibly from one page to another in accelerating haste to find what happens next.  The visit to Saudi Arabia by Defense Secretary Cheney, General Colin Powell, and General Norman Schwarzkopf, during which they obtain the consent by King Fahd to send troops, is presented with such skill that, even though the reader knows the outcome, a strong element of suspense is retained.

Going through The Commanders the first time is highly pleasurable, easy reading, which explains why it reached the top of the bestseller list and stayed there.  To re-read it for purposes of a review, however, underlines how much Woodward has sacrificed to achieve his novelistic effect.

There are no source notes, little direct attribution, and indeed no way to measure reliability.  Woodward's technique admits of no knowledge gaps, which a historian looking at this subject a generation from now would surely confess and a journalist toiling during the war under deadline pressure takes as a matter of course.  Rather, Woodward affects the posture of the old-fashioned omniscient novelist, able to read the minds of all his characters, as in the first paragraph of the prologue when Admiral William L. Crowe is depicted hurrying down the Pentagon's E-Ring.  "It was a building dedicated to appearing busy, he thought"--a formulation that becomes all too familiar over nearly 400 pages.

Woodward resembles a more modern novelist in not attempting to analyze his quote-filled narrative.   While this Washington Post editor and reporter is reviled by the Republican Right as the ideological enemy, he in fact abjures even the most minimal analytical explanation that his material often demands.  Thus, the reader is presented a narrative whose validity he must accept on faith and is then told to make of it what he can.

No Woodward book is published without complaints of gross inaccuracies.  Although cries of White House aides that The Commanders is another pack of lies can be dismissed, more serious complaints come from officials who privately admit they were interviewed for the book.  They say they were surprised by Woodward's casual note-taking, without a tape recorder, which they claim resulted in slightly flawed accounts.

Woodward's desire for a smooth narrative produces shorthand asides that can cause misunderstandings.  Early in the book, Admiral Crowe, Powell's predecessor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is described as setting up a "secret, private communications channel" with his Soviet counterpart, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev.  Antennae all over Washington twanged with the implication of an improper, illegal back channel instituted by Crowe.  But it turned out that Woodward simply had overstated what was just a normal communications link.

Nevertheless, nobody in a position to know claims serious outright errors in this book (just as Woodward's past endeavors were free from such indictments).   While The Commanders is novelistic, it certainly is not fiction.   While unsourced and unanalyzed, it must be taken seriously enough to attempt to extract from it new information on how the U.S. decided to wage war on Iraq and on the broader question of how the Pentagon really functions.  The collateral and most intriguing yield from the book is its impact on the future of its most important figures, General Powell and Secretary Cheney.

Woodward's revelation, headlined on front pages across the country, that Powell was not anxious to move from sanctions to war in the Gulf was really no great surprise.  But the general's views had not been widely reported, and the extent of dissent was not fully appreciated.

As recorded by Woodward, the uniformed military was in thrall to the Vietnam Syndrome, cautious about using the nation's fearsome war-making apparatus.  General Thomas Kelly, who was to become a household name and face as the super-confident war briefer, is described as telling the Pentagon's civilian press spokesman, Pete Williams, before the fighting started: "We hope you political types aren't dreaming."  He predicted that tank warfare with the Iraqis would be a "big nasty thing", concluding: "We can't have a land war."

Powell reflects much the same mindset, as an Army man supremely suspicious of air capability to soften up Saddam Hussein's troops.  He comes out better able to envision the carnage of war than the desk-bound national security adviser in the White House, retired Air Force General Brent Scowcroft.  Powell, unlike Scowcroft, sees war as "less a disembodied abstraction than real men and women, faces--many of them kids' faces--that [he] looked into on his visits to troops."  Even on January 16, 1991, as H-Hour approached, the chairman was "worrying about the Marines.  They would have the hard job, driving into the front-line fortifications.  God, Powell thought, we could lose a lot of Marines."

Early on, he is shown suggesting that a line be drawn around Saudi Arabia, only to be reminded by, of all people, a professional diplomat--U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering--that this solution would seal the captivity of Kuwait.  Woodward's narrative settles down to Cheney demanding military options from the Joint Chiefs, and Powell pushing a "containment" policy of sanctions instead of bombs and bullets.

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