Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Five books on U.S. intervention abroad

Lawrence F. Kaplan is editor of Entanglements. Previously, he was editor of World Affairs, executive editor of The National Interest, and senior editor at The New Republic, for which he reported from Iraq during 2005-2007. Kaplan is also a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the U.S. Army War College. He is a graduate of Columbia University, Oxford, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

With Eve Gerber at The Browser, Kaplan discussed five books on American intervention abroad, including:
by Michael Herr

Next is Dispatches, a memoir of Michael Herr’s time reporting for Esquire from the Vietnam War. Reading this book is a scarring rite of passage for students of American entanglements.

Dispatches came out in 1977, soon after the fall of Saigon. It’s delivered in the voice of the New Journalism of the era. Herr takes us up close, on patrol with American troops. It’s so vivid that it reads like fiction. Herr’s book shows us the dark side of America’s foreign policy and the consequences of ideas hatched in air-conditioned conference rooms in Washington DC. American foreign policymakers and foreign policy watchers, including myself, do not always fully appreciate that their ideas trickle down. Ideas are enshrined in official policy and official policy trickles down. And then the next thing you know, you have 19-year-old kids out there at the sharp end of these policies. Herr’s book is essential reading until we come up with a worthy heir for the Iraq war. It drives home how careful we must be with the ideas put on the table. It’s the most worn cliché in the world, but ideas really do have consequences, particularly in American foreign policy.

How should the personal cost to American combatants be factored into the decisions of US policymakers?

The military is an instrument of American foreign policy; it is a servant of the state. Today we have an all-volunteer army whose job it is to fight the nation’s wars. That said, the military is not a machine – it is made up of human beings, mostly people in their late teens and early twenties who join the services for a variety of reasons. There is no need to place them on a pedestal or regard them as victims, that is not the way they regard themselves. But one has to be cognisant that decisions impact and cost lives, the lives of our forces, enemy forces and civilians caught in the middle.

Given the full extent of American power, there is always a temptation to deploy force casually, without adequate reflection. Every president goes through his own cost-benefit analysis before giving the green light to the use of force. Obama, more than other presidents, certainly more than his predecessor, has made a public display of running through the costs and the benefits of the surge in Afghanistan and intervention in Libya. Obama took a lot of hits, including from me, for agonising like Hamlet before coming to a decision in both cases. But I give him credit for carefully considering every side of the argument and there are about a dozen sides to these arguments. The president has to sign condolence letters every time a service member is killed. This practice is more than a deserved courtesy – it is a form of discipline that keeps the costs of war in front of the mind of the commander-in-chief.
Read about the other books on Kaplan's list.

Dispatches appears on Gail Caldwell's five best list of memoirs and Judith Paterson's list of the 10 best books of social concern by journalists.

--Marshal Zeringue