Waging War and Keeping Peace

With America's Military

By Dana Priest

Norton. 429 pp. $26.95

Before long, U.S. armed forces are likely to invade Iraq. The actual fighting is expected to be over fairly quickly. Not so the occupation and rebuilding, which may last years. In the process, U.S. soldiers will be forced to act as cops, judges, mayors, garbage collectors and welfare workers, and to perform the myriad other jobs necessary for civil society to function.

This is nothing new. U.S. soldiers have been performing similar duties since the early days of the republic and especially since the end of the Cold War, in places like Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. How are they doing? In her new survey of the American military, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest offers a pessimistic answer.

"The mind-set, decision-making, and training of infantry soldiers rarely mixes well with the disorder inherent in civil society," she writes. She laments that the United States hasn't "spawned an effective civilian corps of aid workers, agronomists, teachers, engineers -- a real peace corps -- to take charge of postwar reconstruction in Afghanistan or anywhere else." Instead we've handed over the job to the men and women in camouflage uniforms.

In her early chapters, Priest describes the growing power of regional commanders-in-chief (CINCs, pronounced "sinks") who travel with vast entourages aboard fleets of personal jets that are the envy of the cash-strapped State Department. Priest spent a lot of time shadowing Gen. Anthony Zinni when he ran the Central Command. A good deal of his work was useful, especially in building relationships with the Central Asian "stans" that became staging areas post-Sept. 11. But some of the views that Zinni promoted -- he fawned over the autocratic Saudi royals and reviled the democratic Iraqi opposition -- were at odds with the best interests, and often with the expressed policies, of the U.S. government.

In succeeding chapters, Priest focuses on the men frequently called upon to implement American policy in chaotic regions: the Special Forces. She recounts their stellar success in Afghanistan -- where, she notes, "just over 300 men were pivotal in undoing the Taliban" -- and their less stellar results in Nigeria and Colombia, where they were called in to train the local armed forces. This grunt's-eye view of the world makes for more compelling reading -- and probably more compelling living -- than the endless series of parties and palavers attended by brass hats like Gen. Zinni.

The final part of the book focuses on the U.S. military campaign in Kosovo in 1999 and the peacekeeping mission that followed. Priest presents a selection of stories featuring those asked to administer the newly liberated province. These range from the good (a lieutenant colonel of the 82nd Airborne who tried to stamp out violent Albanian gangs) to the ugly (a staff sergeant of the same division who raped and murdered a schoolgirl).

Priest has done prodigious research, including travel (the book jacket informs us) "to twenty countries." The result of her labors is an often fascinating kaleidoscope of the U.S. military circa 2003. But it's not always clear what her snapshots -- compelling as many of them are -- add up to.

Priest herself doesn't always seem to know what to make of some of her material. She is critical of the CINCs for having too much power, but also critical of defense secretaries who have tried to rein them in. In describing Clinton Defense Secretary William Cohen's battles with Gen. Wesley Clark, the European CINC during the Kosovo War, for instance, she seems to take Clark's side.

Priest thinks it's a mistake to delegate nation building to the military, but she doesn't suggest a credible alternative. For all the limitations of the armed forces, the State Department and the Agency for International Development usually haven't done any better at promoting U.S. interests. Perhaps we need an updated version of the old British Department of Colonial Affairs to administer various hell holes around the world, but Priest doesn't say so.

At the end of The Mission she does, however, present an example of how supremely successful the military has been at nation building in the past -- postwar Germany. Just like today's soldiers in Kosovo or Afghanistan, those who occupied Germany in 1945 "received little specific instruction from Washington as to how to proceed. Soldiers were left to figure out the missions themselves."

Priest laments, "The toll on units was high, as they lost cohesiveness and discipline." Maybe. But the payoff was worth it -- a peaceful, democratic Germany, an achievement that once seemed as much of a fantasy as a democratic Iraq seems today.

This suggests a conclusion at odds with the thrust of The Mission. Until we can come up with a better alternative, perhaps we should leave the armed forces free to undertake nation-building in earnest, with soldiers being given maximum discretion to do what's best. In other words: CINC or swim. *

Max Boot is Olin Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."

A U.S. Special Forces soldier in Khwaja Bahuaddin, Afghanistan