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Thursday, July 18

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Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power by Max Boot
Basic Books, 2002. 384pp.

Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond by Michael Ignatieff
Metropolitan Books, 2000. 246pp.

It's hard not to be interested in military matters these days. Somewhere between September 11, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the occupation of Iraq, terms like "Sunni Triangle," "Bradley Fighting Vehicle" and "Revolution in Military Affairs" have become part of every American's vocabulary. For those of you interested in getting some perspective on the current controversy, there are a number of intelligent, well written books for the general reader. Of the wide field of books out there, Virtual War and Savage Wars of Peace are among the most interesting.

Both of the books speak to today's issues, but in different ways. Virtual War takes a long look at what the campaign in Kosovo teaches us about contemporary ways of making war, while Peace tries to make sense of our current engagements by examining the history of the United States' previous invasions. While their methods are different, they both take aim at current foreign policy and try to make sense of it.

But there the similarities end.

Virtual War is written by Michael Ignatieff, a Harvard professor who is better known for his role as a public intellectual than as an academic. A well-known leftist, Ignatieff's work is maddeningly inconsistent. His biography of Isaiah Berlin is scrupulously researched and touchingly intimate, covering the philosopher's academic work and his sex life with equal respect and insight. But then there's The Warrior's Honor, a book on the origins of ethnic strife in the modern world which is so embarrassingly naive that its analysis of tensions in the Balkans and Rwanda never gets more sophisticated than a therapy scene in a Woody Allen novel. Michael Ignatieff is the kind of guy that when friends ask your opinion about him, you hunch your shoulders, hold up your hand and wiggle it questioningly while making 'eh-eh' noises.

So one of the reasons that Virtual War is refreshing is that you can breathe a sigh of relief -- Ignatieff's account of the U.S. bombing of Kosovo is quickly paced, bracing, and insightful. The book is organized around personalities, with chapters dealing with each of the people in charge and a final chapter -- also called "Virtual War" -- which sums up Ignatieff's own views. Of particular current interest to readers may be chapter four, "Virtual Commander", which details Wesley Clark's role in coordinating NATO forces in Kosovo.

At the center of Ignatieff's account is the "Revolution in Military Affairs" -- the ability to use cruise missiles and highly accurate weapons to perform surgical strikes on your enemy without risking your own troops. As you may remember, the RMA was one of the keys in Rumsfeld's strategy in Iraq -- cripple the enemy's control system, and then roll into Baghdad unopposed while the grassroots folk cheer and wave American flags. As it turns out, Rumsfeld drank his own Kool-Aid -- conventional ground forces ended up playing a large roll in the invasion of Iraq. But Ignatieff isn't interested in the tactical fall-out of precision bombing. His question is more philosophical: What does it mean for a cause to be right or wrong when we can fight for it without risking our own lives? What is the morality of a war for Democracy when the only people who will die for the cause are our opponents? If something is worth killing others for, isn't it worth risking the death of our own soldiers?

Max Boot's Savage Wars of Peace takes a different tack. While Ignatieff is a professor trying to keep up a journalistic pace, Boot is a conservative journalist who has written a history as well-researched as any academic tome. The idea behind the book is simple: it is a concise history of America's "small wars" -- invasions and peace-keeping operations in which we deployed troops but didn't declare war. By detailing past involvements, it tries to help contextualize and make sense of our current situation.

What was the role of the United States in halting international Piracy in 1804? How did the U.S. handle the Phillipines after it wrested them from Spain in 1899? How did we govern Haiti when we took it over in 1915? These are all interesting questions, and readers who want a general overview of the history of these events will certainly appreciate Peace. But Boot's book suffers from a bad case of Marine Worship. The research for his 420 page book (twice the size of Virtual War) was spent mainly consulting soldier's memoirs and biographies, and as a result Boot lapses into a series of blow-by-blow of descriptions of the derring-do of the armed forces. The result is racy, to be sure, but most readers will probably want some more context. It's all very well to read of the bravery of Captain Smedley Butler, "The Fighting Quaker" (one of Boot's favorites), but How Smedley Butler Captured the Rebels At Midnight is a far cry from a more interesting history the book could tell. What did the American public think about the U.S. government running another country for 15 years (as it did in Haiti)? How did it justify the good done by building roads, school and hospitals? Did we think development was worth the price of seizing the sovreignty of an entire nation? Why didn't the Europeans protest?

Ultimately Boot never gives us the Big Picture, he just keeps on describing glorious conquests. And it is only in the last chapter that he begins to broach broader ethical questions. But by then, he's missed the chance to fill us in on the diplomatic or geopolitical reasons that led to the campaigns he describes in such detail. Instead we get truisms like "the U.S. has invaded countries before." Well yes, but why? And does that mean it's right for us to do it now? Nearly 400 pages later and you get the feeling Boot is finally beginning to understand the issues that Ignatieff addresses from the start.

On the other hand, Ignatieff's writing has a certain breathlessness to it. You can sort of feel him struggle to force a bunch of hastily-written chapters into a book. And chapter two -- I mean really! Chapter two is a bunch of emails written between him and another, more conservative thinker. The exchange is fascinating, don't get me wrong, but would have even better if he had bothered to do anything else other than remove the headers from the email. And reading the book, you definitely get the sense he is making it up as he goes along -- little bits of his argument and vision surface and disappear throughout the course of the book, only to gain coherence in the last chapter. The entire thing, in other words, feels a bit like a very long blog entry.

Like most books on current affair, both Virtual War and Savage Wars of Peace have a certain patchwork quality about them that comes from being written under the pressure of circumstance. But ultimately Ignatieff's meanderings, however infuriating, are preferable to Boot's plodding account of the minutiae of Marine history. Savage Wars of Peace is a great idea realized badly, while Virtual War is more modest in its scope but more deftly executed. While both have something to offer the militarily minded reader, Virtual War is cleaner, shorter, and more thought-provoking. Chalk up one for Michael Ignatieff.


About the Author(s)

Alex Golub writes about anthropology and science fiction at Golublog.

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