Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. .

Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. . – book review

Denis Kaufman

Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. By Robert A. Divine. College Station: Texas A&M Univ. Press, 2000. 128 pages. $14.95. Reviewed by Denis Kaufman, a senior intelligence analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center, Ft. Detrick, Maryland.

Robert Divine is a professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin. In 1998 he initiated a series of lectures addressing America’s involvement in 20th-century wars. The lectures centered on three themes: entering wars, fighting wars, and ending wars. This book, organized in three corresponding chapters, is a compilation of those lectures, with an epilogue added to address the Kosovo adventure.

At the end of Chapter 1, Divine puts his finger on the signal peculiarity of America’s encounter with the world-American exceptionalism:

A belief that the United States is exceptional–that it embodies virtues not found in other societies–finds expression in the concept of an American mission. It is America’s role in the world to spread its values, such as respect for the individual and the right of self government, for the benefit of all mankind. When Americans take up arms, it must be on behalf of these noble ideals.

This is an important theme in America’s encounter with the world, a theme Divine describes succinctly and well. He might have made the entire argument of Chapter 1 clearer had he started with it.

Rather, Divine opens his discussion with an assertion that Americans, particularly in the 19th century, “draw a line in the sand” as an excuse or ploy to justify the use of arms. He uses the Mexican War as his “best example” of this tendency. In 1846, President Polk wanted a war with Mexico. He sent troops into the contested region between the Rio Grande and Nueces rivers and waited for the Mexicans to respond. When they did, he asked Congress to declare war. It is, indeed, a classic example, but it may also be the only good clear example. Throughout the remainder of the chapter, Divine describes America drawing a line in the sand, even as he acknowledges that the model gets creakier and creakier.

Chapters 2 and 3 are far more challenging and stimulating. In Chapter 2, “Fighting Wars,” Divine elaborates on the theme of exceptionalism and its importance to our way of war:

Seeking moral justification for resorting to arms, Americans feel war must serve higher purposes than narrow national self-interest. By insisting on a moral purpose, by transforming conflicts into crusades, they tend to let their emotion dictate their actions. Instead of fighting for limited, tangible, achievable goals, Americans strive for lofty, often unattainable objectives.

Because we define our conflicts as crusades, the things we crusade against must therefore be evil and must be rooted out. Hence, unconditional surrender in World War II. Hence, frustration and confusion over the ambiguities of our endgames in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq.

How we end wars is the subject of Chapter 3. Here Divine uses as an example the dispute between Winston Churchill and the American leadership over allowing the Soviet Union free run of eastern Europe. Churchill wanted to exclude the Soviets from eastern Europe as much as possible, pushing for an attack north from the Adriatic, and later for a concentrated thrust at Berlin from the west as means to block Soviet advances. General Marshall argued to Roosevelt, successfully, that such political considerations should not influence operational planning and execution.

To Churchill, war was a natural state, a continuation of politics. Therefore political decisions taken in wartime would affect political realities of the peace that followed. To Marshall and Roosevelt, war was an aberration to be dealt with so we could get back to the peace that was so rudely interrupted. Of course the result was 45 years of Soviet enslavement of Central Europe and 45 years of superpower confrontation.

Similarly, in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf, American governments rallied the nation to causes of containing communism and aggression and came to grief when, in the end, they were willing to settle for accommodations with the very forces they had condemned.

Divine doesn’t denigrate America’s efforts in these wars; he acknowledges the necessity of defeating Nazi Germany and resisting the Soviet threat. He does aptly illustrate a continuum–starting with exceptionalism, leading through wartime rhetoric of condemnation and demonization, directed toward unattainable goals–and asks why we should ever be surprised that peace is so elusive. And so we perpetually wage war seeking perpetual peace.

The weakness of Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace is more in its construction than its content. I didn’t like the book at first and had to read it more than once to appreciate the value of Professor Divine’s opinions. Dealing with the three themes separately may have worked in a lecture hall, when the students are relating the lecture to other materials recently read and can pursue arguments with questions and discussion. In a book–particularly a rather small book such as this–separating the themes dilutes the discussion and arguments and makes them harder to follow. Fortunately, because it is a rather quick read, spending the time it takes to appreciate it, even if that requires reading it more than once, is well worth the investment.

COPYRIGHT 2001 U.S. Army War College

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group