Max Boot: Conservative website blasts his new history of war

Historians in the News

[Martin Sieff is national security correspondent for United Press International. He has reported from more than 60 countries, covered seven guerrilla wars and ethnic conflicts and been nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.]

Historical surveys of war and the way technological developments change the way it is fought are common—from the tours de force of major military historians like Martin Van Creveld and William O’Neill to potboilers marketed to 12-year-old boys. In his new book, Max Boot certainly aspires to be among the former, and the enthusiastic recommendations on the book’s dust jacket from no less than Sen. John McCain, Robert Kaplan, retired Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor, and Paul Kennedy certainly add to this impression. But War Made New is remarkably superficial and filled with the most extraordinary lacunae. It ignores—by accident or design—the most important developments in modern military technology.

Boot follows the familiar pattern of taking supposedly pivotal battles that changed military history, describing them in a dramatic and easily accessible outline, and then briefly discussing the forces that were their deciding factors. Yet his choice of battles is very bizarre. No chapter in his book covers any major battle of World War I. The Korean War and the Vietnam War are ignored, even though the former is a classic example of a theme Boot celebrates: the superiority of militaries with advanced technology.

With such technology in Korea, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps virtually annihilated the Chinese forces that vastly outnumbered them. Vietnam was different: there, the most advanced military technology, however profusely used, could not end a politically and tactically complex guerrilla conflict. Though the latter example is quite relevant to the United States’ conundrums in Iraq, Boot attempts no significant discussion of the topic. Nor does he discuss any of the anticolonial guerrilla wars, which defined major conflicts for most of the second half of the 20th century, or the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which demonstrated the vulnerability of close support aircraft and main battle tanks to handheld missiles fired by poorly trained conscript soldiers.

But Boot does include a stirring account—filled with simplistic martial clichés that would have made Richard Harding Davis blush—of the combination of horse cavalry and high tech that supposedly worked unprecedented wonders in 2001 to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan. The trouble is, as Boot never notes, that conquering Afghanistan is extremely easy. The British did so three times in just over 80 years. In 1979, the Red Army pulled it off 20 times faster than American and Afghan allied forces did in 2001.

There was nothing epochal or revolutionary about the way the 2001 campaign was fought. In fact, it was disastrously bungled. The squeamishness and incompetence of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his right-hand man, Paul Wolfowitz, meant that insufficient U.S. Special Forces were used in the Tora Bora and Anaconda operations, allowing the key command cadres of al-Qaeda to escape—a strategic development with most disastrous consequences for the long-term war on terrorism.

Boot’s chapter on Iraq is even more inept, misleading, and downright wrong than the one on Afghanistan. The chapter’s climax is May 1, 2003, the day President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln—which is like ending an account of World War II with the Nazis’ conquest of France or cutting off “Hamlet” in the first act and claiming that the play had a happy ending. Since that day, of course, the unending violence in Iraq has confounded the Rumsfeld-neocon contention that super-advanced technology has indeed made war new, as Boot claims in his book....

War Made New is significant in that it appears to represent an attempt by a prominent neoconservative to reclaim his and his friends’ reputations for expertise on modern war that were so damaged by their repeated and documented incompetence in crafting U.S. policy and dominating public discourse on the Iraq War—not to mention the unfolding fiasco in Afghanistan. The enthusiastic recommendation of Sen. McCain, an acknowledged war hero and the clear Republican frontrunner for the 2008 presidential nomination, confirms that this bogus rehabilitation remains a very real possibility. The book is therefore of significance as a political and propaganda ploy. But as serious military history or any kind of useful guide to U.S. policymaking, it is simply farcical.

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