Top positive review
SUITS VERSUS UNIFORMS
26 September 2018
Bob Woodward, co-hero of the Watergate disclosures, is on the point of giving us his take on President Trump. Having got out of touch with his work since Nixon, I thought it was time to refamiliarise myself to some degree, so on spotting a Marketplace copy going for £0.01 plus postage I leapt into action, and I can certainly recommend others to do as near likewise as they can.
A reviewer can reasonably be expected to tell his readers what the book is about, so let me say candidly that I’m guessing about that to a certain extent. Why ‘WarS’ – plural? The one war in question is the war in Afghanistan, but I more than half suspect that Woodward is elevating the Washington infighting to some kind of war status. One does not have to be American to be familiar with the backstabbing, leaking and doublespeak that goes on. What astonished me was not so much its extent as the downright blatancy of it. Here are cabinet decisions, painstakingly kept clear, being questioned as if they had never happened. Here are military strategies, still undecided and under powerful questioning, being aired in the public prints by the very generals who were still supposed to be part of the decision-making process. Obviously we have to keep in mind the scenario of a rookie President, not yet 50 years old, with a mere 4 years’ experience in the US Senate and no service in the armed forces. All the same you could not precisely say that Dwight D. Eisenhower on taking office as President lacked military background, yet as far as establishing his writ in Washington we know what his predecessor said
‘That goddam general will sit in this goddam chair and he’ll say
“Do this” and “Do that” and not one goddam thing will happen.’
What the story is largely about is the way that the inexperienced but cerebral and determined young president got used to this and by the end of the book was becoming more forceful with his supposed subordinates. He sacked General Stan McChrystal for one glaring offence, and that not the first such either. Interestingly, Woodward seems to say that this took the military aback, so I would have loved to see what the history of this kind of situation was. Whether this book is intended in part as a study of Obama’s development as a leader in certain particular circumstances I don’t know, but whether it is or not, even a plain listing of the relevant instances could hardly avoid creating this impression. By the end of this long book the war in Afghanistan is still in progress, but it appears at least the actions being taken are in accordance with Commander-in-Chief’s commands-in-chief.
The style of the book does not sit with me very well, but this is the great Bob Woodward and this is one particular kind of American journalism even if not my own favourite kind. It is really the chronicle of a war of ideas, but it is presented entirely as a string of statements by the participants. To try to get more of an impression of these men of destiny (plus Hillary of course) I turned gratefully to the set of b/w plates infixed to the middle of the volume. Here we found mainly middle-aged men in suits or uniforms, and all of course white except for the c-in-c himself. Whether they are all made of ticky-tacky I couldn’t say, but they all look the same to me. The drama of ideas here was real and it was to say the least important, but the ideas are purveyed to us by these waxworks, and I could not help feeling at times that this presentation trivialised the issues. There is even another basic question on which I can’t make up my mind, and it’s whether the battle-forces correspond, at least roughly, to uniforms versus civilians. It works out like that at times, but these dramatis personae consist of individuals, and when they organise themselves into alliances the alliances keep re-forming their memberships. I wonder whether Bob Woodward has some update for us regarding this in the new era of Trump.
Very rightly Bob Woodward explains, or tries to explain, in his preface how he managed to come by so much confidential information, and I am not going to summarise, or try to summarise, this in a review, as I think that would just pile a Mount Pelion of speculation and uncertainty on top of the Ossa of doubt that Woodward has already assembled. Having a set of talking heads to put all this vital data across to us is the kind of semi-chatty idiom that does not appeal to me. What should be a Thucydidean exposition of forceful ideas forging history through the mouths of major spokesmen (plus of course Hillary again) becomes a kind of rambling set of meeting-minutes. I have seen it apparently suggested by another reviewer that this makes the book too long, and I would have to admit that I found it a slightly laboured read. Never mind, it’s Bob Woodward, and it will be a long time if ever that I shall read an account of all this whose honesty I can simply take as read from the start.