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Thursday, February 12, 2015

“A Country Made by War: From the Revolution to Vietnam – The Story of America’s Rise to Power”, by Geoffrey Perret



629 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-0394553986

Ask your average American if their country is Peace-or-War loving and they will likely answer “Peace” (all things considered). However, at the time that A Country Made by War: From the Revolution to Vietnam – The Story of America’s Rise to Power was published – 1989 – the United States had fought in nine major wars over nine generations, “a remarkable record for a politically stable country that considers itself peace loving” as Mr. Perret says. This is not a hit piece on the U.S., however, but rather an attempt by Perret to place these wars within the wider context of the development of American society. Beginning with the events that led up to the skirmish at Concord Bridge in April 1775 and the start of the Revolutionary War, Mr. Perret continues the story of American arms to the fall of Saigon in April 1975 and beyond. The Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War – as well as the Indian wars (1865-1898), the Philippine insurrection (1899-1902), the 1916 Mexican border campaign against Pancho Villa – are all covered in some detail, and Mr. Perret’s notes provide an excellent bibliography for those seeking additional information.

As Perret sees it, the study of American military history has been pulled in opposing directions by two very different historians: Emory Upton, the American Army General, military strategist and veteran of the Union Army, who believed that politics and war were two separate things; and Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and military theorist, who believed quite the opposite. Perret is a Clausewitzian at heart, and the Prussian emphasized that blaming the military for war was absurd; war is a political act, he said, with politics defined as “the intercourse of peoples and their government”, and the beauty of A Country Made by War is that Mr. Perret places America’s conflicts precisely in the context of this intercourse of peoples and their government. But the book is by no means a dry scholarly text written in academese in which, to quote Galbraith, “obscurity is next to divinity” (you’ll see damn few Galbraith quotes from me, so enjoy). Blessed with a particularly lucid writing style, Mr. Perret accomplishes the difficult task of writing a readable and entertaining book that does not sacrifice historical accuracy.

The concluding chapter, “Tomorrow Began Yesterday”, is devastating (remember, this was written in 1989), and among his final thoughts are: “A democratic society and its military rise and fall together…[i]n a free country the military cannot perform well, no matter how much is spent on it, when government, the banks, the big corporations, the schools, the colleges, the courts, the police and the media perform badly”. One would hope that someone in authority has read A Country Made by War at some point in their lives and has taken its conclusions to heart – I doubt it, though.

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