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I first read this book when I was in the seventh grade, back in 1983-84. At the time, Reagan's defense build-up was in full swing, and being interested in current events, I wanted to inform myself of the issues of the day.
Fallows' indictment of the Pentagon's weapons-procurement systems is persuasive and damning. His main theme is that money is wasted on high-tech, highly complex weapons systems like the M-1 Abrams tank and the F-15 Eagle fighter, when the same funds could buy much greater numbers of simpler, cheaper systems. His arguments seemed sound, and I was appropriately outraged at the senselessness of American defense spending. (Its wastefulness when better options were available, that is; I was quite the little hawk back then and was glad to see the nation rearming itself in the 1980's.)
But as the years rolled on, I noticed things that caused me to question whether Fallows was correct. For one thing: the Israeli Air Force, instead of spending its limited funds on large numbers of F-5's or the new F-20 Tigershark, instead spent the 1970's and 1980's buying not only the F-16, which Fallows favored, but also the large, complex F-15, which he opposed. Why? Surely, if there were ever a service which should seek the biggest bang for its buck, it was the IAF, which defended a nation facing continuous existential threats from Soviet-armed Arab nations. Why would they buy the F-15, not the F-20, if Fallows and the USAF's famed "fighter mafia" were right that smaller, simpler aircraft were better than large, complex ones?Read more ›
I bought this book, used, after it was recommended as a key source to a just-published book by Robert Coram, "BOYD: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War," which I recommend very strongly, together with this book for historical perspective. Although there may be a few inaccuracies (I did not notice anything substantial) what really matters about this book are two things: the author is a very serious critic with both Public Citizen and Atlantic Monthly credits, and the taxpayer's best interests in mind; and NOTHING HAS CHANGED since this book was published in 1981. If anything, it has gotten worse. One page (43) really jumped out at me, as it contains a chart showing how many planes can be bought for the same amount of money (1000 F-5s, 500 F-4s, 250 F-15s) and then now many sorties per day they can do because of complex logistics and other constraints (2.5/day for F-5's, 1.5 per day for F-4s, 1 per day for F-15s), finally concluding on the "real force" numbers: 2,500 for the F-5, 750 for the F-4, and 250 for the F-15. As General Wes Clark noted in his book of lessons learned as NATO Commander during the Kosovo crisis ("Waging Modern War"), he found the new USAF airplanes so unresponsive that they needed a full 24 hours notice to shift from one pre-planned task to another. The author is equally effective in criticizing the Navy for its obsession with carriers and other big ships; and the Army for complex helicopter systems that--as General Clark documents in his book--they are loath to actually use in combat because they might not work as advertised or might be blown out of the sky. In this book, the author gets the "constants" right, and they are still with us.Read more ›
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James Fallows is an excellent writer, andI would add, a excellent reporter- though not unqualifiedly so. In this boo he set out to reveal what he though were a number of failings in the US Defense establishment, concentrating on policy, strategy, and weapons procurement. In many areas he does an excellent job. In others, he does less well. Some of this is because of facts that weren't available to Fallows at the time he wrote this book. Some is because of the evolution of technologies, like RPVs, that weren't part of the equation when Fallows did his research. But in other cases, it's because he only told one side of the story. And in some cases, he simply got the facts of the matter wrong. There's a body of experimental evidence from studies done in the last decade that suggests people give highest credence to the first source of information they encounter. We're all prone to do this, and in many cases I think Falows found a source that seemed to do a good job of explaining the facts to him (like Paul Nitze) and he stopped there.
Let's start with the matter of the M-16. This is a story that's been told many times, and Fallows gets it mostly correct. But there's a lot missing from his telling. He credits Rep. Ichord with being the one man who set in motion the hearings that led to the revision of the M-16, but in point of fact, there are a number of men who were much more important. The first is then-Lt. Michael Chervenak, who bucked the chain of command, and sent the letters to several Congressmen and newspapers that really set everything in motion. Anoteher was Chervenak's CO, Richard Culver, a career officer who backed Chervenak up when the brass came gunning for him.Read more ›