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The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military Hardcover – March 1, 2003
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Since the end of the Cold War, writes Dana Priest in The Mission, "U.S. leaders have been turning more and more to the military to solve problems that are often, at their root, political and economic." Priest contends that "long before September 11, the U.S. government had grown increasingly dependent on its military to carry out its foreign affairs. The shift was incremental, little noticed, de facto.... The military simply filled a vacuum left by an indecisive White House, an atrophied State Department, and a distracted Congress." In this important book, Priest describes how and why the military has recently been called upon to combat drug trafficking, deal with terrorism, oversee humanitarian disaster relief, and even carry out disarmament programs--a major increase in responsibility that has not always been welcomed by military leaders. Indeed, in what seems like role reversal, civilian political appointees, particularly in the Bush administration, have repeatedly called upon the military to deal with nation building, while most military leaders have pushed for overwhelming use of political and economic force instead. As Priest points out, this shift in responsibility comes at a time when both the American public and decision-makers "understand less and less about their military." Part of this ignorance stems from the fact that U.S. special forces (from all branches of the military) often carry out critical policy missions in secret and without clear objectives from Congress or the president.
Priest spent considerable time in the field with top military brass and foot soldiers alike in such hot spots as Colombia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and the Balkans, where she got the inside scoop on how operations are carried out and what those in the military think of their expanded roles. Priest's description of the culture of the various special forces units and their leaders is particularly fascinating. The Mission is a revealing look at the consequences of substituting warriors for diplomats on the frontline of U.S. foreign policy. --Shawn Carkonen
From Publishers Weekly
Military affairs correspondent for the Washington Post, Priest won the 2001 Gerald R. Ford Award for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. She argues, in what is essentially a series of expanded columns, that the military, steadily and by default, has been assuming a spectrum of authority and responsibility in international affairs that it is ill-prepared to exercise wisely. Central to the process has been the growing power of regional commanders-in-chief, who since Desert Storm have been acting as virtual proconsuls for successive administrations unwilling to develop and assert coherent foreign policies. Priest's defining figure is Gen. Anthony Zinni, the maverick Marine who thoroughly enjoyed the perquisites of his appointment as commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Middle East, central Asia and east Africa, and in the process seemed to regard himself as a bridge between the states of the Middle East and a Washington that persistently failed to understand the region. Arguably even more useful is Priest's treatment of the deployment of a battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division as peacekeepers in Bosnia-the event that led Condoleeza Rice to say that the U.S. did not maintain elite combat forces to escort children to school. There is a good human interest essay focusing on a civilian woman who served as a contract interpreter in Kosovo. The work concludes with a survey of the shortcomings of the U.S. effort in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The individual pieces, however, never quite add up to an integrated work. From general criticism of the concept of overseas military satrapies, Priest turns to a critique of the system that gives soldiers on the ground poorly defined missions and little specific instruction on how to proceed. This is a legitimate criticism, but Priest does not advocate any particular solution. As reportage, The Mission has merit, but as defense analysis, it falls short.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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I was particularly struck by the contrast between the resources available for the military commanders in various countries, and the US ambassadors to the same countries. The commanders can have transport and material resources which are an order of magnitude away from the civilians, and therefore the local politicians/dictators get the message that the US relationship is mainly a military one. Priest gives a good overview, especially in the Kosovo, of the power and limitations of the military-only relationship. She also concludes that even the military must take some part in peace-making and low level nation-building, but the bigger story in that the US, by virtue of its size and power, must take a nation-development role if it hopes to avoid having a low-level war with the developing world for generations to come. In fact the situation has probably got clearly since, and the current debate about leaving Afghanistan and non-intervention in Syria, makes this book appear prophetic.
Lastly there are remarkable portraits of Generals Zinni and Blair who were combatant commanders in the Central and Pacific commands during this time period. The contrast between their power and status when in the military and their post-military career is significant (though not mentioned in the book), Zinni was messed about when proposed but eventually not selected as ambassador to Saudia Arabia, Blair was later director of National Intelligence in the Obama White House, but was could not get along in that particular fishbowl and was fired in mid 2010.
"The Mission" raises fundamental questions about our government's ever-changing world-concept, and the role of our military in advancing goals better suited for diplomats and the UN. More specifically, she brings up the trend of using our forces for "peace-keeping" & "nation-building" missions which they're obviously not well suited for (at this time). Yes, our military is the best at what it does in most cases, but it has serious limitations when we attempt to use it for unclear post-war objectives in countries with broken infrastructure. She provides detailed accounts of Kosovo, where one Lt. Col. wanders the streets and is reminded of his experience in the 1991 debacle of Somalia. There is a brief and disturbing account of an Army soldier who raped and murdered a young Albanian girl, and details of other negative encounters between young, un-worldly American soldiers and their Serb & Albanian "protectees". One interesting chapter deals with the complex world of a female Albanian-American translator trying to fit in with her fellow American soldiers. Priest also touches on the nature of covert, Special Ops. military training and relations with various troubled countries such as Colombia, Nigeria, and Indonesia.
Fundamental questions arise throughout the book: What exactly is nation-building, and should we be engaged in it? Have we already abandoned Kosovo and Afghanistan? Do we have the funds, military resources, will-power, justification, or desire to play international policeman? Will we keep our promises to the peoples we set out to protect? The answers aren't here, but "The Mission" sets the table from which this crucial discussion will definitely continue.