Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, By Robert A. Divine, Texas A&M UniversityPress, $14.95.
Usually, assembling a book by putting lectures between two covers is a certain route to discordant reading and contradictions. But in this case Robert A. Divine, author of numerous excellent books on war and foreign relations, has produced a collection of his lectures dealing with how and why the United States goes to war that is coherent, and his conclusions are clear, coordinated, and convincing.
Divine observes that while other nations will fight for narrow interests, Americans insist on having a high moral cause before they push their youth onto a battlefield. This leads to presidential calls for “making the world safe for democracy” or fighting a war “to end all wars.” To prove his point, he cites an isolated instance of a U.S. official offering a somewhat mundane rationale for war. When James Baker, President George H. Bush’s secretary of state, claimed America was fighting for “jobs” in the Persian Gulf he was immediately exposed to widespread verbal abuse and accusations. But when Americans compare the actual products of war to the noble aims expressed at the beginning of a conflict, discontent and even recriminations soon follow. Divine concludes that, in reality, the United States does fight for its interests, but Americans will probably continue to seek moral purposes for its wars and continue to experience this cycle of hope, disappointment, and cynicism. The reason? Lofty ideals coincide with their notion of America’s global purpose. Apparently nothing else will suffice.
Divine makes a compelling argument that when Americans settle on a moral cause to fight for, they are also unwittingly choosing the methods of total war-the logical means to achieve such an exalted aim. This, too, creates discontent because wars have their own sets of circumstances that normally produce limited, not unlimited, ends. The author uses the Persian Gulf War as an example of a president’s choosing the right limits to achieve the right goals but then still disappointing the American people, because deposing Saddam Hussein would have required the conquest of Iraq, an action that would have jeopardized more important war aims. He concludes that Americans are doomed to view war as a wholly unnatural act and not as simply a means to attain national interests when diplomacy fails.