On War and Politics

  • Published

On War and Politics by Arnold L. Punaro. Naval Institute Press, 2016, 288 pp.

Arnold Punaro is a retired Marine Corps Reserve major general who gained some prominence as a staffer to Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA). Punaro joined Nunn in his first year in office in 1973 and remained with him until Nunn's 1997 retirement. Upon Nunn's rise to the top of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in 1983, Punaro led his efforts there.

I share the author's background as Marine reservist and staffer supporting a SASC member, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK). We had a brief "mentoring" conversation decades ago. Punaro was known as formidable and tart, and he acknowledges his temper in these pages. His brash, aggressive nature complemented the staid Senator Nunn. And, he confesses some deceit in furthering his goals, offering several examples of negotiating positions or bluffs.

Punaro begins in Vietnam where he is wounded and receives the Bronze Star with valor. He strips the glamour off platoon leadership there: we see friendly fire, collateral damage, Marines asleep on watch, poor equipment, and bizarre regimental leadership. Even Marine legend and future Col Jim Van Riper, his company commander, reflects a backward system in downgrading Punaro for losing field shovels. But there is also heroism. The author returns repeatedly to the corporal he never met, who died evacuating Punaro from the battlefield in 1970.

Punaro eloquently laments a zero-defect mentality that rids the military of colorful (if flawed) characters. But without reconciling the contradiction, he praises the sweeping, even punitive, response to the Navy's 1991 Tailhook scandal, which resulted in the scrutiny of every naval officer for a full decade afterward. His metaphor of Congress as a battlefield may be slightly overwrought, but he ably captures the unglamorous reality of much Capitol Hill work: constituent pleading, the autopen, long-winded senators (even behind closed doors), and cramped quarters for most.

Senator Nunn is the saintly figure just off stage in most of the story. In Punaro's telling, Nunn's only possible shortcoming is that he's a demanding boss whose staffers work long hours. We hear multiple times that Nunn defeated then-Gov. Jimmy Carter's hand-picked appointee. Other than the long shadow of his predecessor once removed, Sen. Richard Russell, there is no mention of Nunn's successors or Georgia senators he served with, other than limited discussion of Herman Talmadge. Typical of the Senate, there is little attention paid to the House.

Did Punaro favor the Marine Corps in his day job? Scuttlebutt so speculated, but he comes across as no uncritical toady. For example, he correctly warned Commandant PX Kelley that his post–Beirut bombing testimony would be disastrous. Recalling his time being mobilized post–9/11, Punaro criticizes the Corps for a poorly located reserve headquarters, among other things. He dismisses but does not do justice to the Marine objections to women in ground combat in his policy discussion near the book's end.

Punaro revisits several old issues: He reports Nunn and Sen. John Warner (R-VA) funded the all-volunteer force that nearly died in its early years. Nunn similarly added major end strength to the Defense Intelligence Agency while the Central Intelligence Agency was being gutted in the Carter administration. The landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act was generated by the SASC. In keeping with what could be today's controversies, Nunn coauthored amendments that required greater contributions and burden sharing from NATO partners. In an obscure mini-brouhaha, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell is "taken to the woodshed" for "poor judgment" in a closed-door SASC session for leaking extensively to author Bob Woodward.

Oddly, Punaro does not address the failed 1989 nomination of John Tower to be secretary of defense, the first original cabinet pick rejected by the Senate. Tower was only four years removed from being SASC chairman, and Punaro praises him in the book, but Nunn (and presumably Punaro) led the opposition, which was highly personal in nature. Another oversight is the base realignment and closure effort to reduce excess infrastructure, a process administrations request and Congress mostly resists.

Air Force readers will find his discussion of the F-117 versus the F-22 interesting. The service wrongly liked the latter, not the former, he says. He mentions that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates unwisely ended the F-22 in 2009. This topic would benefit from more discussion.

Like a good staffer, Punaro downplays Nunn's mistake in opposing Operation Desert Storm. He blurs concerns about maneuver formations (Marines might be sitting ducks for dug-in Iraqis) with the larger question of whether to wage war. Is he reporting for the first time that then-Marine Commandant Al Gray opposed Desert Storm? He praises his committee's four days of public hearings, but the House Armed Services Committee (led by Les Aspin) got greater plaudits as more balanced. Punaro's discussion reads as if lifted directly from his brief December 1990 mobilization to Kuwait. But Nunn described this vote as his biggest regret, Punaro acknowledges. He doesn't include that Nunn said it ended any possible presidential hopes.

After his congressional tour, Punaro is activated to the Pentagon. He discovers that reservists are significantly less expensive than active duty troops and that the traditional military retirement is what he claims is "exorbitant." He successfully reorients doctrine to place the Guard and Reserve as operational and not strategic reserve.

He is mostly convincing that his era of the SASC demonstrated exceptional effectiveness. He portrays several SECDEFs as finding it impossible to reform the Pentagon. How does he square his description of chronic unaddressed national problems (debt, entitlements, and so forth) and poor leadership with a book chock-full of leaders he reveres?

The book has useful personal interjections from his wife plus entertaining cameos by Elizabeth Taylor, Hillary Clinton, Creighton Abrams, and pre-famous Ted Turner and Ollie North, among others. He's mildly self-deprecating, usually involving some fashion failure. He needs more dates for some events recounted here.

Overall, the book is a fascinating, if occasionally frustrating, read. Defense-minded readers interested in Congress will enjoy this book. On War and Politics is extremely readable: part memoir, part policy prescription, and the rare book you wish were longer. The upper levels of Congress and the Pentagon could use more Arnold Punaros.

Col Gregory C. McCarthy, USMCR

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."