From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond: War and Politics in the American Experience, 3rd ed

  • Published

From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond: War and Politics in the American Experience, 3rd ed., by Donald M. Snow and Dennis M. Drew. M. E. Sharpe, 2009, 352 pp.

In their historical narrative From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond, authors Donald Snow and Dennis Drew take a Clausewitzian view that “war is a continuation of political activity by other means.” They expound upon that idea by examining US military engagements and relating how those experiences can inform future decisions when the use of power via military action is a necessary extension of the political process. Starting with the presupposition that at certain times military force is an appropriate means of furthering foreign policy objectives, the book covers our nation’s conflicts, large and small, in 300-plus pages. The authors tackle the daunting task of addressing lessons learned from large wars such as the Civil War and World War II as well as lesser conflicts like the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. In doing so, they provide a 70,000-foot view of our nation’s military experience, from birth to present day.

A great read for anyone interested in the relationship between politics and war in our nation’s history, From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond starts by addressing the general mind-set of Americans and the ways it differs from that of citizens of most other countries. Our legacy of military success and isolation from warfare on our home soil has created a unique sense of optimism, built partly on mythology. This “can do” attitude, coupled with our tendency to frame military actions in terms of moral absolutes, results in a lack of understanding among Americans of the relationship between politics and military force. Snow and Drew offer an alternative to the American tendency of viewing wars as isolated incidents resulting from a call to defend liberty and defeat a well-defined evil. This overly simplistic view has led to our failure to understand the complex relationship between political and military objectives. Americans expect the military, when called upon, to overcome both the will and ability of other nations. But can we overcome another nation’s will unless we embrace the political objectives that lead to military actions in the first place? As a nation, our record of attaining the political objectives for which military forces are deployed is much less impressive than our record of defeating the military forces of our adversaries on the battlefield. This book demonstrates the need to learn from our past military experiences in order to impose our will more successfully on our adversaries. After all, if Clausewitz is right, then the end game of all military action calls for realizing political objectives, not breaking things and killing people.

The authors first examine the American Revolution. Ironically, our initial experience at war was a draw, at best, on the battlefield but an absolute success in terms of imposing our political will on the enemy. The book moves well from one conflict to another, highlighting many political lessons along the way, such as how George Washington’s political intelligence guided some of his decisions on military strategies and engagements, what similarities existed between the British situation in America and the American situation in Vietnam, and how our failure to understand and adhere to our initial political objectives in Korea resulted in our snatching defeat (or, at the very least, a severely diluted victory) from the jaws of (absolute) victory. Snow and Drew address the significance of political objectives both during and after the war. For example, the differences between President Lincoln’s and his successor’s view of postwar peace are generally understood. Less well understood is the mirroring of those differences on the international stage with respect to the treatment of Germany after World War II. The political decisions following the Civil War proved consequential for the nation, particularly for the South, and had long-lasting consequences. Similarly, the political decisions following World War I proved consequential for the world, particularly Germany, and planted the seeds for World War II. Failures in the international political realm after World War I set the stage for World War II, and failures in the international political realm after World War II set the stage for future conflicts in Vietnam and Korea.

By covering each of our nation’s major military engagements, the authors shed light on the complex yet consistent relationship between war and politics. They do not hide the ball with regard to their criteria for “good” political objectives and their philosophical bearings. Rather, they seek to educate the reader on war and its purpose as a tool of national policy. Military conflicts never occur in a vacuum, despite our tendency to view them in such a way. The book is an excellent read, moving naturally from conflict to conflict, but the reader must understand what it is and is not. In short, From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond is a windshield tour of war and politics in our nation’s history. Far from an exhaustive study (no 3,000-page volume could be, much less one of 300 or so pages), it attempts to cover a considerable amount of history in relatively few pages—its principal weakness. If readers approach the book as a starting point, then they will not be disappointed. An important read for military leaders or anyone interested in war or politics (since the two are inseparable), it helps the reader understand the importance of political objectives in our military engagements—not simply until the sound of the first shot but throughout the war and the peace that follows.

Capt Chris Sanders, USAF

Minot AFB, North Dakota

"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."