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Book Review: Elusive Victories

Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War

by Andrew J. Polsky

Oxford University Press, 2012

The military-industrial complex against which so unlikely a prophet as President Eisenhower warned the American people fifty years ago has in that half-century taken on proportions even the victor of World War II could scarcely have imagined: $700 billion annually, with troops and equipment deployed all over the world every minute of every day. For over a decade, that deployment has been against an idea as much as an enemy; when President George W. Bush began talking in 2001 about a ‘war on terror,’ any remaining peaceniks from the 1960s must have cringed – terror almost by definition cannot be banished from the world, so a ‘war on terror’ must be fought perpetually. That war became a deadly legacy handed down to President Obama, and in all likelihood, some variation of it will be handed down to his successors. The whole concept brings Arthur Schlesinger’s ‘imperial presidency’ one big step closer to Imperial Rome.

For the United States, that’s been a particularly 20th century journey, and that journey is the subject of Andrew Polsky’s fantastic, erudite new book, Elusive Victories. Polsky takes as his subject the wartime presidencies of the modern era – Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama – and places before them all the dauntingly impressive (and dauntingly human) example of Abraham Lincoln, all with the aim of analysing how presidents lead the republic into wars, how they lead during those wars, and how they end them. Along with Lincoln, the American Civil War naturally casts a long shadow over the proceedings – the mis-match of 18th Century tactics and very nearly 20th Century firepower transformed that war into a prolonged and epic bloodbath. The sheer carnage of that conflict sets it apart; Polsky doesn’t dwell on other, relatively small-scale boutique wars of the fledgling nation, when a tiny peacetime standing army would be quickly and awkwardly enlarged upon the commencement of hostilities and then just as quickly and awkwardly disbanded once the treaties were signed. It’s probably for this reason that his treatment of Wilson feels more theoretical than the others – the book would almost certainly have been stronger if it confined itself to the post-WWII era, but honestly, Polsky’s writing is so enjoyable no reader is going to want there to be any less of it.

He’s certainly aware of that enormous military industry that forms the malevolent basis of his story:

No longer does the president have to await the organizing, equipping, and training of an army before embarking on a military venture. The United States has maintained for decades a military that dwarfs any of the nation’s pre-twentieth-century wartime forces. Even the end of the Cold War did not lead to dramatic reductions in the size of the U.S. military. And the difference is not merely one of numbers; American armed forces in the postwar era stand apart from the peacetime military of the past by such other measures as professionalism, proficiency, and speed.

He expertly synopsizes the various military conflicts involved – the American intervention in the First World War, the escalation of military involvement in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and the ‘war on terror’ sparked after the terrorist attacks of 2001 (in a bizarre but sadly commonplace historian’s decision, Polsky basically omits the Korean War) – but his main endeavor is analytical, not annalistic: he wants to understand how and why presidents go to war.

Perhaps predictably, he finds the process fraught with politics. 20th century presidents in the wake of WWII no longer bother to consult with Congress over their military decisions, much less seek permission to make those decisions in the first place. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 forbids presidents from making war personally and unilaterally, but every subsequent president has ignored that resolution and done as he (and his military advisors) pleased. And although Congress has never held accountable any of these erring Commanders in Chief, those presidents must still contend with political fallout. Polsky deftly examines the volatile psychological forces involved:

The most serious challenges in retaining public support arise in protracted limited wars. Johnson and [George W.] Bush both discovered that a decision not to mobilize the nation for war becomes a double-edged sword. Although most citizens are not directly discomfited, especially in the absence of a draft, they also do not feel they have a direct stake in the outcome … a growing percentage of the public wonders why, if so much is at stake, Americans have not been asked to make more sacrifices.

One of the most interesting points of Elusive Victories hinges on the question of presidential involvement in the wars of their making. Polsky makes a convincing case (at times more convincing than he himself seems to realize) that presidents who look upon war as an extension of politics and therefore intimately involve themselves in the military decisions being made in their name – the Lincoln model – fare much better than those who mainly delegate decision-making authority to their military commanders on the ground. Presidents are free – indeed, compelled – to remember the ‘Big Picture’ of war (its international ramifications, its domestic dimensions, most of all its potential aftermaths); in-theater commanders are prone – indeed, compelled – to forget it, often with disastrous results.

And timing, as our author conclusively demonstrates, is still key:

In war, time is a president’s true enemy. At the beginning of a conflict, he exercises agency over a broad range of choices. He defines national objectives including the kind of peace he seeks, chooses his military commanders, decides how many troops to commit, defines or approves strategy, and forges international coalitions. But each choice necessarily forecloses other possible paths and each one makes it more costly and perhaps impossible to reverse direction.

As can be clearly inferred from that last point, this book has a strong cautionary theme running through it. Polsky does an impressive job avoiding partisanship, and although even the most rigorous such avoidance usually ends up indicting George W. Bush on several topic headings, several times, even that post-enlightenment darling President Obama isn’t spared the cold glance of Polsky’s inquiry (and in his personal and illegal decision to patrol Libyan airspace in 2011, Obama was just as guilty as all the other presidents who’ve ignored US law, so he deserves the inquiry just like the others do), but there’s no score-settling in these pages. Instead, there’s chapter after chapter of vigorously-envisioned and often quite elegantly phrased examination of the background patterns behind wartime presidencies – their successes (always made from a position of strength, as Polsky points out … presidents who wait until the armistice is signed lose their bargaining leverage) and their failures (specially cutting rhetoric is saved for those presidents who didn’t seem to care about planning for the aftermath of their own victories … and it’s refreshing that President Lincoln doesn’t escape this criticism). This is a book that will make readers think, that will challenge some of their long-held beliefs about the disposition of power in a free country.

At one point Polsky writes that “there is no wartime president’s ‘user’s manual’ that can serve as a guide – and there certainly isn’t a 24/7 help desk a president can call when a war goes badly.” After savoring the many understated marvels of Elusive Victories, readers might be forgiven for thinking this book is about as close to that ‘user’s manual’ as any we’re likely to see in the near future. It should be required reading in the Oval Office, among many other similar, though perhaps less culpable, places.