Book Review: The Last Warrior
by Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts
Basic Books, 2015
At one point in the affectionate if slightly dutiful memoir Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts have crafted about their erstwhile boss at the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, Andrew Marshall, who’d been at ONA for fifty years and is there still (although there’s a rumor he’ll be retiring in 2015) is referred to as “Yoda,” but readers of a fictional bent coming to The Last Warrior will be reminded not of a little green Jedi master but of a certain Victorian consulting detective – or rather, his brother. More than once in reading this book, I was reminded of Mycroft Holmes, and of brother Sherlock’s comment that “The conclusions of every department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange, the clearinghouse, which makes out the balance. All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience.”
The Office of Net Assessment, a low-profile and somewhat nebulous in-house think-tank, prides itself on long-term thinking and the formulation of serious, thought-provoking questions about the goals and dangers of U.S. foreign policy, and Marshall has been the spider at the heart of the web (to allude to an entirely different mastermind from Doyle’s canon) the whole time, serving a longer string of presidents and cabinet secretaries than any other high-level government official. Indeed, Robert Gates, the 22nd Secretary of Defense, offers a brief preface to the book, declaring: “Those of us who have served with Marshall have been the fortunate beneficiaries of his wisdom and insight, which have repeatedly paid enormous dividends during some of the most challenging periods in our recent history.”
Not just recent history either, naturally: Marshall’s ONA was instrumental in shaping the Pentagon’s responses to the Soviet Union at the height of its power. Krepinevich and Watts take their readers through all the sea-changes Marshall experienced as presidential administrations came and went – his status “significantly enhanced” by President Carter’s restructuring of the National Security Council’s staff, seeking to break the power of long-time national security adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, for instance, whereas President Reagan’s defense secretary Caspar “Cap” Weinberger, found himself with the “embarrassment of riches” of a grotesquely swollen defense budget and “thus for the new defense secretary,” our authors diplomatically put it, “Marshall’s net assessments had little to offer.”
Distressingly for a book designed as a celebration, that Cap Weinberger-style stone wall is rammed more often than not. Our authors are frequently forced to some variation of “Marshall’s advice fell on deaf ears” (or, more wittily, “[Marshall] could lead policy-making horses to water, but he could not make them drink – or, perhaps, think”). Throughout his career, Marshall sought to construct an American international response in which all of the country’s wars were “small, limited in means, and far away” – a philosophy that, needless to say, wasn’t always in line with executive approaches. The fracture only widens as the book goes on, and despite the bonhomie of our authors, it’s possible to detect at times a note of bitterness in their hero:
Only two days before Operation Iraqi Freedom began [in 2003], Watts asked Marshall whether there was any evidence that senior Pentagon decision makers might embrace either the strategy of advantage or the specific areas of of US competitive advantage that had been discussed since 2001. His response was, “No.”
“Very few smart people can tolerate anonymity,” one of Marshall’s friends observes, “but Andy can.” It’s a fascinating aberration inside the Beltway, but it has obvious limitations, the foremost being that anonymity can make for a frusratingly inert narrative, one in which two-thirds of the book can go by before we get a passage like this one:
What are the implications for traditional power projection in a future in which a number of nations, starting with China, possess robust reconnaissance-strike capabilities? And what might this ultimately mean for America’s role in the world? These are the kinds of first-order questions Marshall had always raised and is still posing to the military and the OSD civilians through war games, workshops, and studies. Arguably Marshall’s persistence in raising these questions has influenced US defense strategy.
Nobody’s going to cheer, after an hour of steady reading, to realize that “arguably” is the best we’re going to get. (Unfortunately, Krepinevich and Watts sometimes don’t help matters; they’ve spent so much time reading and re-reading piles of old memos that their prose too often sounds like another memo; incidences of bloated corporate-speak abound – “going forward,” for example, is used so often I thought I was going to be carsick).
It’s the nature of the paradox: the grise can never be separated from the eminence. Since Marshall studiously avoided the spotlight, any accout of his long public service will necessarily be more shadows than light, despite the ardent admiration of his former colleagues, who never miss an opportunity to sing his praises:
Those who have been close to Marshall over the years – the authors included – have been impressed with his unique personal qualities as with his penetrating intellect. Gifted with an extraordinary memory for people, places, events, and substantive issues involving strategy and the future security environment, his recollections have rarely been contradicted by archival material and other documentary sources. The accuracy of Marshall’s memory is nothing short of astonishing. Time and again his exceptional recall has enabled him to make connections between national security issues that would elude many of today’s best defense analysts.
The last point is certainly the strongest lasting impressiong of The Last Warrior: here was a priceless public servant, one worth a dozen of his putative bosses over the decades. You’ll start the book never having heard of Andrew Marshall; you’ll finish it hoping, selfishly, that he postpones that retirement a few more years.