The Game of Victory and Defeat

Five surveys on war - including the cold war - offer varying views of the motives for conflict and peace

CENTURY OF WAR: POLITICS, CONFLICTS, AND SOCIETY SINCE 1914 By Gabriel Kolko; The New Press 546 pp. $29.95. ON THE ORIGINS OF WAR AND THE PRESERVATION OF PEACE By Donald Kagan; Doubleday, 606 pp. $30. THE END OF VICTORY CULTURE: COLD WAR AMERICA AND THE DISILLUSIONING OF A GENERATION By Tom Engelhardt; BasicBooks, 351 pp., $25. MORE PRECIOUS THAN PEACE: THE COLD WAR AND THE STRUGGLE FOR THE THIRD WORLD By Peter W. Rodman; Scribner, 654 pp., $35. THE GREAT TRANSITION: AMERICAN-SOVIET RELATIONS AND THE END OF THE COLD WAR By Raymond Garthoff; Brookings, 834 pp. $44.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

Does the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war mean far-reaching changes in international relations? Or will diplomacy and war, victory and defeat, interests and influence, power and prestige, form the essence of global politics?

The Soviet collapse grants the United States a unique global hegemony, such as the world has never known. Assuming that this dominion is not abused, and that such regional irritants as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea remain quiescent, a global Pax Americana is not impossible.

Certainly, guerrilla and regional wars are likely to continue: Witness Bosnia. But the era of world wars that began in the 16th century may have ended, not through the rational interchange that liberals had looked to, nor the Marxist internationalism that radicals had assumed, but because one state far outstripped all the others.

In Century of War: Politics, Conflicts, and Society Since 1914, Gabriel Kolko nevertheless draws on Marxist demonology to insist that trouble lies ahead. The class struggle shapes history, he implies, with oppressive rulers leading us ever deeper into the mire. Witness the terrible wars their blunders have inflicted since 1914, and the American ``invasions'' of Korea and Vietnam.

Kolko perceives global peace as possible only if the oppressors are overthrown, as might well have occurred in 1945-46 had the US not intervened to police the world. He does play fair, however, shedding no tears for the downfall of communism, which to him is simply another form of state power, the communist-capitalist rivalry being essentially a sham. And so on, in long, highly abstract and ponderous sentences that overburden us: Theory prevails, data is junked. Kolko's is an Alice-in-Wonderland world, with events forced through hoops at his discretion.

After these gross simplifications, Donald Kagan's calm, scholarly assessment of the causes of four wars and one near miss brings us back down to earth in On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace.

Kagan, a classicist at Yale, looks to the two world wars, to the Peloponnesian and Second Punic War, and to the Cuba Missile Crisis. His book has a slightly simplified air, with dos and don'ts for the policymakers whom Yale long has helped mold. So Kagan's key imperative is the need for diplomats and politicians to actively, consciously pursue peace policies, and not simply to hastily improvise ad hoc formulas when crisis develops.

The cold war still provokes immense controversy from authors both left and right. The former include Tom Engelhardt, whose The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation fervently indicts Americans for a three-century obsession with crushing their enemies, especially nonwhites. Mixing cultural history with passionate political convictions, memories of his childhood in the 1950s, and a thin - often erroneous - skim of historical events, Engelhardt has produced a strange hodgepodge of denunciation and narrative.

But the conclusion is clear: Americans feel compelled to annihilate their enemies, and will feel compelled to find new ones now that the cold war has ended.

The question is why and how this apocalyptic vision developed? Here Engelhardt's superficial grasp of political and military history, and his excited, hyped-up, go-for-the-jugular style, combine to do him in. The cultural-psychological themes he addresses lack rigor, proof, balance, and common sense.

Solid evidence, for example, contradicts his assumption that Washington just itched to drop atomic bombs in the Korean War. Nor can we accept his conclusion that ordinary Americans, imbibing aggressiveness from a culture of violent war films, toy soldiers, and the like, delighted in annihilating the enemy. But how, then, did the peace movement emerge in the 1960s?

In More Precious Than Peace: The Cold War and the Struggle for the Third World, Peter Rodman offers a right-wing assessment of the cold war that unknowingly turns Engelhardt on his head. Rodman began as a staffer for Henry Kissinger, and his thinking parallels that of his mentor: Military force should be used unhesitatingly since the Soviets are willful troublemakers, and only the US can ensure world order. He also subscribs to the thinking that the liberal establishment dominates the media and the universities, and would give away the store if it could.

Rodman argues that it was American victories in the struggle between the Soviets and former President Ronald Reagan for Afghanistan, Angola, and Central America that helped topple Soviet communism. The author's personal involvement in these ventures lends authority and insight to his narrative. Not surprisingly, he views Congress as a major policy obstacle but his criticism is relatively restrained, quite lacking in the angry self-righteousness that typified some Reagan conservatives.

IF Rodman has written a useful book from an insider's perspective, then Raymond Garthoff of the Brookings Institution displays in The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War the skills of a superb contemporary historian. As a former foreign-policy specialist, he combines broad knowledge with excellent connections in Washington and Moscow.

In 40 years of writing on Soviet military and nuclear doctrine and on relations between the two superpowers, Garthoff has shown what a scholarly, dispassionate observer can achieve - despite the restrictions on classified documents.

Having already written about the 1970s, Garthoff now addresses the 1981-91 era in this definitive text that punctures myths about ``losing'' and ``winning'' the cold war. ``Still less,'' Garthoff writes, ``was the Cold War won by the Reagan military buildup and the Reagan Doctrine.... Instead, `victory' came when a new generation of Soviet leaders realized how badly their system at home and their policies abroad had failed.''

So much for the sneer that Soviet leaders cared only about monopolizing power and that they casually ignored the welfare of the ordinary citizen.

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