The American habit of napping just before a war starts
When historian and author David Halberstam included a reference to terrorism in his latest bestseller, "War in a Time of Peace," he didn't expect it to appear prophetic.Skip to next paragraph
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The comments - on the last page of the book - refer to what he says was common sense even before Sept. 11: That the biggest threat to an open society like America is not from the military of a rogue nation, but from a terrorist who walks into a city "with a crude atomic weapon, delivered, as it were, by hand in a cardboard suitcase."
What Mr. Halberstam set out to do more than two years ago when he began the book was not to find the next great challenge to the US, but to examine America through the lens of foreign and military policy in the decade since the end of the cold war.
The book is billed as a sequel to an earlier work, "The Best and the Brightest," about Vietnam, a topic Halberstam knows well, having won a Pulitzer Prize reporting on that war for The New York Times.
Three decades later, he looks inside the Bush Sr. and Clinton White Houses at the tensions that existed between the president and the military, and between the president and the public during conflicts in places such as Kosovo, Bosnia, and Somalia (Monitor review Sept. 13). Decisions were often made under the shadow of wars past (such as Vietnam), and in a country more concerned in with its own economy than the outside world, due in part to diminishing international coverage in US media.
The book's subtitle "Bush, Clinton, and the Generals," could easily have been "Why America Napped," he explains in an interview. Here are a few more of his thoughts on the book, foreign policy, and the media:
What led you to the conclusion that the real threat to America going forward would be from terrorists?
I think that's been there forever. If you look at the cold war and the relationship with the Soviets, the high-water mark is clearly the confrontation in the fall of 1962 with the Cuban missile crisis. In a way, it has been coming down ever since that. Other than a surprise confrontation with a flaky leader somewhere else, my sense, and I suspect that of many other people, has been, hey, that threat has gone down, whereas the threat from terrorism and the access of terrorists to ever greater weaponry has gone up.
When I talk about that particular sentence [in the book], I don't think it's a particularly prophetic one, I think it's driven by common sense. I mean, name a country and tell me that it's really a threat to us in the traditional military sense. North Korea? Not really. China? Not really. We can go through periods where we really make each other sweat, but I think in the sense of a classic real vulnerability, it takes this sort of ghost nation to do it, people without a country.
Did you have any other material on terrorism that you didn't include?
No, it's not an area I've written about, it's an area I've sort of watched and been aware of. But it's not like I had any expertise. The threat was out there, it would have taken a person in the government saying, 'This is now our top priority.' And no one did that. There was always a danger, in that if you did that of seeming to panic or to be pushing the people towards hitting the panic button.