Posted: March 14, 2007
To Dare and to Conquer: Special Operations and the Destiny of Nations, from Achilles to Al Qaeda, by Derek Leebaert,
Although Democrats have made expanding special forces a cornerstone of their "smarter and tougher" alternative policy for fighting terrorists, one suspects that in their hands these forces would be deployed abroad in much the same way social scientists were domestically in the 1960s—as the magic cure-all for problems Democrats don't understand or are not willing to face.
Anyone who views special forces as a panacea should read Derek Leebaert's capacious and engaging history of special operations from antiquity to today. The author, an informations systems consultant and Cold War scholar, is primarily concerned not with the "gee-whiz" gimmickry or extraordinary courage on display in many special ops, but with the ways in which these operations have proven decisive instruments of historical change. In this way, his approach is the inverse of Victor Davis Hanson's emphasis on Western armies' overwhelming superiority in large-scale conventional battles. We have arrived at a moment in warfare, according to Leebaert, when special operations are "the preeminent means of dealing with" terrorists and other "hidden evil powers of compact destruction." But, he warns, the use of special forces requires even more judiciousness than the use of conventional forces, and today's "respectably cool view" that we need more special forces without a grand strategy to inform their use is merely setting us up for disappointment or defeat. Leebaert is an Iraq war skeptic (perhaps opponent would be more apt) and thinks special forces offer an alternative to the imperial deployment of large conventional forces, as we have done in Iraq. Readers may not agree with all the judgments in this idiosyncratic and lively book, but it deserves to be read alongside Robert Kaplan'sImperial Grunts (2005) and Hanson's many insightful works.
—Steven F. Hayward
American Enterprise Institute
* * *
The West at War, edited by Bradley C.S. Watson.
Bradley C.S. Watson, a political science professor at St. Vincent's College, has skillfully assembled eleven essays that examine the current struggle with Islamic jihad from a philosophical perspective too often lacking in other studies. Correctly viewing jihad as an attack on the West and all it stands for, these essays approach the struggle by trying to define the nature of the enemy and the nature of the West, and identifying the strengths and weaknesses of both. Paul Marshall's "Understanding Radical Islam" rightly locates the motives of the jihadists in the history and ideology of Islam, rather than in local grievances such as Palestine or Iraq. Turning to the West, James Kurth and Leon Craig decry the decadence and secularization that have left the West, and especially Europe, vulnerable to the spiritual fervor of Muslim immigrants. But are individualism, democracy, tolerance, and free-market capitalism the true culprits as Kurth and Craig suggest? Other notable essays include David Corey's study of the Christian "just war" tradition, which offers a powerful rebuttal of pacifism; Professor Watson's own "Ethics and Terror," which likewise makes a case for the current war's ethical and moral justification; and Robert Alt's "Media Bias in Iraq," a damning indictment of the way the media's skewed reporting furthers the jihadists' aims.
—Bruce S. Thornton
California State University, Fresno
* * *
A Glorious Disaster: Barry Goldwater's Presidential Campaign and the Origins of the Conservative Movement, by J. William Middendorf II.
The day after losing the 1964 presidential election with only 27 million votes (to Lyndon Johnson's 43 million), Barry Goldwater told the press, "Twenty-seven million votes is a lot of votes." Conservatives believed that they had taken a major step in their battle to overturn New Deal liberalism.
J. William Middendorf, treasurer to the Goldwater presidential campaign, offers an inside account of the Goldwater movement from its origins to its defeat. In putting together the draft Goldwater movement, F. Clifton White, Peter O'Donnell, William Rusher, and others assembled a grassroots campaign that carried Goldwater to the nomination in San Francisco. Following the convention, less able managers took over the campaign.
Middendorf's admiration for Goldwater, the man and the symbol, is evident throughout the book, but the author also reveals the candidate's missteps—driving in a Cadillac with his wife Peggy in a fur coat during the New Hampshire primary, his general crankiness with the press, and his frequent refusal to stop and shake hands with voters at campaign rallies. Middendorf's account is persuasive in showing how this defeat launched a critical turn in our history as conservatism became a potent force in American politics.
—Donald T. Critchlow
Saint Louis University
* * *
Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe, by Thomas DiLorenzo.
In this sequel to his 2002 diatribe, The Real Lincoln, Loyola College economist Thomas DiLorenzo continues his assault on America's 16th president. In some minor ways, Lincoln Unmasked is better than The Real Lincoln. In the first book, Lincoln was barely allowed to speak a full sentence, but this time he speaks in sentences on at least five separate pages. Moreover, unlike the earlier book, most of the quotations in Lincoln Unmasked appear to be authentic and are not attributed to the wrong authors.
Otherwise, DiLorenzo serves up more of the same bombast, repeatedly denouncing all scholars who attempt to understand Lincoln sympathetically as "court historians," part of a "Lincoln Cult," whose writings are "myth, fantasy, and idolatry." He almost never engages them in actual argumentation, however. More importantly, he refuses to abandon his oversimplified economic analysis, which is woefully inadequate to explain the legal, political, philosophic, religious, and cultural forces that erupted in the Civil War. For instance, DiLorenzo never explains the nature of abolitionism and its effects on Southern opinion, nor does he even acknowledge such momentous antebellum transformations as the positive-good theory of slavery, the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, or the schism in the Democratic Party's 1860 presidential convention.
DiLorenzo's flawed economic view of history causes him to see only what he likes in the South, while unfairly demonizing the North. He complains, for example, that "Yankees never shied away from using the coercive powers of government to compel others to be remade in their image." Yet on the eve of the war Southerners were demanding federal protection for slavery in all the territories—what, at that time, would have amounted to the greatest increase in the federal government's power in American history.
Professor DiLorenzo writes about Lincoln because he says he wants to recover limited, constitutional government. But his methods are simply not up to the task his subject demands.
—Thomas L. Krannawitter
* * *
Something That Will Surprise the World: The Essential Writings of the Founding Fathers, edited by Susan Dunn.
This collection of writings from our most important founders—Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison—runs the gamut from political essays to letters to diary entries. Williams College professor of humanities Susan Dunn entices the reader with her introduction, ably depicting these men and the contradictions they embodied. "On the surface," she writes, "they appeared reluctant to lead" and looked forward to receding from the public stage. Yet a young John Adams declared, "Reputation ought to be the perpetual subject of my Thoughts, and Aim of my behavior."
Readers familiar with the founding generation, however, likely have little use for the documents presented in this collection, most of which can be found elsewhere. For those unfamiliar with the founding, this is not the place to begin because Dunn's well-meaning selections lack the context and editorial guidance that are necessary to keep non-specialists from feeling adrift. Perhaps a better point of departure would be one of the extraordinary biographies of the founders that have appeared in recent years.
Council on Foreign Relations
* * *
The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, by Walter Benn Michaels.
This is a bad book with an interesting premise. Walter Benn Michaels, head of the English department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is fed up with his fellow liberals' obsession with diversity—from affirmative action in college admissions, to the army of diversity workshops, programs, and mission statements that have conquered corporate America, to the left-wing conceit that every culture and language in the world needs to be protected from the ravages of globalization. Diversity, he argues, is "a rich people's solution" to economic injustice, a way for the well-off to surround themselves with classmates and business partners who look like America, the better to ignore the inequalities of opportunity that keep the poor and working class out of the ivory tower and the boardroom.
This is true enough, but unfortunately Benn Michaels seems to think that it's the only true thing there is. So instead of merely suggesting that race and culture may be less important to American life than class divisions, he spends much of the book arguing that race is a complete fiction, that neither culture nor language should matter to anyone with any sense, and that children are defined by their parents' bank accounts and little else. Meanwhile, the complexities of what inequality means in a wealthy country like the United States are brushed aside, as is the crucial question of whether money-equality or civic-equality is more important to democratic self-government. Instead, The Trouble With Diversitysummons left-wingers to the barricades to fight for, among other dumb and hopeless causes, the abolition of private schools. Good luck with that.
* * *
The Sum Total of Human Happiness, by James V. Schall, S.J.
Early in The Sum Total of Human Happiness, Fr. James Schall writes, "If we ever have the exhilarating experience of truth in our souls, we cannot but seek to tell others of it." The line is autobiographical. This book is energized by Schall's joy of knowing. His learning is profound because knowing is a moral imperative for him, but it is ultimately a matter of joy. And joy is infectious.
His charming but profound reflections present questions that are not Catholic, but answers that are, steeped in sources as diverse as Hilaire Belloc, Plato, Tolkien, and even Charlie Brown, among others—including Samuel Johnson, from whom he got the title. An Aristotelian to the core, Schall always begins with experience. Thus the central thesis of the book is "that everything that is should receive its proper acknowledgment." That includes the recognition that what is (i.e., creation) is good.
This is important because "the drama of our existence is not merely that we are, but that we can respond to what is as if it might not be." This latter response is the source of evil in human behavior and, in institutionalized form, the foundation of modern ideology. In graduate school many years ago, I asked a friend, who was enthusiastically expounding on Hegel, how he would live if what Hegel said about the nature of reality were true. He was startled by the question and had no answer. For Schall, how we ought to live exactly depends on what we know—on what we should know. Of course, one can know the truth and reject it, "as if it might not be." Yet the only way back from this path, as indicated in the book's opening quotation from Augustine is that, "when we return from error, it is by knowledge that we return."
—Robert R. Reilly
* * *
Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers, by Ralph McInerny.
With his latest book, Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers, Professor Ralph McInerny of the University of Notre Dame takes issue with several prominent 20th-century Neo-Thomists, especially Étienne Gilson, Henri de Lubac, and Marie-Dominique Chenu. His charge is that these three French scholars and their associates have smudged the line between philosophy and theology and have thus undermined the very cornerstone of Thomas Aquinas's intellectual project. Gilson, the principal culprit, suggests that Aquinas's supposedly philosophical insights were really drawn from biblical revelation and were thus based on faith, making it impossible for Thomistic philosophy to address itself to non-Christians and pushing it into something resembling fideism.
But Aquinas, says McInerny, was very careful to distinguish properly between the realms of reason and revelation. The implication of the Thomistic position is that, while philosophy can never understand the essence of God, it can offer demonstrative arguments for the existence of God and for a few of the basic divine attributes, such as eternity, infinity, and simplicity. These are not articles of faith, such as one would find in a Christian creed, but they do constitute thepraeambula fidei, the preambles of faith.
Although McInerny's criticism of the French Neo-Thomists at times borders on the ad hominem, he also has plenty of evidence to convict them of getting Aquinas's crucial distinction quite wrong. The book does not spin out the implications of its argument for ethics and politics, but it is easy to see that neither Aquinas's natural-law theory nor his thoughts on the cardinal virtues can survive scrutiny unless the integrity of Thomistic philosophy is upheld. Both believers and non-believers who think that modernity needs to be tempered by antiquity's wisdom will sympathize.