A consequential life spent in service of his country
ON WAR AND POLITICS: THE BATTLEFIELD INSIDE WASHINGTON’S BELTWAY By Arnold Punaro Naval Institute Press, $29.95, 288 pages
For nearly a half-century, Arnold Punaro has been the canonical Capitol Hill insider, a consummate national security expert, the key man to see if your program had any hope of becoming law. Having again retired — staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), Marine Corps Reserve major general, SAIC senior vice president — his new book, “On War and Politics: The Battlefield Inside Washington’s Beltway,” is a compelling portrait of a consequential life spent in his country’s service.
For most of it, “Arnold” (his universal title) had a privileged ringside seat at Capitol Hill’s annual power sweepstakes. When I arrived in Washington in 1986 as an Army congressional fellow, he was already a legend, the right-hand man of Sen. Sam Nunn and the best indicator of whether an issue was headed for a happy bipartisan compromise or the dreaded oblivion of being “laid upon the table.” As a bit-player in two of the big issues outlined by this book — Pentagon reorganization and procurement reform — I found the author’s recollections accurate and incisive, the faded pages of an old yearbook suddenly brought back to life.
While landmark legislation makes his book important, Mr. Punaro’s unblinking portraits of a host of towering figures will put it high on Beltway Christmas lists. John McCain makes his first appearance not as a senator but as a recently returned POW, a captain sent to Capitol Hill as a Navy legislative liaison officer — and a highly effective one. So, too, the redoubtable Oliver North, a decorated combat veteran we first glimpse as a super-squared-away Marine instructor at Quantico. But years later, as a lieutenant colonel on the National Security Council staff, “North got in [Sen.] Nunn’s face with an emotional diatribe about helping the Contras … . Nunn had left that meeting with a firm impression that North had very poor judgment.” Reflecting on the subsequent “ends justify the means” lessons of the Iran-Contra scandal, the author opines, “The lesson, I guess, is that charisma goes a long way, but not all the way.”
For students of politics, what may be most fascinating is how often the author found himself defending basic principles — such as congressional oversight — that are clear in the abstract but become much trickier when actual humans are involved. Even routine matters, like confirming Gen. Colin Powell for his second term as Joint Chiefs chairman, became an unexpectedly thorny issue. Senators wanted to question him on the contradictions between his previous Senate testimony on Gulf War preparations and Bob Woodward’s contradictory account in his book, “The Commanders.” Who was right: Mr. Woodward, the general or the senators? Gen. Powell refused to elaborate and, as the impasse escalated, even threatened to resign. “Without missing a beat, Nunn retorted, ‘That’s why we have a vice chairman.’” Eventually Gen. Powell relented and went to the woodshed, thus restoring the constitutional balance between executive and legislative responsibilities. “They just seem to need reminding once in a while.”
Finding that sometimes elusive balance — between checks and balances, executive and legislative, Democrat and Republican, civilian and military, even young and old — is why the republic requires gifted public servants with a well-refined sense of irony. While it was not always clear where Mr. Punaro the Senate staffer stopped and Col. Punaro the Marine reservist began, both perspectives were invaluable when tough circumstances made it difficult to find common ground. For example, when the Navy brass tried to blame a suicidal gay sailor for the 1989 gun-turret explosion aboard the battleship USS Iowa, the SASC became a clearinghouse for those skeptical of the official explanation. Countervailing pressure and repeated investigations eventually determined that high-speed mechanical loading procedures, rather than sabotage, had caused the explosion and the deaths of 47 U.S. sailors. Even so, another two years passed before the Navy apologized to the gay sailor’s parents.
Such nearly forgotten incidents, contrasted with the ever-present need to seek a sensible balance when determining national security policies, will surely make this book an essential primer for the new Trump administration. So, too, his nononsense concluding chapters on leadership and how best to run the gauntlet of congressional nominations, a “murder board” practice refined by Mr. Punaro for a succession of defense secretaries.
But what I liked best about this book was its first chapter, Lt. Punaro’s experiences as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam. Alternately remembering his prayers as an altar boy and ruminating on what he should have told his draft board, Arnold was badly wounded by enemy sniper fire, saved only when another Marine took a bullet meant for him. One Marine died that another should live, a sacrifice remembered in the book’s dedication: But even more in a superbly well-lived life. Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on nationalsecurity issues.