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

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Ken Al­lard

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.

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