On War and Politics: The Battlefield Inside Washington’s Beltway. Arnold L. Punaro. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016.
Readers of The Strategy Bridge, take out those smartphones and open up your Amazon App. Now, beat the rush and pre-order On War and Politics by retired Marine Major General Arnold Punaro.
I knew nothing about the author when this book first arrived in the mail. By the end of the book, I felt like I had met a new extended family member in Punaro, and that I had taken some part in his life. That story is why I am glad the editors of The Bridge asked me to review this book. This is not your usual intellectual strategy fare, and that is probably why I found it so enjoyable and related so well Punaro’s style of writing. Calling this a memoir or a leadership work is a bit of a disservice. We may need a new genre to capture what Punaro has done here, perhaps the book should be classified as a non-fiction novel about the life of Punaro. The book has a kind of realness, good and bad, that is so often missing in the meticulously well edited, yet yearningly hollow, works of beltway and military leaders today. There is no one takeaway from this book; it’s truly the sum of its Marine Corps and Beltway parts.
“The next morning, I crouched in my apartment, hung over as hell, and remembered lying face down in that creek in Vietnam. Then parting ways with Corporal Hammonds for the last time when we disembarked the helicopter. I owed it to him, and to every other Marine who hadn’t come home, to do more with my life than this.
This kind of behavior wouldn’t be tolerated in today’s Corps. In some areas, however, we’ve overcorrected. In the field, our officer corps is made up of magnificent warriors. In the rear, they can be magnificent bureaucrats. Would those who were hell raisers but aggressive leaders, like Pappy Boyington, Chester Nimitz, or Chesty Puller, be tolerated in today’s military? Probably not. But there’s a difference between poor social behavior and the check-the-box personnel management system that governs today’s military. An organization that only promotes non-risk-takers will end up with sheep for its senior officers.”
Punaro’s life story may not reflect the story one expects from a military veteran turned defense policy power player, especially in comparison to so many of today’s Beltway tell-all memoirs. However, his story does reflect many of the lives of those I know and greatly respect. Throughout the journey from his childhood to Vietnam, and eventually to the offices of Capitol Hill, you feel all the emotions of such a journey. Excitement, fear, grief, frustration, joy, accomplishments, and disappointments are all experienced on some level by the reader. (Warning: You may experience spontaneous emotional outbursts ranging from laughter to shouting while reading, so keep that in mind when reading in public.)
Some of my favorite passages of are the short interjecting parts written by Arnold Punaro’s wife, Jan, throughout the book. The military spouse plays such an important role in our nation’s defense and these additions, scattered throughout the book, add richness to the realness of Punaro’s life. They can also provide welcomed relief from Punaro’s deep immersion of the reader in the world of military operations and defense policy, an immersion that occasionally borders on overwhelming. Despite their sometimes daunting nature, these dives into the granular detail of Punaro’s world give the reader a true sense of the massive juggernaut that makes up our military-industrial and political complex. Most readers will finish this story with not only a deep understanding of Punaro’s life but also a better understanding of the massive, and sometimes maddening, nature of the Department of Defense and Capitol Hill.
While there are some critiques to be made, my main bone of contention is with the sections on a leadership mantra that appear more an effort to squeeze this book onto business leadership shelves instead of relating to the overall narrative.
In summary, this short memoir on the life of Arnold Punaro packs a punch of emotions and raw detail that comes from a life of service to one’s country. It’s not a sexy or glorious work of strategic thought or leadership, nor is it literary art in any traditional sense. I doubt the book his will be seen on the reading lists of the various war colleges or the Joint Chiefs. However, I would expect to see this book on the shelf of every military leader, though not necessarily for the direct and didactic lessons war and politics. Compared to the weight the rest of the book carries, these lessons seem a bit redundant and empty. I got those same lessons reading about Punaro and his wife Jan enjoying peanut butter and cheese wiz on their crackers for their honeymoon, because that story in incredible real. That is what makes On War and Politics a must read, because in an era of carefully crafted and framed stories, Punaro comes at the reader with his art of making the real world beautiful, and the reader walks away knowing Arnold Punaro and feeling sense of awe at the story of a real person.
Andy Priest writes about topics involving interdisciplinary studies of history, criminology, anthropology, and political science.
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Header Image: United States Capitol Building (Architecture of the Capitol)