Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism is a masterful work of diplomatic history. Not only will Leffler’s volume be of long-standing interest to historians and international relations scholars, but it is of immense value to strategists and policymakers whose charge it is to ensure American national security.
Battles like Ia Drang, Con Tien, Khe Sanh, and Hue standout in the history of the American war in South Vietnam. While hardly typical, those clashes resonate well in popular histories and documentaries. On the other hand, transpiring on tracks of land away from large urban areas and not on some named, fortified hilltop—and at a time when multiple larger American military operations occurred across South Vietnam—nine May battles took place that lacked the consistent intensity of the aforementioned engagements, but typified the experience of many in Vietnam. Although these May battles were both remote physically and mentally for those not involved, participants experienced the savagery that came with the few, intense instances of contact with the enemy.
The nomination of James Mattis as Secretary of Defense briefly brought the often overlooked concept of civilian control of the military to public attention. Commentators debated whether Mattis’ qualifications, personality, and presumed influence on the administration justified an exception to the law prohibiting recently retired generals from serving in that post. Reassuringly, in that discussion as well as in the larger conversation about the unusual number of retired and acting general officers now serving in traditionally civilian posts, there has been no discernible challenge to the notion of civilian control of the military. Yet underneath this consensus as to the desirability of civilian control, hide differences in understanding about what it actually entails. In short, we want civilian control but do not precisely know what it is.
America is on the precipice of a credibility crisis in public diplomacy. The world has little faith in our most important messenger, and the proliferation of social media use at all levels of government makes deliberate message management more difficult to execute than ever. Sienkiewicz’s ideas about the soft power value of reproducing American forms while ceding actual content creation to local producers serve as both a basis for policy innovation and a warning. Ultimately, Sienkiewicz’s ability to pack both granular history and broad theory into a concise package makes his book a rare treat among academic titles. The Other Air Force isn’t written with strategists in mind, but anyone with an interest in the future of soft power would do well to read it all the same.
In the United States, in Latin America, and around the world, the wars that we are fighting today on drugs and terrorism both grew out of and bear a striking resemblance to the Cold War. Not only that, but many of the same people and groups that fought the Cold War are now fighting today’s wars, using the lessons they learned and the power and influence they gained from that earlier struggle.