Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Twighlight War by David Crist - Book Review


The Twighlight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty Year Conflict with Iran by David Crist (Penguin Press, 2012, 638 pages, retail price $36.00) is a military/political history of our long and difficult conflict with Iran. The story begins with the demise of the Shah of Iran, who the U.S. had re-installed to power in Tehran after the CIA had engineered a coup of Mohammad Mosaddegh at the behest of international oil companies in 1979 during a brief flourishing of democracy. It follows the tragic story of misunderstandings, mistakes, bruised egos, inter-service rivalries, political infighting, and lack of both insight and integrity by both the Iranians and Americans during a period extending from the Carter administration through six presidencies and numerous crises costing the lives of a few thousand Americans and tens of thousands of Iranians. It's a story of hubris, ambition, conflicting geo-political theories, military tactics and frequent betrayal of trust and agreements. The book is filled with details gleaned from over 400 interviews, countless declassified documents, diplomatic memoirs, newspaper accounts, and much more, annotated in 70 pages of notes and a comprehensive index. At times the plethora of names becomes confusing, but overall the book is not only comprehensive but persuasive.

At the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Iranian student nationalists took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, there was hardly anyone in the military or U.S. Diplomatic Corps speaking Farsi, and very few who spoke or read Arabic. Furthermore, U.S. understanding of what was happening in Iran was seen through Cold War eyes with the Soviet Union remaining our primary antagonist much longer than a cooler, more clear cut assessment would support. Neither U.S. diplomats nor military planners understood or took seriously Iranian nor Islamic ambitions or grievances. Rather, Iran was seen as a Soviet client state with no history or goals of its own, despite the fact that Iran had dominated the Middle East since the time of the Persian Empire.

At the time of the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy, there were a number of difficulties keeping the U.S. from protecting our interests in the Persian Gulf. These included (1) our commitment to continued cold war efforts in Europe, (2) the enormous distance from U.S. Bases, (3) the unsuitability of local ports of call, (4) the logistics of moving troops from bases in the U.S. to Saudi Arabia to protect oil fields, (5) our diplomatic unpreparedness, (5) American personnel, both military and political, involved. Nevertheless, a major part of this story is the increasing sophistication of our military, diplomatic, and espionage efforts in combating genuine threats to our economy and peace in the area. While the traditional apolitical stance of our armed services and the professionalism of our diplomatic corps helped provide some sense of continuity in policy, this story is made much more difficult by the corrosive nature of inter-service rivalries and the frequent changes in political leadership during this period as well as the ideological bent of the neo-conservatives.

Although Crist is tougher on political interference than he is on military rivalries, Presidents Reagan and G.W. Bush come off looking the worst among the political leaders in America, largely because of indecisiveness and not standing up strongly enough against the “fight first” attitude of the neo-conservatives in both their administrations. Military leaders, on the other hand, are portrayed as often more cautious than their civilian, and militarily inexperienced, leadership. While not reluctant to pull the trigger when necessary, the military leadership seems quite reluctant to risk going to war. Vice President Cheney emerges as a resourceful bureaucratic infighter, too willing to risk American lives and treasure and unwilling to respond to data. Meanwhile, inter-service rivalries badly hurt American efforts, although the service leadership manages to cooperate with increasing success as time passes. The development of a unified military command through the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a major element in this story.

Throughout the course of the events detailed in The Twilight War we see distrust, misunderstanding, and betrayal as a constant theme. As Iran develops military strategies based on its ability to strike quickly and with devastating effects against defenseless targets like Khobar Towers and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, American counter-intelligence and military resourcefulness necessarily had to improve or risk ultimate defeat. The word “terrorism” emerges as loaded terminology for the other sides' quick strikes aimed at non-military targets and personnel, an approach best suited to its capabilities. Meanwhile, U.S. doctrine expanded to include cyber warfare, high flying drone intelligence gathering, and increasingly effective counter-intelligence. Both sides reached out to each other any number of times, the meetings always ending in failure due to lack of trust and reneging on agreements. An interesting, and well-documented in other places, relationship as that we developed with Iraq's brutal dictator Saddam Hussein, who we supported during Iraq's war with Iran and then turned on and destroyed when he himself became a threat, always holding that he possessed weapons of mass destruction and was responsible for harboring Osama bin Laden, who was actually hiding in Afghanistan.

David Crist

Crist's prose is sometimes plodding, but his story is so compelling the reader is driven forward by events. It probably reaches its low point when his major source becomes his father, Marine General George Crist, commander of CENTCOM, the unifying military command for the Middle East. However, once the senior Crist is out of the picture, the narrative becomes more incisive again. Military personnel are too often characterized as "charismatic," but generally the writing is straightforward, unadorned, and balanced. He often refers to the Shiite vs. Sunni tribal animosity but takes no time to explain the centuries old split which still confuses many non-Muslims. Other tribal and ethnic differences with the Arab world, the historical animus between Arabs and Persians (Iranians), and the creation and support for Israel make solving problems in the Mid-East almost impossible. Changes in the political climate within the United States only serve to exacerbate the issues. This is the story the David Crist tells and tells well.

The Twighlight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty Year War with Iran by David Crist is published by The Penguin Press (638 Pages) and costs $36.00 retail. It is available at all the usual outlets and in all formats. It was provided to my by TLC Book Tours in return for this review.

Other Stops on This Tour

Tuesday, July 17th: The Future American
Wednesday, July 18th: Noisy Room
Tuesday, July 24th: Zen Pundit
Wednesday, July 25th: Gunpowder and Lead
Tuesday, July 31st: Marathon Pundit
Wednesday, August 1st: Rhapsody In Books
Thursday, August 2nd: Wordsmithonia
Wednesday, August 8th: 50 Books Project
Friday, August 10th: The Left Coaster
Tuesday, August 14th: 50 Books Project
Thursday, August 16th: Strategist’s Personal Library