TOTAL WAR What It Is, How It Got That Way by Thomas Powers and Ruthven Tremain (Morrow: $16.95)

What is it? A "total war," the authors say in surfers' tongue, is "a big one." Later they tell us they mean World Wars I and II, though this is somewhat of a misnomer, for these pages also meditate on war and strategy of any stature. How did it get that way? Despite the subtitle, the authors don't presume to know. "The 'causes' of the last two big wars . . . are mysteries," write Ruthven Tremain, an author of reference books, and Thomas Powers, a reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for a series of articles on the Weathermen. "There is no way of interpreting the pattern of war so far, and what might happen next." What the authors offer instead in these pages is more modest but no less valuable: quotes culled from two millennia about arms control and the nature of war which might help readers spot "patterns" to suggest "what will happen next." Sometimes, the authors step too far into the background, quoting former U.S. negotiator Bernard Baruch and atom bomb scientist Robert Oppenheimer, for example, but not explaining the tension between them. This understated approach, however, is a refreshing alternative to the plethora of war books with overbearing political agendas. "Total War" observes without condescending, informs without indoctrinating and warns without preaching.

The point of reference, of course, is the atomic bomb, and as these quotes show, people were not always saying what they were thinking about the weapon. "My God, look at that son-of-a-bitch go!," said the co-pilot of the Enola Gay as he watched the mushroom cloud rise over Hiroshima. But silently, in his log of the mission, he wrote, "My God, what have we done?" President Harry Truman had to be less remorseful. "The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. . . . But that attack is only a warning of things to come," he said, skirting over the fact that 90% of the city was leveled. Despite the subtitle, "Total War" is neither anchored in the past nor the present, but in the future, for as sociologist William Graham Sumner said in his 1903 book, "War": "What we prepare for is what we shall get." If so, we should be concerned about some of the book's most recent quotes. Eugene Rostow, President Reagan's first director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, has commented, for example, that "we are living in a pre-war and not a post-war world."

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