Doing the Dirty Work : THE COMMANDOS: The Inside Story of America's Secret Soldiers, By Douglas C. Waller (Simon & Schuster: $23; 399 pp.) : WARRIOR DREAMS: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America, By James William Gibson (Hill & Wang: $23; 357 pp.)

Fred Schruers most recently reviewed "Hardball" in these pages

We speak of military culture, as we do of military justice or music, only warily. Neither warfare's brute force nor its daunting precision seems to qualify it for such elevation. Yet we as a nation are fascinated by it. For one thing, America is good at making war--methodically, reassuringly (or for some, frighteningly) good at it.

Newsweek correspondent Douglas Waller is among the reassured. He has written an up-to-date, strikingly well-informed recent history of the nation's increasingly essential "secret soldiers," its commandos.

The very word commando (which came out of late 18th-Century Afrikaans via Portuguese) is almost cornily evocative, with its instant image of a grease-painted, brush-hatted jungle trooper. Nowadays we might envision a black-suited, masked and armored SWAT-team type with a machine pistol and a trained killer's sang-froid. The Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and Air Force special ops helicopter pilots (sometimes banded together as Delta Force teams) get his admiring but close scrutiny in "The Commandos." Hiding by desert roads behind Iraqi lines, speeding along the enemy's coast in rubber boats, hopping over sand dunes in their "Pave Low" choppers, Waller's special forces are the ne plus ultra of can-do soldiery. They emerge as prime examples of the American ideal of manhood--snake-eating tough but ultimately chivalrous.

"All of us are behavioral chameleons," a combat-tested Navy SEAL tells Waller. "When you're on an operation, that's the violent mission side of you. It's totally different from the loving father side of you, who takes his kids to church and says hi to his neighbors."

Thank goodness for such "compartmentalizing" (as the service doctors call it), because the news from James William Gibson, who takes a keen look at paramilitary wanna-bes in "Warrior Dreams," is that the streets are already rife with gun-obsessed civilians. They confuse themselves not only with Rambo or the Terminator or the Commie-killing teens of Hollywood ideologue John Milius' "Red Dawn," but with the real thing--Waller's secret soldiers, with their war paint, weaponry, secrecy and (to Gibson) jingoist, John Wayne agenda. Not only are such wanna-bes dangerous, as witnessed by the paramilitary-style mass murders we've seen over the past decades, in Gibson's view they also deplete our definition of manhood: "For all the power the warrior seems to have, he is left stunted and diminished inside his hardened boundaries."

Gibson has not shied away from field research, although some of his stories are a bit musty. In a long central section called "Better Than Disneyland," he devotes a chapter each to the devotees of "Paintball as Combat Sport" (a 1988 visit to a California war-game park), "Partying With the Soldiers of Fortune" (a 1987 visit to Soldier of Fortune magazine's Las Vegas convention) and finally to "Becoming the Armed Man: Combat Pistol Shooting at Gunsite Ranch."

Surrounding his field vignettes are sections that read as traditional though animated and lucid academic sociology. In one, he looks at American culture via movies and a host of adventure novels (from the pulpy Mack Bolan "Executioner" series to techno-thrillers of the Tom Clancy/Stephen Coonts genre) and depicts the model warrior:

"Freed from the ambivalence and restraints of deep emotional relationships, freed from the boring tasks and burdensome responsibilities of everyday life, he is reborn into the mythical world of primeval chaos, where he can develop his full powers of destruction."

The closing section looks at the real carnage wrought by those who act out such warrior dreams, from several murder-for-hire mercenaries who came straight off the classified pages of Soldier of Fortune to racist ideologues. Ultimately he turns polemical with "Paramilitarism as State Policy in the Reagan-Bush Era."

Gibson is aghast not only at the mythic punch of Lt. Col. Oliver North (who got 150,000 telegrams the week he vaingloriously testified before a Congressional committee) but also at the lionization of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf following Desert Storm. "Despite all the killing in Kuwait," he notes, "Saddam Hussein remained in control of Iraq after the war ended."

Gibson's book contains a goodly amount of such received wisdom--it's both slimmer and less pithy than his landmark "The Perfect War," which cast a clear, cold eye on our military brass' misplaced faith in "technowar" in Vietnam. "Warrior Dreams" has both passion for its argument and oases of dry wit, but it waxes tendentious. Gibson is at heart so much the reformer that he suggests such pursuits as mountaineering and scuba diving as handy replacements for our deadlier, macho pursuits that leave a soldier class vulnerable to manipulation by a warmongering government. In the end, Gibson warns, "the paramilitary warriors of the 1980s were not much different from the other men who went to Vietnam, and in their experiences of war, found that they had been seduced by warrior myths and used by the state."

Douglas Waller, a sometime aide to former Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), evidently used the bona fides he established in covering Desert Storm to gain his unprecedented access to training regimes for the Green Berets, SEALs and Air Force special ops chopper pilots. He also, in effect, peeks over the wall of the highly secret Delta Force's compound at Ft. Bragg, N.C. We see the commandos learning their trade in Part I, and witness them practicing it, with plenty of compelling and often hair-raising detail, in Part II. (Part III, "The Future," is doomed to read like the most ordinary news-weekly fare, given the action-packed scenarios that precede it.)

Waller is no friend to the paramilitary breed, mocking "the beer-bellied motorcycle drivers who turn up at Soldier of Fortune conventions bragging about commando exploits they never had," but he does celebrate the real thing. He avidly delivers their generally absorbing mini-dramas and unashamedly carries water for the special ops types the Pentagon chiefs tend to undervalue. He allows only a few, terse, naysaying sentences ("Green Berets and Navy SEALs tortured prisoners and assassinated Viet Cong leaders for the CIA," runs one), and admits to being "just as guilty" as other reporters of romanticizing the commandos.

But Waller has brought back the stories. He leads with the most striking one, about Green Beret officer Chad Balwanz and his seven-man "A team," dug in behind Iraqi lines to monitor troop movements. In stark contrast to Gibson's bloodthirsty warriors, they refrain from killing a pair of civilians who happen upon them--and must fight their way out in Waller's wonderfully detailed account, a military procedural that recalls James Michener's "The Bridges at Toko-Ri."

At some levels, these are stories for boys, with the playacting of the Army's guerrilla warfare training, the primitive abusiveness of the SEALs' Hell Week, the predictable transformation of the gruff Schwarzkopf into an admirer of special forces' effectiveness. But they do fight and die for real, and Waller's sturdy prose and dogged research shows us how commandos do their work, and also why that work matters. In the not-too-distant future, Waller concludes, "regular armies will shrink," and the battlefields of "low-intensity conflicts . . . insurgencies, counterinsurgencies, coups d'etat, terrorism, short conflicts, economic and psychological warfare" will increasingly require the skills of specially trained soldiers.

Without discarding the cautionary examples proffered by Gibson--there are indeed virtual madmen out there, bewitched and somehow inspired by the doings of Waller's heroes--only the most doctrinaire pacifist can read "The Commandos" and not be grateful that someone is willing, even eager, to do the often dirty work they do.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World