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All That Brass


Books: Briefs

ALL THAT BRASS

THE COMMANDERS

By Bob Woodward

Simon & Schuster -- 398pp -- $24.95

Bob Woodward's account of how George Bush and his Administration's big leaguers went to war against Panama and then Iraq--the first substantial book on the gulf war--is riveting. It also brushes too close to trash journalism of the Kitty Kelley variety.

Woodward, the Washington Post editor famed for books on Nixon, the Supreme Court, and the CIA, began a book about Pentagon leadership in 1988. By the time the crises in Panama and Iraq hit, he had a network of military sources and close relationships with key Pentagon and White House players.

He offers no thundering revelations. The main eyebrow-raiser is Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Colin Powell's early support for sanctions and containment to avoid war. Woodward depicts other schisms among decision-makers--not surprising in a democracy. What's compelling is seeing war policy hammered out at government's top levels. Woodward tells his tale through accumulated detail rather than anecdotal bombs. Thus we gradually discern Bush as trigger-happy, guided by emotion as he battles "the wimp factor."

The book moves at the pace of potboiler fiction. Unfortunately, it's hard to judge what's fact. One problem: Woodward says that thoughts and beliefs attributed to a character may be based on the recollections of a second party. Quotes are treated similarly. Quote marks aren't used, Woodward says, unless sources were sure of exact wording. What, then, do we make of this quote, supposedly delivered by General Maxwell R. Thurman, commander in Panama, about a nascent Panamanian coup attempt: "This is an ill-motivated; ill-conceived--they are going to talk this guy into retirement, hoping he's not there; ill-led, this guy doesn't know who is going to be in the coup; fatally flawed plan." Were the words taped? Made up?

While Woodward is regarded more seriously as a journalist than Kitty Kelley, the fundamental problem with The Commanders is the same as with Nancy Reagan. You just can't tell what's true.RUSSELL MITCHELL


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