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A Quick & Dirty Guide to War : BRIEFINGS ON PRESENT AND POTENTIAL WARS by James E. Dunnigan and Austin Bay (Morrow: $17.95; 415 pp.)

June 02, 1985|Harry Trimborn | Trimborn, a Times assistant foreign news editor, has reported from some of the trouble spots mentioned. and

Through no fault of the authors or publishers, many books like this are usually out of date by the time they get into the hands of the readers. The research, writing, editing and publishing are often overtaken by the rush of events.

This is especially true in dealing with subjects like the world's trouble spots whether they involve conventional wars, such as the Iran-Iraq conflict, an effort by a major power to crush a rebellious populace, as the Soviet Union is attempting to do in Afghanistan, or a backwater terrorist campaign, such as the "Shining Path" guerrillas' efforts to topple the government of Peru.

For example, James E. Dunnigan and Austin Bay, both war-games specialists, make no mention of the change of leadership in the Kremlin with the relatively youthful Mikhail S. Gorbachev replacing the aged Konstantin U. Chernenko, who died March 10, and its implications on superpower relations and its effect on trouble spots around the world. Nor do they touch on one of the most significant developments of the last year--the decision of the Soviet Union and the United States to resume arms-control talks; "Star Wars" is not even mentioned.

Yet conversely, the real value of this book may not surface until years from now, for the authors venture into the quicksands of prediction in trying to determine "the outcome of wars that have not been fought or, if they are in progress, not yet concluded." With a great deal of hedging, they offer various possible scenarios and the odds on their probability.

They say, for example, that there is a 40% chance of a race war in South Africa, increasing to 60% after 1987 if there is no change in the country's apartheid system. The significance of the date is not explained. Some predictions are banal and questionable: "While the danger of war between the superpowers is hardly imminent, as is generally believed, a very real possibility of war exists."

Dunnigan and Bay claim no special sources of information. Their predictions are based on computer readouts--Dunnigan is in the computer software business--of publicly available sources. Their computer has also spewed out about 60 pages of text-related charts.

Also, much of the material, especially the geographical and historical background on conflict areas, is readily available in encyclopedias or other reference works.

Yet all this does not make the book a wasted effort. It is useful and entertaining--if one can use that adjective in dealing with the subject of humans killing one another. The writing is sprightly, though at times flippant, as is evident by the title. Or, for example, Dunnigan and Bay conclude that Egypt's radical Muslim Brotherhood has "no sense of humor when it comes to religion."

As the authors intended, the book is a handy package of the bare essentials of the world's conflict areas by providing a who's who and a what's what of the individuals, parties and nations involved. Its aim is to fill in the background of daily news reports from the battle areas.

And they offer some interesting analyses, such as their interpretation of the results of the Falkland War, and the tactics employed by the Soviets and rebels in the Afghan conflict.

The authors concentrate on the lesser-known conflicts and trouble spots. They devote less than a page and a half to the Sino-Soviet dispute, despite their designation of it as "the biggest border war."

Yet, they present 10 pages on the possibility of internal strife in the South American "backwater" of Surinam under its dictator, Desi Bouterse, "an ill-educated former physical education instructor with a Leninist mistress."

Oddly, the authors expend a great deal of space on Spain, but not, as might be expected, on Basque separatism and terrorism. They focus on the state of Catalonia "where everyone is tired of fighting" and the region's relatively benign efforts for greater autonomy.

The authors' use of precise percentages and the reliance on the computer in predicting the course of conflicts remind this reviewer of a visit in 1969 to a U. S. military bunker in Vietnam that contained an impressive array of computers and other electronic paraphernalia used to monitor the course of the fighting. Pointing to the jagged lines on a plotting board the size of a pool table, a senior officer assured the visitor that the lines showed conclusively that the United States was winning the war.

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