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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.)

March 27, 1994|Fred Schruers | 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."

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