(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Writing about John “Shali” Shalikashvili, who succeeded Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the fall of 1993 when U.S. involvement in Bosnia was fast becoming unmanageable, David Halberstam devotes a full chapter to the unlikely story of the four-star general who arrived in the United States from Warsaw in 1952, at the age of sixteen, and rose in the military to the point where, after the Gulf War, he was assigned the tough job of heading up Provide Comfort, a Kurdish rescue operation that may have saved as many as 600,000 lives. Halberstam’s unqualified adulation—rare for him—knows no bounds. “Good novels have been written about odysseys less tortuous . . . ,” he concludes.

War in a Time of Peace can only have been written by a veteran reporter on whom nothing is lost; by a writer whose voice, tuned to the expectation of dissonance from all sides, remains clear. The book is not another War and Peace, as Les Gelb, former New York Times foreign policy correspondent, proclaims on the back cover. Its pedigree is more interesting.

Thirty years before, in The Best and the Brightest (1972), Halberstam deconstructed another foreign-policy braintrust. A New York Times correspondent in South Vietnam in 1962, he encountered an official policy of reporting the war optimistically. The misrepresentation of disasters such as the 1963 Battle of Ap Bac as victories led Halberstam to write frankly about what he observed in Southeast Asia and, a decade later, to his critically acclaimed exposé of the domestic origins of the Vietnam War, the men who made the decisions to go to war, and the men who conducted it.

New York Times diplomatic correspondent Jane Perlez calls War in a Time of Peace “a sprawling tapestry of exquisite bottom-up reporting and powerful vignettes . . . a bookend of that earlier volume.” The forbear of these two books is Patriotic Gore (1962), Edmund Wilson’s classic study of the literature spawned by the Civil War, published in the year Halberstam went to South Vietnam. Wilson’s method was to convey the history of the era largely through word portraits of persons, famous and obscure alike, who were deeply affected by the Civil War—President Abraham Lincoln, Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writers Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ambrose Bierce, and southern women such as Kate Stone, Sarah Morgan, and Mary Chesnut.

If that terrifying war loomed center stage for Wilson, the dark memory of Vietnam dominates Halberstam’s study of a supposed unified America confronted by the horrors of genocide in little-known locales from Somalia and Rwanda to Kosovo. Many of the 1990’s best and brightest were in some way touched by Vietnam. Under Halberstam’s relentless scrutiny, the reader is privy to a Bill Clinton who ducked the draft, and to two of his chief foreign policy advisers, Anthony (Tony) Lake and Richard Holbrooke, who were young diplomats in Saigon. Others, such as Colin Powell and Wesley Clark, had significant duty tours there.

Halberstam opens his chronicle with the end of the United States’ only declared war of the decade. He demonstrates that George H. W. Bush’s seeming triumph in the Persian Gulf was a “virtual” one, analogous, as a Republican pollster warned, to the “Churchill Factor,” in which the prime minister was voted out of office within months of his rescue of Britain in World War II. As Jane Perlez puts it:...

(The entire section is 1448 words.)