Commandos, yes would-be warriors, no


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, well-informed recent history of the United States' 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 "sangfroid."

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." Mr. Waller's special forces 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 Mr. 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," 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, but with the real thing -- Mr. Waller's secret soldiers.

Mr. Gibson also did his 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."

The closing section looks at the real carnage wrought by those who act out warrior dreams from several murder-for-hire mercenaries to racist ideologues.

Mr. Gibson is aghast not only at the mythic punch of Lt. Col. Oliver North but also at the lionization of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf after Desert Storm. "Despite all the killing in Kuwait," he notes, "Saddam Hussein remained in control of Iraq after the war ended."

Mr. Waller, a one-time aide to former Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., evidently used the bona fides he established in covering Desert Storm to gain 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 Fort 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 preceding it.)

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Gibson's bloodthirsty warriors, they refrain from killing a pair of civilians who happen upon them -- and must fight their way out in Mr. Waller's wonderfully detailed account, a military procedural that recalls James Michener's "The Bridges at Toko-Ri."

Without discarding the cautionary examples proffered by Mr. Gibson -- there are indeed virtual madmen out there, bewitched and somehow inspired by the doings of Mr. 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.


Title: "The Commandos: The Inside Story of America's Secret Soldiers"

Author: Douglas C. Waller

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 399 pages, $23



"Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America"

Author: James William Gibson

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Length, price: 357 pages, $23

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