Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated

By Morgan, Michael | Naval War College Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated


Morgan, Michael, Naval War College Review


Vidal, Gore. Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to be So Hated. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2002. 160pp. $10

It would be difficult to find a book on world affairs more contrary to the opinions of most readers of the Naval War College Review or other members of the American national security community than Gore Vidal's Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace.

As a military officer myself, I disagree with many of Vidal's assumptions and propositions, but the book is worthwhile because it challenges one to think about inconsistencies and issues in American foreign policy as well as domestic security. The book is extremely well written, as one would expect from a writer of Vidal's caliber, it is highly engaging, and most military professionals interested in American national security will probably find it easy to read (although fewer may find it easy to agree with).

Gore Vidai is a noted novelist, perhaps one of the most prominent living American authors. In 1943 he enlisted in the Navy and served in World War II, so his background lends relevant experience in military affairs. He wrote his commentary shortly after the 11 September attack, but after both Vanity Fair and The Nation declined it, a version of this book was printed in Italy, where it became a best-seller. After subsequent publication in Europe, Vidal was finally able to get the book published in its present form.

Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace contains seven chapters and an introduction, but much of the material predates "9/11," which is one of the book's chief weaknesses. Three chapters were reprinted from his The Last Empire (Doubleday, 2001), and these were recycled from earlier articles. Another chapter, "The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh," appeared in the September 2001 issue of Vanity Fair. There are sparse updates throughout the older chapters, including asterisked footnotes and comments, such as one briefly comparing the Oklahoma City bombing to "Dark Tuesday" ("9/11"). However, the meat of the new work appears in the first chapter, "September 11, 2001 (A Tuesday)."

Vidal's sharp mind and readable writing style make his arguments on the World Trade Center attacks and the aftermath compelling. For instance, the declaration of an ambiguous "war" on terror has been the subject of much discussion in the pages of foreign affairs journals and newspaper editorials. Vidai notes that insurance companies benefit from a state of war due to exception clauses in insurance agreements, although previous U.S. case law has established that "acts of war" can originate only from "a sovereign nation, not a bunch of radicals."

Some of his other comments lean more toward "Swiftian literary exaggeration," of which he accuses H. L. Mencken in a letter to Timothy McVeigh. His portrayal of Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney as eager for a police state seems excessive. Also, he compares the terrorist attacks in the United States to such state-sponsored atrocities as the burning of the Reichstag (secretly perpetrated by the Nazi government in order to consolidate Hitler's police power) and rapes by bogus Vietcong squads to discredit the communist insurgency. This paranoid proclivity toward conspiracy theory is revealed in his assertion that Opus Dei is a conservative Catholic conspiracy in the United States. …

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