Shadow Government

Review: “On War and Politics”

Retired General Arnold Punaro in October published a book which details his service in Vietnam, his 25 years in the Senate working for Senator Nunn, his 35 years of active and reserved duty in the Marine Corps, and his 20 years in the private sector.


Retired General Arnold Punaro in October published a book which details his service in Vietnam, his 25 years in the Senate working for Senator Nunn, his 35 years of active and reserved duty in the Marine Corps, and his 20 years in the private sector. On War and Politics: The Battlefield Inside Washington’s Beltway, offers insights into how effective governing between the legislative and executive branches on national security issues can and should work.

The book documents the deep partnership that former Senator Sam Nunn (D-G.A.) and Punaro formed over 25 years. Nunn and Punaro travelled the world together on Congressional business: an early high-level vist to China after it reopened to the United States, an official trip to transitioning South Africa, and a quiet visit to the Pakistan/Afghanistan border in the 1980s were among the many places they went.

The book reminds us of a different time, when there were many more conservative, “national security Democrats.” Nunn supported the Nicaraguan Contras, supported large defense budgets, and supported the sale of Boeing E-3 Sentry planes to Saudi Arabia. In this vein, Nunn later regretted his vote against the first Gulf War in 1991.

In his time in the Senate, he worked closely with some of the Senate giants of the 20th century, including Senators John Glenn (D-O.H.), John McCain (R-A.Z.), Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), and John Warner (R-V.A.). He knew them all and details many insightful stories about each of them.

The book is also a memoir. Punaro was wounded in Vietnam. His life was saved by a Marine he did not know — Corporal Roy Lee Hammonds. Hammonds died in his efforts to save Punaro and this act permanently marked Punaro’s life. After spending several months in a hospital in Asia recovering from his wounds, he returned to the United States. He went to college and was invited to be an intern for the recently elected senator from his home state of Georgia: Nunn. Punaro began to work his way up the ranks in the senator’s personal office, then joined the Senate Armed Services Committee staff, serving several times as staff director or minority staff director (the top job when your political party is in the minority).

While serving as a senate staffer, Punaro returned to service in the Marine Corps as a reserve officer on many occasions and worked his way up over more than 20 years to become a general. His service in the Marine Corps reserves gave him a network and a credibility to do his job on the “SASC” (the Senate Armed Services Committee).

Punaro has a great sense of humor and several of the stories show his sense of self deprecation: He tells one story of picking up a phone at his new posting as a senior officer and pretending to talk on the phone with someone on the other end. He mentions various generals and senators in such a way that the other person in the room can hear him. After he hangs up the phone on his “conversation,” he asks the person what brings them to his office and the person replies, “I am here to repair your broken phone line.”

After leaving government, Punaro has been called upon to serve on a large number of government commissions and a variety of senior defense leaders have called upon him for advice. He has been the person to set up the crucial “murder boards” — a Washington institution where one practices before a mock Senate committee to prep for the real confirmation hearings or very important committee hearings. Punaro has been asked to organize them for Democrats and Republicans.

There were several questions I would like the book to have answered. Given the “contretemps” around the handling of classified materials, I would have welcomed Punaro’s views on this controversy, which weighed on the 2016 election cycle. Also, I would have welcomed more explication of Punaro’s views on the threats we face and on how we should prepare. Finally, I would have welcomed more details about the fixes he would like to see in the way the Pentagon does business.

Ultimately, the book offers an excellent window into the critical relationship between the legislative and the executive branches and the role of the Congress in national security decisions.

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Daniel Runde served in the George W. Bush administration at USAID. He also worked at the World Bank Group (IFC). He currently holds the William A. Schreyer Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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