One surprising implication of Dana Priest’s The Mission is that even in the 1990s the foundations of empire were “harder” than they seemed. This is a loosely structured but fascinating and important book. While it draws few conclusions of its own, it provides vivid evidence about the contradictory effects of America’s unmatched military power. On the one hand, there really is an empire, held together by expeditionary forces working in scores of countries around the world. On the other hand, there is also such a thing as imperial overstretch. Priest’s accounts of the consequences of past military victories–in the Balkans, in Latin America, in the Middle East during the first Gulf War, and against the Soviet Union during the long Cold War–suggest the list of challenges the United States will face after a military victory in Iraq.

The organizing principle of the book–at least the one it starts out with–is the underappreciated idea that the real power in the military no longer lies with the chiefs of staff in the Pentagon. Instead it is wielded most dramatically by the regional commanders in chief (CinC) in the field. Priest–who has covered several wars and many years’ worth of defense policy for The Washington Post–suggests at the beginning of the book that she will tell the story of the modern military through the story of these CinCs, pronounced “sinks.”

The CinCs are in charge of all U.S. forces in a particular area. There are five regional CinCs, who divide up the world this way: The CinC in charge of the European command, who is also the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, handles Europe, all of Russia, most of Africa, plus Turkey and Israel. The Central Command covers the new republics of Central Asia, all of the Middle East except Israel, and a troubled swath of Africa from Kenya to Egypt. The Pacific Command runs from India eastward through Asia to Hawaii. The Southern Command covers 32 nations of Latin America. A fifth region, the Northern Command, was created last year and covers the American “homeland” plus Mexico and Canada.

Priest calls these CinCs “proconsuls to the [American] empire,” and she emphasizes how independent, influential, and important they have become. (The military has a variety of other “Commands” headed by CinCs, like the Special Operations Command, but Priest stresses that the regional CinCs are the ones with real power.) The rise of the CinCs began with the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols military reform act in 1986. The act was designed to correct the excesses of inter-service rivalry, and among other effects it gave regional CinCs sweeping authority over all the services operating in their geographic theater. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, in the Pentagon, has no influence over the Army or Air Force and is officially part of the Navy. But when Anthony Zinni, a Marine Corps general, was CinC for the Central Command, he could issue direct orders to the generals and admirals from all services in his region.

The secretary of state is the only American diplomat with an airplane always at his disposal. (Lesser state department officials must fly commercial or ask for space-available on military transports.) By contrast, Priest says, “the Pentagon gives each regional CinC a long-distance aircraft and a fleet of helicopters for short flights. In-flight refuelers are available for very long trips. Some CinCs travel with an entourage of up to 35 officers and senior non-commissioned officers.” A CinC lives in a “private palatial residence, guarded twenty-four hours a day by electronic shields and small armies of security guards.” Apart from the individual power of a CinC, a strategic perspective based on regional commands subtly influences American policy, Priest says:

“Like the European colonialists who divided up Asia and Africa, the Defense Department draws and redraws the CinCdoms every two years … Which command a country ends up in determines the prism through which the United States views its relations. When the states of Central Asia first won their independence from the Soviet Union … [they] fell within U.S. European Command, where the focus was on getting them to look toward Europe and away from Mother Russia … When the biannual review gave the Islamic states of South and Central Asia to Central Command, it signified a recognition by the president and the secretary of defense that Islamic fundamentalists and the terrorist cells they bred posed a new threat.”

During the late Clinton and early Bush years, which occupy most of Priest’s account, the regional commands were occupied by an unusually interesting group of people. Zinni, in the Central Command, was as outspoken and colorful as his successor, Tommy Franks, is deliberately bland and laconic. He rode camels and went on falcon hunts with Saudi royalty as part of his effort to understand Arab society. In Europe there was Wesley Clark, deeply involved in the NATO debates over how to handle the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. Clark had preceded Bill Clinton by a few years as a Rhodes scholar from Arkansas; now, of course, he is a “mentioned” presidential candidate. The CinC for the Pacific was Dennis Blair, a sixth-generation Naval Academy graduate who was also in Bill Clinton’s class of Rhodes scholars. In the Southern Command was Charles Wilhelm, a Marine veteran of Vietnam who became a coordinator of anti-drug and anti-drug-lord campaigns in Latin America.

After a few chapters, Priest seems to forget the plan of using the CinCs as narrative vehicles for her account of the modern military. The book sprawls in all directions and soon reveals its true structural blueprint: a newspaper reporter’s accounts of the wars, negotiations, and foreign tours she has covered over the years. There are chapters on the recent fighting in Afghanistan, the human-rights abuses in East Timor, the struggle against corruption in Nigeria. Nearly a third of the book covers warfare and its aftermath in the Balkans and Kosovo, for which Priest was a correspondent. There are by-the-way comments, rather than anything like a developed argument, on questions of training, technology, and the match between budget and strength. For instance, this paragraph pops up on its own in the midst of a narrative:

“The Defense Department had spent $15 billion over two decades to make the Apaches the least vulnerable attack helicopters in the world. It spent another half billion dollars to send 6,200 troops and 26,000 tons of equipment to transform a muddy airport in Tirana, Albania, into an Apache launching pad. But instead, the vaunted helicopter came to symbolize everything wrong with the Army as it entered the twenty-first century: its inability to move quickly, its resistance to change, its obsession with [avoiding] casualties, its post-Cold War identity crisis.”

What I’m saying will sound like a complaint, but in fact it’s not. I finished the book admiring it greatly and feeling that its shaggy organization actually underscored the message it conveys. The real subject of Priest’s book is how large and ungainly the American empire has grown, and how the military, with all its range and power, is challenged and sometimes overwhelmed by the effort to keep it in order.

Priest does a marvelous job of conveying both the daily operating realities and the large-scale strategic tensions that go with America’s new role. The book is well-written and is full of sharp details and vignettes. For instance: that only two members of the Special Forces team that called in air strikes in Afghanistan had ever been on horses, before they got to the battlefield and realized that horses were the only way to get around. Or the reason for a gruesome “friendly fire” episode in Afghanistan, when a precision-guided bomb homed in precisely on an American unit: An Air Force controller changed the batteries on a GPS targeting unit but “did not realize that after the battery was changed, the machine would revert to displaying the coordinates for the GPS’s location, instead of those for the intended target.” Late in the book Priest has a wrenching chapter on an American soldier who raped and killed an 11-year-old girl in occupied Kosovo. Even in the age of precision weapons, real human beings, with their flaws, fight the battles and administer the peace.

To say that the theme of the book is “imperial overstretch” would be too simple; Priest says that many of America’s new missions are necessary and effective. But she establishes beyond question that the effects of military engagements are vastly more complicated than they seem when going in. I had thought that David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace was the most valuable background book about warfare in Iraq. (It says that the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, at the end of World War I, pre-ordained most of the problems of the modern Middle East.) The Mission is a worthy complement.

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James Fallows, who began his career at the Washington Monthly, is the author of 12 books and writes the “Breaking the News” blog on Substack.