Friday, January 27, 2017

One Man's War on the Homefront

Arnold L. Punaro with David Poyer, On War and Politics: the Battlefield Inside Washington's Beltway

Second Lieutenant Arnold Punaro took a bullet in a distant Vietnamese valley, and woke up with a Purple Heart pinned to his hospital pillow. Having joined the Marines fresh from college to avoid getting drafted into the Army, he always considered himself a short-timer, but now he had a permanent reminder of his tour. After snagging a graduate degree on the GI Bill, he accepted a job for long-serving Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, and his adventure continued.

With a secondary title like “The Battlefield Inside Washington’s Beltway,” I anticipated a scholarly analysis of the intersections, and disconnections, between American political process and military action. Unfortunately, no. I might’ve enjoyed such a book, but this is Arnold Punaro’s memoir of stumbling into the halls of power, almost by accident, if his stories hold water. If you can clear away expectations generated by the somewhat misleading title, this is a fairly interesting read.

Much like his joining the Marines, which he did simply to avoid something worse, Punaro’s entry into America’s political establishment was more fluke than design. He answered a flyer hanging at the University of Georgia for senatorial interns, because the woman he loved was working in Washington. Senator Nunn, a young upstart then, needed office staff from his home state. And Punaro’s journalism degree made him valuable back before social media set America’s political tone.

Eventually, though, this accidental job became an important calling. Senator Nunn, a famously convivial speaker and ambitious personality, became the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and having a Purple Heart on his staff became a priceless asset. Punaro quickly became the Senator’s right-hand man on all matters military. His life’s circumstances, which seemed like chance at the time, conspired to make him insanely powerful, without ever running for office.

Arnold L. Punaro
Punaro, with ghostwriter David Poyer, writes in a linear, straightforward manner, like somebody telling stories over drinks. He occasionally tosses out flashbacks or peeks ahead, but his story unfolds mostly in sequence. Brief interruptions from his wife Jan, who exerted powerful but not always intentional influence over his life, have a sort of “Now honey, tell it right” quality which increases the personal texture. This isn’t a polemic; it’s an engaging story between trusted friends.

Punaro’s career has caromed between categories of public service. Despite leaving the Corps, he remained a reservist, and was mobilized during Desert Storm, making him an important living link between two eras of American military history. He eventually achieved the rank of Major General and, after leaving Senator Nunn’s office, took a prominent billet at Quantico. I don’t fear revealing this, since Punaro’s service is public record; but his storytelling gives events life.

Not surprisingly, Punaro’s encounters with power include some pretty notable names of his generation. From Richard Nixon to Dan Quayle, from Scoop Jackson to Dick Cheney, Punaro name-drops encounters with men (mostly, indeed, men) whose names became synonymous with power politics and American history. Sometimes he underplays them for humor: he subtly pretends nothing unusual matters about rubbing shoulders at Quantico with a lowly Marine captain named Oliver North. We wait for the other shoe to drop.

It may surprise nobody who’s read memoirs like this before, that Punaro’s life trajectory culminates in private enterprise. Now CEO of a public policy consultancy, Punaro has cultivated a media presence, of which this book is only the latest component. Surprisingly, his business ventures have dealt more with budget and technology than defense, a fact one has to Google, since Punaro’s final chapters compress the last twenty years into eighteen pages. Weirdly enough, self-promotion requires unexpected modesty.

Although throughout this book, Punaro essentially markets himself as product, his prose doesn’t have the huckstering feel of other books by professional consultants I’ve read recently. He shares lessons he’s learned, lessons that have made him practical and non-ideological in an increasingly bifurcated political scene; but I never get the “Gimme a buck for the white paper” vibe. He just comes across like a guy whose seemingly uncoordinated life choices paid off in understated success.

Punaro tells his story to make himself sound remarkably like the subject of a Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker profile, the fortunate brother whose combination of preparation and luck led him to fortune. Punaro’s behind-the-scenes influence spans decades, and he himself is an example of America’s possibilities and perils. Though I admit, I might’ve liked more insight into the intersection between military and public policy, Punaro’s own experience within the field is both engaging and eye-opening.

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