Many Americans comforted themselves during the Cold War (and after) with the belief that America's nuclear arsenal made them essentially invulnerable to attack on their homeland.
After all, who would be suicidal enough? Hiroshima and Nagasaki were quite a strong precedent.
Enter Osama bin Laden. It is not hard to understand that President Bush simply had to strike back; the American psyche demanded it. The sooner the better. The question, then, was when? and how?
Enter Bob Woodward: most notable for his work with Carl Bernstein in exposing the Watergate scandal in 1972 which brought down President Nixon. His eleventh book and ninth best seller, Bush at War, is the story of the first 100 days after bin Laden's attack on America.
It is most likely the only complete, and certainly most objective, account we can get addressing the when and the how of the "War on Terror." Foreign spies aren't any closer to the action than Woodward takes the reader in this book.
Woodward's meticulous research includes over 50 National Security Council meetings as well as "other personal notes, memos, calendars, written internal chronologies, transcripts and other documents ... both classified and unclassified."
Interviews with over 100 members of the administration, from various staffers up to Mr. Bush himself, are sprinkled throughout the narrative. Woodward is certainly not a stylist, but the book reads like good journalism should: quickly and effortlessly.
His narrative technique, in which he develops character, brings us inside the head of each player. This might be more troublesome if Woodward's reputation weren't as solid as it is.
A case in point:
'Anybody doubt that we should [strike the Taliban starting] Monday or Tuesday of next week?' [Bush] inquired. This was what he would later maintain was intentional provocation. His words lingered in the room. Monday? Tuesday? He was pushing hard, almost growling GGrrrhhh! Powell was a little suprised. He, as well as anybody, knew how long it took to move forces and get fully prepared for a large-scale military operation.'
Indeed, the passage enlightens us as to what we find in the book: glimpses into Bush and his team's decision-making style. A classic tale of court intrigue. Anthony Lewis, the former New York Times journalist, in his review in the New York Review of Books, argues that Bush at War is "history of a curious kind, lacking the essentials of a historian's work: context, analysis, a point of view ... page after page raises questions in the reader's mind that Woodward does not mention, much less try to answer."
The lack of analysis may frustrate Lewis; others, however, may find Woodward's steadfast objectivity, which allows one to make up one's own mind, refreshing in this age of overanalysis.
Lewis' latter claim is perhaps more valid, but we gain a more tightly focused book in return.
What do we learn? Woodward gives us a rare glimpse into the modern-day American presidency and how Bush operated it. We learn how the key issues were decided, who proposed them, and how they came to be. And in true Woodwardian fashion, the book gives both Bush's supporters and his detractors an equal dose of hope and despair. Thankfully, Woodward leaves the final decision up to you.