Without Hesitation by General (Ret.) Hugh Shelton

            Hugh Shelton grew up in Speed, North Carolina, and married his high school sweetheart.  He attended North Carolina State University and enrolled in ROTC.  He went on active service in February 1964, and never looked back.  He rose through the ranks, a conscientious and apolitical special forces specialist, ending up as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997 until three weeks after 9/11.

            Shelton became a Green Beret and served in the secret Project Delta force during 1967, leaving just before the Tet offensive.  He was a competent and fearless soldier.  He loved to sky dive, almost dying in front of his wife on his first public exhibition when his parachute malfunctioned. And this love of free falling through the air was what kept him going in spite of everything.

            Without Hesitation is an excellent tour of the nuts and bolts of war fighting in the twenty-first century.  It is also an exoneration of the competence of the professional military and intelligence services, putting the responsibility for the disasters of 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq right where it belongs, on the politicians.  If anyone is naïve enough to still believe that Bush thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, this book shows that Bush was determined to get rid of Saddam Hussein “at a time of our choosing.”  Rather than wasting time reading the self-serving lies of Bush and Rumsfeld, Shelton’s life is a lesson in paying attention to detail and the disasters that result from decision-making by self-serving ignoramuses, incapable of admitting mistakes.

            Shelton is not a great writer, and he had to have the help of two professionals to get this 500 page book into readable shape. For anyone interested in contemporary foreign policy and national defense, this book is indispensable for getting up to speed. Shelton’s book reminds me a lot of Robert Murphy’s Diplomat Among Warriors. Murphy was the chief State Department official who trotted around the globe meeting with foreign leaders on behalf of the United States.  He was the last civil servant to perform this function before the President and Secretary of State started doing this work themselves.

            While Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior is an appropriate description of Henry Hugh Shelton’s life, because of the context in which his journey takes place, a more appropriate title might be Warrior Among Diplomats.  He is the professional military counterpart to the Secretary of state.  Shelton spent much of his time as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs flying around the world in his own Boeing 707, planes that had been Air Force One during the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Carter administrations, meeting with his military counterparts in other nations.  How many people know that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has his own private jet? The institutional conflict between the need for secrecy for security purposes and the need for transparency for democratic decision-making, means most people are woefully ignorant of the actual mechanics of modern combat.  Shelton’s book is an attempt to educate people, but, given the Bushes expertise in counterprogramming, I fear Shelton’s book will not get the exposure it needs and deserves.

            Someone once said that every soldier above the rank of colonel is a political appointment; Shelton is the exception that proves this rule. Shelton is a straight arrow, a mustang, who could only have risen to the highest military office because of luck and war.  Boris Yeltsin was once asked how he got to be President of Russia.  He answered, “By accident.”  Shelton is such an accidental leader, but the United States needs many more such accidents.

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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf