Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy

by Frederick W. Kagan, Encounter Books, New York, 2006, $29.95.

Many readers find the phrase “military policy” incompatible with adjectives such as “interesting” or “fascinating.” While writing an entire book on the subject that merits such praise may seem an impossible task, Frederick Kagan has pulled it off with Finding the Target, a pithy, direct and surprisingly engaging account of U.S. military policy. A military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, Kagan was educated as a military historian and taught the subject at West Point for several years.

Use of the word “transformation” in the subtitle is wielded with more than a little skepticism. While the author does explain in broad strokes how we got “here” from “there,” he remains dubious of the meaning of transformation in the Rumsfeld-influenced Pentagon. One of the great strengths of this work is the way Kagan brings the reader slowly through the intellectual history that spawned such skepticism.

Finding the Target’s starting point is the Vietnam doldrums, during which the U.S. military found itself circa 1973. The Army was wracked by the double-whammy of looming defeat (or at least lack of victory) and the wrenching changes demanded by conversion to an all-volunteer force. The Navy, the service requiring the longest lead time to change course, wrestled with budget constraints imposed by a war-weary nation as well as the threat posed by a seemingly robust Soviet navy. The Air Force, stung by the failure of its signature weapons system to live up to rhetorical claims over the preceding 20 years, as well as by its declining success rate in air-to-air combat, was also skidding. In short, the mighty U.S. military had reached a tipping point of actual capability with regard to its primary threat—the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact satellites.

At this point, most works that address military policy drone on about obscure Pentagon policy directives, earning their reputations as cures for insomnia. Instead, Kagan injects life into what is essentially an intellectual history with accounts of the military leaders who developed the theories that would dominate their respective services. He even manages a credible explanation of the process by which theories become doctrines, influencing both procurement decisions and policy decisions at the highest levels.

Kagan’s only weakness is that he leans a little too heavily on research at the expense of a more personal connection with the people who forged the ideas. He cites just one personal interview (with U.S. Air Force theorist John Warden). Yet many of the people in this book remain very much alive. If Bob Woodward’s books stand at one end of the extreme (to their own detriment), perhaps Kagan’s skew too far to the other end of the spectrum.


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here