I remember having dinner with John Singlaub shortly after he retired from the Army. The Young Americans for Freedom chapter at the University of Tennessee, of which I was president, had invited him to speak on campus. Singlaub had gained considerable notoriety for having been fired as Chief of Staff of the U.N. Command and U.S. Forces in Korea in 1977, and pressured to resign from the service in 1978 for opposing administration policy in particular as it affected troop withdrawals from South Korea and arms control strategy. However, President Carter’s attempts to muzzle the views of professional military men (other high-ranking officers were subsequently “Singlaubed”) were an important contribution to the image of incompetence that led to his undoing. Since then, Singlaub has continued to work as tirelessly out of uniform for a strong America as he did during his 35 years in the Army.

In 1943 Singlaub went from ROTC at UCLA to paratrooper training, to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), operating behind enemy lines; he has been in and out of covert operations ever since. (The OSS became the CIA; when Singlaub jumped into occupied France in August 1944, his case officer was none other than William Casey.) He worked with British SOE, French SAS, and Marquis guerrilla units in Europe before going to China, where he organized guerrilla groups in Japanese-held Indochina.

For Singlaub there was no break between hot war and Cold War. He stayed in China, moving from the OSS to the CIA. “The more I studied the situation,” he writes of those days, “the more obvious it became that the Allies’ decision at Yalta to invite Soviet participation in the Pacific War through their invasion of Manchuria was a blunder of epic proportions . . . we could have dispatched American-trained Nationalist divisions to handle the occupation.” It was the kind of shortsighted decision he was to encounter often in his career. Soviet intervention was to speed the end of the war and lessen immediate burdens on the United States, but it also led to the victory of Mao in China and to the costly wars in Korea and Vietnam.

When the Korean War began, Singlaub was executive officer of the Third Battalion, 505th Parachute Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division; the only black paratrooper outfit and one of the few full-strength units in the division. Indeed, it was double strength. Singlaub argued in vain for using his extra troops to fill out other units, but racial segregation was still the policy of the U.S. Army. It was several months before President Truman took what Singlaub calls “the politically bold but absolutely logical step of desegregating the armed services.”

In Singlaub’s opinion, social policy for the military should be based on strictly practical considerations. “[D]uring World War II, I’d encountered women military truck drivers, parachute riggers, train operators and instructor pilots. By the late 1970’s the whole range of electronic warfare MOS’s were open to women. But I personally drew the line at opening up combat support and combat assignments to women soldiers.” He cites the military alert in 1976 in Korea when many women soldiers deserted their posts to look after their children, and the fact that the Soviet and Israeli armies each abandoned the use of women in combat after unhappy wartime experiments.

Singlaub ran several special operations behind Chinese lines during the Korean War before taking command of an infantry regiment on the central front. He drilled his troops in night assault tactics (usual at the time) and personally lead them into combat. He served in the regular staff and training assignments after Korea and afterward returned to special operations in Vietnam, where he sent teams into the Cambodian sanctuaries and against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. But while Singlaub’s military exploits make exciting reading, it is clear that more recent events prompted the writing of this book: he both opens and closes his story with chapters on the Iran-Contra affair.

Singlaub had no direct involvement with the scandal itself, but his efforts to raise private funding for the anticommunist forces in Nicaragua and to supply them with weapons and training involved him in the investigation. He devotes almost a quarter of the book to the topic and makes penetrating observations on Oliver North, Richard Secord, William Casey, and Elliott Abrams, as well as on attempts by the CIA and the State Department to implement the Reagan Doctrine. Only Casey emerges unscathed from his treatment, and Singlaub plainly resents those who have tried to use the man’s death either to cover their own mistakes or to make allegations based on “evidence” Casey supposedly took to his grave.

Singlaub portrays Secord and his partner Albert Hakim as unprincipled mercenaries who used the Contras’ cause to line their own pockets. He believes that $5 million at most was diverted from the Iranian arms sales for use by the Contras, but that the freedom fighters never saw the money, which ended up in Swiss accounts controlled by Secord; millions of dollars contributed to the Contras by private donors and by anticommunist governments in Asia and Latin America were also siphoned off. Singlaub and Secord ran competing supply operations for the Contras, but eventually Secord used his influence with North to cut Singlaub’s network out of the action. Unfortunately, Secord’s operation delivered too little too late, and in ways that struck a veteran guerrilla fighter like Singlaub as incompetent.

Singlaub regards Oliver North as “an intense, bright young officer willing to make hard decisions and work long hours to implement them.” But he was “only a Marine lieutenant colonel on loan to the NSC,” without the background or experience to run a covert global network. It was this naiveté that made him an easy victim of Secord and Hakim, who tried to compromise him with illicit gifts from the large profits they were skimming from North’s operations.

Singlaub says of William Casey that he was “a strict legalist” who would never have approved such actions. Casey also did not trust Secord. Unfortunately, he was not able to control every ClA movement or undo all the damage inflicted on the agency by Stansfield Turner, its director under President Carter. Singlaub blames the gutting of the covert operations section by Turner for the lack of expertise and outright bungling demonstrated by the CIA in both Central America and Iran. Singlaub knew from his own contacts with former Iranian military officers that the so-called “moderates” with which the Reagan administration was dealing were nothing of the kind. And he saw firsthand on his visits to the Contra camps the poor training offered by CIA advisers.

Singlaub also voices concern for the future. He does not trust Gorbachev and fears the United States is letting its guard down too soon, because “the Soviets have only modernized, not actually reduced, their armed forces.” He regrets that the Bush administration has put Central America on the back burner, noting, that the Sandinistas, despite their defeat at the polls, still hold effective power in Nicaragua and continue to foment revolution in El Salvador; while communism in Asia, where Singlaub has had the most experience, is not weakened at all. And there are new dangers as well looming in the world. He notes the deployment of troops to Saudi Arabia, but finished the book before the outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf.

Although Singlaub wonders whether after forty years of containment the United States will have the stamina and the nerve to continue to assert itself as a superpower, it is clear that he himself remains determined as ever to perform his military duty in its service.


[Hazardous Duty: An American Soldier in the Twentieth Century, by Major General John K. Singlaub (New York: Summit Books) 526 pp., $24.95]