Book Reviews, Reviews

The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs by David C. Unger


I really wanted to like this book, from the moment I read the title and added it to my reading list. I am very interested in politics/political philosophy, history, and my country’s complete lack of regard for the principles on which it was founded. This book is right in my wheelhouse. It’s preaching to the converted. And yet even I didn’t find it convincing. It’s pretty hard to write a book so poorly that you unsell people who were already sold on your ideas.

I actually considered giving up on this book around 10% of the way through it. The introduction and first chapter of the book covers the entire history of the US up to WW I, and thereafter each president gets their own chapter. The author makes the argument that the Emergency State wasn’t really an issue until WW I, so I see why he glances over so much of our history, but he barely even covers Lincoln’s suspension of Habeus Corpus during the Civil War.

Very shortly after I considered dropping this book altogether (which is something I very rarely do), the book started to pick up a bit. I suspect part of the reason I started to “tune in” at this point is because I know more about the subject once WW I starts than I did before it; I was in familiar waters.

I think part of my problem with the book is the title / hypothesis, that the US is in a constant declared Emergency State, and many of our military mistakes stem from that. As I said, I don’t disagree. However, the author doesn’t really tie to two things together. Unger does a reasonably good job of describing America’s military history, and all of the hubris and world-policing that comes with it. But he doesn’t really explain what the “Emergency State” is or how it’s relevant to these strategic mistakes. He sort of takes for granted that for the last 70-plus years we’ve been living in an Emergency State.

I will say that I thought he was apolitical in his analysis. He explains the mistakes that were made by presidents on both sides of the aisle. Lots of people talk about how terrible George W. Bush was. Lots of people talk about the mistakes FDR made. Very few talk about both. On the other hand, Unger attempts, and fails, several times to tie economics into his lesson, and it just doesn’t ever work. Maybe if it was a constant part of his analysis I would have been more receptive, but whenever he brings it up it feels like filler. All that said, I think the subject of this book is important, and I want to be able to say I’d ask anybody who is overly “gung-ho”/jingoistic about the US to read it. But if it didn’t convince me, I don’t see how it would convince them.

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