Book Review: War Nerd

Does it matter if controversial military columnist Gary Brecher is really an overweight data-entry clerk from Fresno?


Military columnist Gary Brecher’s look at contemporary war is both offensive and illuminating. His book, War Nerd, which is a collection of articles Brecher penned for the Moscow-based weekly eXxile, aims to explain why the best-equipped armies in the world continue to lose battles to peasants armed with rocks.

In this 317-page polemic, Brecher, who became a military authority of sorts through countless hours in front of the computer reading blogs and online news sites, ridicules much of the reasoning behind the US war in Iraq, saying most people “don’t give a s—t about democracy.” In a recent interview for Marketplace of Ideas, a public radio program about books and culture, he explained that this war is evidence that most people are not rational, but tribal. People fight wars to appropriate the enemy’s stuff and sleep with his women. Any excuse of democracy or even ethnic or religious purity is just window dressing.

When the goals are so limited, it makes sense that insurgency is the newest and most predominant type of warfare. The best soldiers know their territory and are willing to keep fighting for just a little cash and the promise of excitement. That, Brecher says, is why conventional war, with all of the Pentagon’s spending on bigger, faster, and stronger weapons, is a fruitless effort. The future won’t see any more “total wars of the good ol’ WWII kind,” Brecher says. “We’ll have…very cautious, limited wars between the big players, and bloody messes” with the “savages.” He thinks most conflicts in the future are likely to be long, small, insurgent affairs. And the Bush administration’s war in Iraq is only the latest example. Others include the vast waste of time and money of Plan Columbia and the latest round of interracial violence in Liberia.

Although much of what the author says makes sense, and resonates profoundly with our current situation, it’s often hard to take Brecher seriously because his book is plagued by offensive language and peculiar digressions. Brecher begins a passage about American immigration by admiring Mexican immigrants. “What’s wrong with Mexicans?” Brecher asks. “They’re the best soldiers we’ve got. Just check the casualty lists from Iraq: they read like the time sheet at your local burrito shack.” And what’s the added value of a 14-page rant about Tom Clancy, or the continual narrative detours about how the real Brecher (Gary Brecher is a pseudonym; the author says he is really a 43-year-old data-entry clerk from Fresno, California) is overweight, underpaid, and has a hard time getting a date? It leaves the reader wondering if this is a book about war or a cry for help.

Brecher has a great gift for taking theories of war outside of esoteric discussions about hardware and intricate ethnic fighting and discussing conflict in terms everyone can understand. While War Nerd is often marred by strange editorial decisions and all-too-frequent irrelevant insertions, Brecher’s unrefined voice adds something essential to the conversation. Too often American war discussions—why we lost in Vietnam, why we’re losing in Iraq—become tactical and moral jungles. Brecher, the outsider-expert, suggests a simpler solution: avoid fighting a war at all.