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How Congress won the war in the gulf.

On January 20, 1991, as George Bush informed the nation in his State of the Union address that our military would prevail in the Gulf war, the TV cameras trained in on four particularly solemn members of the audience: the military's service chiefs, all gravity and ribbon. The president's assurances ride on these shoulders, the cameras seemed to coo. At first, that thought seemed comforting. Then it seemed absolutely astounding.

What the hell are these guys doing gussied up in the president's claque? There's a war on, for God's sake. Shouldn't they be rumpled and ready in the Pentagon war room, wired on coffee, blinded by VDTs, pinpointing enemy strongholds in the desert?

Not anymore, they shouldn't--and, mercifully, they can't. During the Gulf war, for the first time, the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines had been effectively banished from the prosecution of a major war, thanks to a little-appreciated, five-year-old law called the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act. On this night, as 2,600 air sorties obliterated column after column of Iraqi tanks, the chiefs may well have been grateful that they had something interesting to do with their time.

You've probably never heard of it, and the Pentagon's probably glad you haven't, but Goldwater-Nichols helped ensure that this war had less interservice infighting, less deadly bureaucracy, fewer needless casualties, and more military cohesion than any major operation in decades. Bitterly opposed by the Department of Defense, condemned as "unpatriotic" by most service chiefs, virtually ignored by the press (its passage earned four paragraphs on a back page of The New York Times), this technocratic reform measure shifted control of military operations from four competing Washington bureaucracies--the freewheeling services--to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and a single, independent field commander. If the details of Goldwater-Nichols are arcane, their effects were gloriously apparent in the Gulf. For the first time in 45 years, Congress--Congress--managed to neutralize parochial interests and increase strategic efficiency in one of the most entrenched and self-serving bureaucracies in America.

Armed and dangerous

Among military men, there's a word for people who look beyond their own particular service to the needs of the broader military: "purple"--a blend of military colors. At the Pentagon, it isn't always a compliment. While other militaries--British, Canadian, Israeli, German--have long assigned priority to interservice cooperation, American warfare since the Spanish-American war, when the Navy and Army squabbled all the way to Santiago, has been marked by a startling degree of service autonomy. In Korea in 1953, the Air Force virtually abandoned a Marine division encircled by a mass of Chinese troops at the Chosin Reservoir; the terrified Americans escaped only after Marine pilots subverted Air Force commanders and came to their aid. In Vietnam, the services ran five autonomous air wars and only one major joint operation. During the invasion of Grenada, commander James Metcalf--the Schwarzkopf of the Carribean--spent most of the conflict tied up on the phone, pleading with the Army and Navy to, hey, help me out a little.

That sort of military free-agency was precisely what the creation of a permanent JCS in 1947 was supposed to remedy: Four or five high officers appointed by their individual services would meet weekly to synthesize service views and mitigate bias before presenting military advice to the president. The chairmanship would rotate regularly--fairly--among the chiefs. But in creating an institution intended to promote purple, Congress simultaneously ensured the JCS's powerlessness by refusing its chairman decisionmaking power and leaving his appointment--and thus his loyalty--to his service. The result: a JCS that for decades transformed the execution of war into an all-service spoils system, topped by fractured, competing chains of command. In his autobiography, five-star General Omar Bradley looked back on a career of wars, international crises, and run-ins with Patton and MacArthur and located his life's most frustrating moments in chairing the power struggles that passed for meetings of the JCS.

Goldwater-Nichol's intent--and its stunning accomplishment--was to drain the military's bureaucractic swamp. Today, the service chiefs direct the training, organizing, and equipping of their men--the management side. When it comes to fighting, they step back and let a unified commander in the field, advised by a newly empowered JCS chair, run the show: a simple idea with critical strategic ramifications.

By moving the strategizing out of the four service bureaucracies to central command posts in Washington and the field, the new system gave the president, for the first time since 1947, confidence that the military operations suggested by the JCS chairman, Colin Powell, were not a political compromise but a strategy. Correspondingly, unified commander Norman Schwarzkopf had the unique freedom in the field to use the services, not "equitably," but sensibly. A career Army man, Schwarzkopf could fend off pressure from his own service and run the war almost exclusively from the air. Powell could set the timing of that air war over the vehement objections of the Air Force chief of staff. And together, under extreme heat, they could deny the amphibious landing coveted by the Marines--a glamorous enterprise that might have left thousands dead.

Still, Goldwater-Nichols's greatest contribution was not what it prevented, but what it promoted: four services that worked better together than they had at any time in the past 45 years. The execution was far from perfect--23 percent of American fatalities were caused by friendly fire, an indicator of the coordinating work that remains--but the new power structure allowed, with a minimum of memos and meetings, the decisive execution of an exceedingly complex operation. "Goldwater-Nichols wasn't just a factor," says Lawrence Korb of The Brookings Institution, who has studied military operations in and out of the Pentagon for the past 20 years. "It was one of the primary contributing factors to our success."

There is no little irony in talking of "success" in the Gulf, of course. Saddam is still in power, Kuwait is vindictive as well as devastated, and 100,000 Iraqis are still quite dead. But the Gulf operation's political miscalculations and dubious moral foundation shouldn't obscure what went right militarily, or who made it happen. At a time of increasing skepticism about Congress's ability to grapple with issues of national defense--and a wildly inflated faith in the military wisdom of the executive branch--Goldwater-Nichols testifies to the legislative branch's ability to take on a bureaucracy that the White House hesitates to touch. By elevating international safety over service politics, Congress helped the military win the Gulf war--a fact crucial to recognize now, not for the sake of praising Congress, but for the cause of broader military reform.

Simper fi

In 1948, a year after the JCS was created, General Eisenhower sat down at his desk and vented bitterly to his diary. "Some of our [service chiefs] are forgetting that they have a commander in chief. They must be reminded of this, in terms of direct, unequivocal language. If this is not done soon, someday we're going to have a blow-up." Ike was right, but early. It took that literal blow-up--the aborted hostage rescue in Iran 32 years later--to grease the gears of legislative reform.

The seeds of the 1980 Desert One disaster were sown months before helicopters alighted in the desert, when the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines each insisted on a piece of the action. Though the burgeoning plan called for Marine helicopters to fly from Navy ships to join Army commandos delivered by Air Force planes, interservice rivalry and obsession with intraservice secrecy had the "teams" practicing on private playing fields, even on opposite coasts. No arrangements were made for radio communication among the service commanders. A full rehearsal was never conducted. Some of the men from the nine units cobbled together for the mission had never seen each other before that April night. But they knew enough not to trust the "cooperating" services. The Marines, thrown in even though Air Force pilots were better trained, were still struggling after six months of practice to get their side of the operation together. During one practice landing, their helicopters, supposedly in tight formation, landed more than a mile apart. Still, JCS Chair David Jones knew replacing the weak Marines with Air Force guys would offend the Chief Naval Officer, Jones's equal on the committee and the Marine's parent chief. The mission proceeded apace.

In the middle of the enterprise, when three of Desert One's eight helicopters were damaged and dozens of commandos were milling around the desert wondering what to do next, field commanders used their satellite gear to ring up Jones. "Should we press on or go back?" they asked. "I'm not authorized to say anything," responded the nation's chief military advisor; he needed the consensus of the other chiefs. By the end of the benighted operation, a Marine helicopter had sliced into a fuel-laden transport plane and eight men had burned to death.

Desert One grimly illustrated how service politics can drive military operations to disaster--a possibility Congress had blithely dismissed in the afterglow of World War II. The watershed National Security Act of 1947, which established the Department of Defense, fostered the public illusion of unity--all the services under one tent. But in actuality, it institutionalized nostalgia for the ad hoc, intensely personal arrangements that worked so well in that "good" war. As congressional leaders had observed regularly during the conflict, a charismatic commander--an Eisenhower, a Bradley--could gain control over the services without a copy of a legislative act in his pocket. And after Hitler, who wanted a hyperintegrated general staff? But in the second half of the century, leaving service unity to the idiosyncrasies of personality made less and less military or political sense. As weapons range and speed increased, warning times shrank; the development of sophisticated nuclear weaponry demanded strict accountability and keen political oversight. "We must free ourselves of emotional attachments to service systems of an era that is no more," Eisenhower warned again in 1958, creating "unified commanders" with nominal control over all the services in wartime. But the service chiefs' power was not so easily abated. While the division of forces still rested on the maxim that armies walk, navies sail, air forces fly, and marines wade, by the seventies each service had not only its own air component, but its own commandos, its own dictionary, and its own missiles. And each also had its own true-blue rep on the JCS advocating further autonomy.

If military-advice-by-committee wasn't limiting enough, the JCS was also hamstrung by its built-in conflict of interest. Each chief--including the chair--was an active member of his respective service, a service that was semper vigilis for signs of betrayal. Too much purple, it was understood, could get you ejected from office. Thus the president's primary source of military advice was both hopelessly slow--all decisions were the result of protracted negotiation--and militarily suspect, a double-whammy that led civilian leaders as far back as Dean Acheson to dismiss the chiefs as insipid little old ladies. But Acheson at least kept up the courtesy of asking for counsel. In the Kennedy administration, the JCS discovered the military plan for the Bay of Pigs only by accident, long after the decision to invade Cuba had been made.

The unified commanders often found themselves equally impotent. In Vietnam, when the Marines refused to support the Army with their air component, unified commander Ole Sharp, marooned in his Hawaii headquarters, could only pick up the phone and plead. All through the eighties, the only authority other unified commanders really had over the service chiefs--their superiors in rank--was the power of persuasion, a power that sometimes proved tragically inadequate. Several months before the October 23, 1983, bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, the unified commander over Lebanon grew skeptical of the security there--one Marine armed with an unloaded gun who sat outside a wooden gatehouse. The commander offered to send a security team over to help toughen things up, but Marine officials at the base, fully comprehending his limited authority, turned him down. No one would tell the Marines how to run security, thank you. Ironically, the security specialists came to Lebanon anyway, to inspect the new American embassy five miles away. (The old embassy had already been obliterated in a terrorist attack.) A few months later, the barracks was gone, 241 sleeping Marines blown to bits.


"As in Vietnam," wrote military reformer Edward Luttwak, "the people involved are so absorbed in the internal labyrinth of competing military bureaucracies that they scarcely notice the external reality beyond their offices in Washington"--realities like kamikazes in trucks. The cure for such fatal self-absorption was no mystery: the creation of a strong, centralized leadership as a counterweight to the powerful chiefs. But it took the Desert One fiasco to convince Rep. Bill Nichols, an obscure Alabama Democrat who sat on the House Armed Services Committee, to pick up where Eisenhower had folded two decases before. Smart legislation, Nichols contended in 1981, would link the JCS chair to the president, not to a territorial military. Finally, he would be able to speak to the president who appointed him as an unfettered commander instead of as the mouthpiece of a committee. Concurrently, argued Nichols, a unified field commander would have authority not just over the services, but, in times of crisis, even over the JCS.

As congressional moderates from Nunn to Aspin to Mitchell quickly fathomed--and as a few warhorses like Senator Barry Goldwater already understood--Nichols's formulation made military sense. But the political opposition was formidable. After all, the psychological and financial stability of the military branches had always depended on their individual authority and autonomy. Intense service tribalism has had distasteful results in times of crisis--in Grenada, Army helicopters carrying the wounded were forbidden to land on ships because the pilots hadn't been taught Navy landing techniques; several of the injured died. At recruitment time and budget time, however, exaggerating differences pays off.

The roots of military opposition to Goldwater-Nichols undoubtedly lay in service pride and fiscal prejudice, but the public arguments against reform ran differently: Congress shouldn't intervene in military affairs, and besides, things are basically okay. Any necessary fine tuning should come from the services' own "internal discipline," as retired Lt. General Bernard Trainor put it--or, to use Defense Secretary Cap Wainberger's lively lexicon, from "the management initiatives undertaken within the current statutory framework."

Indeed, the defense secretary had long held the power to make most of the reforms that Goldwater-Nichols required; waiting for in-house changes promised to be as rewarding as waiting for a peace dividend. Yet even when JCS Chair David Jones and Army Chief of Staff Shy Meyer came out firmly, traitorously, in favor of reform in 1982 (just as both prepared to retire), the services and defense stood their ground, backed by key members of the Armed Services Committee--John Warner, Jeremiah Denton, John Glenn--who had longstanding personal ties to the services. Nichols, who'd lost a leg in World War II, was told by one service chief, "You are destroying the military of the United States, sir." In The Washington Post, Navy chief John Lehman exhumed the 40-year-old argument that more service unity would turn the Pentagon into a hotbed of Prussians.

By 1985, after 22 hearings and hundreds of pounds of testimony, staff reports, and military studies--the bulk of which pointed urgently toward reform--the armed services committees were thoroughly deadlocked. Had there not been a swan song by the retiring Goldwater, all the "antimilitary" bluster of the opponents might've prevailed. But Goldwater, a retired Air Force Reserves general, laid out enough patriotic pabulum to win over even the service loyalists. "This may be the last piece of legislation that I will have the honor to offer for consideration by the Senate," he said just before the vote in 1986. "If it is, I will have no regrets. . . . After I have departed from the Senate, I will rest assured knowing that the course has been set for a more secure future for my beloved country."

Goldwater's treacly lobby--assisted by the timely discovery of $1,200 toilet seats and $800 ashtrays--recast the terms of the debate from antimilitary interventionism to good old American common sense. And then came the devastating details of Grenada. A Marine air strike hit an Army command post because coordinates on Marine maps didn't match the Army's. A payload meant for a fort accidentally blew up a mental hospital--the result of, oops, another map discrepancy. The evidence of interservice chaos was finally so incontrovertible that even the loyal service lackeys couldn't stonewall. By the fall of 1986, five years after the first hearings on reform, the opposition had folded. In all of Congress, there were only four "no" votes.

The new unity naturally took some getting used to. A year after Goldwater-Nichols, during the Kuwaiti tanker reflagging effort, one admiral so impeded the unified commander's naval operations that the admiral was forced to turn in his stars. If service chiefs refused to relinquish power even in small missions, despaired congressional leaders, how would Goldwater-Nichols play out in a real war?

Purple pros

On the evening of January 16, 1991, 22 minutes before H-Hour, Air Force special operations Pave Low helicopters crossed into Iraq trailed by a flight of Army Apache helicopters, destroying key Iraqi radars and creating an air corridor for the following Coalition forces. The first foray of Operation Desert Storm was, fittingly, a joint operation. Behind the scenes, purple planning had been under way for months.

The earliest public hint that Goldwater-Nichols was working came five months before the first bomb plummeted, with the firing of Michael Dugan, Air Force chief of staff. As the papers played it, Dugan's primary offense was the leaking of confidential information; in a classic case of interservice gamesmanship, he had bragged about the superior efficacy of air power. But Dugan had breached protocol, too. According to notes slipped to Bob Woodward, what really peeved Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Powell was not what Dugan said, but that the said anything at all. Dugan was playing by pre-Goldwater-Nichols rules. His firing signaled to the other service chiefs that the new order really did leave them out.

It was about time: Convoluted chains of command have been strangling American military effectiveness as least as far back as Pearl Harbor. Even simple operations were papered--sometimes litarlly--to death. During Vietnam, making the decision to raid a prisoner-of-war camp at Son Tay in 1970 took seven months and dozens of briefings and official approvals. By the time the raid was launched, the prisoners had been gone for months. In the case of the Marines in Beirut, the chain of command looped from Washington to Norfolk to Belgium to Stuttgart to Naples to London to Gaeta to a ship off Beirut and, finally, ashore, to one luckless Colonel Geraghty; to this day, the military has not resolved who in this cast of commanders was to blame for all those bodies.

"[I]f you are going to make me responsible," the Libya mission's unified commander, General Bernard Rogers, once snapped, "you have got to give me the authority and you have got to let me run the show without other people short-circuiting me and telling my troops how to do it. And if I screw it up, then it's my fault." In the Gulf, finally, that's how it worked--a clean line from Bush and Cheney, through Powell, to Schwarzkopf, with little of the micromanagement bred by competing authority. Thanks in part to the stability of the command structure, one of the few times the direct line from the White House to Schwarzkopt was used was to consult on the time of the cease-fire.

Bush stood back because he could. Under Goldwater-Nichols, his chief military advisor had been transformed from peripheral to pivotal--at least after the decision to deploy. Powell was effectively cut out of the critical decision to begin the Desert Shield buildup, but once the commitment had been made, it was he who argued successfully against destroying all six bridges to Baghdad--two would suffice--predicting that stranding and slaughtering so many soldiers would make the Americans look like bullies. In the old days, such advice could have been transmitted only in a hailstorm of interservice memoranda and command-level compromises. This time around, Powell could advise and troubleshoot with positively un-Pentagonish efficiency.

As Desert Storm began, fluorescent panels marking allied equipment were the U.S. troops' primary--to use the Defense Department term--"antifratricide device." But days into the conflict, it became apparent that those panels, dulled by mud and grime, were woefully insufficient. By February 6, reviewing several cases in which grount forces were fired on by Coalition aircraft or ground battalions, Powell's staff decided that a new device was required. So they consulted with the services and the scientists, quickly decided on a skyward-pointing beacon visible for five miles through night goggles, and rushed it into R&D. Twenty days later, the brand new light had not only been developed, it was gleaming in the field.

While Powell instructed, Schwarzkopf conducted the day-to-day war operation--and thus became the true beneficiary of Goldwater-Nichols. The commander, who had himself been bombed by Air Force B-52s in the interservice confusion of Vietnam, could resist Navy clamoring for a bigger role. He could run his touted Hail Mary despite the annoyance of the Marines and the Army, who sought a more direct confrontation. And he--unlike his hapless predecessors--could construct and preside over several true "joint operations," the most stunning of which was perhaps the least sexy: the logistics.

In the midst of the Vietnam war, war zone commanders desperately requiring food, bullets, and body bags often had to place separate orders with three stateside bureaucracies--the Army offices that handled rail transport, the Air Force offices that handled air, and the Navy offices that handled ships--while their men hunkered down and prayed. In Desert Shield, a single transportation command center handled the job of moving 500,000 troops and six million tons of equipment from a dead start. Though the logistics wizards had little warning, lifts were in short supply, and the material proved far heavier than Pentagon officials anticipated--major ingredients of a disaster--the joint effort transpired without a single serious mishap. Lt. General Gus Pagonis, who organized the supply operation, credited Goldwater-Nichols with letting him get the job done--making him one of the few military leaders who will, five years after their political defeat, publicly acknowledge the usefulness of the act. Further down the ranks, credit flows more freely. "Before Goldwater-Nichols, we'd have tried to do it in the same manner, but it would have happened in a much less organized way," says Air Force Colonel John Hoffman, who worked with the Army in carrying out the airlift. "This is the first time I've called it a joint effort."

For better or worse, a war followed that sensational buildup--one that again proved progress made since Vietnam. "When I was flying from Thailand into Laos," remembers one Air Force flier, "we hadn't the slightest idea what the Navy was doing. We just hoped we never ran into them." In Desert Storm, by contrast, Schwarzkopf's air commander, Air Force Lt. General Charles Horner, wrote an all-service script for more than 1,000 sorties a day, arranging everything from altitudes to targets to payload for each of the services. And as Horner conducted, the services sang. Navy and Marine pilots worked in concert to destroy Iraq's integrated air defense system and command and control infrastructure. Air Force F-15s and Navy F-14s helped the Marines provide combat air patrol and mine sweeps. Another Air Force-Marine-Navy amalgam jammed enemy radar installations and then attacked them with antiradiation missiles.

Not every Pentagon denizen was complacent about the unity of control. At one point during the mapping out of the air campaign, Newsweek reported, Air Force headquarters sent a liaison officer out from the Pentagon to get an independent look at what was going on. In the spirit of Goldwater-Nichols, field commanders dubbed him "the Pentagon spy" and barred the doors. When other Air Force staffers called the planning center in Riyadh in search of information, they were directed, to their frustration, back to the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Navy's slipped disks

Despite these striking manifestations of the new order, it sometimes became apparent that the military hadn't prepared very far ahead for Goldwater-Nichols. Take Horner's phone book-sized daily schedule of air attacks. The plan was to modem the script nightly to each service so it could prepare for its role. But the Navy's computer system--devised to suit the Navy's, and only the Navy's, needs--was incompatible. So instead of zapping the schedule electronically across the Gulf, Horner's staff had to construct a 1991 version of the Pony Express. Every single night of the air war, they ferried the information on floppy disk from Riyadh to the command aircraft carrier in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. From there, copies were freighted by helicopter to the Navy's other carriers and ships. What should've taken moments took hours and vast quantities of manpower. By the end, the Department of Defense itself conceded, this tiny technical snafy actually curbed the responsiveness of the Navy in the air war.

Nor was very field commander giddy at the service-sacrifice implied by the newly unified command. In fact, the new order chafed even Horner himself, who early on had to trade in his Air Force blues for purple on the subject of the A10 antitank plane--a phenomenon that suggests the fiscal possibilities of Goldwater-Nichols. As service chiefs have understood since World War II, if you want to get more money out of Congress to build more of your favorite planes, you must use more of them during war. Thus chiefs tend to favor their most expensive, controversial weapons in warfare, even when less glamorous ones will suffice. So when Schwarzkopf ordered up a slew of yeoman-like A10s, the Air Force cringed. The A10 boasts no radar, no night vision, no all-weather gear, no wild-blue-yonder panache--all of which shows up on the bottom line: The A10 costs a tenth of the price of sleeker weapons like the F15E antitank aircraft. As the Air Force understood, heavy, successful use of A10s--a plane it plans to take out of service altogether in the next few years--could wreak havoc on the budget request. Horner didn't want to bring it, but Schwarzkopf gave the order. The planes did in most of the tanks killed in the desert. Over the next fiew years, the A10's success may end up saving taxpayers millions of dollars in unnecessary antitank confections.

Still, in warfare, some things matter more than money. Perhaps the most crucial display of Goldwater-Nichols's power occurred when Schwarzkopf forbade the Marines to mount an amphibious assault on Kuwait. The Marine commandant, Al Gray, wanted to send hovercraft and helicopters through the Gulf's mine-ridden waters and onto the beachhead. When Schwarzkopf told him no, Gray tried an end run, going to Powell. Before Goldwater-Nichols, the service chief probably would've had his way. "This is the first time since 1945 that a military commander had the power to resist the Marines' desire for an amphibious assault," says one defense official. "The result was that in this war, we had no Gallipoli. We got out without major loss of life." Most of the Marines spent the Gulf war in supply ships lolling on the Gulf--pissed off, certainly, but alive.

Mail bonding

Above all, said Napoleon, give me generals who are lucky. And in this war, luck of a sort--five months to build up, a skittish and poorly trained opponent--stacked the deck gloriously in our favor. Yet for all the false confidence bred by those accommodations, the Gulf war has done at least one good thing for the American military: created more momentum toward cooperation than 20 years of congressional nagging ever could have. Miraculously, a joint dictionary has materialized; in bases across the country, joint-ops training is becoming a legitimate part of the program. But what does Nebraskan Reggie Chapman, an Army reservist in the Gulf, think of all this new and vaunted cohesion? "I hardly saw anyone from outside the Army," he shrugs. "There was almost no interaction. I mean, I know people who had brothers in the Marines, wives in different services--and they couldn't even get a hold of them because there were different mail systems."

Painting the military a deeper shade of purple will obviously take more than just good legislation and wartime application. It demands long-term commitment to a relationship the services have only just begun. Yet this war brought even a few diehard traditionalists around. "You're never going to have precisely the same time, the same circumstances as we did in the Gulf," says just-retired Army Chief Carl Vuono, who has no great love for Goldwater-Nichols. "But I think we learned a lesson there. I have no doubt that the joint cooperation is going to heat up."

Although military leaders prefer to leave it unspoken, the Gulf taught another, even more vital lesson--about Congress. This year, when the president gave his war whoop and the heat was on, a cowardly legislative branch surrendered its role as guardian of national defense. But in 1986, under political pressure, that body accomplished a landmark reorganization that 40 years of executive branch temporizing had failed to obtain. Five years later, it's probably too much to expect the military bureaucracy and the White House to finally be grateful to Congress for the "intervention" of Goldwater-Nichols. But the history of the Gulf war shows they should be.

Katherine Boo is an editor of The Washington Monthly. Research assistance was provided by Eric Konigsberg.
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Title Annotation:implementing the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act in the Persian Gulf War
Author:Boo, Katherine
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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