The Magazine

War Is Too Important to Be Left to the Generals

Jun 10, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 38 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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Supreme Command
Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime
by Eliot A. Cohen
Free Press, 272 pp., $25

EVERY SO OFTEN a book appears just at the moment when it is most needed--even though that moment was entirely unpredicted.

Such a book is Eliot Cohen's "Supreme Command," a superb study of civilian commanders in chief in times of war by the nation's leading scholar of military-civilian relations. The book was planned when Cohen was teaching at the Naval War College in the 1980s, but it appears as George W. Bush is faced with the most difficult and momentous decisions in our war against terrorism.

Cohen's subject is the relation between civilian commanders in chief and their military leaders. His examples of great civilian statesmanship are Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War, Georges Clemenceau in World War I, Winston Churchill in World War II, and David Ben Gurion in Israel's war for independence. And the lessons he draws from their experiences are in important cases the opposite of the lessons that most Americans--notably George W. Bush and Colin Powell--seem to have drawn from our recent history. If Cohen is right, George W. Bush needs to be more like Lincoln and Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben Gurion, if he is to lead us effectively to victory in this difficult and unprecedented war.

Cohen challenges the long-held view that military strategy should be a sphere wholly apart from civilian leadership. The model, set out by Samuel Huntington among others, is that military strategy is a matter of technical expertise, which must inevitably be degraded by civilian influence; the commander in chief is to set the goal, and the military is to decide how to get there. Civilian non-interference in things military is thus, in this view, the corollary of military non-interference in things civilian (and hence political).

Things seldom work this way. Certainly the military in none of the societies Cohen studies threatened the principle of civilian control; there were no coups, no mutinies, no serious threats of either. But the great civilian war statesmen did interfere in things military. And this was unavoidable. The goals of the military--the definitions of victory--are ultimately political questions; as Churchill wrote in 1923, "The distinction between politics and strategy diminishes as the point of view is raised. At the summit true politics and strategy are one." Not even military professionals have real practice employing military tactics: They spend most of their careers not fighting. "It is quite true that conventional war can hardly be made by complete amateurs," Cohen concludes, "yet neither can it be handed over to the professionals."

Abraham Lincoln came to the presidency in 1861 with little military experience; he served in the Black Hawk War in 1832, and, as a one-term member of the House, he opposed the Mexican War in the 1840s. But once he became president, he did not hesitate to fire his generals until he found ones he liked, and from the beginning of the Civil War--in his ignoring of the generals who did not want to reprovision Fort Sumter--he was willing to reject the military's advice. And he issued to his generals, often on a daily basis, detailed orders that he took care to see were obeyed. He also took an interest in military technology, which resulted in use of the breech-loading rifle and improved naval ordnance. More to the point, Lincoln developed an overarching strategy for a conflict whose extent and course no one anticipated. And at the same time, he was able to adapt to events as they happened. To the end, he kept control, sharply forbidding Grant, for example, from entering into any negotiations with Lee except for the Confederates' surrender.

WINSTON CHURCHILL for Cohen is "the twentieth-century war statesman par excellence." Like Lincoln, Churchill was hated by his generals. (Lord Alanbrooke said he "has only got half the picture in his mind, talks absurdities and makes my blood boil to listen to his nonsense," and when in 1957 he spoke in praise of his three service chiefs at a victory dinner, none of the three had a word of praise for him. It didn't help that they had to get up early and Churchill kept them up till late at night.) Churchill was seen as unstable, given to flights of enthusiasm, undisciplined, meddling in what was not his business.