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.

Cohen will have none of this. Churchill worked hard and systematically, made sure that he got digestible reports on military technology and scientific advances and statistical reports free of departmental bias, and was able to adapt skillfully to the swiftly changing currents of the war. At every point he was willing to challenge and question the judgments and recommendations of his military leaders--much to their discomfort. "A continuous audit of the military's judgment," Cohen calls it. Through persistent and well-aimed questions, he got the military to give in on things small (restoring regimental patches) and big (full supplies for the code-breakers at Bletchley Park). And he was right on the important issues: on the menace of Hitler in 1938, the importance of the United States, air defense, the Battle of the Atlantic, the technology of cross-Channel invasion, and the danger of communism after the war. His generals and admirals resented him, but he won.

Cohen finds similar patterns in Georges Clemenceau and David Ben Gurion. "War is too important to be left to the generals," Clemenceau famously said, and he acted on his theory: After becoming premier in 1917 at age seventy-six, he visited the front lines one day a week for the rest of the war. He cashiered many generals, made sure others obeyed orders to prepare defenses in depth, and balanced the demands of very different military commanders and balky coalition allies.

David Ben Gurion, with little military experience in 1947, interviewed all the Jewish military leaders, and then, choosing his generals carefully, knitted together several self-defense and terrorist groups into an army that was able to defend the new state of Israel against the armed forces of the Arab states. As Cohen puts it, he "drove and inspired his subordinates to do things which left to their own devices they may have known to be desirable, but which they might not have carried out."

Cohen's favorite war statesmen never treated the military as a separate, specialized sphere in which they had no business meddling. They were always "querying, prodding, suggesting, arbitrating, and, on rare occasions, ordering their professional subordinates." They were not popular with their military leaders: "All of them drove their generals to distraction, eliciting a curious mixture of rage and affection as they did so." This is a vivid contrast, he argues, to the mostly less successful American commanders in chief from 1965 to 1999, who "waged war according to the 'normal theory' of civil-military relations."

HERE COHEN COUNTERS conventional wisdom and disagrees with the lessons that many of the military officers who fought in Vietnam--notably Colin Powell--drew from that conflict. Didn't Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara unduly intervene in purely military matters in Vietnam? Not at all, Cohen says. Johnson did insist on approving bombing targets, but he reasonably regarded that as a political matter, fearing that if he bombed too far the Chinese would enter the conflict, as they had with disastrous results in Korea less than fifteen years before.

What Johnson didn't do and should have done was question the bombing campaign or General William Westmoreland's strategy of using heavy firepower to run up the body count in areas far from population centers. Nor did he work to elicit from his military commanders any alternative to that strategy:

"Westmoreland, the straightlaced and, on the whole, unimaginative commander...would not have lasted four and a half years in command under Lincoln. A Clemenceau would surely have visited him more than once or twice in his theater of war. . . . A Churchill would hardly have let him slip away without a constant, even brutal questioning of his strategic concept, and a Ben Gurion would, after massive study, have discovered the impossibly haphazard organization that divided the air war (to take just one example) among at least three separate and uncoordinated commands, and which prevented the American commander in South Vietnam from overhauling his ally's corrupt army."

Johnson was famously vicious to his subordinates. But not evidently to Westmoreland, who wrote in his memoir, "I have never known a more thoughtful or considerate man than Lyndon B. Johnson." It would have been better had Johnson been rude.

IN THE YEARS AFTER VIETNAM, professional soldiers believed that the mistakes of Vietnam had reduced the American people's regard for the armed services and impaired the military, and they acted to prevent their political superiors from repeating these mistakes. Where Lyndon Johnson had almost entirely refused to call up the National Guard, the Army chief of staff, Creighton Abrams, created the "Total Force" structure that intermingled active duty and reserve units: "They're not taking us to war again without calling up the reserves," Abrams declared. The post-Vietnam officers inspired Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's six rules for military engagement, which required advance knowledge of how American forces could achieve "clearly defined objectives" and "reasonable assurance that we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress." In a similar spirit was the "Powell Doctrine," in which Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted that America have "overwhelming force" to reach its objectives and a clear-cut exit strategy.

Conventional wisdom has it that the civilian leadership wisely abstained from controlling the military during the Gulf War. Cohen thinks things went farther. "Powell successfully preempted a good deal of civilian control in the Gulf War through his own highly developed political sense." Inside the Pentagon, Powell opposed going to war in 1990. Did that move pro-Pentagon politicians like Senate Armed Services chairman Sam Nunn to oppose the Gulf War resolution? Defense secretary Dick Cheney did not speak regularly with General Norman Schwarzkopf, who was directly beneath him in the chain of command, but evidently dealt through Powell. Powell stopped the bombing of Baghdad after one sortie hit a command and control center that housed a shelter for families of the Iraqi elite; he also acted to see that American forces targeted Iraqi missile launchers sending Scuds to Israel.

But the greatest arrogation of political decision-making by the military came over when and how to end the war. Powell recommended stopping the bombing after a hundred hours, for fear the so-called "Highway of Death" would, when shown on television, arouse an unfavorable public reaction. This, despite the fact that the continuance of Saddam Hussein in power threatened "the security and stability of the Persian Gulf"--one of President Bush's four stated objectives in the use of force against Iraq. And General Norman Schwarzkopf, seeking a surrender of Iraqi forces without explicit directives from civilian leaders, allowed the Iraqis to continue using helicopters, with which they suppressed Shiite uprisings against Saddam Hussein.

Vietnam veterans regretted that there was never any exit strategy from Vietnam. In the Gulf War, they got their clean and quick exit. But, of course, that exit was not clean, and we are still dealing with the consequences of it today. As Cohen emphasizes, Powell and Schwarzkopf did not usurp strategic control so much as George H. W. Bush and his civilian leaders abdicated it; Bush was delighted that the United States was leaving and that "Vietnam will soon be behind us."

THE PRIMACY of the military in the military-civilian relation continued through the 1990s, Cohen says--all the more so, because President Clinton sought "to avoid casualties which he felt himself peculiarly unable to justify." Secretary of Defense Les Aspin asked few tough questions of military commanders in Somalia and lost his job; Bosnia negotiator Richard Holbrooke met with what Cohen calls "mulish opposition" from his military counterpart, General Leighton Smith; General Wesley Clark, mistrusted by most other military leaders, got little cooperation during the struggle in Kosovo. Indeed, sources on the Joint Chiefs leaked news of military opposition to the Kosovo war. This was, as Cohen notes, "a far cry from the outraged but dutiful muteness with which the chiefs of staff of the Army and Navy accepted President Roosevelt's decision to invade North Africa in 1942, against their explicit and firm advice."

"Supreme Command" appears just as George W. Bush and his administration are making momentous decisions about whether and how we will go after Iraq. Bush does not appear, from what we know, to be Eliot Cohen's kind of supreme commander. He is known for delegating detail work to better informed subordinates. He reportedly speaks to General Tommy Franks, the theater commander, only a couple of times a week. He is not known to have immersed himself in the arcana of military technology as Lincoln and Churchill did, and he does not appear to have the close acquaintance with his military commanders of a Clemenceau or a Ben Gurion.

On the other hand, he evidently does have a capacity to ask intelligent and to-the-point questions which his subordinates may have dodged; the now-famous August 6 intelligence briefing, in which mention was made that al Qaeda might be involved in hijackings, responded to a presidential question about al Qaeda capabilities in the United States--a question it is now apparent that the CIA and the FBI did not think hard enough about.

Bush has also installed--against the reported advice of Colin Powell and others--a secretary of defense who seems to operate very much like Cohen's supreme commanders. Donald Rumsfeld reportedly talks to General Franks and to Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers several times a day; he reportedly peppers them and other subordinates with questions, requests for more information, and suggestions. Rumsfeld's management has been described by Pentagon officials as "hands on," "brutally honest," "abusive"--words that sound very much like Alanbrooke's descriptions of Churchill's. There were stories before September 11 that Rumsfeld was in danger of losing his job because Pentagon military officers and civilians were enraged by his demands for military transformation, and an anti-Republican Washington press corps was licking its chops at the prospect of the first casualty of the Bush cabinet. My own view was that Rumsfeld was never in any danger of losing his job. The anger at him was evidence that he was doing his job as it should be done.

Now the complaints about Rumsfeld come out in different form. On May 24, the Washington Post ran a front-page article by the well-sourced Pentagon reporter Thomas Ricks that began: "The uniformed leaders of the U.S. military believe they have persuaded the Pentagon's civilian leadership to put off an invasion of Iraq until next year at the earliest and perhaps not to do it at all, according to senior Pentagon officials." The story may not mean exactly what Ricks's sources say. It makes it clear that Pentagon civilian and military leaders have been planning action against Iraq, and that (as a May 19 story by James Dao in the New York Times said) they are having trouble deciding how to deal with Saddam Hussein's probable use of chemical and biological weapons. That is a difficult problem, and it seems sure that no military plans have been finalized; President Bush assured German chancellor Gerhard Schr der and French president Jacques Chirac, both queasy about a war with Iraq, that he did not have any military plans against Iraq on his desk.

But they will have to get there someday if he is to keep his promise of regime change in Iraq. "Time is not on our side," he said in his State of the Union speech on January 29. And does anyone take seriously the proposal, advanced by opponents of action against Iraq, that things will be just fine if we can get some general to overthrow Saddam in a coup?

To find a workable plan for action against Iraq, Bush is going to have to act more like Cohen's supreme commanders than he has so far, and he is going to have to give full backing to Rumsfeld's efforts as well. War is too important to be left entirely to the generals. It is time for the supreme commander to command.

Michael Barone is senior writer at U.S. News & World Report and author of "The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again."