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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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.