Command Performances

The civilian-military conflict over the conduct of war.


Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime, by Eliot A. Cohen, New York: Free Press, 288 pages, $25

"Good morning, good morning!" the General said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

Thus begins Siegfried Sassoon's seething 1917 poem "The General," on the bungling bloodletters commanding the British army during World War I.

"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

In July 1917, Sassoon's bitterness led him to issue a public denunciation of Britain's political authorities, one directed more specifically against "the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed." The rage was perhaps inevitable: In times of war, the quality of the armed forces is—or is perceived as—a reflection of the worth of their civilian overseers. And after two injuries and two medals for bravery, Sassoon was entitled to denounce a war whose objectives, he felt, had been distorted.

Eliot A. Cohen, a professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Affairs in Washington, D.C., and member of the Defense Advisory Board, might well understand. He argues in his latest book, Supreme Command, what might seem an obvious point: that during wars civilian leaders have a right, even a duty, to intervene in military affairs. This is opposed to what Cohen calls the "normal theory of civilian-military relations," which, he underlines, pervades thinking on military affairs today. That theory holds that politicians define grand policy in wars, but that it is up to the military to implement policy without civilian interference.

Cohen writes that "political leaders must immerse themselves in the conduct of their wars no less than in their great projects of domestic legislation….They must demand and expect from their military subordinates a candor as bruising as it is necessary….Both groups must expect a running conversation in which, although civilian opinion will not usually dictate, it must dominate….That conversation will cover not only ends and policies, but ways and means."

Cohen then devotes most of his book to laudatory profiles of four statesmen who took an active role in the particulars of war and thus brought about victory: Georges Clemenceau, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion. Cohen admits that this "great man" approach might open him up to accusations of hero worship. But when he quotes Henry Kissinger (who doubtless was speaking in the first person) saying, "Great men are so rare that they take some getting used to," Cohen unintentionally raises a serious question about his own thesis. If great men are so rare, then how relevant are their performances to defending the principle of civilian control in military affairs? How do their lessons apply to the bevy of less extraordinary leaders, if not downright mediocrities, who generally govern?

Cohen is right that sensible societies shouldn't trust generals to navigate the myriad curvatures of war without civilian oversight. But since he provides no absolute canon to guide ordinary leaders (nor can such a canon really exist), his argument in favor of civilian dominance can easily backfire when politicians fail to grasp their limitations. Cohen effectively leaves his readers with one of two approaches when assessing the wartime legacy of civilian leaders. Readers can either assume that the outcome of a war justified the means used or argue, as Tolstoy did in War and Peace, that since war is a game of infinite variables, leaders are mere cogs in an unfathomable machine. The utilitarian argument is hopelessly biased in favor of the victors; the Tolstoyan outlook explains why strict guidelines of behavior are impossible.

Nor does one get much illumination in a chapter titled "Leadership Without Genius." Cohen uses the sorry outcome in Vietnam to conclude that the Johnson administration's management of that war was an example of how civilian leadership shouldn't have acted. He concludes that the problem in Vietnam was not that the civilians tied the military down—a spurious indictment resurrected by conservatives to rationalize America's defeat—but that they didn't tie the military down enough to provide the bewildered armed forces with a clear sense of direction and priorities.

This assessment raises a question: If leaders err when failing adequately to counterbalance their military establishments, might not an uninspired leader's excessive prying also bring a military venture to disaster? It is not just the manner of overseeing war that a leader must consider but also the tactical excellence of his oversight. Despite brief involvement in the Blackhawk War, Lincoln wasn't a military man. But he intuitively grasped that the Union's priority was the destruction of the Confederate army, not the capture of Richmond. In contrast, Hitler's rerouting of two Panzer groups around Moscow in July 1941 delayed a German attack against the Soviet capital, allowing the Red Army to regroup. Cohen provides no overarching rule allowing us to say why Lincoln was right and Hitler wrong, except that one won and the other lost his war.

A civilian leadership that oversees military matters faces another dilemma: how to prevent military officers, in their turn, from playing politics. The innumerable leaks from the Pentagon in the current run-up to war in Iraq made it plain that soldiers were on a policy-shaping rampage. Though their judgment on the desirability of war may have been useful, it was also a flagrant violation of civilian authority to make it public. Still, leaks work: The armed forces are now reportedly preparing for a classic large-scale campaign in Iraq, suggesting they overcame the inclination of Defense Department civilians toward a smaller operation.

Admittedly, it is not easy in a democracy to shut the armed forces up. In open societies the onset of warfare demands a public debate, making it unreasonable to tell the one institution most concerned to keep its peace. But even the armed forces don't necessarily think monolithically when it comes to these issues. For example, when the Clinton administration contemplated intervening in Kosovo in 1999, the NATO commander, Wesley Clark, irritated his more reluctant Pentagon bosses by taking his case for war directly to administration officials. The top brass didn't care for Clark's politicking and later effectively ended his career. That was hypocrisy. Clark's mistake was not in playing politics but in doing so—and winning—against his own tribe.

In portraying his four paragons, Cohen mainly sticks to detailing events in the leaders' wartime careers that prove his hypothesis. He insists his purpose is not to defend his subjects, but he sets boundaries to the debate in such a way that their reputations are rarely tarnished. Few deny, for example, that Lincoln was a great man, but is it realistic when using him as a model for civilian authority in wartime to ignore his suspension of habeas corpus and imposition of martial law? These were military decisions that had a significant political impact. Cohen acknowledges this point but lamely uses Lincoln's abuse of civil liberties as an illustration of his "steel."

Similarly, in looking back on Ben-Gurion, who no doubt was crucial in bringing about Israeli statehood, is it legitimate to disregard his sponsorship of the Dalet Plan of April-May 1948? As the Israeli historian Benny Morris writes in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947?1949 (1987), "The essence of the plan was the clearing of hostile and potentially hostile forces out of the interior of the prospective territory of the Jewish State, establishing territorial continuity between the major concentrations of the Jewish population and securing the Jewish State's future borders before, and in anticipation of, the Arab invasion." Morris notes that the plan justified the expulsion of Palestinian civilians. In judging Ben-Gurion's wisdom, one must ponder whether, by using his army to expel Palestinians from his future state, he ensured decades of bitter Arab antagonism and helped promote the militarization of Israeli society and an expansionist streak that validated the disastrous occupation and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza.

To be fair, Cohen never assumes infallibility in his subjects. But once one evokes the potential for fallibility, an obvious question arises: How will the book's lessons be applied in the martial age of George W. Bush? In a jacket blurb, William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, recommends the president read Cohen's book. What the neocons want Bush to learn is that it's up to him and his civilian aides, not the brass hats, to set the pace in the Middle East, particularly Iraq.

Fair enough. But the successful civilian wartime leader is the one who has a clear sense of his political objectives. With Bush, the only certainty is his yearning to fight. It's hard to tell what the administration's long-term aims in Iraq might be. Indeed, it is apparent that a possible Iraq war is different things to different officials. Some see it solely as a means of getting rid of Saddam, while others ponder reshaping the entire Middle East. Bush has united his advisers through his vagueness, while also allowing them diverse readings of what should come next in the Gulf, ignoring his own role as the paramount unifier of purpose.

Cohen probably would not accept this abdication as an example of suitable leadership. Bush, in his inability to define persuasive and coherent aims in Iraq for the American public and, perhaps more important, for his own armed forces (who are preparing to elect Tommy Franks as a successor to Saddam), has failed to do what even leaders without genius must.

One is reminded of Ravi Shankar's retort at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh when the public applauded what they thought was a sitar improvisation: "Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you'll enjoy the playing more." Many are applauding Bush's tuning, confusing it with the performance. Yet nothing indicates he really knows the tune in Iraq.