Commentary Magazine


National Defense

To the Editor:

Eliot A. Cohen’s thoughtful analysis of the future of national defense [“What To Do About National Defense,” November 1994] left out what may be one of our central concerns. In dealing with potential enemies, Mr. Cohen seems to assume that we would, as it were, have to face them one at a time. But this has not been the case in any of our major conflicts, including and since World War II, and is less likely to be so in the future.

In World War II we faced an alliance of major powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan. In Korea we fought a de-facto alliance of North Korea and China; and in Vietnam we struggled unsuccessfully against the same sort of combination of Communist powers, which of necessity limited the scale of our effort and eventually defeated us.

In the Balkans today a major cause of European (and probably American) reluctance to engage the Serbs with serious force is the obvious but little discussed fact that the Russians stand behind the Serbs and would tolerate no major effort against them without a very dangerous international escalation of the conflict. This gaping abyss tends to be papered over with much show—and praise—of so-called Russian cooperation in trying to bring “peace” to the area.

The necessity of engaging such sub-rosa alliances will present a major challenge to the United States in the next century. Indeed, it is already doing so, with precious little in the way of serious analysis or discussion to help meet that particular challenge. The problem tangles diplomacy and military force in a complex, unpredictable manner, and badly needs the application of intellectual and practical expertise now.

Herb Greer
Manchester, England

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To the Editor:

In his article, Eliot A. Cohen writes of “pernicious consequences” when retired officers endorse candidates for public office. But once retired from active duty, having helped defend our country in various far-off locales, haven’t they earned the right to express their views? We who remain on active duty are not unduly swayed by them; they are the same fallible human beings in civilian clothes whom we knew and loved when they were in uniform.

James B. Stockdale ran for Vice President on a ticket with Ross Perot; they lost. William Westmoreland ran for governor of South Carolina and lost. Retired officers should be just as entitled to misread the public mood as any of us.

John McCain and John Glenn, both retired officers, serve in the U.S. Senate, which is a better Senate for it.

Robert P. Fairchild
LTC, Army National Guard
Hampton, Virginia

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To the Editor:

. . . Among other matters, Eliot A. Cohen urges that the U.S. test and develop nuclear weapons. But this myopic suggestion is inconsistent with his initial premise, that cold-war conceptions must be abandoned.

I submit that the Clinton administration should do nothing that might undermine the politico-military value and effect of missile treaties. Otherwise, Russia might be tempted to unfreeze its nuclear arsenal, produce more warheads, and oppose any further reductions in warheads. . . . Does Washington want to unsettle President Yeltsin’s fledgling democracy and create additional hardship for reformers?

Elliott A. Cohen
New York City

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To the Editor:

Eliot A. Cohen is quite correct in lamenting the deterioration of the military’s respect for the tradition of civilian supremacy in determining and directing policy. The trauma of the Vietnam war, which lowered the American public’s respect for the armed forces and corroded their self-confidence, . . . generated self-justifying excuses on the part of the military to explain why the war was lost. And it is these excuses—that the military did not have the support of the public and was denied coherent objectives by civilian policy—which have led to the problems Mr. Cohen’s article brings to light.

The new contention is that the armed forces have a right to insist upon public support and clear-cut objectives in future military operations, to decide whether or not military power should be employed, and to participate in the formation of policy. While many leaders of the armed forces claim they are still subordinate to civilian authority and still the executors of civilian policy, they now seek not only what is in effect a veto over that active authority but also a recognized and active military role in making policy. . . .

The most influential and widely-read exposition of this new, untraditional concept can be found in the book, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, by Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. (1982). Summers’s . . . conclusions have been enthusiastically received. Using quotations from the most recent English-language translation of On War, by the 19th-century Prussian military writer and analyst, Karl von Clausewitz, Summers concludes that the United States lost the Vietnam war because of “a lack of appreciation of military theory and military strategy, especially the relationship between military strategy and national policy.” His solution for preventing further military failures is to insist upon military intrusion into the processes which determine and direct policy. . . .

Summers goes on to claim that it is the military’s responsibility “to apply our military judgment to national-security issues,” and asserts, “Prior to any future commitment of U.S. military forces, our military leaders must insist that the civilian leadership provide tangible, obtainable political goals.” Thus, Summers believes that the military should evaluate and veto civilian policy decisions. . . .

A serious flaw in Summers’s book is his frequent taking of Clausewitz’s remarks out of context and tailoring them to produce meanings that Clausewitz did not intend. For example, . . . Summers claims that, according to Clausewitz, the subordination of the military to civilian authority rests upon the assumption that, “policy knows the instrument it means to use.” . . . If Summers’s interpretation is accurate, this would unlock the door for the justification of the military’s deciding for itself whether or not to obey civilian policy. . . .

But the text of On War reveals that Summers has taken the quotation out of context. Clausewitz actually states:

Subordinating the political point of view to the military would be absurd, for it is policy that has created war. Policy is the guiding intelligence and war only the instrument, not vice versa. No other possibility exists, then, than to subordinate the military point of view to the political.

Nowhere . . . in On War did Clausewitz contend or imply that the subordination of the military to the political leadership is conditional upon the wisdom of policy or the competence of the political leadership.

And here is the entire passage from Clausewitz (Book VIII, Chapter 6, p. 607), with the words that Summers has quoted out of context emphasized:

It might be thought that policy could make demands on war which war could not fulfill; but that hypothesis would challenge the natural and unavoidable assumption that policy knows the instrument it means to use.

Summers conveniently ignores Clausewitz’s further remarks (pp. 606-7):

The question arises whether policy is bound to be given precedence over everything . . . [t]hat it can err, subserve the ambitions, private interests, and vanity of those in power is neither here nor there. In no sense can the art of war ever be regarded as the preceptor of policy.

And although Clausewitz did say that “political decisions” could “influence operations for the worse,” he never claimed that such a possibility detracted from the primacy of policy.

Summers begins Chapter 8, “Tactics, Grand Tactics, and Strategy,” with another quote from Clausewitz:

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.

He then declares, “As military professionals, it was our job to judge the true nature of the Vietnam war, communicate those facts to our civilian decision-makers, and to recommend appropriate strategies.” And he goes on to discuss guerrilla war, counterinsurgency, revolutionary war, and conventional war as if these were the “kinds” of war Clausewitz had in mind. But a reading of the entire paragraph in context reveals that Clausewitz meant “kind of war” only in terms of how closely the purely military object of the war approached the purely political object. . . .

Thus, in On Strategy, Harry Summers has grossly distorted Clausewitz’s intent in order to advance his own agenda of intruding the military into policy formulation.

Joseph Forbes
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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Eliot A. Cohen writes:

My article contended that the United States would, for the most part, continue to operate in a coalition in the future, a point which, to some extent, meets Herb Greer’s concerns. His argument is, within limits, valid—one can imagine a coalition of powers that combine to thwart the United States on particular issues—but it seems to me highly improbable that we will face the kind of two-front conflict in the next few decades that we had to cope with in World War II. There is no major power that has the resources, will, or discipline to pose anything like the challenge of Germany or Japan in World War II. As for Russia, the sorry episode in Chechnya indicates just how dismal that country’s military strength is, and is likely to remain.

Robert P. Fairchild has simply missed my point. Of course retired officers have every right to participate in politics as much as they wish. We have even elected a few to the presidency (with mixed results), and perhaps will do so in the future. What was troubling in the last election, and what continues to be troubling, is the rise of the military as a formally acknowledged corporate group in American politics. For a band of retired generals and admirals to endorse a candidate is unseemly, and a step in the direction of the politicization of our military. When former Secretary of Defense Les Aspin referred to the military as a constituency that the President could win, he betrayed a misguided conception of the officer corps, but one increasingly pervasive.

My namesake’s clinging to the arms-control treaties of the cold war is anachronistc: both Russia and the United States have an interest in strategic defenses, and that interest will grow over time. Russia—bankrupt and chaotic as it is—is in no position to resume an arms race even if it had the desire to do so.

I am glad that Joseph Forbes agrees with my basic point, although I think he is a bit harsh on Harry Summers—an honorable and estimable veteran of this country’s wars—when he does so. Summers’s book made an important contribution to the revival of serious study of Clausewitz in the country’s war colleges, and for that alone he deserves a great deal of credit. Ironically enough, moreover, when On Strategy first appeared, it upset many army officers who thought it entirely too critical of the American military.

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