Commentary Magazine


Supreme Command by Eliot A. Cohen

Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime
by Eliot A. Cohen
Free Press. 320 pp. $25.00

In his influential 1957 study, The Soldier and the State, Samuel Huntington codified the main doctrines of American civilian control of the military. Ideally, wrote Huntington, judicious politicians should set the long-term goals of war, outline the general parameters of action, and then, exercising minimal restraint, let professional military men conduct the kind of war they know best how to wage. Eliot Cohen, a historian of military strategy at Johns Hopkins, cites Huntington’s work as the best statement of the “normal” and accepted theory of civilian-military relations. But in a series of original and well-argued case histories, he also shows how warfighting itself is far too important an enterprise to be left entirely to the generals.

Cohen gives us four portraits—of Abraham Lincoln closely monitoring his squabbling Union generals during the American Civil War; of French premier Georges Clemenceau in face-to-face battle with Generals Foch and Pétain in World War I; of Winston Churchill’s active interference with his commanders in almost every theater during World War II; and of David BenGurion at work creating the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at the birth of the Jewish state. From these case histories, he establishes a different blueprint for the ideal political leadership of a wartime military.

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Without Lincoln, it is hard to see how Northern armies could have won on the battlefield. Far more so than his generals, the President grasped immediately the long-term value of the telegraph, the railroad, and rifled weapons. By late 1864, these innovations had ensured that Union troops would enjoy superior mobility, superior communications, and superior firepower—and it was thanks to Lincoln’s own hands-on effort that they were made available to the army en masse. Moreover, Lincoln’s ideas for squeezing the South went beyond the original and rather restricted plans of his generals; as he correctly saw, success would involve putting an end to the export of cotton, capturing an iconic city like Atlanta, and creating a tandem effect by having the tenacious bulldog Ulysses S. Grant barking ferociously at the South’s front door while William Tecumseh Sherman ran wildly to the rear.

Cohen’s portrait of Lincoln the supreme commander is masterful. He stumbles only once—in not fully crediting Sherman for his revolutionary march through Georgia and the Carolinas, an action that more than anything else brought the war to a close in the spring of 1865. Grant opposed the march, and so did other major Union generals like George Henry Thomas. Lincoln himself had little say in the decision to make this radical advance through the Confederate hinterland, shrugging that he knew which “hole” Sherman had gone into but not the one from which he would emerge.

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One does not normally associate Georges Clemenceau, Cohen’s second case study, with adroitness in human relations or with military acumen, but rather with obstinacy and a fierce parochial determination to promote French interests in the Versailles peace negotiations of 1919 at the expense of both the defeated Germans and France’s own allies. But Cohen demonstrates that throughout the last year of the war itself, Clemenceau was able successfully to play off against each other the differing talents of his two main generals, promoting Henri Pétain’s cautious tactical genius in a manner that did not obstruct the more aggressive strategic goals of Ferdinand Foch. Far from being an accidental premier who stumbled into power after the battlefield catastrophes of 1917, the rotund seventy-six-year-old Clemenceau was an adroit super-general who nearly alone in France saw to it that, despite mutiny and defeat, the enormous sacrifices at Verdun would not prove wasted. “I will fight in front of Paris, I will fight in Paris, I will fight behind Paris,” he roared to his ministers in real, not feigned, trust in the abilities of the French soldier.

Then there was Churchill. If Lincoln used blunt personal letters to set his generals straight, and Clemenceau traveled to the front to take the pulse of the war, Churchill proved an intrusive busybody, prone to calling his captains at all hours of the night, asking inane questions, promoting hare-brained schemes and weird impractical weaponry. So the conventional wisdom goes—an oversimplification based in part on Churchill’s blunders in Norway and his initial opposition to the Normandy invasion. But as Cohen rightly argues, all this restless and misdirected energy, including the much publicized drinking and the insomniac telephoning, was a small price to pay in exchange for the learning, experience, and intellectual brilliance that Churchill brought to the day-to-day conduct of the war in Europe and the Pacific.

No other Englishman could have honed the Anglo-American alliance to such critical effect; none knew so well the strengths and weaknesses of the British Commonwealth or how to mobilize its often shaky resources; and few learned better how to interrogate Montgomery, Tedder, Cunningham, Brooke, and others—cutting through their vanities, reminding them of their areas of ignorance, often saving them from themselves and the real damage they otherwise might have inflicted on thousands of their troops. By widening the analytic focus beyond the well-worn themes of Churchill’s vitality and rhetorical genius, Cohen succeeds in debunking the myth of an inspirational but otherwise over-the-hill amateur whose advice was correctly ignored by his professional subordinates.

But it is David Ben-Gurion who, of Cohen’s four leaders, was perhaps the most brilliant and the most difficult of all. As Israel’s first prime minister and guiding spirit in the 1948-49 War of Independence, Ben-Gurion used the device of the “seminar”—literally stopping government business for weeks at a time to interview personally commando leaders, veterans, and traditional officers—as a means of weeding out incompetents, promoting men of genius, and bringing bitter rivals into broad agreement. In place of the chaotic competition among the Haganah, originally a loose organization of Zionist military groups, and the sometimes suspect Lehi and Irgun—both originally underground and terrorist commando factions—Ben-Gurion molded the Israel Defense Forces into a professional military based on European and American models, an army disciplined enough to ensure Israel’s survival against deadly and far more numerous enemies.

More importantly still, Ben-Gurion understood better than his front-line officers the military liabilities of the nascent Israeli national character—strains of pacifism, an emphasis on intellectual rather than physical prowess, naive trust in international peacekeeping, Utopian socialism, and a residual fatalism brought on by the great European tragedy of only a few years earlier. He saw that such mentalities could be lethal to a nation that would have to fight repeatedly on all fronts for its very existence, and he ruthlessly ejected Communist zealots and wide-eyed idealists alike from positions of military responsibility.

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Cohen ends his book by contrasting his four case studies with more recent examples—or, rather, counterexamples—of American civilian leadership: in Vietnam, the Gulf war, and Bosnia. True, Lyndon Johnson himself occasionally picked targets for bombing in Vietnam, but that paled in comparison with the near-reckless latitude given to General William Westmoreland in crafting American strategy; the combination of limitless supplies and enormous manpower allowed a terrible margin of tactical and strategic incompetence to grow unchecked. In the Gulf war, the first Bush administration turned over too much of the conduct of the fighting to Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Washington and General Norman Schwarzkopf in the desert—to good tactical effect but ultimately to strategic failure. (The Clinton White House would repeat this error in Bosnia.) Schwarzkopf knew how to win a war and get home but not how to win a more lasting peace; Powell assured the cabinet that he knew best how to direct his generals but in fact had no clue as to the importance of taking Baghdad, the ultimate danger of Saddam Hussein’s continued rule, or the disastrous public-relations fiasco of allowing a supposedly defeated Iraqi dictator to butcher innocents while the victorious but impotent Americans stood on the sidelines.

Supreme Command ends with a careful dissection of Samuel Huntington’s ideas—a somewhat more academic exercise than what has gone before. Here Cohen hints at but does not really show why we have no more Lincolns, Churchills, Clemenceaus, or Ben-Gurions. All four were voracious readers, often self-taught and naturally inquisitive. Masterful politicians, they had an instinctual intimacy with—and yet a distrust of—military bureaucracy. Certainly none of the four was awed by jargon, superficial expertise, or the bluster of staff. All were masterful orators and engaging writers; they understood their task not only as arousing a nation to arms but also as instilling spirit in their own officers, who too often saw war as a science rather than an art. We tend to forget that timidity and self-doubt are pathologies as frequently found among officers as are the supposedly more natural sins of bellicosity and recklessness.

Eliot Cohen’s revisionist thesis is especially timely after the first Bush and Clinton presidencies, both of which—the former out of naive trust, the latter perhaps out of fear or ignorance—handed over the operations of their respective wars almost entirely to an overly cautious military. Cohen is surely right that we need to develop different-more traditional-attitudes and protocols concerning the military-civilian partnership. Let us hope, however, that the problem lies with inculcating such habits and not with war leaders themselves. And let us hope that Lincoln, Churchill, Clemenceau, and Ben-Gurion were not singular products of a now lost classical approach to education, a rare creed of self-discipline, and a tragic rather than a therapeutic sense of men at war-in other words, that they were not representative of a species of statesman whose like most of us have not seen in our lifetimes and may not see again.

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About the Author

Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His “Re-rethinking Iraq: Nothing Succeeds Like Success” appeared in the April COMMENTARY.




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