- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2002

By Eliot A. Cohen
Free Press, $25, 288 pages, illus.

Mark my words: Eliot Cohen's "Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime" will be read as often by the professional military and the civil servants and politicians that employ them as is Samuel Huntington's "The Soldier and the State" and Morris Janowitz's "The Professional Soldier," both of which are true classics.Mr. Cohen's historical synthesis is an argument for civilian control of the military, sure to be discussed in Washington, in the Pentagon, at all of the country's six war colleges, and at every unified Command under the control of the secretary of defense.
Mr. Cohen examines the performance of four great war leaders Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben Gurion "to make the nature of the challenges and complexities they faced more comprehensible," and to illuminate "the perennial problem of civil-military relations in wartime" democracies. Through the trials and successes of these four men, Mr. Cohen hopes to draw universal truths that will serve the aforementioned segments of the civiliaan and military populations.
The operative word in the topic sentence of the preceding paragraph is the adjective "great."One of the nagging thoughts that plagued this reviewer, grappling with Mr. Cohen's sophisticated thesis is this: What if the wartime civilian leader is not "great?" What if the wartime president is Warren G. Harding, and nobody would argue that Harding would have metamorphosed into Abraham Lincoln had he been inaugurated in 1861.
Civilian control is precious even if the president is weak and not up to the task because all wars end, and military control can be a greater danger than inept civilian leadership.In his chapter, "Leadership Without Genius," Mr. Cohen does not satisfactorily deal with an incompetent president, probably because there is no possibility of a formula for this exceptionally complex human interaction.
Politicians, Mr. Cohen asserts, who have to deal with generals and admirals in wartime face "exceptional difficulties.The stakes are so high, the gaps in mutual understanding so large, the differences in personality and background so stark, the challenges exceed anything found in the civilian sector."That is why soldiers and statesmen, the author stresses, must study the issue of civilian control.
Mr. Cohen argues persuasively that the traditional (but by no means universal) military point of view civilians set only the goal and then must get out of the way of the operators is wrong. He disapprovingly cites a passage from the United State's Army's War College professional journal:
"There will be instances where civilian officials with Napoleon complexes and micromanaging mentalities are prompted to seize the reins of operational control. And having taken control, there will be times when they begin to fumble toward disaster.When this threatens to happen, the nation's top soldier … must summon the courage to rise and say to his civilian masters, 'You can't do that!' and then strive to the focal point of decision and tell them how it must be done." Mr. Cohen's four statesmen acted precisely that way, and the author demonstrates how their countries benefited enormously.
Mr. Cohen's guiding values comes from history's greatest philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz who argued that "war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means." He elaborates, "all activity in war had potential political consequences and repercussions, and that every effort must therefore be made to bend warfare to serve the ends of politics."Mr. Cohen admiringly quotes Bernard Brodie, one of the 20th century's greatest strategists: "The civil hand must never relax, and it must without one hint of apology hold the control that has always belonged to it."
Lincoln set Civil War Union strategy, fired generals (with much greater alacrity than Jefferson Davis) until he found the right ones, insisted on knowing what was happening operationally in all theaters all the time, and controlled the successful effort.Mr. Cohen quotes sympathetically from a 19th-century biography of Lincoln that sums up his thinking in all four case studies."Military writers love to fight over the campaigns of history exclusively by the rules of the professional chess-board, always subordinating often totally ignoring the element of politics.This is a radical error… . War and politics, campaigns and statecraft, are Siamese twins, inseparable and interdependent, and to talk of military operations without the direction and interference of an administration is as absurd as to plan a campaign without recruits, pay or rations."
As Lincoln had his George B. McClellan, Georges Clemenceau had his Ferdinand Foch. Clemenceau endured Foch's criticisms which crossed the border into insubordination, but kept firm control of the strategic and operational aspects of the war.More importantly, he pursued more enlightened war termination strategies than Foch advised.Mr. Cohen believes Clemenceau's approach to the peace of 1919 was the most enlightened of the big four at Versailles.He does not blame the French Tiger for Adolf Hitler's rise nor the French disaster of 1940.
Winston Churchill was famous for choosing military leaders who would disagree with him, for overruling British generals and admirals after hearing all the arguments, for continuously questioning military plans and especially the assumptions upon which they were based, and for inspiring the British people (and others).Mr. Cohen states: Churchill's "indomitable spirit, when coupled with his skills at higher war leadership, made him the greatest war statesman of the century."
Ben-Gurion created the strategy for the war of independence, controlled operations and "[h]e got results because, like Churchill, he expected to hear about the details of compliance with his instructions."
Mr. Cohen deals with the Vietnam disaster, arguing that the problem was not too much civilian control (especially during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration), but actually a lack of it. He faults Johnson not because he immersed himself "in too much detail, but because [he] looked at the wrong details and drew the wrong conclusions." Johnson "did not cross-examine, test, and probe [his] subordinates, and … did not force them into debates with other professionals who took a different view."
Mr. Cohen admires Mr. Huntingon, but in his final chapter often disagrees with the latters's approach to wartime civil-military relations. The author, moreover,sees a recent trend of military involvement in domestic politics, and is properly alarmed.
Finally, Mr. Cohen opens a discussion on a subject most political scientists ignore: the use of the military in war for domestic political purposes. Clausewitz's maxim regarding war and politics assumed international politics reasons of state.Mr. Cohen knows, however, that some politicians seeking votes to lengthen their tenure use the military like pawns on a domestic political chessboard.He writes: the "professional concept of military activity … depicts political purpose in war as purely a matter of foreign policy, and yet in practice the 'high' politics of war is suffused as well with 'low' or domestic politics."
The author cites three examples, but could have written a book on this subject. He writes about Lincoln and the election of 1864, Franklin Roosevelt and the election of 1942, and Johnson and the election of 1964, but he could have, as well, written about Harry S. Truman and the Korean War and John F. Kennedy the Vietnam War.
In the last two cases we see presidents sending men into combat (Truman) and putting people in harm's way (Kennedy) largely for domestic political reasons.What should the professional soldier do when the president engages the armed force in combat without congressional sanction?That question is unanswered in this highly thought-provoking work, because there is no absolute, no principle, that will fit all situations in the relationship between war and politics. Mr. Cohen argues, "[w]ar is too varied an activity for a single set of professional norms."Indeed.

Alan Gropman is the chairman of the Grand Strategy Department at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

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