The Obligations of Supreme Command

“At the summit, true strategy and politics are one.” — Winston Churchill.

It has long been a concern of political philosophy to structure military organizations in democratic societies that are strong enough for legitimate defense while sufficiently constrained to protect civilian society from excessive military influence. In the words of Plato, how does a society create a military, “gentle to their own and cruel to their enemies?”

In mature, constitutional democracies, this problem has largely been solved. There is no real probability that a Western-style democracy in North America or Europe will fall in a military coup. Nonetheless, the relationship between a civilian-controlled military and its civilian leaders remains a serious question.

In 1959, Samuel Huntington wrote The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, which has come to be the seminal piece on the subject and is studied at military colleges. Huntington made the case for what is now the conventional wisdom about civilian-military operations. According to Huntington, the role of civilian leadership is to set clear, achievable military objectives and then allow a professional military to design and implement the means to achieve these objectives.

This conventional wisdom has been reinforced by what many people believe is the lesson of the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, President Johnson is perceived as having restrained the military from achieving victory, while micromanaging to the point of personally reviewing target lists.

Professor Eliot Cohen of the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Relations of the Johns Hopkins University in Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime turns this reasoning exactly on its head. Cohen argues that successful wars are best conducted with intimate control by civilian authorities over military decisions and a constant dialogue between civilian command authorities and military commanders. As military strategist Claus Von Clausewitz explained “war is simply a continuation of political intercourse.” Waging war is not a single decision. Rather it is a set of continuing decisions in response to changing circumstances many with direct political import. War necessitates decisions on alliances, strategies, means, and limits that are more political than empirical. As Georges Clemenceau explained, “War is too important to be left to generals.”

In making his case, Cohen examines the war record of four successful wartime leaders: Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War; Georges Clemenceau, French leader in World War I; Winston Churchill Prime Minister of Britain during World War II, and David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister of Israel during the Israeli War for Independence.

In all these situations, Huntington’s admonition to acquiesce to expert military advise was not even possible given the fact the generals often differed sharply in the their advice and perspective. Through constant oversight, questioning, prodding, and haranguing, these leaders forced their generals to devise and implement coherent military strategies. This often involved reorganizing military commands and individuals to adequately implement civilian decisions. Abraham Lincoln had to work through a series of generals until he found ones that were competent and aggressive enough to implement his vision of victory.

If Lincoln had simply instructed George McClellan to defeat the South and not intimately involved himself in the conduct of the war, the United States would likely be two countries today. One of these countries may have maintained the institution of slavery throughout the nineteenth century. If Clemenceau had relinquished authority to Marshal Ferdinand Foch, an even harsher peace would have been imposed on post-war Germany than the disastrous Treaty of Versailles. Indeed, Foch could have caused a greater political rift with England and the US that would have inhibited the alliance against Nazi Germany during World War II. Without the continuous and severe audit of the military’s judgment by Churchill in practical and detailed military matters, resources would have been squandered and lives lost, perhaps changing the outcome of the war. If Ben-Gurion had not leashed in disparate military groups forcing them into a single coherent command during the formation of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces may have never marshaled the limited resources necessary to defeat an enemy that overwhelmingly out numbered them.

In Vietnam, rather than there being too much civilian oversight, there was far too little critical supervision. Despite a reputation for abrasiveness, President Lyndon Johnson never forced his generals to formulate a coherent strategy for winning the war when their efforts were clearly ineffective. It would be impossible to imagine Abraham Lincoln allowing a General William Westmoreland to remain in command for four years of ineffectiveness. The military never really gave Johnson any options above merely more of the same: more bombing, more firepower and more soldiers. Indeed the sheer size of the American forces delayed the transition of the indigenous South Vietnamese Army from a petty bureaucratic impotent institution into a force that could effectively defend South Vietnam with only modest US assistance. Johnson should have reassigned generals and commanders until he found a set that demonstrated a successful strategy for victory, if indeed such a strategy existed.

Cohen argues that Vietnam does not make the case for letting generals run the war. Rather Vietnam is a classic example of a debacle that can follow inadequate civilian direction of the military. As President George Bush contemplates war with Iraq, he should not be so foolish as to employ the dogs of war without retaining some control over their leashes. In many ways, how and when to attack Iraq has important political imports. The responsibility to make these decisions resides with the president.

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