Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime by Eliot A. Cohen.
Simon and Schuster, 2002. 288 pages.
Welcome to a new series of short book reviews where I will discuss the top three things I took away from one or two of the books I’ve read recently.
In Supreme Command, Eliot A. Cohen examines the nature of the civil-military relationship using the examples of Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion, finding that the key trait for success in all four cases was moderation in the management of violence.
Takeaway 1: There is no military action without political considerations
Cohen notes that in all of these cases the military was subordinate to and accepting of civilian control, but despite that acquiescence, distrust remained. All of the leaders were capable of tolerating disagreement and changing their minds if convinced. The leaders were all learned men that used a lifetime of knowledge to negotiate their political systems and the global political environment (minus Lincoln) in which they found themselves. They continued to study, learn, and reflect throughout their tenure as leaders.
These leaders were sensitive to the national and international political intricacies and deftly controlled their governments while managing the military and its generals. Churchill’s eloquence was central to civilian buy-in for military ends. Ben-Gurion repeatedly tempered his military aims to avoid international political backlash. All spent time among their soldiers and devoted equal time to civilian governance.
Takeaway 2: Necessity of Strategic Guidance and Defined Political Outcomes
All of the leaders were masters at providing clear strategic guidance and describing the desired political outcomes for their generals. Military success is impossible without clearly defined end-states because without them there is no target at which to aim the efforts of the military. All recognized the necessity of strategic communications, from speeches and interviews to written orders and battlefield/hospital circulation.
When military leaders failed to live up to their guidance the leaders were not afraid to remove generals or survey junior officers for ideas. Because generals were provided with very specific guidance and a political theory of victory their job was left to the execution. It is in the execution that the military shines so long as there are recognizable achievable aims.
Takeaway 3: Doctrinal Conviction during Transformation
Doctrine is ingrained in military officers through targeted education at various levels but there is no such mechanism for political leaders. In every case, these leaders were autodidacts so well versed in the doctrine and history of the military as to be knowledge peers if not superiors to their generals.
All recognized the changing character of war heralded by advances in technology and tactics. The rifles, railroads, and telegraph of the civil war, the emergence of defense in depth of WWI, the radar and technological leaps in WWII, and the changing face of opposition forces for Israel’s conflicts are listed as transformative, but the inclusion and management of these new facets led to success. Here the leaders’ knowledge of doctrine and how to vary to meet new challenges without totally overruling military leaders proved a key skill.
These leaders and their wars are contrasted with the poor management of Vietnam and the largely hands-off approach of the 1991 Gulf War. In Vietnam, a poor understanding of the capability of the military coupled with poor leadership and strategy led to catastrophe. The Gulf War was successful because of clear priorities and a lack of interference with the generals, but represented what Cohen calls a near abdication of political responsibility and a hurried resolution for fear of political backlash.
A strong grasp of the political considerations of warfare, coupled with clear guidance about objectives and adaptation to the transforming nature of warfare represented a key difference between the more recent conflicts and the wars of the four featured leaders. As Cohen makes clear in his conclusion the common thread between these leaders who master civil-military relations was moderation.