Generally Wrong

In Supreme Command, Eliot A. Cohen, professor and director of strategic studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, offers a look at the matter of civilian control of the military. Mercifully, his book enjoys a brevity that his title lacks. Cohen, who writes with concision and insight, robustly argues that, far from being incompetent dunderheads, as commonly portrayed, civilian statesmen can be brilliant commanders.

Cohen provides sketches of Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben Gurion to argue that the conventional wisdom about civilians meddling in military affairs is all wet. Had these four men not actively intervened, Cohen asserts, their countries might have lost. In making this assertion, Cohen is committing a kind of heresy, namely, deviating from the influential thesis propounded by his own mentor, Samuel Huntington, in his classic work The Soldier and the State, that the obligation of the civilian leader in wartime is to defer to the professionals–in short, to get the hell out of the way.

Cohen begins by reminding us that the demand that generals be given a free hand goes back to the Roman republic when Consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus, in 168 B.C., sneered at the senatorial armchair warriors who presumed to advise him about subduing the Macedonians: “The city itself provides enough subjects for conversation; let him confine his garrulity to these; and let him be aware that I shall be satisfied with the advice originating in camp.” But as Cohen astutely points out, the idea of the military officer as a consummate professional clinically carrying out his task is nonsense. It was Clausewitz who noted that politics can never be divorced from warfare. Military actions have political implications. The Gulf War, for example, was fought by a large coalition of countries to give the United States political cover. But most of them probably didn’t contribute much; indeed, they may have gotten in the way of the American military. Cohen also argues Ben Gurion’s great virtue was that he knew when to stop even if greater swaths of territory could be occupied.

Perhaps the example par excellence of the importance of political considerations comes in Lincoln’s prosecution of the Civil War. Cohen goes to great lengths to establish that Lincoln was not a backwoods hick, but a sophisticated consumer of military intelligence who kept an eye firmly fixed on his generals, including Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln took an interest in the development of firearms, including test-firing new ones, and visited the telegraph office on an almost daily basis to read cables and issue instructions. It was Lincoln, Cohen reminds us, who wanted to crush the South as quickly as possible, while his early generals dithered to the point of insubordination. Cohen says, “Lincoln did not merely find his generals; he controlled them. He molded the war to its last days, and he intended to dominate the making of peace at its end.”

Nor was George Clemenceau’s behavior markedly different during the Great War. Clemenceau was a tough old bird: “There is no honor of the army, honor of the judiciary, or the Council of State any more than there is an honor of farmers or cigar sellers.” According to Cohen, Clemenceau “reviewed the selection of generals down to the level of divisional commander, believing that that was the key level of command.” He insisted that France develop new, in-depth defensive positions that proved key to outlasting the German army.

Perhaps Cohen’s toughest case to make might be that Churchill was a superb war leader rather than a bungler. If a cult of Churchill arose during and immediately after World War II, he has been relentlessly disparaged since then, at least by a number of professional historians, as Christopher Hitchens most recently recounted in a lengthy essay in The Atlantic Monthly. Churchill is portrayed as an adventurer, a desperado, a drunk, a fantasist. Cohen will have none of it.

This impression may be common, but it “is false to the core, for Churchill was a man of system–unorthodox and exuberant system, but system nonetheless.” Cohen praises Churchill’s incessant questioning of his generals and sometimes caught them unaware, as in his insistence on the importance of naval aviation as opposed to the construction of battleships. Above all, Cohen argues that while Churchill may have made some misjudgments, he got the big strategic decisions right. He warned early on that Hitler had to be stopped; he recognized the importance of an alliance with the United States; and he was correct to warn about Soviet maleficent intentions in Eastern Europe. Despite all the recent attempts to cut Churchill down to size, it’s hard not to agree with Cohen. As Shakespeare wrote about Julius Caesar in Richard III: “Death makes no conquest of this conqueror/ For now he lives in fame, not in life.”

More recent arguments against civilian intrusion into the military can be dated to the Vietnam War. Cohen does not discuss the war extensively, but he effectively rebuts the widespread conviction that civilians hampered the war effort. In fact, there was not too much, but too little civilian questioning of the military’s tactics and strategy, or lack thereof. It was the military, he notes, that developed the “body count” and other quantifiable measures that were supposed to indicate the effectiveness of the war effort. Indeed, “[William] Westmoreland, the straitlaced and, on the whole, unimaginative commander would not have lasted four and a half years in command under Lincoln.”

It is too early to judge George W. Bush’s role in guiding the military in Afghanistan. One suspects, however, that he gave it a rather free hand, though Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld clearly has no patience for military pieties about civilian control. On the contrary, he has infuriated much of the brass with probing questions and a no-nonsense manner.

Cohen’s book will hardly be the last word on the subject. But works like his and Max Boot’s excellent new Small Wars give us much to ponder. The military will always grouse about snooping civilians. A new Lincoln or Churchill does not seem to be in the offing. But as the United States embarks upon a vast expansion of its military commitments, from the Philippines to Georgia, it is good to know that the record of civilian control offers some room for comfort.

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Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn, a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is the editor of the National Interest and the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.