A review of Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime, by Eliot A. Cohen

The great war statesmen, as Eliot A. Cohen calls them, are great in part because they insist that war is too important a business to be left to generals. Such statesmen "ask too many questions" and issue too many orders "about tactics, particular pieces of hardware, the design of a campaign, measures of success," and other matters allegedly best left to the generals. Supreme Command is an enlightening study of four political men—Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Georges Clemenceau, and David Ben-Gurion—who succeeded in war while dominating their military subordinates, as well as a discussion of how American statesmen messed up wars in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf by behaving unlike these model commanders. It ends by drawing lessons from these positive and negative examples of civil-military relations.

Cohen's apology, at the outset, for his "hero worship" of the book's main characters is lost on this reviewer, who shares his admiration for them. What's more, Supreme Command is full of instructive stories and easily fulfills its cover billing as "a good read." The further the reader gets into the book, however, the more he is likely to doubt its thesis that success in war is somehow dependent on any kind of proper relations between civilian and military leadership. Rather, Cohen's examples suggest two propositions that the book does not deal with explicitly. First, the correctness of the decisions is more important than whether the person who makes them wears a uniform or civilian garb. Second, the most important of those decisions is to identify what victory is and to pursue it through changing circumstances.

The book begins by setting up a straw man, albeit one with an impressive pedigree: the "normal theory of civil-military relations." Elaborated by Samuel Huntington, and endorsed by the U.S. military, this theory holds that the civilian leadership sets the goals of war, and then gets out of the military's way as it accomplishes its task according to its professional expertise. This is the book's intellectual framework. Cohen rightly emphasizes its congruence with Clausewitz's notion of war as the pursuit of political ends. Cohen of course knows that wars have been botched by civilians as well as by military men and that just as some military men have proved to be more politically astute than their civilian superiors (de Gaulle comes to mind), so some civilians have been more competent militarily than their generals. Still, following Clausewitz, Cohen points out that there can be no principled distinctions between the political and military realms of judgment—only prudential ones. Given this, one wonders why Cohen focuses the book on civil-military interaction, rather than on who in particular cases is right, who is mistaken, to what extent, and why.

The chapter on Lincoln is the book's highlight. Here was a military amateur who understood above all what the war was about, who instructed himself in the details of military technology and operations, and who then set about choosing, as well as closely supervising, military subordinates. It is clear from Cohen's account that Lincoln might well have followed the "normal theory" if his generals had been up to their tasks, but that he involved himself to the extent he did because he was more competent than they militarily as well as politically. He understood better than his credentialed elites, for example, that the increased range of rifles as compared to musketry would expose infantry to fire over a greater portion of their charges. Above all, he understood what it would take to win the war, and wanted to win more passionately than they.

Cohen writes that Lincoln's greatest contribution was his understanding of what victory would consist of and of what would bring it about. This contribution was greatest not because it came from the political leader of the United States, but because it happened to be correct. Cohen correctly praises Lincoln for changing his basic objective—restoration of the Union with slavery restricted but not abolished—when the war itself demanded the change. And he praises him for notchanging the operational goal toward which he relentlessly drove his generals from the war's beginning to its end: the destruction of the Confederate armies. In this connection, Cohen cites approvingly Lincoln's order to Grant, which the general then pressed upon his own subordinates: "Watch [this priority] every day and hour and force it." Clearly, the changing and not changing, the watching and the forcing, were good because Lincoln's "theory of victory" was righ—not the other way around.

Winston Churchill meddled "incurably and unforgivably" with military professionals more accomplished than Lincoln's. Like Lincoln, Churchill was no respecter of persons. He dealt with others by "a relentless querying of their assumptions and arguments, not just once but in successive iterations of a debate." In one of the book's nicest phrases, Cohen tells us that Churchill held his subordinates' calculations "up to the standards of a massive common sense." Though Churchill was not trained in science, he learned enough physics and chemistry and biology to understand the controversies among scientists on matters pertaining to the war effort, enough to apply his "massive common sense" and come up with the right results. To him we owe Britain's right use of radar, as well as of signals intelligence—the "wizard war." He was also better at calculating Hitler's invasion capabilities than his professional military.

Churchill's detractors delight in pointing out instances in which his detailed directives—dozens flowed from him daily—led to mistakes. This proves only that he was a fallible human being. But Cohen reminds us that the vast majority of his directives were correct, especially "his largest political and strategic judgments." In other words, he got the big ones right, which just about no one else did. Above all, as Leo Strauss recalled on the occasion of Churchill's death, when "the tyrant stood at the height of his power," no one but Churchill had the mind to see what he was all about and the lion's heart to oppose him.

One might argue that Churchill is a flawed model because he did not achieve victory. In fact, what he considered victory proved to be beyond Britain's power, and beyond his own power to sell to Franklin Roosevelt. Nevertheless, Churchill's judgment on what would constitute victory stands the test of time very well. Like Lincoln, he knew what kind of peace he was working to produce, and he was right.

The same cannot be said of Clemenceau. Nor does Cohen claim that "the tiger" of World War I got the big questions right in the sense that Lincoln and Churchill did. There is no question, as Cohen writes, that Clemenceau commanded by infecting others with his dedication, as well as by brilliantly balancing his two headstrong marshals, Ferdinand Foch and Henri Phillipe Pétain. Cohen writes: "Clemenceau's management of competing military advice and philosophy required a stream of decisions, not an overall choice in favor of one or the other." Exactly.

Cohen points to two major differences between the marshals that Clemenceau arbitrated: the extent to which allied troops should have been integrated into a single command structure, and whether the main axis of effort should have been in Flanders or Lorraine. These were important matters, which eventually were resolved successfully. Both together, however, paled in importance next to the question of what kind of peace France required, and how that might be secured.

Cohen shows, approvingly, that Clemenceau trumped Foch's demand for occupying the Western Rhine Valley by asserting the political primacy of good relations with France's allies. Alas, Foch's judgment on Clemenceau's Versailles settlement turned out to be exactly correct: "This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years." The "peace" of Versailles was neither fish nor fowl, at once too harsh and too soft. Its indictments, reparations, provisions, and restrictions incited hate, while its lack of military substance earned contempt. Any procedural virtues that went into producing this exemplary failure of statesmanship are overshadowed by substantive vices. Why not for Cohen?

Cohen's discussion of Ben-Gurion is liable to the same doubt. Israel has won every battle it has ever fought. And yet it has utterly failed to win any but brief respites from war—never mind peace. A closer look (the best work on the subject is by the American Enterprise Institute's David Wurmser) shows that Israel's leaders, political as well as military, have thought little about what might be done militarily to achieve the peace they want. And that includes the greatest of them, Ben-Gurion.

Ben-Gurion did more than master Israel's military. He created it. Even more than Lincoln, he was a brilliant autodidact who ended up teaching soldiers the basics of their craft, from organization to weapons production to training and the choice of objectives. Cohen rightly lauds him for, at one point, recognizing that securing the corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was essential to Israel's existence, and focusing the army's efforts on that. But Cohen also praises him for, at a certain point, giving up on East Jerusalem and the Old City in deference to the United Nations and to prospective Western allies. Cohen suggests that by so doing, Ben-Gurion stopped just at the cusp of what Clausewitz called "the culminating point of victory," the point beyond which success will likely tip into failure. Nonetheless, the subsequent half-century has shown Ben-Gurion's decision to be a mistake as pregnant with future wars as was Clemenceau's failure to secure France's interests when he had the chance. Any statesman should know, as Churchill knew, that the way to secure support from allies is to be able to get one's way without them, and that the surest way to be left in the lurch is to weaken yourself in the hope that others will rescue you.

Whence did Ben-Gurion think Israel's peace would come? It seems that like Social Democrats of his generation, he did not connect the political shape of peace with the military means of war because he expected that the march of social progress would override human differences. What might force the Arabs to give up trying to kill Israel? In Ben-Gurion's time and since, any number of persons and movements have contended for power in the Arab world. Surely an Israel that wins its battles could do so in ways reasonably calculated to discredit its worst political enemies? But there is precious little discussion of such ends and means in Israeli thought, or in Cohen's account of it.

The four paradigmatic chapters set up Cohen's treatment of what, one suspects, is the question that led him to write the book in the first place. How and why have latter-day American statesmen and soldiers so fouled the relationship between military means and political ends that, like Israelis but with much more power, they have managed to lose wars despite winning battles? 

This inquiry into the congenital shortcomings of our Establishment is a delicate matter for anyone who gets along in Washington. That may be why Cohen frames his challenges to conventional wisdom in terms of civil-military relations—thoroughly conventional terms that touch only tangentially the basic assumptions of our political-military "best and brightest." But there is no evading the awful failures of American statesmanship and generalship in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, the two examples to which Cohen finally turns.

In the first case, Cohen agrees with H.R. McMaster that "the [Joint] Chiefs' inability to formulate a specific proposal [for victory] or estimate of the situation left the initiative for planning with the proponents of graduated pressure." This meant that the only questions on the table were how many U.S. troops in South Vietnam, and how much bombing (for interdiction and pressure) in the North? Nevertheless, Cohen cites "the account of one aide present in November 1965 at a meeting between President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff" at which "the Chiefs had come to a different political conclusion from that of their civilian superiors." According to this account, "[the Chiefs] decided unanimously that risks of violent Chinese or Soviet reactions to massive U.S. measures taken in North Vietnam were acceptably low, provided we did not delay. Unfortunately, their opinions and judgments were not commonly held in the Pentagon, at least by those who were actually steering military strategy."

Cohen does not explicitly say that the Chiefs were mistaken. In retrospect, they were absolutely correct. U.S. forces could easily have invaded Hanoi and destroyed its regime. In 1965, the USSR and Red China were in a worse position to oppose our destruction of the Communist regime than when the real prospect of that destruction loomed in December 1972. But Cohen faults the Chiefs and simultaneously validates the civilian leaders' treatment of North Vietnam as a "sanctuary" by arguing that the Chiefs had little evidence for their position and by suggesting that the Chiefs' plans might not have been "acceptable to American diplomacy and bearable for the American public."

This may be the only politically correct way for Cohen to tell hard truths about the intellectual construct through which the best and brightest viewed the world. But it surely is an indirect way. Cohen does not point to any superior evidence supporting the civilian leadership's position. He only bewails that "there was no comprehensive political-military assessment of American strategy." But in fact the highest officials, consulting with America's most prestigious minds, conducted constant assessments and reviews; their conclusions confirmed one another year after year. The political-military "strategy" by which they ran the Vietnam War was indeed "acceptable to American diplomacy." And it was intended to be "bearable" for the only part of the "American public" that these prestigious and powerful persons cared about. Note that from the war's beginning to its end, more Americans favored a harsher policy towards North Vietnam than a softer one. Yet most of "those who were actually steering military strategy" thought that the majority of Americans who wanted a clear choice between victory and withdrawal (and who preferred the former) were more dangerous to world peace than the North Vietnamese, the Chinese, or the Soviets. Robert McNamara's memoir, In Retrospect, makes this crystal clear, as does Anthony Lake's 1976 anthology of contemporary policy makers. 

That is why Cohen knows better than to take at his word McNamara's regret at "not forcing…a knockdown, drag-out debate over loose assumptions, unasked questions, and their analyses underlying our military strategy in Vietnam." The best and brightest knew very well what ideas and people they were putting beyond the pale, and which ones they were admitting, and why. Cohen points out that they chose top military leaders "for political pliability." These were soldiers who would not point out the military stupidity of fighting in the South rather than in the North of Vietnam, careerists who did not invent the "body count mentality" but who traded body counts (and bomb tonnages) for promotions. The harsh truth is, then, that the best and brightest fouled up the war not because of any lack of "genius" in civil-military relations or because they let the military run loose, but because they got the big questions wrong and made the military over into their own fretful image.

For Cohen, correctly, Colin Powell symbolizes the continuing lack of diversity between high-level civilian and military thought. Powell, who in 1990 was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, helped to restrict President Bush's objective in the Gulf War to the liberation of Kuwait, and to elicit President Bush's cessation of the war that allowed Iraq's main forces to survive. There was no strong objection either from the civilian or the military side. So Cohen's attempt to apportion responsibility for the outcome of the 1990-91 Gulf War comes down to this:

The civilian leadership appears, in some measure, not to have thought through the longer-term consequences of the war or the follow-through that even a smashing victory requires. They had come to accept, by default, the military's definition of victory as a battlefield outcome, in which the relationship with political objectives was defined as narrowly as possible. In this case that nominal [emphasis mine] political objective was the restoration of the previous government of Kuwait, but in point of fact—as soon became clear—larger, vaguer, and even more consequential purposes were entailed.

All true, and as close as Cohen gets to saying that today's political-military elites have an orthodoxy that leads them, like their Vietnam predecessors, to get the big ones—the objectives, and the relationship between ends and means—exactly wrong. Surely, that is the point.

The biggest of the big ones is the definition of victory. Lincoln and Churchill were great war statesmen precisely because they divined, in their respective predicaments, the meaning of victory. Failures of statesmanship come from various misunderstandings of victory. Which is why the conclusion to Cohen's discussion of the Gulf War is disappointing: "Perhaps the greatest error a strategist can make, in fact, is believing in the chimerical notion of 'victory'—as opposed to incremental and partial successes, which then merely give way to new (if, one hopes, lesser) difficulties." Does Cohen mean merely that nothing lasts forever? Or does he mean that the art of war consists not in setting the proper ends and using the proper means unto victory, but in cultivating proper civil-military relations?

Cohen's book argues for another, to explore why America's political-military elites consistently get the big ones wrong. It might start by asking why they treat victory more circuitously than the Victorians treated sex.