Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime

By Van Tol, Jan | Naval War College Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime


Van Tol, Jan, Naval War College Review


Cohen, Eliot A. Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime. New York: Free Press, 2002. 288pp. $25

This is an extraordinarily timely work, published when the United States may be about to conduct large-scale combat operations in the Middle East. It examines the relationship in a democracy between military and political leadership, 11 or more precisely.... the tension between two kinds of leadership, civil and military," especially in time of war.

Two themes run implicitly throughout the book. First, war is about more than purely military considerations (Clausewitzians, rejoice!), and consequently "war statesmanship ... focuses at the apex of government an array of considerations and calculations that even those one rung down could not fully fathom." The resultant differing imperatives at each level explain much of the inherent tension between civilian and military leaders over strategy.

Second, the essence of successful wartime leadership depends crucially on the civilian leadership's receiving constant, reliable "truth" from its military commanders. The hierarchical military structure militates against delivery of harsh facts or unpleasant news; as per Winston Churchill, "the whole habit of mind of a military staff is based on subordination of opinion." Hence the importance of civilian leaders constantly asking questions, forcing military leaders to lay bare their assumptions and explain their reasoning, because nothing else will force the harsh but vital intellectual debate about whether military plans actually will achieve the desired strategic ends. Military expertise is not decisive here; as David Ben-Gurion noted, "In military matters, as in all other matters of substance, experts knowledgeable in technique don't decide, even though their advice and guidance is vital; rather an open mind and a common sense are essential. And these qualities are possessed-to a greater or lesser degree- by any normal man."

Citing Samuel Huntington's classic The Soldier and the State, Cohen describes the "normal" theory of civil-military relations, "which holds that the healthiest and most effective form of civilian control of the military is that which maximizes professionalism by isolating soldiers from politics, and giving them as free a hand as possible in military matters." This idea is widely and often unquestioningly accepted by serving military officers, reinforced by the apparent lessons of Vietnam, when such tenets were held to be violated, in contrast with the successes of DESERT STORM, when the military was ostensibly properly left alone to win the war. Indeed, for civilians to "ask too many questions (let alone give orders) about tactics, particular pieces of hardware, the design of a campaign, measures of success, or to press too closely for the promotion or dismissal of anything other than the most senior officers is meddling and interference, which is inappropriate and downright dangerous." Cohen suggests that this is simply wrong. "The difficulty is that the great war statesmen do just those improper things-and, what is more, it is because they do so that they succeed." He tests his thesis using case studies of four great and successful war leaders-Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion. Each man led a different kind of democracy under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, "meddled" greatly in military and strategic affairs, was subject to and driven by the normal pressures and constraints in his respective state, confronted great changes in the ways and means of conducting warfare, and had difficult relationships with his senior military leaders. …

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