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Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime

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Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime by Eliot Cohen

Eliot Cohen’s Supreme Command takes a unique look at civil-military relations. Unlike Richard Kohn and Sam Sarkesian, Cohen convincingly proves through historical case studies that active civilian control of the military has desirable effects on military performance through vigorous oversight and the application of common sense to military operations. Cohen’s thesis that civilian control improves military performance rests on two additional points: his assertion that most if not all aspects of war are intricately bound up with politics and that the direction and planning of war is more open to “amateur” civilians than is normally thought. If anything, the book’s primary weakness is that it fails to acknowledge that there is a risk in ignoring military advice, or for that matter civilian advice, just as much as there is a risk in letting the military have a free reign in carrying out objectives laid out for it by civilians.

Cohen takes a significantly different approach to deteriorating civil-military relations in the United States from Richard Kohn. Kohn simply states that “civilian control of the military has weakened in the United States and is threatened today” and then goes on to give examples of decreased civilian control such as “threats of resignation over the gays in the military issue,” the increasing influence of the JCS Chairman, and the increasing politicization of officers and soldiers. Cohen undoubtedly agrees that civilian control has been eroded over the past several decades: in fact he notes the failure of civilian leadership to exercise effective control over the military since 1965. However, Cohen’s book goes farther than merely decrying the waning civilian control of the military, like Kohn. Cohen sets out to prove that civilian control of the military has desirable effects on military performance; therefore, a lack of civilian control can lead to disastrous consequences in war. Basically, Cohen does not take the desirability of civilian control as a given but sets out to prove Clemenceau’s dictum: “War is too important to be left to the generals.”

Cohen demonstrates the advantageous effects of vigorous civilian control through case studies of Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion. During the Civil War, it was necessary that the Union generals be consistently reminded by President Lincoln of the goals and nature of the conflict. For instance, President Lincoln’s strong criticism of General Meade for not destroying General Lee’s army following the Union victory at Gettysburg sent a message to military officers that defense against the confederate armies was not sufficient: the enemy forces had to be destroyed. Furthermore, Lincoln relieved an officer of duty who stated that the war was a “game” that would eventually be settled through negotiation, which was a widespread view among military officers. Essentially, Lincoln understood that members of the military, if left to themselves, might oppose civilian policies and thereby it was necessary that he closely monitor operational details to make sure his policies were carried out. In contrast to the traditional view that civilians should leave operational details to the military, Cohen states that “the eye for-indeed, the fascination with- detail displayed by the great war statesmen was […] an essential element of their war-craft.” This conclusion particularly shines through in Cohen’s examination of the beneficial effects of Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion’s supposed “interference” and “probing” in what have traditionally been viewed as operational details that civilian leadership should leave solely to military planners. For example, Clemenceau played a crucial role in the advancement of tank research and the use of tanks in combat that many in the military were resistant to devote resources to due to their unfamiliarity with the new weapon. Cohen presents Winston Churchill as a model to be admired for a war statesman because of his “consistent holding [of] their [military leader’s] calculations and assertions up to the standards of massive common sense informed by wide reading and experience at war.” For example, Churchill wisely rejected a Royal Navy service-centered request for more men and resources for 1944 than 1943, when he noted that the enemy naval threat had diminished by the end of 1943 because of the decisive defeat of the U-Boats in the Atlantic and the surrender of the Italian fleet. As a final example, David Ben-Gurion advanced the need to transform the various Israeli military forces from a force designed to protect Jews from local Arab riots into a unified force that would be prepared to face the regular armies of its Arab neighbors in a large scale war once independence came. It was a move that the military leaders would not have made without Ben-Gurion’s prodding. Undoubtedly, Cohen’s strong historical argument for the desirability of vigorous civilian control of the military allows him to criticize the erosion of civilian control of the military far more effectively than Kohn.

Cohen’s view regarding the role of politics in war-making is rather different from the view presented by Sam Sarkesian who basically advances the traditional view of civil-military relations espoused by Samuel Huntington in The Soldier and the State. Huntington argues that the military remains obedient to civilian authority “through the self-regulating norms of civilian control” and that civilians should set policy goals and objectives and leave operational details to military professionals. It should be noted that Sarkesian also presents Morris Janowitz’s theory that civilian control is maintained through the socialization process and that civilian control is maintained by insuring that the military has similar values to those of the public. However, on the issue of military professionalism, Janowitz praises the increasing presence of “military managers” rather than “heroic leaders” and thereby appears to differ little from Huntington’s theory on this specific matter.

In contrast to Huntington’s and Janowitz’s views, Cohen’s view on civil-military relations is formed by his belief that “one cannot find a refuge from politics in the levels of war” and is strongly influenced by 19th century Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, whom he called “the greatest theorist of war.” The role of politics in operational details was evident in Churchill’s decision that French civilian deaths from D-Day bombings had to be kept to a maximum of 10,000 (there would actually be about 6,000 deaths). The military initially projected civilians deaths would be as high as 160,000 in their initial battle plans because their planning processes were narrowly focused on the use of bombing to disrupt the enemy as much as possible, while failing to take into account the political-military consideration that high civilian casualties would decrease the amount of cooperation and increase the hostility of the civilian population toward allied forces.

Cohen also critiques Huntington’s view that the conduct of war requires professional training and an expertise that only members of the military can have. This provides a unique view on the nature of the military, in contrast to the popular imagination which seems to revere the military for its expertise gained through training. According to Cohen, the skills required to run a war often have civilian analogues which means that expertise from the civilian world can be transferred to the military world and vice versa. For instance, Lt. General Gus Pagonis, the former US Army chief logistician for the Persian Gulf, became a successful executive at Sears following retirement and many civilian executives served skillfully as military officers during the two World Wars. Furthermore, there have been a large number of very successful military leaders, such as General Sir John Monash of World War I, who were self-taught soldiers who had very limited or no military experience before their wartime service.

Additionally, Cohen points out that “many, perhaps most, officers spend entire military careers without participating in a real way in war […] even those who do fight in wars do so for a very small portion of their careers, and very rarely occupy the same position in more than one conflict.” Essentially, military leaders in a conflict are not “professional” in the sense that they have practiced their trade many times over and mastered it, unlike a lawyer who will try hundreds of cases throughout the course of his or her career. This inexperience will often lead to ruinous consequences, such as the heavy loses suffered by the US Army Air Forces in 1943 when they unwisely chose to conduct unescorted daylight precision-bombing campaigns into the heart of Germany. Furthermore, military leaders will often adhere to doctrines that applied to previous wars but not the current war; for instance, the Israelis lost many tanks in 1973 for failing to taking into account recently developed handheld anti-tank weapons. Therefore, it is crucial for civilian commanders to hold operational plans up to a standard of common sense, search for competent military commanders, and remove incompetent ones. In order to do so, a civilian leader should have military advice from many sources and will often require the use of a “military translator,” a low ranking flag officer who serves as an aide to the leader and whose sole role is to explain the leader’s views to military officers. Unfortunately, this sort of role, as practiced by Admiral Leahy during World War II for President Roosevelt, has become impossible since the Goldwater-Nichols Act made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the chief military advisor to the president and gave him conflicting duties such as “managing a joint staff, arbitrating disputes among services and field commanders, and representing institutional views.”

When brought together, Cohen’s critique of military professional independence, his demonstration of the effectiveness of the “probing” of leaders like Churchill, and his demonstration that all aspects of war can have political consequences offer a compelling case for attentive civilian control. His case is further strengthened by his use of a negative case where the lack of strong civilian control led to undesirable and disastrous consequences: the conduct of war by the United States since 1965, most notably during the Vietnam War. Contrary to the traditional explanation that the Vietnam War was lost because civilian leaders forced the military “to fight with one arm behind its back,” Cohen contends that the war was lost due to insufficient civilian prodding. He states that Johnson’s reviewing of bombing targets was not unnecessary interference in military operations but absolutely necessary considering the political consequences of such actions, which might have brought China more actively into the war. Furthermore, he states that President Johnson and Secretary McNamara’s failure resulted from not demanding their generals produce new strategies, such as a physical wall along the South Vietnamese border or subverting South Vietnamese forces to US training and control, and instead simply accepting the military’s failed and uncreative strategies of more intense bombing and increased troop deployments. Cohen also criticizes other post-Vietnam conflicts where the lack of strong civilian control has had negative consequences, albeit none as dramatic as the defeat in Vietnam. For instance, he notes that a lack of guidance from civilian leaders led to General Schwarzkopf to allow the defeated Iraqis to continue to fly helicopters because the helicopters did not threaten superior US forces. However, these helicopters were then used to brutally put down Shi’ite uprisings in southern Iraq.

If there are any faults in Cohen’s logic, they are that he downplays the possibilities that civilian control of operational details can be carried to an excess and that civilian policy objectives can be foolhardy. It is on these faults that his praise for the planning and execution of the second Gulf War falls short. He ridicules some military leaders who criticized Secretary Rumsfeld for committing so few troops to Iraq; he points to the quick defeat of the Iraqi army as vindication for Secretary Rumsfeld’s decision to insist on a war plan that was quick and used a small number of troops compared to the first Gulf War. In a feat of cognitive dissonance, he then criticizes the lack of planning and civilian direction for a postwar Iraq yet fails to mention that part of the difficulties in postwar Iraq have been caused by the fact that the relatively small invasion force has proven insufficient to suppress the postwar insurgency. Furthermore, in contradiction to his own theory, he neglects to criticize President Bush or Secretary Rumsfeld for failing to apply common sense to the postwar plan, which naively essentially assumed that the entire Iraqi population would warmly embrace the US presence and that a quick transition to democracy could occur. He also fails to mention that a civilian leader must also interrogate and apply common sense to advice from his or her civilian subordinates just as is the case for military advice. In the case of Iraq, he ignores this risk and thereby refrains from criticizing President Bush for failing to appropriately probe and examine prewar intelligence that turned out to be entirely incorrect on the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Lastly, one is tempted to suspect that Cohen’s analysis of the most recent Gulf War is biased owing to his strong support of the war before its commencement and his current position on the Defense Policy Board, a board which advises Secretary Rumsfeld.

On a scale of one to five, this book ought to be rated a four because it advances a compelling and well-proven theory that for the first time provides a comprehensive alternative to the traditional theory of civil-military relations advanced in Samuel Huntington’s The Soldier and the State. Furthermore, the text is well written and an enjoyable read that has many interesting anecdotes and a compelling overall message. The book was personally useful to me in understanding not only the complexity of civil-military relations as presented by Cohen but the competing theories of Huntington and Janowitz as well. However, Cohen’s lack of examples defining what might represent an excessive amount of civilian “interference” in military affairs and his poor analysis of the second Gulf War detracts from the quality of a book that would otherwise be a masterpiece. Despite this flaw, the book’s groundbreaking approach ought to make it required reading for students of civil-military relations, civilian leaders who deal with the military, and military officers.

In conclusion, Eliot Cohen makes a strong case for vigorous civilian control of the military. Furthermore, his theory of civil-military relations acknowledges the political nature of all aspects of war and is thus more in tune with the realities of warfare than the traditional model offered by Samuel Huntington. However, it should be noted that his analysis of the most recent Gulf War seems rather lacking and possibly tinged by bias owing to his close association with Secretary Rumsfeld. Hopefully, students of civil-military relations will treat this final section of the book with skepticism.


Cohen, Eliot A. Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime. New York: Random House, 2003.

Kohn, Richard. "Erosion of the Civilian Control of the United States Military Today." Naval War College Review 55, no. 3 (Summer 2002), 8-37.

Sarkesian, Sam, Williams, John, and Stephen Cimbala. U.S. National Security: Policymakers, Processes, and Politics. 3rd ed. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2002.

(For Citations of Individual Facts, Please Contact Me--Lavoisier1794 15:51, 31 May 2004 (PDT))

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This page was last modified 14:29, 12 June 2006 by Chad Lupkes. Based on work by dKosopedia user(s) Lavoisier1794 and Jumbo. Content is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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