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Fighting Men

September 1, 2002 Topics: Security Tags: Civil-military RelationsSoft PowerSociology

Fighting Men

Mini Teaser: Eliot Cohen's look at the greatest democratic statesman of recent centuries affirms Clemenceau's quip that war is too important to be left to the generals--even American generals.

by Author(s): Geoffrey Parker


Eliot A. Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 288 pp., $25.

"THE DIFFICULTIES writers have in putting themselves in the place of a wartime political leader who bears manifold responsibilities and carries stresses that they have never borne", writes Eliot Cohen in Supreme Command,

is the greatest obstacle to sound historical judgment on wartime statesmanship. Indeed, even the immediate subordinates of the man at the top only dimly understand, much less share, the acute pressures or the perspectives of a prime minister or a president.

Despite this important disclaimer, no one is better qualified than Cohen to write about political leadership in wartime. He has military experience and has taught at a service academy; he has read and written extensively about war; he is a member of the Defense Policy Board, advising the Secretary of Defense; and he headed the team of scholars that produced the influential five-volume Gulf War Air Power Survey (1993). This distinguished career helps to explain the outstanding quality of this, his latest book.

Cohen begins by outlining what he calls the "normal theory of civil-military relations", advanced by his mentor at Harvard, Samuel P. Huntington, "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." He then devotes a chapter each to four outstanding wartime leaders who repeatedly violated this norm--Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill and David Ben-Gurion--and to those who have led the United States in war since 1965, in a chapter aptly entitled "Leadership without Genius." His final chapter, "The Unequal Dialogue", draws pointed conclusions for those who exercise and study wartime leadership today, with an "appendix" that refutes Huntington's "normal theory" in more detail. He offers not merely an historical analysis but a study of issues that remain alive to this day", and to illuminate them Cohen deploys an i mpressive range of primary and secondary sources in English, French, German and Hebrew.

A PASSAGE from John Nicholay an John Hay, secretaries to Abraham Lincoln, brings Cohen's chapter on "the greatest of American war presidents" swiftly to its major themes:

Military writers love to fight over the campaigns of history exclusively by the rules of the professional chess-board, always subordinating, often totally ignoring, the element of politics. This is a radical error. Every war is begun, dominated, and ended by political considerations. . . . War and politics, campaign and statecraft, are Siamese twins, inseparable and interdependent; and to talk of military operations without the direction and interference of an administration is as absurd as to plan a campaign without recruits, pay, or rations.

Cohen agrees, and his detailed analysis of Lincoln's "direction and interference" helps to explain how his administration "dominated" the war it waged. First, the President solicited advice from many quarters. He consulted junior officers and retired generals, both in writing and on his personal visits to the front. Second, he regularly spent time with his generals. (Grant passed the first week of August 1864 in Washington being briefed by the President.) Third, from March 1863 onward (if not before) Lincoln sent a confident, Charles A. Dana (formerly assistant managing editor of the New York Tribune and later Assistant Secretary of War), to report regularly on the morale and command structure of selected armies. On the basis of this information all of which he considered carefully, Lincoln issued an endless stream of questions and suggestions to his generals. He rarely gave them direct orders, but those few left no room for disobedience or evasion. Thus on March 3,1865 he instructed Grant to

have no conference with General Lee unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. Lee's army, or on some minor, and purely, military matter. . . . [Y]ou are not to decide, discuss, or confer upon any political question. Such questions the president holds in his own hands; and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions.

Lincoln is the only one of Cohen's four leaders who held supreme command for an entire war. Clemenceau became premier of France only in November 1917, after previous leaders had presided over more than three years of bloody defeat and incompetence. The battle to retain Verdun alone cost the lives of 162,000 Frenchmen, with at least 200,000 more wounded--almost three times as many casualties as the United States (with a population six times larger) lost in the entire Vietnam war. "One may think of French losses at Verdun", in Cohen's graphic phrase, "as the equivalent of eighteen Vietnams, suffered in one year." Not surprisingly, when Clemenceau came to power he faced a mutinous army and a defeatist civilian population. How did he manage to preside over victory parades just one year later and go on to force a real, if fragile, peace on his enemies?

Clemenceau believed (in his own famous aphorism) that "war is too important to be left to the generals", and he strove to keep control of making both war and peace in his own hands. Above all, despite his age (he was 76 upon becoming premier), he made regular visits to the front line a part of his style of command. His career as a doctor and a journalist had taught Clemenceau the value of detailed personal observation, "the kind acquired not by reading reports but by looking people in the eye, observing the way they held themselves, hearing their small complaints--sharing, however briefly, the way they lived." He spent on average one day each week talking to officers and men in the trenches, as well as to the generals safe in their chateaux miles behind the front. Although apparently "an inefficient use of his time in one sense", Cohen argues that these visits "were perhaps his most powerful technique for acquiring information and influencing events."

Clemenceau used his first-hand knowledge to outmaneuver both his Allies and his principal commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch. During the war, the former proved the more difficult because, as Winston Churchill once remarked, coalition warfare "is a tale of the reciprocal complaints of allies." But the elder Frenchman tolerated the costly combination of inexperience and arrogance that characterized the American commanders. "If the Americans do not permit the French to teach them [the rules of trench warfare]", he is said to have remarked, "the Germans will do so." With British pettiness, too, he showed infinite patience. He did not impose his choice, Marshal Foch, as Supreme Allied Commander until the desperate German offensive of March 1918 made his case irresistible. He brushed off the endless tirades of David Lloyd George with a joke: "O, la, la, si je pouvais pisser comme il parle."

Foch became more of a problem after the fighting ended because the "generalissimo"--now a war hero--had strong views on how the defeated Germans should be treated and he expected French politicians to implement them. When Clemenceau declined to do so, Foch appealed directly to the president of the Republic (the brilliant but volatile Raymond Poincare no friend of the premier) and orchestrated a press campaign (using both French and British journalists) against the policies of his own government. He denounced the Treaty of Versailles as "a surrender", even "treason", and threatened to resign unless it was vetted by the appropriate military experts. The premier made it clear, however, that he would accept Foch's resignation and, as on other occasions, the generalissimo crumbled. As Clemenceau remarked late in life: "I had a wife, she abandoned me; I had children, they turned against me; I had friends, they betrayed me. I have only my claws, and I use them." Not for nothing was his nickname "The Tiger."

Clemenceau narrowly missed meeting Lincoln, but he did interview Ulysses S. Grant at the end of the Civil War (he liked to tell American troops in 1918 that he reached Richmond just before the Union Army) and had admired Grant's principled submissiveness to civilian authority. He also knew Winston Churchill, who accompanied "the Tiger" on one of his visits under fire to the front line (and later published an amusing account of it: "A Day with Clemenceau"). Like Clemenceau, Churchill, despite his age (he was nearly 66 when he became prime minister in May 1940), made a point of visiting the various theaters of operations to judge for himself the problems, the morale, and the men (a point that Cohen underplays); and, like Lincoln, he became a world-class nag. He ceaselessly scrutinized the plans and assertions of his military advisers and commanders in the light of his broad experience (both military and political), reinforced by wide reading and deep reflection. Throughout the Second World War he dictated a str eam of inquiries, probes and questions to all involved in the war effort; according to a member of his secretariat, Lord Normanbrook,

This stream of messages, covering so wide a range of subjects, was like the beam of a searchlight ceaselessly swinging round and penetrating into the remote recesses of the administration--so that everyone, however humble his rank or his function, felt that one day the beam might rest on him and light up what he was doing.

Normanbrook stressed that the effect was immediate and dramatic....A new sense of purpose and of urgency was created as it came to be realized that a firm hand, guided by a strong will, was on the wheel." Thanks to this approach, according to the secretary of the Chiefs of Staff, General Hastings Ismay, "not once in the whole war did [Churchill] overrule his military advisers on a purely military question."

Essay Types: Book Review