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

In 1946, just after Churchill relinquished power, David Ben-Gurion became the shadow defense minister of the embryonic Jewish State and, with the proclamation of the State of Israel in May 1948, he became its prime minister. Within days he found himself at war when his Arab neighbors attacked. Like Lincoln (whose complete works he owned) and Churchill (whom he admired), BenGurion brought with him to supreme command limited military experience, but he possessed a very broad knowledge of public affairs amplified by voracious reading in nine languages (his personal library contained 12,000 volumes). He combined a firm strategic vision with a careful mastery of detail ("There are no general issues [in war]", Ben-Gurion once remarked, "only details."); and he used them to goad and energize his subordinates.

Again like Lincoln and Churchill, Ben-Gurion became a world-class nag. He needed to be: Israel's War of Independence lasted, with two brief truces, from May 1948 until January 1949, and saw the Israel Defense Force grow from 16,000 to 92,000 soldiers--still just a fraction of the opposing forces. Amazingly, Israel secured not only almost all the territory assigned to it by the United Nations Partition Plan, but also other areas of strategic importance. Nevertheless, as Cohen demonstrates through telling use of Ben-Gurion's writings (mostly in Hebrew), the Old Man (as he was known) remained acutely conscious that Israel could not have and hold everything it pleased. In September 1948, just before the decisive phase of the fighting, he warned:

We can win in war and strike our enemies and smash the armies of Abdullah and Syria, and Iraq and Egypt, and drive them from the land--and we can still lose the diplomatic battle if as a result we create decisive state interests against us in the rest of the world.

Ben-Gurion understood perfectly what Carl von Clausewitz had written in the early 19th century: that, as Cohen puts it, "armies reach a culminating point of victory--a moment at which they have achieved the maximum of their potential, and beyond which they run the risk of exhaustion and defeat." Ben-Gurion not only won his war and the peace that followed, but also conducted one of the most ruthless after-action reports known to historians. It concluded: "The most dangerous enemy to Israel's security is the intellectual inertia of those who are responsible for security."

THE JUXTAPOSITION of the achievement of these great statesmen with those of America's war leaders between 1965 and 2001 could hardly be more telling. Cohen demonstrates how successive U.S. administrations adhered to the "normal" theory of civil-military relations and abandoned the conduct of war to their senior military advisers. They failed to pick the right generals (William Westmoreland would not have remained in command for four-and-a-half years under Lincoln!), failed to conduct a strategic and operational dia- logue with them, and failed to set priorities and maintain proportion in what were, after all, secondary conflicts. They therefore lost sight of what they needed to do to prosecute a war--whether it ended in defeat (as in Vietnam, which saw a "deadly combination of inept strategy and excessively weak civilian control"), or in victory (as in the Gulf War, in which the politicians disastrously accepted the military's narrow definition of "victory" as "success on the battlefield" rather than as "ensuring the stability of the Persian Gulf.")

Cohen is particularly outspoken on the conduct and outcome of the Gulf War, a subject about which he possesses direct knowledge as a "subordinate." He excoriates the Bush Administration's abdication of responsibility for negotiating the armistice to the theater commander. Washington not only permitted General Norman Schwartzkopf to draw up the draft terms (and approved them with the change of a single word) but also to conclude a settlement relatively generous to Iraq--including permission for Saddam Hussein to use helicopters, with which he promptly massacred domestic opponents and thus preserved his rule. The contrast with Lincoln's lapidary order to Grant in March 1865 could scarcely be more striking.

Lincoln and the other three wartime leaders studied by Cohen maintained a constant but unequal dialogue with their commanders. It was, Cohen explains, "a dialogue, in that both sides expressed their views bluntly, indeed, sometimes offensively, and not once but repeatedly--and unequal, in that the final authority of the civilian leader was unambiguous and unquestioned." Commanders might loathe their civilian tormentors, but they still had to explain and justify their advice and actions. Sir Alan Brooke, Churchill's chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, probably spoke for Grant, Foch and many others when he wrote of his political master in his diary in September 1944: "Never have I admired and despised a man simultaneously to the same extent." Churchill, who never saw this entry, would probably not have cared. As he responded to another senior officer who apologized after disagreeing "very forcibly with some proposal of his [chief]: 'You know, in war you don't have to be nice, you only have to be right.'"

Cohen condemns the failure of successive American political leaders to acquire the necessary detailed knowledge, to formulate the crucial questions, and to pick the correct commanders in order "to be right." He fears that unless we return to an "unequal dialogue" between generals and their political masters of the sort imposed by his four chosen leaders, the Unites States will continue to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

IF SUPREME COMMAND has any weakness, it is its limited geographical and chronological focus: Cohen considers only Western states, and among them only democratic leaders since 1861. Sometimes, examples from other areas, other political systems and other centuries point to different conclusions. Thus his claim that "Clemenceau spent more time on the front lines...than any other war leader of whom we have a record" iguores countless counter-examples, including Alexander the Great, Gustavus Adolphus and Oliver Cromwell in the West, the Manchu dynasty princes who conquered China, the Tokugawa shoguns who unified Japan, and so on. All led their armies in person. Even in the 20th century, it seems doubtful that Clemenceau's average of one day a week at the front came close to that of, say, Mao Zedong or Fidel Castro.

Cohen might also have considered the war leadership of major figures who have opposed the Western democracies. Did they too impose an "unequal dialogue" on the military that might explain their success (or at least their resilience)? Admittedly, the answer would require familiarity with different sources and different languages; but if Cohen aims, as he says, to "draw more generalized lessons for contemporary democracies", the defenders of those democracies need to understand their enemies as well as they know themselves.

Nevertheless, given the difficulties of putting oneself "in the place of a wartime political leader, who bears manifold responsibilities and carries stresses that [we] have never borne", this sustained analysis by a perceptive "subordinate" who is also an outstanding historian should become required reading for statesmen and students alike. If there is any justice left in this world for writers, it will.

Geoffrey Parker teaches history at the Ohio State University; he is the author of The Military Revolution (3rd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2000) and The Grand Strategy of Philip II (Yale University Press, 1998).

Essay Types: Book Review