Fourth, Operation Catapult underscores the need for civilian involvement at the military operational level. In 1940, the senior civilian leaders in Britain, France and Germany proved to be more strategic in their thinking than their senior military officials. Churchill confronted the future of the French fleet decisively; British naval officers, initially at least, wanted to accept Darlan’s promises without considering such scenarios as German blackmail to force French naval cooperation. Hitler was sensitive to the danger of the French fleet sailing to England; the German navy, which wanted to lay its hands on the fleet even though it may not have had the personnel to man it, seemed oblivious to this. Pétain and Baudouin overruled Darlan, who wanted to launch a naval war against the UK.
While civilian leaders can engage in micromanagement and generally ill-informed amateurishness, Mers el-Kebir illustrates that senior military leaders can just as often suffer from professional tunnel vision. For example, the George H. W. Bush administration, in its desire not to repeat the putative civilian micromanagement of the Vietnam War, failed to monitor the U.S.-Iraq armistice negotiations. CENTCOM commander Norman Schwarzkopf’s respect for his Iraqi military brethren probably contributed to his decision to approve their request to use helicopters in southern Iraq, which were then used against the Shia uprising. Similarly, the George W. Bush administration failed to question the absence of CENTCOM plans for the postwar occupation of Baghdad; commander Tommy Franks did not like “messy” peacekeeping missions. And the Obama administration squandered, to some degree, its troop surge in Afghanistan by failing to question the deployment of Marines to the sparsely populated Helmand Province—to avoid coming under Army command in neighboring heavily populated Kandahar Province, the key to influence in southern Afghanistan. Civilian leaders should be more attuned to the big picture, as they were in the 1940s.
Churchill’s Greek tragedy must not be allowed to languish in the past.
Thomas Parker spent three decades working for U.S. national-security agencies and currently teaches at George Washington University in the District of Columbia ([email protected]).
Image: The HMS Hood in 1924. Photographer: Allan C. Green 1878 - 1954; Restoration: Adam Cuerden. Public domain.