Conversation: Supreme Command

October 22, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST


MARGARET WARNER: In wartime, who should run the show: The politicians or the generals? That’s the subject of a provocative new book by military affairs expert Elliott Cohen. The book is “Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime.” It looks at four great war time leaders– Abraham Lincoln; World War I French Premiere George Clemenceau; Winston Churchill; and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurian– to answer the question. Among its readers, President Bush, who read it during his Texas vacation. Cohen is a professor at the school at the Nitze School at Johns Hopkins University. A former Pentagon official, he now serves on the defense policy board, a group that advises the secretary of defense. And welcome, Professor Cohen.

ELIOT COHEN, Author, “Supreme Command:” Good to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: As you point out in the book, generals throughout history have cried that once war is declared, they need a free hand. You have concluded otherwise.

ELIOT COHEN: Well, in some ways, you know, it’s a pretty traditional kind of view, one would have thought, that in democracies that civilians should be in charge. I suppose what’s different about the book is the argument that it’s not just that way because that’s the way the government ought to run, but it has to be that way because of the nature of war itself.


ELIOT COHEN: Well, meaning that ultimately war is, as a Prussian political philosopher Carl von Clausewitz once said, about politics. And so, it’s the politicians who really end up having to have the biggest picture. And of course there are other things that are also the case. There are ways in which military people disagree among themselves, for example, which I try to explore a bit in the book.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you found that these four leaders that you looked at, though they ran very different kind of… led different countries, different eras, different kinds of war, that they had several qualities in common. Tell us about those.

ELIOT COHEN: Well, there are a number. Of course the first thing I should say is that none of them really dictated to their military leaders; instead what they did is engage in a kind of dialogue. And what the book is about is the nature of that dialogue. Some of the things that they had in common were first just a tremendous amount of common sense. Secondly, they’re willing to ask questions about absolutely everything. And they understood that there could be very fine grain matters of detail which, in fact, would be of much larger importance. And finally, they were all great communicators. They knew how to talk to their people, to their parliaments, and of course to their military.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you also wrote that they were really fascinated by detail, great masters of detail, that they didn’t hesitate to weigh in to whether it was technological matters or matters of strategy or tactics.

ELIOT COHEN: That’s right. As a matter of principle, they understood that details could be tremendously important. And first, the generals could end up disagreeing about the details, but details could have tremendous political significance. One of the examples I talk about in the book is Winston Churchill probing to look into one particular exercise that occurs in January of 1941, which is a time when Britain is all alone and they’re expecting to be invaded in the spring. And what Churchill does is he gets reports of this very gloomy exercise, in which the Germans do very well in an invasion.

He begins to ask them these very detailed questions. He says, “I want to see all the details.” He says, “I want to see how many ships you think the Germans had, how many airplanes, what kind of losses. Where did they get their fuel?” And just on and on. And the reason why he was doing that was because… this wasn’t even a real battle, this was an exercise. What he needed to do is to figure out what kinds of risks he could take. And in fact, the war cabinet very shortly was going to make a big decision: “Do we send a whole bunch of tanks off to North Africa, do we keep them back in the United Kingdom to defend against an invasion?” So, you know, that was a case where not even a real battle, but just an exercise had tremendous significance, in terms of a larger decision that had to be made in the war.

MARGARET WARNER: And he demanded that all his… I mean, his military commanders were constantly having to respond to him and justify what they taught.

ELIOT COHEN: Right. Now, what he expected of them was a tremendous amount of candor. There’s one story, which I talk about in the book, where the head of the royal air force found himself at one point yelling at Churchill. Then he suddenly realized what he was doing, and he stopped and apologized. And Churchill glared at him, and said, “in war, you don’t have to be nice, you just have to be right.”

MARGARET WARNER: I remember that. And you said that really his questions, the way he did it, shaped some very major decisions in the war through, strategic decisions.

ELIOT COHEN: Well, they’re both strategic decisions, but also they can sometimes be small decisions which nonetheless are tremendously important. Another example I give was a decision which ultimately got bounced up to Churchill about whether or not the Royal Air Force should be using Chaff, what the British code named “Window,” to deceive German radars in the bombing of Germany. So, you know, why should this…

MARGARET WARNER: Go all the way.

ELIOT COHEN: …Why should this go all the way to the prime minister? Well, the reason why was the Royal Air Force itself couldn’t agree. People in charge of the bombers wanted to do it because they wanted to minimize losses over the Germany. The people in charge of the air defense of air Britain did not want them to be using Chaff because then the Germans would know it would work, and they wouldn’t be able to defend against a similar kind of German attack against British cities. There was no right and wrong answer. And I think that’s actually quite typical of what happens in wartime. Military people can disagree, and sometimes the civilian leader has to arbitrate between them.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, of course, the conventional wisdom, at least in the United States today, is quite the opposite. And people who believe in this conventional wisdom that war should be left to the generals point to Vietnam and the Gulf War to support their contention. In other words, they say Vietnam was a failure because the political leadership meddled; the Gulf War was a success because the political leadership stayed out. You disagree.

ELIOT COHEN: Right. Well, the Vietnam and the Gulf War become kind of a morality play. And one of the things I tried to do in a chapter called “leadership without genius” is to really get into that. And to cut a long story short, I think neither story is really accurate. You know, just look at Vietnam. It’s true that the civilians were quite controlling with regard to the air war over the north; much less so over the south, where General William Westmoreland had a free hand. Westmoreland lasted four years in command. No way Abraham Lincoln would have let that happen. And at the end of it, what he said was that President Lyndon Baines Johnson was the most thoughtful and considerate man he ever met. Probably an indication that there was something wrong in that civil-military relationship.

MARGARET WARNER: Now look at… then the Gulf War, though, you feel that the political leadership, the first President Bush left important decisions to the military commander, and it was a mistake.

ELIOT COHEN: Well, that was certainly his depiction of it after the war. I think during the war, there was actually a bit more civilian control than has been made out. And the first President Bush gets a lot of credit for having launched the war in the first place. But it’s quite clear that the military, I think, had the determining voice in figuring out when the war should end. And of course it looks as if we’re about to go back and finish the job, which is probably more conclusive verdict on the end of the first Gulf War, than anything I could write.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you’ve taken these four examples. You could hand pick those examples: Great statesmen; brilliant men; men who love detail. What if a nation finds itself at war without a President with those gifts? Then what? Does this model still apply?

ELIOT COHEN: Well, I think the basic ideas still apply, because what you’re asking of a political leader is to be serious about war, to be… to take responsibility for all of it, and to apply themselves. As I tried to point out earlier on, the thing that’s really so impressive about an Abraham Lincoln, for example, is the enormous amount of common sense. Abraham Lincoln had no background in military affairs. He served for about a month in an Indian campaign, in which he didn’t even hear a shot fired in anger. But what he was great at was just asking the very basic questions. “What are we trying to do?” “How are we going to do it?” And I think it’s that kind of relentless common sense that we can look for even in an average political leader today.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, you believe that a great political leader, or any political leader, can make his general a better general?

ELIOT COHEN: Oh, there’s no question about it. But in any case, it seems to me the nature of war itself requires that a political leader, if they’re going to do even an adequate job, has to be on top of it. And they have to apply themselves. And they have to treat what is, after all, the most serious thing a state can do in a serious way.

MARGARET WARNER: Elliott Cohen, thank you.

ELIOT COHEN: Thank you.