Whose War Is It?

After the Gulf War was over, President George H.W. Bush, who had presided over it, wrote with some satisfaction:

[Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Colin Powell, ever the professional, wisely wanted to be sure that if we had to fight, we would do it right and not take half measures. He sought to assure that there were sufficient troops for whatever option I wanted, and then the freedom of action to do the job once the political decision had been made. I was determined that our military would have both. I did not want to repeat the problems of the Vietnam War (or numerous wars throughout history), where the political leadership meddled with military operations. I would avoid micromanaging the military.

Distance has by now deprived that view of much of its enchantment. What the Gulf War needed was more micromanagement. The abdication of the political leadership left the direction of the war completely in the hands of the military and, as the conflict progressed and new problems arose, the generals in charge proved incapable of providing them with consistent answers. There were basic differences about war aims, about the propriety of regarding Baghdad as a bombing target, about how much effort should be devoted to hunting for the SCUD missiles Iraq was using against Israel, and about whether the intensity of the pursuit of the beaten foe should be determined by its putative effects on international public opinion.

In all these questions decision-making by the field commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, was complicated by political considerations intruded by the Chief of General Staff. In the important question of the armistice, however, Schwarzkopf received no guidance whatever and was left to conclude a notoriously generous agreement with the enemy, in which he granted Saddam Hussein’s commanders the right to keep the helicopters which they were soon to use against their Shia population.

Nor were these the only important questions neglected as the military chiefs hastened to declare victory so that they could get the troops home for victory celebrations. Powell and Schwarzkopf actually discussed the possibility of holding formal armistice negotiations on board the USS Missouri, site of the Japanese surrender in 1945, an indication of their skewed historical perspective and their misperception of the extent, and the limitations, of their victory over Saddam Hussein.

Other unflattering comments on the Gulf War are to be found in Eliot Cohen’s enthralling new book on the nature of supreme command. The author, who is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is not however motivated solely by a desire to set the record straight in the case of a war that has attracted much misleading commentary. His book is rather devoted to four historical studies of political leaders who took the responsibility of exercising command with the utmost seriousness and never for a moment considered allowing it to devolve upon their military subordinates. These were Abraham Lincoln in …

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