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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 the US Civil War, Georges Clemenceau in the last phase of the First World War and the armistice negotiations that followed, Winston Churchill during the Second World War, and David Ben-Gurion in the Israeli war of independence.


Cohen calls Lincoln “the greatest of American war presidents,” and, after reading his account, even those who have a sentimental preference for the happy warrior FDR will be inclined to agree. Lincoln came to power at a time when the fate of the Union was at stake and the air was full of contradictory prescriptions for saving it. Simultaneously, the art of warfare was passing through a profound revolution, with the advent of the breech-loading rifle, the railroad, and the telegraph, when no one, the soldiers least of all, knew precisely how to take advantage of the new inventions. With no military experience of his own, except for a few months as a junior officer in the militia during the Black Hawk War of 1832, Lincoln applied himself to the study of the new military techniques, among other things urging the conservative Ordnance Department to start the mass production of breech-loading weapons, and began building a military organization that was adapted to the new conditions of war.

More important, he bent his mind to devising a consistent strategy for the pending struggle, one that called for the restoration of the Union without any concessions to the Southern states in the matter of slavery. Lincoln wanted to force the South to take the initiative in, and accept the responsibility for, resorting to force and he directed his diplomacy toward depriving it of external support. He defined the destruction of the Confederacy’s army as the true objective once hostilities began. It was not easy for all of his soldiers to understand the seriousness with which he regarded these principles, and the President felt compelled to dismiss one officer who had circulated the view that the war was intended only to keep the armies occupied until a compromise could be arranged. After Gettysburg, he was infuriated when General George Meade spoke of “driving the invaders from our soil.” Lincoln wrote, “Will the generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil,” and he was bitterly critical of Meade for not having smashed Lee’s armies when he had the chance. It was only after he had called Ulysses S. Grant to command that he sensed that his commander in chief had an instinctive understanding of his strategy, but he subjected even Grant to close inspection and control.

Cohen writes: “Lincoln had to educate his generals about the purposes of the war and to remind them of its fundamental political characteristics. He had not only to create a strategic approach to the war, but to insist that his generals adhere to it.” His ability to do this tirelessly, to get the most out of soldiers who were brave but prone to many frailties by treating them with sympathy but without sentimentality, and to inspire them with his own example and his natural eloquence help to explain his greatness as a commander.

Georges Clemenceau came to power in France in November 1917, a low point in the war, when the staggering losses that the country had suffered since 1914 were causing mutinies in the army, when France’s ally Russia had collapsed and the British Dardanelles offensive had failed, and when the long-promised American troops had not yet arrived in Europe and would not, in appreciable numbers, until the late spring of 1918. France needed a leader who could give new hope to an exhausted people, and when the president of the Republic, Raymond Poincaré, turned to the seventy-three-year-old former Socialist politician and journalist it seemed an act of desperation. It was in fact an inspired choice. Clemenceau struck a note of defiance at the outset, promising to dedicate “everything for France bleeding in its glory; the hour has come to be French, and simply French, with the pride to say that that suffices,” and his confidence was immediately felt.

Cohen writes that Clemenceau spent more time at the front—an average of one day a week, sometimes within machine-gun range—than any other war leader of whom we have a record. He did so in order to get to know his general officers, and to advance his intention of purging the incompetent ones and those who were worn out; but his front-line visits were also intended to boost morale, and they succeeded in forging a powerful bond between the troops and their leader. In 1918 he played an important part in preparing for the expected German offensive, selecting the senior commanders and mobilizing the war economy.

Inevitably this involved him in the ongoing tactical debate between Ferdinand Foch, who was to become Supreme Allied Commander, and Philippe Pétain, who suppressed the 1917 mutinies and was sometime army Chief of Staff. Of these brilliant commanders it was said, Cohen tells us, that they had “nothing in common beyond France and the profession of arms.” Foch was a believer in taking the offensive, Pétain a convinced advocate of defense in depth. During the 1918 offense, Clemenceau threw his weight in one direction or the other as the situation demanded.

This did not always please Foch, who was an imperious man with a dislike of politicians. Clemenceau wrote later:

Do you know,” the marshal said to me one day, “that I am not your subordinate?”

No, I don’t,” I replied with a laugh. “I don’t even want to know who put that idea in your head. You know that I am your friend. I strongly advise you not to act on this idea, for it would never do.”

During the armistice and treaty negotiations, these differences transformed themselves into an undisguised confrontation between the civil and military authorities. Foch was intent on securing the Rhine as France’s new eastern frontier. Clemenceau, who was sympathetic to this idea, knew that he would never be able to persuade the British and the Americans to agree to it and that it would be wiser to concentrate on winning a settlement that would be advantageous to France in other respects. He was successful in this, but only after Foch had sought to dictate the course of the peace negotiations (making the outrageous suggestion that Clemenceau should inform his allies that he could not act in opposition to the wishes of his military adviser) and then tried to sabotage them by mounting a press campaign against the prime minister.

Clemenceau was unmoved. He excluded Foch from most of the negotiations at Versailles and, when the marshal had the audacity to address the Allied leaders directly, attacking the treaty and demanding that it be submitted for emendation to appropriate military authorities and threatening to resign his position if this were not done, he made it clear that he would ignore this threat, which, in fact, Foch did not carry out.

Clemenceau ended his term with the satisfaction of having maintained civil supremacy in this crisis and won a peace settlement that was fundamentally favorable to his country. He wrote later:

I am bitterly censured for having refused to give my country a strategic frontier. How can I take seriously those who, both great and small, reproach me with this, since they know that I could not—apart from any question of the rights of the peoples—annex the Rhineland without breaking off our alliance, which no one dared to suggest to me?

Cohen adds: “Foch never confronted this issue, save to dismiss it.”

It should be added here that the treaty is subject to criticism on other grounds, particularly for the severe conditions it imposed on the German economy. But even so it would have been worse if Clemenceau had not resisted Foch’s pressures.

Despite his admiration of Lincoln and Clemenceau, Cohen shows more warmth of feeling when he writes of Winston Churchill, whom he calls “the twentieth-century war statesman par excellence.” This sympathy is perhaps to be explained by the fact that as memory of World War II fades into the past so has that of Churchill’s great services, and there is a growing tendency, among political writers and academics, to regard him as having been quixotic and unreliable, given to irrational enthusiasms and dangerous projects, more a menace to his embattled country than its savior. This Cohen regards as a false and unjust impression of one who was essentially a man of system, combining in his person, as someone once said, “genius and plod.”

Churchill knew war by varied personal experience and by intensive study and constant reading. He was too aware of the uncertainties inherent in it to romanticize it and he was always wary of blueprints for easy victory. “Experience,” he wrote, “shows that forecasts are usually falsified and preparations always in arrear.” This fundamental skepticism explains in part his superb ability to explain the war to the British people in speeches that were as truthful as they were eloquent and that did not attempt to hide reverses or promise victories that were not in sight.

In shaping the major decisions that helped turn the tide—when to invade France, for example, and what weight to assign to strategic bombing—Churchill’s role was undeniable. But Cohen believes that his “continuous audit of the military’s judgment” was equally important. Churchill exercised control over events by constant probing, as in the case of an attack in 1941 from which the army command was drawing possibly unwarranted conclusions. Churchill wrote:

I presume the details of this remarkable feat have been worked out by the Staff concerned. Let me see them. For instance, how many ships and transports carried these five divisions? How many armored vehicles did they comprise? How many motor lorries, how many guns, how much ammunition, how many men, how many tons of stores, how far did they advance in the first 48 hours, how many men and vehicles were assumed to have landed in the first 12 hours, what percentage of loss were they debited with? What happened to the transports and store-ships while the first 48 hours of fighting was going on?

To receive a message like this—and there were many of them—must have exasperated the recipient, and this perhaps helps to explain why Sir Alan Brooke, Churchill’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff, once wrote in his diary, “Never have I admired and despised a man simultaneously to the same extent.” But Brooke did not hesitate to answer Churchill’s questions, and many of the recipients of the prime minister’s probes appreciated them. As one cabinet secretary wrote, “A new sense of purpose and urgency was created as it came to be realized that a firm hand, guided by a strong will, was on the wheel.”

With his own soldiers, Churchill never had difficulties remotely resembling those that Clemenceau had with Foch. His problem in dealing with the military came at the end of the European conflict, when his sense of the politics of war convinced him that the Allied armies must capture Berlin and Prague before the Soviets did. This was vetoed by the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who declared that Berlin was “no longer a particularly important objective.”

As one turns from Cohen’s chapter on Churchill to that on David Ben-Gurion, there is a decided drop in temperature. This is not surprising. An astonishing autodidact, always argu- mentative, often dictatorial and manipulative, Ben-Gurion had few friends, even among his closest colleagues. But “The Old Man,” as he came to be called, enjoyed the grudging respect even of his enemies, and Cohen makes it abundantly clear why this was so. In December 1946, at the age of sixty, he became the shadow defense minister of the embryonic Jewish state, and when Israel became independent a year and a half later he combined that office with that of prime minister. During that time he transformed the underground military establishment—the Haganah—into one of the most formidable fighting forces in the world, given its size, and directed the war that made Israel the central power in Middle East politics.

It was characteristic of him that before embarking upon these labors, Ben-Gurion spent the late spring of 1947 conducting intensive meetings—(the so-called “Seminar”)—with the Haganah’s high command and other officials. These were intended to persuade them that the hostilities that lay ahead would be different from those in the past, that the Arab states would attack with real armies, and that Israel, which possessed no army, would be unprepared for the challenge. The Seminar was intended to give Israel’s fighting forces a new sense of scale and to galvanize a real armament effort, but Ben-Gurion soon discovered that these were lessons that the Haganah was reluctant to learn, not least of all coming from one with no military experience. It was a lesson that he was not to forget. In 1950, he wrote:

The most dangerous enemy to Israel’s security is the intellectual inertia of those who are responsible for security. This simple and fundamental idea guided me from the day that I accepted, at the 22nd Zionist Congress, responsibility for the security of the yishuv [i.e., the Zionist community in Palestine]. And this simple and fundamental thought I tried to instill in all of the comrades that worked with me on security matters before the war, during the war, and after it.

Cohen describes in useful detail the course of the war of independence and the way in which Ben-Gurion built a new fighting force in the course of it by extirpating the elitism of the Haganah, introducing a more professional kind of soldier into the army, and asserting the principle of civilian control, which had been a fiction until he took over. Ben-Gurion expected from his military subordinates—to paraphrase a passage late in Cohen’s book—a candor as bruising as was necessary, a running conversation in which, while civilian opinion did not usually dictate, it always dominated, and which covered not only ends and policies, but specific ways and means. His style of command conformed in short to that of the other members of Cohen’s quartet of great war statesmen, which he commends as a model for his own country. It must be noted, however, that Ben-Gurion’s successful direction of the war, leading as it did to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, gravely complicated relations between the two peoples. Cohen does not say much about this, and he does not comment on the work on this period by revisionist Israeli historians such as Benny Morris.

The recent news that George W. Bush has been reading Cohen’s book has led some commentators to suggest that it will make Bush more hawkish with respect to a new war with Iraq. Nothing in the book’s contents justifies this supposition. Going to war is a matter of policy in which many factors have to be weighed beyond those considered here. Cohen’s argument is that once the nation is at war, fundamental decisions, including how troops will be deployed, what their objectives will be, and what degree of force will be employed to secure them, are the responsibility of the civilian commander in chief, and must not be delegated to others.


The Art of War by Martin van Creveld, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is a useful and attractive handbook that traces the history of warfare from ancient times to the pres- ent. It includes, among other things, an original and unusual chapter on ancient Chinese military thought, an adequate coverage of ancient and medieval writers in the West, an analysis of the revolution in strategic thought effected by Adam Dietrich von Bülow, Antoine Henry Jomini, and Carl von Clausewitz, a good chapter on naval strategy, and some interesting reflections on the state of war in the twenty-first century. It is richly illustrated with maps, tables, photographs, and stunning paintings of the different faces of war by some of the world’s greatest artists.

Tantalizing, because so brief, are the author’s concluding remarks. At the end of the millennium, he writes, there are two opposing views of the future of war. One is essentially Clausewitzian and holds, despite a good deal of contrary evidence, that “war will continue to be used mainly as an instrument of policy at the hand of one state against another.” The other, to which van Creveld confesses he belongs himself, argues that the proliferation of nuclear weapons has “all but brought large-scale interstate warfare to an end.” Present-day armed forces are “dinosaurs about to disappear.” This does not mean that war itself will vanish. There is too much injustice and resentment and naked ambition in the world to permit that. But its forms will have to change, and van Creveld underlines the point by including a two-page spread identifying the Afghan guerrillas who defeated what he calls somewhat hyperbolically “the strongest military power ever to bestride the planet” and contributed to the disintegration of the USSR.

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