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Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion led four very different kinds of democracy, under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. They came from four very different backgrounds — backwoods lawyer, dueling French doctor, rogue aristocrat, and impoverished Jewish socialist.Yet they faced similar challenges, not least the possibility that their conduct of the war could bring about their fall from power. Each exhibited mastery of detail and fascination with technology. All four were great learners, who studied war as if it were their own profession, and in many ways mastered it as well as did their generals. All found themselves locked in conflict with military men. All four triumphed.
Military men often dismiss politicians as meddlers, doves, or naifs. Yet military men make mistakes. The art of a great leader is to push his subordinates to achieve great things. The lessons of the book apply not just to President Bush and other world leaders in the war on terrorism, but to anyone who faces extreme adversity at the head of a free organization — including leaders and managers throughout the corporate world.
The lessons of Supreme Command will be immediately apparent to all managers and leaders, as well as students of history.
“Brilliant. . . . Cohen argues convincingly that all great wartime leaders—Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, Ben Gurion—never left the military to make its own policy, but constantly prodded, challenged, and gave it direction.” —National Review
“A brilliant account of Lincoln, Churchill, Clemenceau and Ben Gurion—how each man handled the military leaders who served him.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Fascinating.…Mr. Cohen's point is ultimately not a sentimental but a substantive one.…His elucidation of his theory is organized tightly and rendered crisply.”— The New York Times
“Superb . . . Cohen is persuasive in his argument.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Every so often a book appears just at the moment when it is most needed. . . . Such a book is Supreme Command, a superb study of civilian commanders in chief in times of war by the nation's leading scholar of military-civilian relations.”–The Weekly Standard
“Cohen's well-written, absorbing critique of the normal theory is nothing short of crushing. . . . Invaluable.”–The New Leader
“It is well worth devoting some energy to stamping on the myth that soldiers should be allowed to go about their business without pesky politicians getting in the way, and an important contribution to this demolition job has been made by Eliot Cohen.”–The Economist
“Supreme Command is Cohen’s tour de force. . . . An eloquent, eminently approachable argument. . . . Essential reading.”–Choice
“Supreme Command will be read as often by the professional military and the civil servants and politicians that employ them as is Samuel Huntington’s The Soldiers and the State and Morris Janowitz’s The Professional Soldier, both of which are true classics.”–The Washington Times
“Intrinsically significant to the study of strategy and important on a practical level.”–Booklist
“Important. . . . Many senior politicians now balk at asking tough questions or challenging military judgments even as they set ambitious goals. But Cohen’s logic remains sound, and it would be a shame if it took a calamity, resulting from a combination of military misjudgment and civilian passivity, before it gets a hearing.”–Foreign Affairs
“Cohen, who writes with concision and insight, robustly argues that, far from being incompetent dunderheads, as commonly portrayed, civilian statesmen can be brilliant commanders. . . . Give[s] us much to ponder.”–Washington Monthly
“Supreme Command is a must read for the highest civilian and military leadership and should also rank high on military professional reading lists.”–Naval War College Review
“Essential reading for anyone concerned with current United States civil-military relations and national strategy. . . . It is cogent in nearly every detail–and we need all the help it can offer.”–The Journal of Military History
“Cohen’s revisionist thesis is especially timely. . . . [He] is surely right that we need to develop different — more traditional — attitudes and protocols concerning the military-civilian partnership.” –Commentary
“No one is better qualified than Cohen to write about political leadership in wartime. . . . This sustained analysis by a perceptive ‘subordinate’ who is also an outstanding historian should become required reading for statesmen and students alike.”–The National Interest
On 21 June 1940, an anxious twenty-eight-year-old London scientist who had spent something less than a year working in the field of scientific intelligence (itself a rather new field) arrived at his office to find a message from a friend, telling him to report to the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. R. V. Jones — a practical joker who delighted in giving others plausible excuses to plunge telephones into buckets of water — took some time to realize that the summons was, in fact, altogether serious. He hurried over to Downing Street and was ushered into the Cabinet Room. There he found Winston Churchill, prime minister and minister of defence, flanked by his scientific adviser, the minister of aircraft production, the air minister, and the uniformed high command of the Royal Air Force: the chief of air staff, the commanders in chief of both Fighter Command and Bomber Command, and their scientific advisers. The meeting concerned the possibility that the Germans had developed a means of all-weather precision navigation — and with it, the ability to drop bombs through cloud cover — that would give them a decided advantage in the battle of Britain, the German air offensive against Britain then under way. The evidence was fragmentary, including enigmatic radio intercepts such as "Cleves Knickebein is established at position 53° 24' North and 1° West," a curious radio receiver retrieved from a German bomber shot down a few nights earlier, a prisoner of war's claim that the Germans had a new navigation system, and some odd-shaped towers photographed on the North German island of Sylt.
Churchill asked Jones to explain what it all meant. "For twenty minutes or more he spoke in quiet tones, unrolling his chain of circumstantial evidence, the like of which for its convincing fascination was never surpassed by tales of Sherlock Holmes or Monsieur Lecoq." For a moment lines from the Ingoldsby Legends came to the old man:
But now one Mr. Jones
Comes forth and depones
That, fifteen years since, he had heard certain groans
On his way to Stone Henge (to examine the stones
Described in a work of the late Sir John Soane's)
that he'd followed the moans,
And, led by their tones,
Found a Raven a-picking a Drummer-boy's bones!
The poem flashed by, because after hearing him out Churchill quizzed the young man, who made the case that the Germans were using radio beams to find their way to their targets. The others present, eminent scientists and marshals of the Royal Air Force, doubted his evidence — the physics was too difficult, and after all British pilots were trained to navigate by the stars, and found their targets very reliably that way — or so they believed, until the evidence proved otherwise. Jones stood his ground and made the case for the beams. Churchill probed. What could be done? Could the existence of the beams be verified? Could aerial mines be sowed along their path? Could they be deceived or jammed? Jones replied to the direct questioning. He was, he later recalled, filled with
the elation of a young man at being noticed by any prime minister, but somehow it was much more. It was the same whenever we met in the war — I had the feeling of being recharged by contact with a source of living power. Here was strength, resolution, humor, readiness to listen, to ask the searching question and, when convinced, to act. He was rarely complimentary at the time, handsome though his compliments could be afterwards, for he had been brought up in sterner days. In 1940 it was compliment enough to be called in by him at the crisis; but to stand up to his questioning attack and then to convince him was the greatest exhilaration of all.
As for Churchill, "Being master, and not having to argue too much, once I was convinced about the principles of this queer and deadly game, I gave all the necessary orders that very day in June for the existence of the beam to be assumed, and for all counter-measures to receive absolute priority. The slightest reluctance or deviation in carrying out this policy was to be reported to me." In short order, by a combination of jamming and deception, the British deprived KNICKEBEIN of most of its usefulness.
Few historical figures escape revisions of their worth as statesmen; this is particularly true of wartime leaders, and especially true of Winston Churchill. Although some presidents and prime ministers have had their reputations rise (Harry Truman, most notably) or remain the same (Lincoln comes to mind), such re-examination usually chips away at the historical statuary rather than polishing it. In the case of Churchill the critique is particularly interesting, because it goes not only to the question of the character and personality of the British leader but to the essence of the activity in which he engaged — the creation of strategy. The revision downward of Churchill's worth as a war leader implies not only a changed view of the man but a changed view of what strategy is in wartime and how it is fashioned, for Churchill is the twentieth-century war statesman par excellence.
"There are times when I incline to judge all historians by their opinion of Winston Churchill — whether they can see that, no matter how much better the details, often damaging, of man and career become known, he still remains, quite simply, a great man." Judged by historian G. R. Elton's standards, many contemporary historians fail. For the last several decades Churchill's war leadership has come under increasingly severe attack, culminating in John Charmley's savage biography of him. Actually, the current spate of criticism represents merely the latest of several waves of postwar attacks on Churchill as warlord.
The first surge of criticism came primarily from military authors, and in particular from Churchill's own chairman of the Chiefs of Staff and Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alan Brooke. The publication of portions of his diaries in the late 1950s shocked readers, who discovered in entries that Brooke himself later described as "liverish" that all had not gone smoothly between Churchill and his generals. In fact, Brooke had withheld some of the more pointed criticisms of the prime minister, which he often wrote after late-night arguments with Churchill. If anything, his anger at the prime minister grew as the war went on. On 10 September 1944 Brooke wrote in his diary (in an entry not present in the first, publiished version):
[Churchill] has only got half the picture in his mind, talks absurdities and makes my blood boil to listen to his nonsense. I find it hard to remain civil. And the wonderful thing is that 3/4 of the population of this world imagine that Winston Churchill is one of the Strategists of History, a second Marlborough, and the other 1/4 have no conception what a public menace he is and has been throughout the war! It is far better that the world should never know and never suspect the feet of clay on that otherwise superhuman being. Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time [and] again....Never have I admired and despised a man simultaneously to the same extent.
Brooke was not alone. Others expressed themselves in more temperate language but had, one suspects, opinions no less severe. One chronically jaundiced military adviser quoted approvingly Robert Menzies, Australia's prime minister early in World War II: "Only Churchill's magnificent and courageous leadership compensated for his deplorable strategic sense." As the war went on their discontent with their political master seems, if anything, to have grown. At the end of the war in Europe, General Hastings Ismay recalled a decade later, Churchill hosted a victory celebration for the chiefs of staff at 10 Downing Street. The prime minister "handed out extravagant praise to the three Chiefs of Staff as having been the architects of victory. Not one of them responded by saying that Winston had also had a little to do with it."
Many of the field marshals and admirals of World War II came away nursing the bruises that inevitably came their way in dealing with Churchill. They deplored his excessive interest in what struck them as properly military detail; they feared his imagination and its restless probing for new courses of action. For them, as for some historians who have sympathized with their point of view, Churchill's greatest flaw as warlord was that he meddled, incurably and unforgivably, in the professional affairs of his military advisers. "The prime minister had no understanding of operational details, nor of logistic constraints and opportunities; but he had a great passion for them. He pestered commanders in the field for information and bombarded them with exhortations which went well beyond his responsibilities."
A second wave of criticism comes from those who have pored over the documents at some distance from the actual events. Thus David Reynolds writes of Britain's "decision" (his quotes) to fight on in 1940 as "right policy, wrong reasons." Writing of Churchill elsewhere as "a romantic militarist," Reynolds deplores with mock pathos the fate of "young whippersnappers who have the temerity to read the documents and then ask awkward questions!" Other historians have had less resort to humor. Churchill was "seldom consistent and was easily carried away." Small wonder, then, that "the conduct of war emerged, not from any one 'grand plan' or strategy, but out of a series of conflicting and changing views, misunderstandings, personal interests and confusions." In the end, in this view Churchill, "like all men, however great, was powerless to alter the great decisions of history." Thus, for the new historians Churchill's sins have to do less with bullying and meddling — few late-twentieth-century scholars are inclined to carry a brief for generals — than with lack of foresight or inability to bring any plan to fruition. When Churchill was right, it was for the wrong reasons; if he changed his mind, and he did so frequently, it was a sign of febrile instability; if he described the strategic position to the Allies in compelling prose, it was a sham that covered up chaotic forces that he had neither the wisdom nor the fixity of purpose to master.
Thus we have another indictment, no less severe than that of the generals: Churchill failed as a strategist because he did not devise a coherent strategy for the war. Perhaps no one can, some of these historians might argue; in that case, Churchill deserves removal from his pedestal because he misled his contemporaries and at least one succeeding generation into believing otherwise. Even at his best, contemporary historians frequently contend, Churchill did no better than would any other statesman in his place. Churchill devoted an enormous amount of attention, for example, to his personal relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which he regarded as central to the Anglo-American alliance, and with it, to victory. Historian Warren Kimball, however, dismisses the importance of the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship. "Had it been Neville Chamberlain and Wendell Willkie — a plausible prospect — wartime relations between the two nations would not have been fundamentally different."
One may sympathize with both groups of critics. The generals, after all, suffered the indignities of working with a man who kept them up late night after night, while hounding them with questions of detail. Even less forgivable, one suspects, were such barbs as his remark about confronting, in the person of his Chief of the Imperial General Staff, "the dead hand of inanition," or his observation, on watching the chiefs of staff file out of a meeting. "I have to wage modern war with ancient weapons." Strolling past a new bomb-proof shelter at the Admiralty he is reported to have remarked, "They have put up a very strong place there — masses of concrete and tons of steel. Taking into account the fact that their heads are solid bone, they ought to be quite safe inside." Bearing the responsibilities they shouldered, knowing better than anyone else the strains suffered by a force all too often fighting at a disadvantage, small wonder that they seethed with discontent. Nor did Churchill's work habits make their lives any easier. Working to a military routine they had to rise early, but serving a master who transacted much business after a late dinner they often had to stay up until the small hours of the morning.
Surrounding their caustic and aggressive master were a host of odd characters: acerbic professors like Frederick Lindemann, piratical politicians like Max Beaverbrook and Brendan Bracken, and maverick soldiers like Orde Wingate of Burma fame or Percy Hobart, a pioneering tank general reinstated to active duty after Churchill found him languishing as a corporal in the Home Guard. It was Hobart's recall to service that prompted Churchill's remark to Field Marshall Dill, who opposed the move, "It isn't only the good boys who help to win the wars; it is the sneaks and the stinkers as well." To this a modern British officer, pledged to resurrect Dill's reputation and reflecting nearly fifty years after the event the wounded feelings of that decent but limited man:
The historians as well have some excuse for their impatience. The stifling weight of pro-Churchill orthodoxy that dominated not only historiography but public opinion for decades after the Second World War eventually provoked a reaction from the academics, who are naturally skeptical of political leaders. Churchill's own World War II memoirs, appearing shortly after the war and bolstered by large quantities of official documents, held the field for many years in shaping popular as well as scholarly understanding of the war. Here too was a source of discontent for professional students of the past, who by both training and temperament look askance at the self-serving accounts of political leaders, and who rebel automatically against conventional wisdom and pat interpretations of great events. Moreover, some of them are deeply suspicious of the vivid and generally favorable accounts of those politicians, officers, and civil servants who worked most intimately with Churchill and maintained an unaccountably high regard for him — "an exclusive, close-knit, troglodytic group," as Alex Danchev calls them.
All the more irritating to many professional historians have been the political leaders of our own day who have declared their reverence for Churchill. Churchill's popularity with the likes of conservative politicians such as Dan Quayle, Caspar Weinberger, or Margaret Thatcher has not improved his standing with professors on either side of the Atlantic. A popular icon as much as an historial figure, Churchill excites the kind of intense admiration in narrow circles usually reserved for sports stars in broader ones. The existence of an International Churchill Society (complete with annual conferences, a glossy magazine, and a souvenir shop selling "Action This Day" stickers) embodies the kind of hero worship that most historians instinctively reject — this is all the more upsetting in view of Churchill's indubitably checkered career. Even as sympathetic a historian as Michael Howard remarks that "the problem for the historian" is "how it was that a man with so unpromising a background and so disastrous a track record could emerge in 1940 as the savior of his country."
The generals may have suffered from their excessive closeness to a man who made excruciating demands upon their energies, time, and patience. The dons may have let the temptations of the donnish life, which rewards swipes at historical orthodoxy and deprecates the Great Man theory of history, get the better of them. Both groups were abetted by murmurs of dissent from within Churchill's camp. Of these none was more important than the diary/memoir of Churchill's personal physician, Lord Moran, who described the ailments that began to affect the prime minister during World War II. (Another member of Churchill's inner circle cuttingly remarked of Moran, "He was not, of course, present when discussions of political and military importance took place; but he was often invited to luncheon afterwards.") The legend of a Churchill debilitated by heart ailments and exhaustion, woozy with liquor and showing the signs of early senility still persists, although the truth seems to be that he survived the stresses of the war in far better physical condition and with greater mental acuity than younger political leaders and general officers.
Churchill's critics, both contemporary and subsequent, hold a common view of the central flaw in his makeup as a statesman: instability. In their view he was the creature of his enthusiasms, a genius, to be sure, but a whimsical and erratic fantasist. His passion for the Dardanelles expedition of 1915, his quixotic defense of Edward VIII (later made duke of Windsor), his imperialist opposition to Indian independence, his relentless pursuit of strategic dead ends in World War II — including an invasion of Norway early in the war and a lunge for Vienna through the Ljubljana gap at its end — display a lack of political and military sobriety dismaying in a head of state. His odd working hours and exuberant life style (including his reputed taste for Chablis with breakfast and his consumption of whisky throughout working hours), his love of uniforms and his hounding of military subordinates about tactical and technical details well beyond his purview (proposals for antiaircraft defenses based on rockets rather than guns, for example, or his minute proposals for artificial harbors to be installed on the French coast immediately following an invasion) seem to reinforce these views. In this light, and increasingly to modern students of Churchill, he appears a brilliant orator but one whose reactionary views and wild imagination, whose incessant meddling and irrational enthusiasms made him as much a menace as a source of salvation to a beleaguered Britain. Indeed, it is fair to say that this is now very much the scholarly view of Churchill.
In fact, the above impression, common though it be, is false to the core, for Churchill was a man of system — unorthodox and exuberant system, but system nonetheless. A shrewd Royal Navy captain, Percy Scott, himself a pioneer in naval warfare, observed after meeting a twenty-five-year-old Winston Churchill in 1899, "I am very proud to have met you....I feel certain that I shall some day shake hands with you as prime minister of England. You possess the two necessary qualifications, genius and plod." The plod was no less important than the genius. Churchill, far from being an aristocratic lounger, was a glutton for work; his motto to his secretaries during the Second World War was "KBO" — "Keep Buggering On." Only disciplined work habits allowed him to pursue a crowded career that included leading positions in politics, a steady stream of journalistic output, and the writing of at least five multivolume works, as well as single-volume books of history and personal narrative. His staff usually consisted of at least one private secretary and three or more other secretaries, who had to work in relays to keep up with the blizzard of letters, articles, and books that he dictated to them. His working hours were, it is true, hard on his subordinates, extending as they frequently did into the small hours of the morning. But here too he exhibited not self-indulgence but a regimen that enabled him to handle a crushing burden of work. Rising at eight, he would read for several hours in bed — scanning newspapers, intelligence reports, and cables. Meetings and dictation of minutes would be followed by lunch and then a nap of an hour or more, allowing him to work on until early morning. "By this means I was able to press a day and a half's work into one," he recalled; he maintained this routine throughout the war. That he enjoyed leisurely lunches and dinners is true; one must ask, however, whether this did not show a shrewd understanding of the need for some relaxation in sociable circumstances from the extraordinary pressures of war. Indeed, in this respect as in others — for example, his orders not to be woken up for news save in the most dire circumstances — Churchill exhibited a wise sense of pacing that allowed him, a man of seventy in 1944, to sustain a program of work and travel that would have killed a much younger man.
Churchill's appetite for information included a shrewd ability to ensure its delivery to him in usable form. He turned to "the Prof," Professor Frederick Lindemann of Oxford (later Lord Cherwell), who had the outstanding gift of being able to explain briefly and lucidly some of the chief technical issues associated with modern warfare — an invaluable service for a chief who had an abiding interest in technology but no background in science. The Prof, moreover, ran a small statistical office that prepared accurate and comprehensible charts and tables for the prime minister, enabling him to retain a good picture of those aspects of the war (especially the battle of the Atlantic) which could only be measured and judged in this way, rather than by the movement of battle lines. The Prof's data often served the prime minister better than did the more tendentious presentations prepared by various departments of the government. And the Prof provided an independent — occasionally misguided, but nonetheless useful — source of military analysis. It was, for example, Lindemann who first suspected in 1941 that Bomber Command had had far less success in hitting its targets than it claimed, prompting Churchill to launch a series of studies and reforms that led to a far more capable Royal Air Force by 1944.
System, not whim, dominated Churchill's government machinery. His immediate staff throughout the war consisted primarily of men who had worked for and admired his predecessor Neville Chamberlain. His strict injunction to conduct business in writing ("Let it be very clearly understood that all directions from me are made in writing, or should be immediately afterwards confirmed in writing, and that I do not accept any responsibility for matters relating to national defence on which I am alleged to have given decisions, unless they are recorded in writing") stands in remarkable contrast to the work habits of Roosevelt, Hitler, and Stalin, all of whom relied chiefly on the spoken word, with all its increased possibilities for ambiguity and misinterpretation. At his orders, a small but diligent staff followed up the blizzard of memoranda that issued from his office, making sure that orders were followed, questions answered, and data assembled. Of orders, however, there were actually very few, particularly in military matters, as we shall see. Moreover, throughout the war Churchill relied on his staff to maintain a smoothly working machinery of war direction. General Sir Hastings Ismay, the secretary to the Chiefs of Staff, served as the indispensable link between the irascible prime minister and his harried chieftains. As Ismay later described his role: "I felt that my job was to interpret, repeat to interpret, the prime minister to the Chiefs of Staff, and the Chiefs of Staff to the prime minister." This task he performed superbly. One suspects that in his absence the undeniable rancor between Churchill and the chiefs might have exploded disastrously. Indeed, Ismay recalled in 1964 that in advance of the second Quebec summit the Chiefs of Staff were on the verge of a collective resignation. Ismay "stepped into the breach" and formally resigned, only to have the resignation ripped up and relations at least temporarily restored.
Churchill's work habits reveal far more order and discipline than is commonly thought; the same holds true for the zigs and zags of his policymaking. In an historical work, Churchill wrote of the first duke of Marlborough's contemporary, Lord Halifax, that "a love of moderation and a sense of the practical seemed in him to emerge in bold rather than tepid courses. He could strike as hard for compromise as most leaders for victory." Whether or not this description accurately captured the eighteenth-century statesman, it surely did his twentieth-century student.
I thought we ought to have conquered the Irish and then given them Home Rule: that we ought to have starved out the Germans, and then revictualled their country; and that after smashing the General Strike we should have met the grievances of the miners. I always get into trouble because so few people take this line....It is all the fault of the human brain being made in two lobes, only one of which does any thinking, so that we are all right-handed or left-handed; whereas if we were properly constructed we should use our right and left hands with equal force and skill according to circumstances. As it is, those who can win a war well can rarely make a good peace, and those who could make a good peace would never have won the war.
This was a theme to which Churchill gave attention on more than one occasion.
To understand history the reader must always remember how small is the proportion of what is recorded to what actually took place, and above all how severely the time factor is compressed. Years pass with chapters and sometimes with pages, and the tale abruptly reaches new situations, changed relationships, and different atmospheres. Thus the figures of the past are insensibly portrayed as more fickle, more harlequin, and less natural in their actions than they really were.
Churchill brought to the Second World War an exceedingly rich knowledge, direct as well as vicarious, of military affairs. Indeed, unique among statesmen, he experienced many of the great wars of his lifetime twice — once in reality, a second time in study, as he reflected upon their structure and meaning. During his early career as a junior officer and newspaper correspondent (roles that he combined, to the distress of his superiors) he saw combat on several continents — in India, Cuba, the Sudan, and South Africa. Some historians have suggested that these colonial campaigns gave him a romantic picture of war. Had he not taken part in, and subsequently described with obvious relish and exuberance, one of the last great and successful cavalry charges, at the battle of Omdurman in 1898? And did he not write, in retrospect, that "there is nothing so exhilarating as being shot at without result"?
In truth, however, a closer examination of both the published work and the private letters even from this period of his career reveals a far more sober and penetrating student of war. In his one-volume book The River War, for example, he pays eloquent tribute to the importance of the Anglo-Egyptian force's lines of communications, and to the remarkable feats of transport and supply that were crucial to Lord Kitchener's campaign up the Nile.
Victory is the beautiful, bright-colored flower. Transport is the stem without which it could never have blossomed. Yet even the military student, in his zeal to master the fascinating combinations of the actual conflict, often forgets the far more intricate complications of supply.
Making good this rhetorical flourish, Churchill proceeded to devote an entire chapter to a meticulous and lucid account of the complicated logistics of Kitchener's operations.
In these conflicts, of course, Churchill was a junior participant, his writings still those of a promising young man. In the years leading up to the First World War he was a leading figure, serving as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915, taking a brief turn in the trenches, and then returning to public office as minister of munitions and later secretary of state for war. His four-volume work, The World Crisis, although supposedly dismissed by George Bernard Shaw as "a memoir masquerading as a history of the cosmos," contains extended reflections on all features of war, including the processes of technological innovation, tactics, and the problem of coalition warfare. His chapter on "The Romance of Design," for example, carries a reader from the problem of gun size on battleships to the larger trade-offs (speed, armor, and firepower) in warship design, to the issue of propulsion, which in turn bore on the momentous decision to change the Royal Navy over from coal to oil as its principal fuel — a seemingly technical decision pregnant with vast political consequences.
To those wars that Churchill both fought and lived one must add those that he experienced as an historian only. Of these, the most important were the War of the Spanish Succession, conducted by his ancestor the first duke of Marlborough, and the American Civil War. His biography of Marlborough, again too easily dismissed as a mere apologia for his great ancestor, is best understood not only as history but also as a treatise on statesmanship. It is, in particular, a study of the problem of coalition warfare — and "the history of all coalitions," he told his readers, "is a tale of the reciprocal complaints of allies."
The American Civil War formed a central feature of Churchill's last major work, his History of the English-speaking Peoples, much of which was composed before the Second World War. He devoted less time and energy to its study than he had to the other conflicts that he examined, but it too informed his understanding of war. When, for example, he recalled the skepticism (substantial in English military circles) about American military potential, he wrote that his firm conviction to the contrary was based at least in part on his knowledge of the Civil War. On more than one occasion in his account of World War II analogies to the American Civil War develop, as they did in his speeches — particularly, of course, those directed to Americans. He reminded Congress in May 1943 that "No one after Gettysburg doubted which way the dread balance of war would incline, yet far more blood was shed after the Union victory at Gettysburg than in all the fighting which went before." In this he saw, quite properly, an analogy with the Allies' circumstances in that watershed year.
What did Churchill take from this massive experience of and reflection upon war? Oddly, perhaps, the key may be found in a pamphlet — an essay, really — published about his chief hobby, painting, which he explicitly compared with the art of war: "It is the same kind of problem as unfolding a long, sustained, interlocked argument. It is a proposition which, whether of few or numberless parts, is commanded by a single unity of conception." Churchill, a talented amateur painter, brought an artist's perspective to bear on war. The selection of broad themes (a word which he used often in both contexts) and the marshaling of detail to support those large ideas formed an important part of his war statecraft as much as it did of his palette. Painting cannot be done to hard and fast rules or to a rigid schedule; it must be adapted to the scene before it; and room must remain for creativity and adaptation to shifting lights and the artist's own flashes of insight — such artistic truths applied no less to Churchill's war leadership than to his essays in oils. Churchill's frequent use of the word "proportion" is revealing. Often he would remind his colleagues during World War II of the need to set particular operations into the larger context of the scheme of the war. Indeed, much of his genius for war lay in his ability to see the relationship between the large and the minute elements of conflict and to make the latter, where possible, fit the former. He welcomed his sea voyage to the United States following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor because "it is perhaps a good thing to stand away from the canvas from time to time and take a full view of the picture."
War statesmanship, in Churchill's view, focused at the apex of government an array of considerations and calculations that even those one rung down could not fully fathom. War, he wrote in The World Crisis, "knows no rigid divisions between...Allies, between Land, Sea and Air, between gaining victories and alliances, between supplies and fighting men, between propaganda and machinery, which is, in fact, simply the sum of all forces and pressures operative at a given period...." Churchill's profound sense of the uncertainties inherent in war suggests that he would have found the notion that one could produce a blueprint for victory at any time before, say, 1943 an absurdity bred of unfamiliarity with war itself.
War is a constant struggle and must be waged from day to day. It is only with some difficulty and within limits that provision can be made for the future. Experience shows that forecasts are usually falsified and preparations always in arrear. Nevertheless, there must be a design and theme for bringing the war to a victorious end in a reasonable period. All the more is this necessary when under modern conditions no large-scale offensive operation can be launched without the preparation of elaborate technical apparatus.
Here was a view that he had long held as a result of experience and study. "Every set of assumptions which it is necessary to make, draws new veils of varying density in front of the dark curtain of the future." Churchill's awareness of the ironies of politics and the limits of human foresight was grounded not only in the experience of a long life in public affairs, but in a close study of history. Commenting at the end of his biography of the first duke of Marlborough on the shifting relations between Britain and France over the centuries, he observed soberly that "even the most penetrating gaze reaches only conclusions which, however seemingly vindicated at a given moment, are inexorably effaced by time."
Churchill thus struck a middle position between those who would deny any possibility of strategy (as opposed to mere military opportunism, with which he has been charged) and those who would reduce it to a blueprint. In the latter category fell the American military leadership, which bitterly resisted any attempt to deviate from the basic strategy of an invasion of Northwest Europe in 1943. Churchill successfully opposed them, persuading President Roosevelt to adopt first the invasion of North Africa in 1942 and then the follow-up campaigns in Sicily and Italy in 1943.
Copyright © 2002 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Posted May 26, 2003
I read this book because it was touted as one of the books President Bush was reading in the summer of 2002. The book by Eliot Cohen is about the tension that often exists between civil and military leaders in wartime. By looking at four democratic leaders Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion, Cohen, uncovers their 'strategy-making in war'. Cohen evokes the memory of Clausewitz to show the importance of civil military relations. 'War is not merely an act of policy, but a true political instrument.' Politicians need to be prepared to make monumental decisions about strategy, select generals, work with coalition partners sometimes even having to re-organize military organizations. Another problem to work through is the mutual distrust that often arises between politicians and generals. By studying his four subjects Cohen finds that they exhibit some similar traits that make them successful wartime leaders. They were all curios men who rated technology highly. They were men who paid close attention to detail and asked probing questions of their generals. They prodded but did not dictate orders to their generals. They were very adroit politicians and great judges of character. Finally, they were well read men who also had a great command of the spoken word. 'War is too important to be left to the generals.' This quote uttered by France's President Clemenceau, will forever be remembered by students of history to illustrate the importance of civil control over the military. Cohen's book is an important study of the difficult job politicians face in their roles as commanders in chief. I recommend it to the layman as well as the professional.
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Posted May 2, 2003
Posted November 6, 2002
At a time when a U.S. invasion of Iraq appears imminent and inevitable, this learned study of both the traditional and the more recent, iconoclastic theories of the proper relationship between the policies of state and the direction of military strategy documents the difficulties and dangers of preventing limited warfare from escalating beyond any semblance of civilian control. Supreme Command adds context and texture to the serious student¿s understanding of the history of the twentieth century and its wars, warriors, and statesmen, brilliantly limning biographical sketches of four statesmen who mastered military strategy and effectively controlled the apparently unstoppable momentum of battles by constant dialogues with generals quite willing to disagree with them, and who constructively shaped and limited the purposes and conduct of the wars over which they presided politically. Like characters in a great novel, Lincoln, Grant, and Meade; Clemenceau, Foch, and Petain; Churchill, Brooke, and Montgomery; Ben-Gurion, Yigal Allon, and Yigal Yadin ¿ all come memorably alive as fallible beings with strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. With an undeniably timely sense of foreboding, the author - a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University - examines the applicability of these and other historical precedents to the nuclear era, in which the dangers of war as the crudest tool of diplomacy threaten to outweigh by far its usefulness as an instrument of statecraft and polity.
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