LEADERSHIP IN WARTIME: Civilian Leaders in Time of War

Thursday, January 16, 2003

In the modern democratic era, it's not uncommon for elected leaders to have little or no military training or experience. It has become an accepted notion that political leaders should therefore leave battle plans and campaign decisions to the military commanders and avoid "micromanaging" war. But is that notion correct? Or was Clemenceau right when he said that "war is too important to be left to the generals"? What lessons can we learn from studying the greatest wartime leaders, such as Lincoln, Churchill, and FDR?

Recorded on Thursday, January 16, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, is war too important to be left to the generals?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: Leadership in Wartime. In modern democracies, it's an accepted notion that there should be a sharp line between civilian and military leaders. In time of war, the civilians should set the overall objectives but leave it to the military to fulfill those objectives. But is that notion correct or was Georges Clemenceau right when he said, "War is too important to be left to the generals? What can we learn from studying the greatest wartime leaders, Lincoln, Churchill, FDR and what do those lessons mean for George W. Bush?

Joining us today, two guests: David Kennedy is a professor of history at Stanford University and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Freedom From Fear. Eliot Cohen is a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime.

Title: Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way

Peter Robinson: Two quotations. The political scientist Samuel Huntington, arguing for a sharp division between military and civilian leadership, "The criteria of military efficiency are limited, concrete, relatively objective. The criteria of political wisdom are indefinite, ambiguous and highly subjective." Second quotation. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, "War is too important to be left to the generals." Who is more nearly correct? David?

David Kennedy: Actually I'd introduce a third term here, it's Clausewitz: that war is the extension of politics by other means. And these two realms are so inter-penetrated and intermingled that it really is conceptually impossible to separate them absolutely.

Peter Robinson: Eliot, you'll go for that, right?

Eliot Cohen: Yeah, I'd go for that. I think I'd also vote for Clemenceau even though Sam Huntington was my mentor. I think that Huntington is right in that these are different walks of life. I think he paints the objective quality of the military professional a little bit too starkly. You ask an Air Force general for a solution to a problem and an Army general for a solution to a problem, you're going to get two very different solutions.

Peter Robinson: The thesis of your book, as I take it, is that a normal theory, that's your phrase, the normal theory of war now dominates the thinking of military and political leaders alike but that the study of great war leaders indicates the normal theory is largely mistaken. Fair summary?

Eliot Cohen: Yeah, the normal theory being that politicians obviously set the objectives and they decide who your enemies are and who your friends are and they kind of set some rough guidelines but then once they've defined their objectives clearly, they should turn the war over to the generals. But of course the thing that's peculiar about this is that this is a view which has been around for a while and it keeps on getting rebutted but it keeps on rearing its head.

Peter Robinson: Well, you say it's been around for a while. So from the Caesars to Napoleon, the political leaders and the military leaders are quite often the same people. Right? Now Napoleon's dominating Europe less than two centuries ago. Where did the normal theory, this sharp division between military and civilian leadership come from? Anybody spend any time tracing it?

Eliot Cohen: I think some of it has to do with the origins of officership as understood as a profession. And I think where you really begin to see this emerge is particularly in Prussia. And, of course, a great Stanford historian, Gordon Craig, has written most authoritatively on this subject. As the Prussian Officer Corps became more and more intensively educated, more and more focused on the art of war, they also became more and more difficult to manage.

David Kennedy: To be fair to Eliot, his book is set entirely in the historical period of modern democracy. So this is a peculiar issue in democracy, where there is, at least conceptually, a sharp distinction between civil and military leadership.

Peter Robinson: Let's take a look at a couple of the wartime leaders that Eliot Cohen has studied, beginning with Abraham Lincoln.

Title: All the President's Generals

Peter Robinson: Lincoln demonstrates the error of the normal theory how?

Eliot Cohen: One of the ways in which the story of Lincoln is told is that Lincoln simply had to look for a general and he kept on having terrible luck with always firing generals. Finally he found a general that he could trust, Ulysses S. Grant, and he turned the war over to him. And what I try to do in that chapter is to describe the ways in which that isn't at all what happened. In fact, Lincoln as it now turns out kept a very, very close eye on Grant to the extent of planting a spy in his headquarters, which I talk about at some length and really was quite determined to keep control of the war to the very end.

Peter Robinson: I keep going back to the Napoleonic period but Napoleonic wars are the last great wars before the Civil War. Napoleon makes a point of going after capital cities. So he invests Berlin, and it didn't work out too well when he got to Moscow, didn't work out that well in the Iberian Peninsula either, but in the middle of Europe he goes after cities. Now you argue that Lincoln somehow had the foresight to impose a different kind of strategy on his generals.

Eliot Cohen: Well. to some extent, some of his generals were particularly focused on Richmond as the enemy capital. Initially Lincoln says, no you've really got to focus on the enemy army. By the way, Lincoln, although he gets a lot of the Civil War right at the very beginning, he himself doesn't, I think, fully understand the way in which it's going to become a war of peoples, almost a revolutionary war and so in a way, his strategy shifts to being: we've got to break the will of the southern people to continue this struggle. And I think it's one of the reasons why the normal theory doesn't work because everybody walks into a war somewhat blindly and objectives change, circumstances change and the politicians have to be able to get their military to shift along with those things.

Peter Robinson: David, Lincoln gets a little bit of exposure to war serving in the Black Hawk War of 1832, which is such a major war that I had to look it up. In other words, he plays a very minor role in a very minor war and then he ends up conducting the Civil War and getting an astounding amount right that other people miss, get wrong. How?

David Kennedy: Well, Lincoln's an extraordinary individual. But I think that as an emblematic case of what happens in modern military circumstances and Eliot's book makes this point quite nicely, that most individuals either on the civilian or the military side when they finally face the command decisions involved in modern warfare probably have very little, if any, prior experience. So Lincoln, in this case, is typical of Woodrow Wilson in World War I, Franklin Roosevelt in World War II, neither of whom had any military experience whatsoever. Dwight D. Eisenhower never heard a shot fired in anger until he showed up in North Africa in November of 1942. So in a sense, modern warfare is for many of the people compelled to wage in an absolutely unique experience from which they have no training of the kind of on the job sort.

Peter Robinson: War is such a new kind of experience for most of the people involved that somebody who comes to it, the politician may be able to adapt more quickly than the generals who make the mistake of thinking they know something.

David Kennedy: The successful politician, again, in the examples that Eliot's book dwells on, were people of great mental agility, great rhetorical powers, the ability to speak to the democratic polity in question in a persuasive way, and also people of what we might call wide vicarious experience, which is another way of describing being well read in history.

Eliot Cohen: What's striking about Lincoln is his common sense and another feature that one of his subordinates, an Assistant Secretary of War pointed out, he said Lincoln was unique in that he had no illusions, that he could see reality as it was. And I think in wartime, that's a particularly difficult thing for anybody but particularly for political leaders to do. There's just so much wishful thinking, there's so much fear, there's so much anxiety whereas Lincoln was just always profoundly realistic. And that's really a function of common sense and strength of character. It's not brilliance in an academic sense.

Peter Robinson: From the wartime leadership of Abraham Lincoln to that of Winston Churchill.

Title: The (Finest) Hours

Peter Robinson: The criticism of Churchill is that although he had deep experience, widely written in history as far as that goes, had fired plenty of shots in anger himself but he was full of delusions.

Eliot Cohen: Actually I think the reverse is true. I mean, he's clearly a much more extravagant kind of character than a Lincoln. But first he also had tremendous common sense. I've waded through a lot of documents in working on that chapter and there are great things like where, the Royal Navy is coming to him in 1944 and asking for a budget to build battleships. And he says, well who are you planning on fighting with these things? And it's a wonderful document because you see Churchill pulling his subordinates apart just asking very, very commonsensical kinds of questions. So it's Churchill's common sense I would say more than his brilliance. And the other thing is you could always talk Churchill out of some of his ideas, which were indeed nutty. For example, he was very interested in the invasion of northern Norway. Well, he didn't simply order it and have it happen. The generals kept on coming back at him. Now of course the problem is he kept on coming back at the generals. So they were pretty worn out by the end.

Peter Robinson: So Churchill then demonstrates the reverse of the normal theory in that he's riding his generals. He's constantly questioning. But there is this one great yawner on Churchill. He delays or resists what the American military wanted to do which is invade through France and Churchill insists on tying down North Africa, then going to Sicily, then working their way up through Italy. That is not generally viewed as a strategic error and if he could make such a great strategic error, how can he be viewed as a successful war leader would be the question for you.

David Kennedy: Well, certainly both the American civil and military leadership but even more so, more emphatically the military leadership found that strategy to be in error. Dwight Eisenhower recorded in his diary when he was informed of the decision to undertake the invasion of North Africa; he said this is the blackest day in history because it meant diverting resources from the anticipated buildup for the cross channel invasion, the event that we know historically as D-day. This was thought to be a great distraction and a diversion of both material and manpower. The American military chiefs, George Marshall and others came to call this, the British strategy, periphery pecking and they thought this was a terrible alternative to their main strategic goal which was to engage the main body of the German forces as early as possible in an area of strategic importance, namely northwest Europe not way off on the edge of the European world.

Peter Robinson: So what was Churchill thinking?

David Kennedy: Churchill was thinking a lot of things. His forces had been thrown off the European continent three times before the North African invasion. They'd been ejected from Norway, they'd been notoriously ejected from Dunkirk and also from Crete. So there are a lot of reasons why Churchill was gun shy about going back across the channel at too early a date. Admiral King, the Chief of Staff of the American Navy at one point said quite derisively of Churchill during World War II, "He will only cross the channel behind a Scottish bagpipe band." He's only go in at the last moment as though to issue the coup de gras but he will not seriously engage a British force across the channel.

Eliot Cohen: But there are a couple of points about that. First, Churchill was very much in sync with his generals on the Mediterranean strategy and if anything, they wanted to devote more resources to it. Secondly, the real fight, as David just pointed out, was to invade North Africa because North Africa basically is what leads you into Italy. The alternative, which the Americans wanted, was to invade France in 1943, in the spring of '43, a year before D-day. And I think most military historians that have looked closely at that say that would have probably been a disaster. It would not have had the experience of crushing the Luftwaffe. You'd be throwing the Americans into some of the best German units early on, well before the Germans have been ground down by the Russians. So it was a bad decision.

Peter Robinson: Let's turn to somebody who is not in Eliot's book, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Does he prove, disprove, the normal theory? I don't have the impression that he was anything like as commanding with his own generals as was Lincoln or Churchill.

David Kennedy: He didn't intervene as frequently or at as operational a level as Lincoln and Churchill did. I think that's true. On the other hand, the episode we just have been discussing, the North African invasion, is one where he had to stuff that decision down the throats of his military command. Both George Catlett Marshall and Ernest King were dead-set against the North African invasion. I mentioned Eisenhower's reaction a moment ago. He was against it too. In fact, there was a famous episode in July of 1942 when King and Marshall began to sense that Roosevelt really was going to go forward with this terrible idea, directing the American force to North Africa. And they threatened to formally propose or counter-propose that the United States renege on its original strategic commitment to make the European theater the priority theater and instead, redirect its primary effort to the Pacific war against Japan.

Peter Robinson: So things got extremely contentious.

David Kennedy: In my judgment, Marshall was probably bluffing when he said that. King probably was not bluffing. King would have been perfectly happy to see the major effort waged in the Pacific.

Eliot Cohen: You can't really find anything parallel with Churchill where Churchill just snaps in order, says do it because I want you to do it.

Peter Robinson: That's really what it came to with FDR and Marshall and King--do it because I'm the Commander in Chief and I say so.

Eliot Cohen: And Roosevelt would actually sign his name Commander in Chief. He thought that title was a very important title and he used it.

Peter Robinson: Let's turn from individuals to case studies. Case number one, Vietnam.

Title: McNamara's Band

Peter Robinson: It's widely believed that during the war in Vietnam the civilian leadership, President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, micromanaged the military, the photographs of Johnson looking at the individual bombing targets in North Vietnam. And that because the war failed, even as a failure the war did one thing, which is vindicate the so-called normal theory. If Lyndon Johnson and Robert NcNamara had let the generals run the war, we would have won. Eliot?

Eliot Cohen: Well, first that is the normal theory and it's wrong. There are a couple things about that. First, the actual micromanagement is really very much focused on the air war in the North for a number of reasons, some which were kind of diplomatic, some which were they wanted to avoid a repeat of Korea where you had a--they didn't want to bring…

Peter Robinson: They didn't want to bring the Chinese.

Eliot Cohen: Right. And as we know, the Chinese actually were present in North Vietnam in pretty substantial numbers. But the truth is they don't do anything like that really in the South. And the American military has pretty much a free hand on the whole. You look at William Westmoreland who's in there for four years--very hard to imagine he would've lasted four years, I think, under Abraham Lincoln, I really doubt. And then finally the generals don't have any better ideas. The generals are the ones who come up with search and destroy.

Peter Robinson: The war failed at least to some considerable extent because it was left to the generals.

Eliot Cohen: In part. It may also simply have been an un-winnable war. That's another possibility has to bear in mind.

Peter Robinson: I sense a little revisionism going on…Will you stand for this Dr. Kennedy?

David Kennedy: Absolutely in this case. I found this one of the most intriguing, provocative points in Eliot's wonderful book. And it's very consistent with the analysis, retrospectively, of Robert McNamara in his book In Retrospect. And you quote, in fact, a very telling paragraph where McNamara says, I'm a lifelong professional manager but my training and instinct were to always interrogate my subordinates about the viability of what they were doing and the choices we face and so on and so forth. And for some reason that he can't explain to us or himself, he says I failed to do that in Vietnam. And I think that in a sense is pretty clinching evidence for the thesis you advance, that we really see here a failure of civilian leadership in this military situation.

Peter Robinson: So if Johnson and McNamara had been subjecting the generals to the kinds of constant questioning, prove it, what are you trying to do, why do you need these resources, what would have happened? We'd have won the war or at least the political leadership would have known the problem sooner?

David Kennedy: Well, I would say that eventually, in fact, that does happen. And there's the famous moment when, after the Tet offensive when General Westmoreland asked for 200,000 more troops. And that's when Lyndon Johnson…

Peter Robinson: What in the hell are you talking about, General?

David Kennedy: …the old early Cold War generation of people including Dean Atchison to ask for their advice about this. And Atchison famously says to Johnson, "Frankly Mr. President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff don't know what they're talking about." It's that kind of instinct to really take on head on the judgment of the so-called military experts that was lacking before that moment. I take that to be the brunt of the argument.

Eliot Cohen: I think so. I think you probably would have seen a different bunch of generals. One of the things that strikes me that's also missing in the McNamara story is a sense of doing what all these leaders did which was to really be coming through the ranks of general officers, in some cases reaching down quite deep into the ranks to find the ones who were suited. And, one of the great might-have-beens of Vietnam is suppose Creighton Abrams who was, by most accounts, a much more canny and sophisticated general officer. Suppose he had been in charge in Vietnam a lot earlier. You know, who knows?

Peter Robinson: From the Vietnam war to what many consider its mirror image, the Gulf War.

Title: The New Model Army

Peter Robinson: We quote no less a civilian authority than President George H. W. Bush. "I," he writes as Commander In Chief, "I did not want to repeat the problems of the Vietnam war where the political leadership meddled with military operations. I would avoid micromanaging the military." He did avoid micromanaging the military. We won the Gulf War. Hence the normal theory is once again validated. Eliot?

Eliot Cohen: Well again, first, it's not quite that way in a number of respects. First, there was some political intervention particularly on the issue of going after the mobile missiles that were being fired at the Israelis. But more importantly, although in many ways we did win the first Gulf War, there's an important way in which we lost it. And one of the things I talk about in the book is the way in which the civilians completely abdicate control at the very end of the war where Norman Schwarzkopf is going off to negotiate this armistice. He's writing his own terms of reference.

Peter Robinson: Was that an aggressive move on his part or simply absence of direction from Washington?

Eliot Cohen: No, it was an absence of direction although I think it's also important to say that you had an unusual figure as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell who was first an extremely canny bureaucratic in-fighter and secondly very jealous of his prerogatives and was going to do his best to exclude civilian influence as much as possible or at least to, in some cases, to preempt it. So, for instance, Secretary Cheney almost never speaks to Schwarzkopf. He speaks to Colin Powell who in turn speaks to General Schwarzkopf. By the way, it's very different today where you have the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, speaking quite a bit to General Franks who's General Schwarzkopf's successor at Central Command.

Peter Robinson: Right. So your argument is what? That Colin Powell, although a General, was in effect a political...?

Eliot Cohen: He was exercising a kind of preemptive political control. His political instincts I think were so good that a lot of the occasions in which the civilians might have intervened don't occur because Colin Powell…

Peter Robinson: Powell anticipated it.

Eliot Cohen: Powell is anticipating things. The other thing is, of course, the circumstances were extraordinarily favorable. You know, you have this isolated country; we have overwhelming resources and so on. So this was an easier one to hand over to the military.

David Kennedy: Would you take Powell in that incarnation when he was Chair of the Joint Chiefs as an example of what you call the politicization of the officer class?

Eliot Cohen: I think so. I mean, it's not correct to be critical of Colin Powell but I think there's room to be so. I don't think he ever went over the line but I think he did get up close to it on a couple of occasions to include later on in the Clinton Administration whether it was dealing with gays in the military or on Yugoslavia which is--Yugoslavia's actually probably a better case where he was making his political views widely known and thereby, restricting what it was that the administration could do.

Peter Robinson: You accept this revisionist view of the Gulf War?

David Kennedy: Well, I take quite seriously the thesis of the book that the equation of the balance between civil and military leadership has changed in recent years and the military voice is now much more assertive, much better organized, and probably somewhat weightier than it ought to be in these very complicated decisions. What's more, not only is it weightier than it once was but in an odd way, it's become much more conservative where conservation of force and avoidance of particularly human damage has become the guiding principle of much of the military.

Peter Robinson: Well, is that--Douglas McArthur: "councils of war breed caution." Get a bunch of generals and admirals together in a room and they'll certainly come up with a thousand reasons why you shouldn't attack anybody. Right? So is that simply a kind of inherent view that's likely to bubble up from almost any military organization that civilians have to be constantly on guard against?

David Kennedy: I think you're probably on safe ground, that this is a characteristic of the fabled military mind in all climes and places. But it's one that seems to have taken on additional weight in the circumstance of American democracy in the post-Vietnam and post Goldwater-Nichols era.

Peter Robinson: Last topic, evaluating the present civilian leadership.

Title: He Who Delegates is Lost?

Peter Robinson: Listen to this passage from a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine by Seymour Hirsch: "A Pentagon advisor who worked closely with the Rumsfeld team," Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, civilian leader in the Pentagon, "the Rumsfeld team vigorously defended its position saying we have a peacetime military leadership that was Clintonized and now we're in a war that it doesn't understand what Rumsfeld wants them to do is to fight it differently but his way makes most of our senior military leadership's understanding of war-fighting irrelevant." Rumsfeld is saying to the military leadership, you don't have the answer and they don't want to hear it. Another official, "noted that Rumsfeld is able to get what he wanted in large measure because he made it a personal issue, he doesn't delegate." When you hear a description of the behavior of the Secretary of Defense such as that, are you nervous or delighted? Eliot?

Eliot Cohen: Well, you can never tell what official he's quoting. It could be a janitor in the Pentagon. It could be an Under-Secretary of Defense. I think there's something to it. Part of what you're seeing is a particular management style. He's very tough and demanding although on the other hand, one has to say it's interesting, you know, you haven't seen any generals fired. And if we can trust the newspaper accounts which sometimes I do and sometimes I don't, it doesn't really look as if they've rammed any, radically different plans down the military's throat. then if you look at things like procurement, they really haven't changed things very dramatically. So I think what Rumsfeld has done is he has been a tough civilian leader…

Peter Robinson: So what sense of it do you have?

David Kennedy: I agree with that. I think this is, to a degree, I use the term advisedly, it's a kind of rhetorical posturing to assert the point that civilian leadership is superior to the military organization over which it has command. But substantively I think Eliot's quite right that we yet to see any evidence that he really has had to break any legs or force any actions on the military that they are deeply opposed to do. But I think establishing the principle is absolutely necessary.

Eliot Cohen: I should just say I think it's very, very difficult for a civilian leader to really force the military to do something they don't want to do. And in a way, I think makes Roosevelt's decision about North Africa really quite remarkable.

Peter Robinson: Eliot you write, "Nations are ruled by words." Churchill is in the House of Commons several times a week during the war informing commons on the disposition of forces, what is expected next, what the enemy is up to. FDR in his fireside chats is very frequently bringing the American public along, letting them know what's happening, what to expect. How is George W. Bush doing in that regard?

David Kennedy: Well, I think in this regard he had one great moment which was the speech to the country of the Joint Session of Congress immediately after September 11…

Peter Robinson: September 21st as I recall.

David Kennedy: …2001 which was a marvelous rhetorical exercise I think in explaining what had happened and what response would be made to it. I'm not so sure I give him such high marks for what he's done since particularly all the various alternative rationales that have been offered for the initiative with respect to Iraq. I detect out there in the country at large continuing confusion about exactly what is at stake with respect to Iraq and exactly what is the relationship between the Iraqi matter and the terrorism question that hangs over us all. So I think there's quite a bit to be desired there.

Peter Robinson: Eliot?

Eliot Cohen: I very much agree with that. There's need for a lot more speechmaking. You know, the word "rhetoric" now has a pejorative connotation. It's actually something that's indispensable to civilized democratic life I think.

Peter Robinson: Last question, draw from your historical knowledge, figures of cases and give me one sentence of advice for George W. Bush as a war leader. David?

David Kennedy: Talk straight and teach the country.

Peter Robinson: Eliot?

Eliot Cohen: Don't be afraid to probe.

Peter Robinson: Eliot Cohen, David Kennedy, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.