Supreme Command | Eliot A. Cohen

Summary of: Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime
By: Eliot A. Cohen


Embark on an insightful journey into wartime leadership and the intricate relationship between politicians and military leaders, as presented in Eliot A. Cohen’s book, ‘Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime’. Dive deeper into the profoundly different demands of politics, business, and the military, discovering how exceptional statesmen like Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben Gurion succeeded, in part, by defying conventional wisdom and managing military affairs directly. This book summary sheds light on the critical role politics play in effective war management and powerfully argues that war is not just a military enterprise, but a political one.

Leadership in Politics, Business and Military

Leaders in different fields may possess varying skills, and success in one field does not guarantee success in another. The relationship between military and civilian leadership is often a topic of debate. Political scientist Samuel Huntington believed that military leaders should be called upon only in emergencies, and the rest of the time, politicians should not interfere. However, the greatest war statesmen of the past two centuries, such as Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben Gurion, did not adhere to this theory. They recognized that war is not only a military enterprise but a political instrument, requiring the intimate involvement of politicians in every aspect of war. These leaders were attentive to details, technology, and were ruthless in their approach. Ultimately, their success derived from their ability to lead democracies in the era of ‘total war.’

Lincoln’s Commanding Mind

Abraham Lincoln proved to be an exceptional commander-in-chief during the US Civil War, despite lacking military experience. He trusted the judgment of his generals, especially Ulysses Grant, but remained intimately involved in the war’s execution. Lincoln knew his generals’ capabilities and shortcomings, and was able to unite the fractious and jealous military leaders into an effective team. He spent long hours in the War Department’s telegraph room, reading messages from the front and keeping abreast of the rapidly changing military technologies. Lincoln’s guiding principles were to restore the Union without expanding slave territory, to keep the sympathy of pro-Union but slave-holding states, and to avoid risking the intervention of European powers. He emancipated slaves to exploit anti-slavery sentiment overseas and to keep Britain and France from aiding the South. The most effective way to win the war was to multiply offensives around the South, rather than achieving a single dramatic victory. Lincoln’s discipline and insight into warfare and statecraft proved his commanding mind.

George Clemenceau: The Leader Who Never Left War to the Generals

At the age of 76, Georges Clemenceau took real power in France amidst a crisis in 1917. He managed two fierce, mutually antagonistic generals and an aggregation of allies while insisting on getting a first-hand view of action at the front. By walking around and talking to his soldiers, he addressed issues that made a big difference in morale. He never left war to the generals, choosing between strategies and tactics advanced by his generals and even purging the Sixth Army’s leadership. Despite the opposition of Ferdinand Foch, Clemenceau made peace on terms he could achieve. Many war chiefs came away nursing bruises from dealing with Churchill, but Clemenceau stood firm, walking among his men and making sure that the generals’ plans never lost sight of the soldiers on the ground.

Churchill’s War Statesmanship

Churchill’s involvement in military tactics was exemplary, and his ability to manage generals and alliances noteworthy. He believed war to be a political undertaking.

Winston Churchill’s personality was unique, but when it came down to civil-military relations, he was exceptional. Churchill dived into the details of military tactics, strategy, and technology, incurring the wrath of his generals as a result. He challenged his officers and questioned them rigorously. He appreciated even the generals who vocally disagreed with him, as long as they weren’t fools, and argued back. In Churchill’s view, War statesmanship focused on a range of considerations and calculations that those on the lower levels of government could not fully understand.

Churchill saw war as art. Being an extraordinary amateur artist, he understood that both art and war needed to coordinate details under the discipline of a grand theme. He played a complicated game, managing not just his generals but an unwieldy alliance of cultures and personalities as different as those of de Gaulle, Roosevelt, and Stalin.

David Ben-Gurion had very little military experience when he became Commander-in-Chief, which might have seemed unsuitable for the job, according to Churchill. Churchill constantly monitored the actions of his generals and questioned their decisions. In a remarkable instance, he demanded that the Army Council overturn its ruling that forbade regimental patches on uniforms. Churchill recognized the advantage of these patches to morale and berated the Army Council for a decision that, although seemingly minor, could have significant implications for morale and political cohesion. For Churchill, war was above all a political undertaking.

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