A few days ago


A few days ago I did a post about a book called Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime. It’s by a guy named Eliot Cohen. And the book played a key role in the debate last year over the relationship between the civilians and the military at the Pentagon. In that post I wrote …

The thesis of Eliot’s book is that the best wartime leaders are those who heavily involve themselves in military planning. They don’t just leave it to the generals. They question and prod and, when needed — and that’s fairly often — overrule them. A key premise of Cohen’s argument is that generals and admirals are often overly risk-averse, trapped in the thinking of the last war, and sometimes overly devoted to the institutional agendas of their particular service.

Cohen sent me an email in which he said the following …

If you are going to quote me … would you kindly do so correctly? You recently declared that my book, SUPREME COMMAND has as its thesis the argument that competent statesmen “question and prod and, when needed — and that’s fairly often — overrule them [their generals].”

You admit that that’s an oversimplification. Its not. Its a misrepresentation.
Check out the final chapter (and note its title), “The Unequal Dialogue” “Interestingly
enough, none of these men [Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, Ben Gurion] dictated
to their subordinates. They might coax or bully, interrogate or probe, but
rarely do we see them issuing orders or acting like a generalissimo.” “Rarely” doesn’t
mean “fairly often.” p. 208.

It seems to me that you owe me a correction, preferably by publishing this email.

Eliot Cohen

Here’s my response.

My description was based on my recollection of the book from almost a year ago. That is my recollection. But Cohen has a quote which belies a key part of that recollection — namely, the frequency with which civilian leaders actually do or should overrule their generals, as opposed to jawbone and coax and prod and so forth. So I went back and reread my notes, and interviews I did with others in which Cohen’s book came up, and reviews of Cohen’s book.

Having done that, I have to concede that my sense of the book was likely colored by conducting those subsequent interviews and reading those subsequent reviews.

Now, having said that, I think I was right about the role Cohen’s book played in the debate over the last year between Rumsfeld’s advocates and those of the Joint Chiefs and Joint Staff. The book was used as cover for those who thought the civilians at the Pentagon should feel a wide latitude in overruling their military subordinates. (For more on what I mean by this, see the original post.)

But how others interpreted or misinterpreted Cohen’s book is a separate issue and in my post I said what Cohen’s thesis actually was. I haven’t gone back and reread the whole book, but based on my conversation with Cohen I think I probably did overstate a key element of his argument — namely the frequency with which great civilian wartime leaders have, or should, dictate policy to their generals. So, Mr. Cohen, please consider the correction issued.

P.S. Now that I’ve been set straight on this frequency issue, the following occurs to me: If Don Rumsfeld had read Cohen’s book a bit more closely, maybe we wouldn’t be in this jam either …