Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine
“in the end, war will be waged by politicians and generals (and admirals) and the troops they command, and military operations will continue to have political implications.”
War, the great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote, is very simple, but in war even the simplest things are difficult. Lawrence Freedman, the Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College and the author of books on war and strategy, in his new book Command takes a Clausewitzian approach to the study of several post-World War II military operations.
Freedman uses as case studies the Korean War, the first Indochina War, the Franco-Algerian War, the 1971 India-Pakistan War, civil war in the Congo, Arab-Israeli conflicts, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Falkland Islands War, the Kosovo War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Russian military interventions in Chechnya and Ukraine. To his credit, he doesn’t try to pigeonhole these very different military conflicts into neat categories. Instead, he analyzes and assesses the political and operational aspects of each conflict.
The author writes with authority on several of these conflicts, having been the official historian of the Falklands Campaign and serving as a member of the official inquiry into Britain’s actions during the 2003 Iraq War. Freedman’s focus is on the military commanders and their interaction with political leaders, bureaucratic chains of command, and subordinate officers. As he notes, “these are stories marked by high drama, with clashes of personalities, intense arguments and high emotions.”
Freedman approaches each military clash sui generis, setting forth the nature of the conflicts, the strengths and weaknesses of the competing commanders, political leaders and political systems, and the civil-military relationships involved on each side. He writes about the various commanders and the issues they faced in their respective conflicts with a refreshing directness, noting the super-sized egos of most commanders and the differences between commanders with combat experience, those with administrative talents, and others with scholarly credentials.
He also explores the differences between serving as commanders in a democracy and in a dictatorship. Command failures in democracies can and do get you fired. Command failures in dictatorships can get you shot. Commanders in democracies feel freer to argue with political leaders than do commanders in dictatorships. And the relative stability of the state in which the commander operates also impacts their ability to succeed.
Most of Freedman’s assessments are conventional, as when he sides with President Harry Truman over Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Korean War; or praises President Kennedy for his prudent handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the face of criticism from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commanders at sea; or when he criticizes American commanders for letting Osama Bin Laden escape early in the Afghan War; or when he faults Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for micromanaging the war in Iraq.
Perhaps the most innovative parts of the book are Freedman’s analyses of less well-known wars and commanders, such as the Congo’s civil war in the mid-1960s that featured Cuban intervention and the appearance of Che Guevara; the commanders in the Russian-Chechnya War; and the Indian and Pakistani generals who fought in the 1971 war.
Freedman concludes the book by addressing what he calls the “changing character of command” in the 21st century. Space, cyber, and information warfare have been added to land, sea, and air campaigns. Military bureaucracies have grown larger and more complex. Artificial intelligence may lessen the “fog” of war. But in the end, war will be waged by politicians and generals (and admirals) and the troops they command, and military operations will continue to have political implications. The exercise of command will continue to be a human agency that reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the men and women who are selected to command.