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Supreme Command:

Soldiers, Statemen, and Leadership in Wartime

Bibliographic Content

Eliot A. Cohen


Anchor Books

Kindle, Hardback (320 pgs), Audiobook (10hrs:46min)

Synopsis from Author

The orthodoxy regarding the relationship between politicians and military leaders in wartime democracies contends that politicians should declare a military operation's objectives and then step aside and leave the business of war to the military. In this timely and controversial examination of civilian-military relations in wartime democracies, Eliot A. Cohen chips away at this time-honored belief with case studies of statesmen who dared to prod, provoke, and even defy their military officers to great effect.

Using the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion to build his argument, Cohen offers compelling proof that, as Clemenceau put it, “War is too important to leave to the generals.” By examining the shared leadership traits of four politicians who triumphed in extraordinarily varied military campaigns, Cohen argues that active statesmen make the best wartime leaders, pushing their military subordinates to succeed where they might have failed if left to their own devices. Thought provoking and soundly argued, Cohen's Supreme Command is essential reading not only for military and political players but also for informed citizens and anyone interested in leadership.

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Supreme Command, soldiers, statesmen, wartime, Cohen, Eliot A. Cohen, War Is My Business

“The relations between statesmen and soldiers in wartime offer a special case of this phenomenon. Many senior leaders in private life must manage equally senior professionals who have expertise and experience that dwarf their own, but politicians dealing with generals in wartime face exceptional difficulties. The stakes are so high, the gaps in mutual understanding so large, the differences in personality and background so stark, that the challenges exceed anything found in the civilian sector - which is why, perhaps, these relationships merit close attention not only from historians and students of policy, but from anyone interested in leadership at its most acutely difficult.”

Since Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesman, and Leadership in Wartime deals with the relationship between those that lead the whole - civilian leadership - and some of its highly technical and critical departments - military - then naturally those owners and executives that manage highly complex and departmentalized organizations will find value in this book. Additionally, if you lead or manage a highly technical or otherwise complex department - a department whose systems and processes may perplex superiors: such as R&D, engineering, legal, etc. - then you too may find value. Especially in how we can be so focused on our limited scopes to see the potential issues that are adjacent to our own - issues that the higher-ups may see.

Summary of Book from War Is My Business

Supreme Command by Eliot A. Cohen is a book that addresses the civil-military relations. It is more than just another contribution to the topic because it provides an argument that has put itself in direct conflict with our understanding of the "normal" theory of civil-military relations put forth by Samuel P. Huntington's The Soldier and the State.  While the "normal" theory of civil-military relations sees a distinct and separate military - apolitical and unhindered by politicians - Cohen's perspective is one in which senior civilian leaders intelligently intervening in military affairs is essential to achieving the political ends of warfare. That, though the military desires to stay out of politics, it is nonetheless a tool of the political will of the state.

He justifies his position through an in-depth assessment of the performance of four different senior civilian leaders and their handling of their respective conflicts.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

United States President

during the American Civil War

Georges Clemenceau

Georges Clemenceau

French Premier

during the First World War

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

British Prime Minister

during the Second World War

David Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion

Israeli Prime Minister

during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War

Cohen identified various capabilities that led these men to foster effective civil-military engagements. Each one of the leaders had their own unique conditions that they had to contend. Still, even with different challenges, their handling of senior military leaders, shaping of national strategy, and ability to define the bigger picture led to success. We would like to discuss five of their shared capabilities, and later show how business leaders can model themselves for a more powerful presence.

1)Acceptable Losses

These men could see the bigger picture and identified when military imperatives were of a secondary concern to political ones. A military is an apolitical tool. Meaning that while it strives to avoid being drawn into the bigger political argument - that all nations have - it can't be anything other than an instrument of policy. It is reluctant to be a part of it since it finds its primary purpose to be solely in military affairs. Therefore, they will generally provide the military assessment on policy decisions and courses of action that only offer a perceived benefit to the security of the state; as far as military affairs are concerned.

These leaders understood that a whole-of-government approach is necessary to achieve national ends. Sometimes civilian leaders must override military advice and execute a decision that may not benefit, or even hurt the military instrument - favoring one of the other national instruments of power.

"Lincoln had to educate his generals about the purposes of the war and to remind them of its fundamental political characteristics. He had not merely to create a strategic approach to war, but to insist that the generals adhere to it."

2)Military Details

These leaders were avid students of military affairs. More than merely being passive listeners in discussions on military matters, they sought to become engaged in conversation and contribute to helping build a greater understanding of the military perspective - allowing them to better fit it into the array of political instruments at their disposal.

They became interested in the finer details of military operations, weapons procurement, training and organization of units, logistical support of sustained operations, etc. To them, they couldn't effectively use a tool they didn't understand, so they sought to educate themselves. This, in turn, allowed them to animate the other resources of their nations to support military requirements more effectively.

“Lincoln studying treatises on war and poring over every telegram coming into the War Department; Clemenceau visiting the front lines and talking to soldier and general alike, even under fire; Churchill ceaselessly probing and interrogating his chiefs of staff; Ben-Gurion patiently copying in his voluminous diaries every detail down to the last bullet - these men understood that they could not lead if they did not know an enormous amount about the business of war.”

3)Military Interpreters

Leaders can't be experts in every instrument at their disposal, and the complexity of the military - its structure, capabilities, technical and tactical aspects - is impossible to master. Even for military leaders who have dedicated their lives to the profession, there are areas in which they are ignorant. These leaders learned a lot on their own, but for the rest, they had trusted military assistants that could bridge the knowledge and familiarity gap.

These assistants helped translate the jargon of senior military leaders. They could navigate these complex organizations to find the points of contact to answer inquiries. They had a rapport with branch chiefs, service secretaries, combatant leaders, and more. When the civilian leader stepped out, these assistants could work behind the scenes tying up loose ends and continuing the dialogue to keep engagement constant.

"In the shadow of each of these figures stood a military interpreter - a Halleck, a Mordacq, an Ismay, and a Yadin - who had several features in common with his counterparts: they were highly intelligent, even bookish; highly literate, able to communicate clearly in writing; they had no strongly held political views; they had no (or had given up) aspirations to high field command; they were on decent, if not always intimate terms with other generals."

4)Dominate Conversation

Most in the government would not question the importance of civilian control of the military. Still, many acquiesce in the discussion of military matters over concern for overstepping their bounds into subjects they have no input. But these leaders did just that, not in the sense of dictating every tactical employment of forces within military operations - though it happened on a few occasions - but in the domination in conversations regarding policy, strategy, and military affairs. They understood that in many instances, the military leaders do know a lot more about military realities than civilian leaders do. Still, the civilian leader is ultimately responsible for shaping the military strategy that they will follow. That strategy must be unified with the other instruments of power and nested with a national strategy in order to achieve desired ends. They would heed the advice of military leaders and pay them great mind, but ultimately they would not buckle to pressures because - as stated before - sometimes military imperatives must come second to other political ones of greater importance. Additionally, they would readdress issues with military leaders as campaigns unfolded, and new information or changes in the operational environment became known.

“And in wartime in particular civilians are often too insecure about their knowledge, too fearful of public opinion, and too overawed by their military’s expertise to exercise much control at all.”

5)Explain the Situation to the People

It is up to the civilian leadership to express military realities, and these leaders were effective in communicating this to their people. They were able to justify the actions that their military had to take - or didn't take - to meet campaign objectives. They were able to communicate this in a way that their people could understand; even in the complex nature and uncertainty of warfare, they could get the people on board with a shared understanding of the realities facing them. This is because they had a comprehensive understanding of the problems in front of them- a direct result of the four capabilities mentioned above.

“The thick volumes of speeches by these war leaders reveal an interesting fact: the celebrated passages familiar to all are but a tiny fraction of the work. To a far greater extent than television-driven politicians today, these men used the spoken word to explain, at great length and in sometimes surprising detail, the meaning and course of their war.”

He proposes the Unequal Dialogue, a topic discussed in James M. Dubik’s Just War Reconsidered who had applied Cohen's perspective towards the ethical waging of conflict, which requires constant dialogue between senior civilian and military leaders in the development of strategy and policy. It allows for intelligent interference by those civilians into the sphere of military affairs, and these capabilities allowed them to do it well. Cohen's take on civil-military relations, some may say, is going against Huntington’s view, but I suppose it may be more conditional on which to use.

If the civilian leadership is well educated and motivated in military matters - as the leaders mentioned earlier - then Cohen's position works better. Still, if the leader is disengaged or ignorant, they may harm national strategy, and it would be best to provide the military greater autonomy - Huntington's perspective. Ideally, it should be evident that we want our leadership to understand their military instrument regardless of whether they follow the Huntington or the Cohen view. Still, if they are, then Cohen is best.

Supreme Command for Business

Taking Cohen's examples into mind, we have parallels by which we can shape business leadership. Understanding that a nation and its military are akin to large businesses and their technical departments, we can see how the above five capabilities can apply.

For owners and executives with technical/critical departments:

  • You must understand the bigger picture and figure out how all your departments fit into it. You have a business plan, and you need to stick to it since it should be unifying the efforts of all the elements of your business towards the desired end. Though technical/critical departments are merely means to that end, and their requirements, real or imagined, can't be allowed to derail the overall plan. Sometimes they may need to take the hit for the benefit of the business, though when you get to these points, it may be wise to reassess your plan to see if it needs to be adjusted for new market conditions.

  • Understanding the operations and requisites of these departments is paramount to proper engagements with them and the shaping of courses of action towards your desired end. It helps you in the first point since it will provide you an understanding of what their actual imperatives are, therefore, the limits of how much they can sacrifice for the benefit of the business and where they may need additional support to function efficiently. Study their ways, systems, and processes, observe their functions in action, probe and inquire as to why they do what they do.

  • Gain the support or befriend those that share technical expertise in those departments. Trying to do this within the organizational structure of the business may spawn rumors of favoritism, but if the budget allows for technical assistants, you may be able to produce a personal staff that can engage the departments in this matter. At the very least, become cordial with the department heads as a whole, and in this way, they may make the extra effort to support you if they feel that you do have their interests in mind - even when you have to act against their interests.

  • You - or someone you act on behalf of - are the ones who have the authority to make decisions and dictate policy. The one with the executive authority to do so should be the one taking the lead in dialogue. You don't need to be the one talking the most, but you must be the one to ensure it stays on topic - that it brings up all the essential points so that the group hits all the subjects you need to make a future decision. You need to reel in those that try to hijack the conversation - control the audience as required - but avoid hindering open and candid discussion (i.e., don't kill the messenger).

  • Speak to your people and your customer-base discussing your business' current operations. While successes are great to promote, don't forget to bring up the setbacks and courses of action that some may see as unpopular. The first reason is that it shows that you are aware of the issues and have taken them into account. The second, and arguably most important, is that it allows you to control the narrative - just as these leaders did, and just as social-media savvy businesses do.

For those managers or team leads within, or in charge of, highly technical or complex departments:

  • All departments of a business are necessary - just to varying degrees. Sometimes the needs of another department will require sacrifices of yours and understand that owners and executives will need to balance resources and attention to support the whole endeavor.

  • Your department is may be complex, and your profession may be equally difficult to fathom. Understand that those that need to make whole-of-business decisions may not be able to comprehend your imperatives as much as you do. Help them out by providing jargon-free updates and infographics that simplify your metrics so that they can act on the information your people generate.

  • Work with the assistants of owners and executives to facilitate future engagements and keep owners abreast of your undertakings. If they are engaged with you and have the competence necessary to understand what you bring to the business, then they can help set the conditions needed for fruitful dialogue in the future.

  • Naturally, the bosses have the final say in everything since they are charged with the direction that the business takes. That isn't to say that you shouldn't give advice based on the needs of your department, just understand that they will have a requirement to control the dialogue - to keep it moving forward to a timely and complete conclusion.

  • When the leadership tries to explain the needs of the business, it will behoove you to help as necessary to provide informative, yet digestible, information that they can present to various audiences. Make yourself available speak on behalf of topics that are in your lane, and in-line with the ends your bosses are trying to achieve.


Eliot A. Cohen's Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime provides a new and valuable perspective on civil-military relations - a perspective that has parallels for large and departmentalized businesses. It has had an impact on contemporary discussions on how the relationship between the civilian government and the military should be and has provided it provides counters to many of the arguments that favor the "normal" theory put forth by Huntington.

Because Cohen's perspective is so crucial to the topic, it is continuously referenced in current discussions and serves as a valuable reference and addition to your library. The book is inexpensive, and the audiobook version is enjoyable. If you are interested in civil-military affairs, and you are involved in business leadership, then I would advise picking this up.

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