Supreme Command - Notes

The book is an examination on civil military relations in war and their impact on grand strategy. A story told through the examples of Lincoln, Clemenceau Churchill and Ben Gurion.  Its lessons are at least as much about effective executive leadership as they are about military strategy.

All 4 of these Statesmen were maverick leaders in their own way and all are seen as exceptional in historical terms.  No attempt to emulate a particular leaders style or personality will bear much fruit but understanding what they did and why as leaders is instructive. As Kissinger remarked ‘Great men are so rare, they take some getting used to.’

Lincoln, far more clearly than his generals understood the Strategy necessary to win the war. He was burdened by a great number of weak commanders and not until Grant takes over in the East does Lincoln finally have the right team in the traces. This is only a part of the story though and underappreciates how involved Lincoln was in shaping the thinking and actions of his senior military commanders. His correspondence frequent visits in depth interrogations and use of special envoys were all essential in this.  Lincoln was really the finest strategist on either side in the civil war as he most clearly understood the relationship between pollical end and objectives and military means.

George Clemenceau took over as French prime Minister in 1917 after the disasters of Verdun and with Russia now out of the war.

From Jan 1918 on average Clemenceau spent 1 day in every 7 visiting the front lines often within machine gun range of the German lines.

He had 2 very different senior commanders in Petain and Foch who he had to balance.

‘Much of leadership is knowing whom to encourage, whom to restrain, whom to select and whom to replace.’

Churchill as Prime Minster was sceptical of the military bureaucracy, ‘You may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman, and the most audacious solider, put them at a table together, what do you get? The sum of all their fears!’

His experience from WW1 was that it was the failure of political leadership to deal effectively with Lord Kitchener in the early years of the war because they were not prepared to put military subordinates under pressure for their views. ‘The whole habit of a military staff is based on subordination of opinion’.

Churchill in common with all these statesmen had a huge capacity for detail which in no small part he used in a continuous audit of the militaries judgement. He never over ruled the chiefs on a purely military matter but kept up incessant close questioning of their assumptions and arguments.

‘Churchills cardinal political virtue was his ability to touch the hearts of men and women with words that reflected his own unique and indomitable spirit.’

Ben-Gurion also a relentless prober. He ran what came to be known as the seminar a process of understanding the capabilities of the underground Jewish Haganah and how it needed to evolve into a national defence force, capable of detering and defeating hostile Arab States.

‘The most dangerous enemy to Israel’s security is the intellectual inertia of those who are responsible for security.’


2nd part of the book looks at more recent US examples of where civil military relations in strategy have failed in part though lack of statesmen ship. In both Vietnam and in the 1st Gulf War the generals are arguably allowed too much influence with their plans and thinking uncritically accepted – strong echoes here for the British and their involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan!