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Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime
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Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime

3.94  ·  Rating Details ·  466 Ratings  ·  36 Reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published September 9th 2003 by Anchor (first published 2002)
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Mar 16, 2008 Art rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Eliot Cohen has an impressive background in policy work (OSD) and academia (Naval War College and Harvard). I had high hopes for this book because I thought his experience with the military combined with his academic work would produce a focused and well-grounded work. I was disappointed. I never really bought his argument that political leaders can lead war better than generals. He seemed to cherry pick leaders than fit his mold. I could not believe that someone who works so closely with the mi ...more
Dec 06, 2008 Eric rated it liked it
Nice as a refutation piece against Huntington, however it still leaves open the question of under what conditions civilian meddling will lead to optimal (or at least non-sub-optimal) outcomes
Dave Beeman
Jun 09, 2017 Dave Beeman rated it really liked it
This book takes on the task of defining civilian-military relationships in time of conflict and then uses Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenecau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion as four case studies looking at their leadership styles. He then compares these styles with leaders involved in the conflicts in Vietnam, Kosovo, the Persian Gulf and Iraq. He finishes off with a look at various theories floating around about the proper relationships between the civilian master and the servant milit ...more
Darren Burton
Sep 12, 2012 Darren Burton rated it it was amazing
The author makes a compelling arguement for the necessity of politicians to become intimately involved in every aspect of the warmaking process. Using four examples of excellent democratic leadership of the military during wartime: Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion. These four break the current "normal theory of civil-military relations," which holds that civilian leaders should set political goals and leave the details of implementation to the military.

"Historical judgement of war
Dec 19, 2016 Myles rated it really liked it
In "Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime" scholar Eliot Cohen asks what is it that distinguishes great leadership when war threatens annihilation to an idea, a country, a history, a people.

Think about it for a minute.

What would it mean if you and your neighbours, your home, your city, everything you know were threatened by a menace like Hitler and the German war machine?

Do you think you would be protected by the professional class of killers that is your military?

In th
Cooper Cooper
Aug 18, 2009 Cooper Cooper rated it really liked it
Supreme Command profiles the four men—Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion—that Eliot Cohen considers the best civilian war leaders of modern democracies. Cohen’s thesis runs against the conventional wisdom, which has it that the civilian leader should make policy but leave the military strategy and tactics to the generals. On the contrary, says Cohen, the best civilian leaders continually meddle in military matters because often the political and the military are inextricable, the gene ...more
Jedi Kitty
Oct 11, 2014 Jedi Kitty rated it it was ok
Overall, I found this to be just detailed enough to make me feel clueless, but not detailed enough to help me understand anything. While I disliked reading most of it (the biographical sections, and the brief discussions of Vietnam and Desert Storm), I did find the final chapters and the appendix useful and interesting. The early chapters were too cursory to learn anything or to take too seriously, but the final chapters were a little more theory-focused and questioning.

It's a big stretch to co
Aug 14, 2012 Cristine rated it did not like it
The portions of the book covering Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion are worth reading as is the chapter on Unequal Dialogue. I thought the trait analysis of these 4 men was thought provoking--the author's conclusion that they behaved in moderation and could be ruthless, was interesting and accurate based on the content of the book.

However, the rest of the book is disappointing. What is most troubling was the comparison between "normal" civil military relations with the "Clausewitzian
Nov 19, 2016 John rated it really liked it
Eliot Cohen, an academic and civil servant, examines four civilian leaders and how they directed the military during time of war. He studies Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion and how they each brought different styles to leadership. He also goes into instances since the Second World War in which the relationship between the military and the civilians was lacking, and how it affected policy.

I don't really want to go into too much detail, only to point out that this book is the most
Choong Chiat
Apr 15, 2011 Choong Chiat rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In this book, the author has, mainly through discussing the experiences of Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion, put forward a clear and convincing case on the need for political leaders, especially during times of war, to be personally involved, at least in a supervisory role, in the conduct of warfare, in light of how warfare can be seen to be the continuation of policy/politics by military means (cf. Clausewitz). As Clemenceau had astutely put it, "war is too important to be left to ...more
May 28, 2007 Adam rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: poli-sci
I had mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, in the first several chapters Cohen gives brief, excellent, intriguing war-time histories of four great leaders - Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion. I thoroughly enjoyed his accounts, though at times wondered just how obsessed Cohen is with these figures. On the other hand, Cohen used these narratives to put forth his own theory of civil-military relations, which relies on strong civilian leadership, to the point of involvement a ...more
Jun 26, 2011 Andrew rated it it was amazing
Incisive. Part of the book is mandatory reading for the Army War College. Cohen takes traditional notions of the relationship between the military and the civilian government and turns them on their head in a very convincing manner. He does so by examining Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion and their control during war. Cohen makes a great argument about how the relationship between a civilian leader and his generals should work--but his ideal only seems to work if there's a someone ...more
Jun 30, 2014 Rick rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not a bad treatment of civ-mil relations, though his arguments in chapter 6 are sometimes contradictory to his thesis. For example, he chides Bush I for terminating the Gulf War when his conditions were met without a more decisive defeat of the Iraqi army, whereas he lauds David Ben-Gurion for his "moderation" in not pursuing a victory that resulted in more territory in Israel's war of independence. Cohen is also overly generous of SecDef Rumsfeld's leadership in stark contrast to the contrary w ...more
Feb 21, 2009 Glen rated it liked it
It was an interesting premise, but there were a few lapses of logic. It's easy to make the case that civilians should have intimate control of the military (down to the tactical level) when you look at four of the greatest statesmen in recent history, who were on the right side of history and also happened to have studied enough to be tactical experts. However, there are plenty of cases where civilian meddling in tactical affairs led to disaster. I believe civilians should stay at the strategic ...more
Cohen takes a look at the "normal" & "good" relationship between senior military advisorys and generals and their civilian counterparts. He picks apart the assumptions that the politicians should stay out of the details and leave the fighting to the generals by highlighting the examples of Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion.

Why I started this book: We just got the audio at the library and the cover looked good.

Why I finished it: It was a good reminde
Sep 29, 2016 Relstuart rated it really liked it
Fantastic book that asks the question about whether the normal theory of how political leaders and military leaders is the best theory? Normal theory is that after the politicians give the order for the war they should then step back and let the military handle things. The author looks at the example of four leaders: Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion and how they handled their role as the civilian leader of the nation with their military commanders.

I've read a great deal of books t
Alex Crowther
An excellent book by Eliot Cohen on civil-military relations and the roles that both military and civilian leaders play at the strategic level. This is particularly important in the 21st century US, as civilian leaders seem to have essentially handed strategy over to the military, who then don't have strategic guidance on what objectives they need to achieve. So the US military ends up doing operations for the sake of operations, with no linkage to strategic political objectives. Perhaps this is ...more
Sep 11, 2012 Nate rated it really liked it
An interesting study of 4 war leaders: Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion. Cohen's thesis runs counter to what he labels the "normal" theory of civil-military relationships or the general idea that war should be left to the professionals (generals). Cohen expanded my view of civil military relations. Although, I am not sure that these 4 examples invalidate the "normal" theory of Civ-Mil relationships, he does make a good argument for civilian intervention in war is beneficial if exec ...more
Oct 29, 2016 Kathryn rated it liked it
An interesting take on how four successful wartime statesman from democracies - Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion - actively challenged and directed their military subordinates. Using these case studies, Cohen refutes the "normal" theory of civil-military relations that civilian leaders should have limited control over military matters.

I read this for my military history class, and while it wasn't really my kind of book, "Supreme Command" is well-researched and persuasive. If milit
Nov 27, 2007 Michael rated it really liked it
the prose is not terribly elegant, and i would give it a lower rating except his often misunderstood thesis is of tremendous importance. this is not shakespeare but it is going to be read for a long time. while some have interpreted current events to be an indictment of his thesis, they in fact vindicated it. war is too important to be left to the generals, a president cannot merely be delegator in chief.
Feb 16, 2014 Ben rated it it was amazing
Compellingly written account that reinforces the need for active civilian control in the military. Cohen uses the examples of Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion to show how deceptively simple actions taken by leaders can result in significant military gains and puncture the reluctance to challenge "military expertise."
Bryan Craig
Sep 27, 2011 Bryan Craig rated it really liked it
Shelves: military-history
This was a very interesting book. Apparently George W. Bush read this amidst the Iraq war to get a better perspective as a leader, and I can see why. I would highly recommend this book for those interested in military history or leadership.
Oct 18, 2011 Mike rated it it was amazing
Shelves: military-science
This book was read by many in DC at the start of the Iraq war. It is a very good history of four famous leaders during pivotal wars. It is worth reading just for the analyksis of President Lincoln during the Civil War.
Michael Moyles
Jul 24, 2014 Michael Moyles rated it it was ok
A good book, but borderline special pleading. Cohen seems to have hand picked cases that support his he's is, rather than drawing his conclusion from a reasoned examination of the evidence. Either way, a good historical treatment and refreshing alternative to,standard Huntington.
Feb 14, 2013 Ryan rated it really liked it
Excellent. Historical case study done in the best possible way, mixed with a very strong literature review/theory chapter in the appendix. Ties together the commonalities of the four figures discussed in two final chapters. Very, very good.
Ellen Rutherford
Dec 15, 2015 Ellen Rutherford rated it really liked it
Detailed and thoughtful discussion on the topic. Examples are compelling, but there aren't enough of them to consider Cohen's theory much more than an interesting perspective at this point. Still, the alternative relationship dynamic he presents is one that probably deserves more discussion.
Matt Peterson
Apr 02, 2012 Matt Peterson rated it it was amazing
Shelves: leadership
I thought this was an excellent book. It looked at leaders not only from the U.S. but also England, France, and Israel and the problems/difficulties that they faced during their respective time.
Andrew Rosner
Fascinating look at the relationship between civilian leaders and the military. A reminder that statesmanship was once recognized as a virtue, although one is hard pressed to find it today.
Dec 02, 2014 Shad rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Some interesting history mixed with unconvincing analysis based on cherry picked examples (and cherry picked instances within those examples).
Brendan Mcbreen
May 06, 2014 Brendan Mcbreen rated it really liked it
A tremendously rich and balanced discussion on the benefits of civilian leadership over military forces. Cohen's Supreme Command should be read by both national leaders and military leaders.
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I am an academic who has been fortunate in many ways - beginning with my family, but to include teaching at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, the country's leading school of international relations; serving in government, most recently as Counselor of the Department of State from 2007 to 2009; and having the freedom to move from political science, my original dis ...more
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