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Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  721 ratings  ·  51 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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Average rating 3.98  · 
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Mar 16, 2008 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
Nick Frazier
Jul 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book that straddles history and civ-mil relations. Only 240 pages and easy to read. Cohen draws upon history, the discussion of strategy (a theory of victory), and previous entries into civ-mil literature.

Cohen makes a strong argument for the role of an engaged civilian head of state participating and informing the role of the military throughout a war - a counter to Huntington "objective control" or the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine.

This is the third consecutive civ-mil book read after
Ian Constable
Jan 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed the history lesson and agree with the author’s opinion that political leaders must be closely tied in with their military leadership to gain better strategic results. At it’s heart, this book displays the value of invested leadership. Know your place as leader/manager and understand your subordinates’ jobs to the degree that you are able to not only employ them properly, but are able to scrutinize their results and reward or replace them accordingly.
There are methodological problems with what rules can be drawn from extraordinary cases. And perhaps more analysis of what the subordinates did or didn't do would be more informative. It's also almost impossible to take this book out of its own unique context and wonder if it wasn't too motivated by regret over the Persian Gulf War and enthusiasm for the Iraq war when the generals saw it differently.

Despite all of that, it is fertile ground for meditations on command, expertise, and democracy wh
Dec 06, 2008 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
Dennis Murphy
Oct 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Policy Makers, Students of Military Matters, and Historians
Recommended to Dennis by: Professor Mara Karlin and Wilfrid Kohl
Shelves: on-war
Supreme Command by Eliot Cohen is a difficult book for me to adequately judge as it is an answer to a question posed by a book I have not read. That book being the Soldier and the State, and its profound impact on the civilian military relations. This re-contextualizes my reading, as my understanding of it was in the past that Eliot Cohen was making such and such an argument, but it becomes a much better book when you think of it more as a case that something can be held up as a model as well.

James Harris
Feb 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
In 2002, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies released an oft discussed work on civil-military relations. Eliot Cohen’s Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime is a review of noteworthy case studies of four highly regarded statesmen as they led through conflict. Cohen is an American political scientist who received his B.A. in government and PhD in Political Science from Harvard University. He served as counselor to the US State Department ...more
Jan 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: listened-2020
Cohen provides an exceptional account of civil-military relations in his review of the wartime command of Lincoln, Clemenceu, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion. Cohen effectively shows how effective civilian commanders of national military forces make it a point to educate themselves on military operations and in exercising the responsibilities of command. Military failure comes when civilian oversight fails to hold the military accountable when it fails to achieve operational goals in support of the ul ...more
Jul 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Cohen is a wonderful writer, capable of distilling a great deal of information into a relatively small book -- without trivializing the subject. To be honest though, I think I need to give the last 1/3 of the book another read. For not all of us are wired to be the kind of incredible leaders that Churchill, Lincoln, Ben-Gurion, and Clemenceau were in their respective times. And in the absence of great statesmen, it's up to the rest of us to sort out how to best navigate the civil-military relati ...more
Invaluable Integrative primer for bewildered students

Highly recommended. My education as a social science researcher and extensive exposure to classics, political science and history was of little help in understanding warfare. Polybius, de Saxe, Xenophon, Clausewitz, peninsular war, naval history, phalanx, legions and horse culture, Keegan, VDH are all fascinating. This book, however, coherently interprets a carefully chosen selection of historical records which spans 2000 years. Excellent pre
Nov 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really liked this book. Cohen has a clear argument and really paints a picture for the reader. Perhaps, as a military reader, it was more comprehensible to me than perhaps other audiences. I can't judge that. However, I really thought it was accessible.

I am not savvy or well-read enough to really say whether Cohen's argument is correct or flawed. I need another read-through and I need to really dig deep into similar material and other arguments. It does initially ring true, though. It is well-
Ryan W.
Mar 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Eliot Cohen provides a look at four war statesmen: Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, & Ben-Gurion.

Overall, a very interesting read with pol-mil relations today as they are, many saying they changed, but Dr. Cohen provides a picture they are very much the same.

Using those four leaders he compares Vietnam and the Gulf War with increased power given to the CJCS, and wartime powers increasing (think COCOM’s) since the days of Lincoln.

One of my favorite quotes: “Serving as the catspaw of rival politici
Erik Parsons
Sep 06, 2019 rated it liked it
Full disclaimer: I listened to the audiobook. Supreme Command is an interesting book in that it looks at what makes a good leader during times of war. The author gives 4 different examples of leaders of countries during war time that he feels best encapsulates good leadership. Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion all had to deal with different obstacles/decisions that would heavily affect their nations future. Within all this however, the focus is on their ...more
Feb 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
To often we think of the wartime generals. Sometimes we should look at the political figureheads as well. This book does just that. Churchill, Lincoln, Clemenceau, and Ben Gurion. Some with combat experience. Some without. These leaders each have had numerous texts devoted to themselves, some I have already read. Some are on my never ending list. Each of these leaders directed their wars. Sometimes they relieved generals that would not envision their strategy. They tolerated disagreements with t ...more
David  Eastman
Sep 27, 2018 rated it liked it
Eliot Cohen clearly has an expert-level knowledge of global military and political history. The book uses four very different but successful statesmen to make Cohen's argument that in the interface of civil and military leadership in war, the more effective theory of war is a strong civilian leader who directs the military and not a strong military that once given the objective performs on its own. The book, I felt, could have been more compelling. The writing was technical and the argument came ...more
Allan Benson
Jan 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
Was a very good read, case studies on Churchill and David Ben Guerion were highly informative. Important that statesmen equip themselves with the knowledge and skill required to effectively and productively challenge senior leadership. They need to have an understanding of National Geopolitics, history, an understanding of all elements of national power and sufficient military technical knowledge to at least have a start point for discussions n with senior leadership. Most important in all of th ...more
Rob Gregg
Feb 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: army-war-college
required US Army War College book, Fantastic read
Michelle Halliwell
Jan 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
Reading this book is worth it because Cohen has a firm grasp of the interaction between military and civilian leadership. The section bout Winston Churchill alone makes it a worthwhile read.
Darren Burton
Sep 12, 2012 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
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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
Feb 21, 2009 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 reminder th
Jun 30, 2014 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
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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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