Military vs. political Leaders: a Critical Relationship

Military vs. political Leaders: a Critical Relationship

Assuming that both the military and political leaders assume their responsibilities and act in due time, we need to examine what is the proper degree of intervention from the civilian to the military rulers during a crisis or a war in order to discover the recipe of success.

“War is too important to be left to the generals”, remains Georges Clemenceau’s main contribution to the relation between the military and the political leaders in war time.[1] The Kaiser’s Chiefs are deemed responsible for mishandling the Sarajevo crisis and driving the Second Reich into the First World War. In general khakistocracy, a term used to define the military rule, usually with the help of the economic elite) over the civilian one is to blame for many historical disasters and thus it leads to kakistocracy, a system of government which is run by the least qualified citizens.

In democracies, the civilian rule over the military is one of the main prerequisites for the regime to be considered a democracy in the first place and the relation between military and political leaders is clearly defined. The political leaders choose, theoretically based on meritocracy, the best military leaders and give them the tools to guarantee the defense of the country and its sovereign rights. In reality, in all countries meritocracy is an unattainable aim and the tools are never given in full to the military leaders. Nonetheless, the real test as regards the relation between the two comes firstly in crises and secondly and most importantly in wartime.

Many times in history generals have been blamed for failing to understand the political implications of their actions and thus for losing a war. However, it would be an oversimplification to state that the political directions win the day. There is always the problem of avoiding or neglecting one’s responsibilities. Sometimes the Political Direction is really vague in the sense of giving directions like “win this war” or “defeat the enemy”. When the military fail to do so, or while doing so committing unethical actions the political leadership might refrain from taking any responsibility. Of course some military leaders try to have very clear orders from their political supervisors on any single detail in order to be able to blame others for any humiliating defeat. Some political or military leaders simply remain undecided and try to gain some time, but especially in crises and wars usually time is essential and is not an ally, it is an adversary.

Assuming that both the military and political leaders assume their responsibilities and act in due time, we need to examine what is the proper degree of intervention from the civilian to the military rulers during a crisis or a war in order to discover the recipe of success. In order to do so we will examine Lincoln in the Civil War and Venizelos in the First Balkan War as successful and the duet Lyndon B. Johnson and McNamara in the Vietnam War as unsuccessful wartime political leaders. We will also examine John F. Kennedy as a successful leader in handling a crisis (the Cuban Missiles’ one) contrasting him with Kaiser Wilhelm II who failed to do so, something which led to the First World War. Last but not least we will also deal with the special case of Winston Churchill, successful but certainly not an example to follow, since his relations with his military commanders was at best a strained one. The choice of leaders excludes not only the political leaders of non-democratic countries which is a sine qua-non, but also certain political leaders that have huge and respected military career as during World War II, Wladyslaw Sikorski, Ioannis Metaxas or Charles De Gaulle. For such leaders it is easier to intervene in military details, although most of them usually do not.

Starting with Lincoln, he had no military background whatsoever. He tried to follow the war to the last detail and used to discuss strategy with his military leaders. Most of his generals were of little or no value or in any case facing far better leadership from the Confederate side. Robert Lee or Stonewall Jackson had no par in the numerous McClellans, Buells or Burnsides of the Union. Lincoln had to fire many of his generals and should not be blamed for doing so. He also overruled his senior military advisers in order to achieve his political aim and this is actually how the Civil War started since Lincoln insisted on non-evacuating the isolated garrison of Fort Sumter. Lincoln used to receive and send in the days of battle as many as 10-15 messages to his generals, thus partly directing or at least influencing the conduct of the battle himself. What is the lesson learned from Lincoln’s case? Stating clearly one’s political aims (not firing the first shot and not allowing any external support) and military aims (crushing the army of the adversary, not capturing its capital city or decapitating its leadership, attacking simultaneously on all fronts)[2]. Then, the political leader gives a “carte blanche” to the military, only when he finds a general that is on the same wave length and completely understands and supports the aforementioned aims.

The best example of a political leader that knew the level of pressure and control that he should put on the military leaders is probably the Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos in 1912 during the first Balkan War, which led to the liberation of half of Greece. Venizelos agreed with his Slav counterparts to enter the war because the Hellenic Fleet could stop the Ottoman one from bringing reinforcements to the Continent from Asia Minor and North Africa.[3] The Allies welcomed the proposal without reaching any prior agreement on the future of Macedonia in a silent first comes first keeps deal. Venizelos chose as the Commander of the Fleet Admiral Kountouriotis, an aggressive officer who had the exact same position as regards the naval strategy and a respective operational plan. He also gave an order to the Crown Prince who was leading the troops in land to move rapidly towards Thessaloniki. In that sense, as did Lincoln, he was also clear in his desired political end-state and he even intervened in order to see that the military campaign did not derail (there was a famous dilemma of the Greek Army to move towards Monastery – nowadays Bitola or Thessaloniki). What is even more important, when his Admiral was ordered by the War Minister to do something that would jeopardize his main mission and he refused to do so, Venizelos understood that the Admiral was right and that his military leader was actually keen on achieving the same political and military end-state. Therefore, he cancelled the order. Concluding, in Venizelos case we have an addition to our lessons learned. When the political leaders understand that their generals or admirals not only understand, but wholeheartedly embrace their political and military end-states, they should leave the war to the professionals.

On the other hand, the indecisive American President Lyndon Johnson and his flamboyant Minister of Defense, McNamara scrutinized the military plans, even checking the target list of the bombers during the Vietnam War. The detailed intervention was also a sign of mistrust towards their subordinates and it is true that they were no blame since their Chiefs and General Westmoreland who waged the war were constantly giving them unclear or even contradictory narratives. Who is then to blame for the failure? The answer is that, as you can see in the title of this presentation, the relationship between the Military High Command and the Political Direction is critical and it can be an effective Instrument if both parties play their role. In Vietnam, both the military and the political leaders failed to do so. In the end, the political leaders are to blame for not choosing the military leaders that can materialize their end-states. But did they have a clear one? The truth is that neither President Johnson, nor Bundy, nor McNamara believed in victory or had a clear idea what the end-state should look like, since South Vietnam had not demonstrated any will capacity to prevail against the North.[4]

In times of crises we can also trace this tension between the political and the military leadership. A classic example is the Cuban missile crisis. The options given to President John F. Kennedy were full scale invasion or air raids, risking or certainly bringing about a nuclear war.[5] The President through diplomatic pressure and a blockade, which he termed “quarantine” in order not to provoke a war, tried and in the end averted the collision course. The lesson learned from this case is that the military leaders should always have in mind how they can give a big palette of options to the political leader. They can provide the tools for escalation or de-escalation, they can try to be innovative and see how the armed forces can assist without provoking a war, unless this is the desired end-state by the political leader.

Sometimes the generals, drive the decision during a crisis towards war, leaving practically with no options the political leader. The most notorious example is the outbreak of World War I and the German military leadership attitude. Actually, the poor civil-military relations, the system of interlocking mobilizations and the rigidity of the war plans, which based their success on rapid offensive action, were among the main contributing factors for the outbreak of the war. The notorious “Fischer thesis” suggests that German domestic politics deliberately started the war in order to achieve “hegemony over Europe”.[6] Luigi Albertini notes that “in 1914 neither the Kaiser nor his Chancellor wanted a European war”.[7] The German generals should not be solely blamed either, since they face the possibility of a war in two fronts and their only hope to win it was through a lightning campaign against one of the two opponents (either Russia or France). Hence, they asked for a first strike and Kaiser concurred but up to the last moment it was Kaiser who mishandled the crisis, which led to the war. Prior to the war, I do not think that General Moltke the Younger won over Chancellor Bethmann, or that the General Staff dragged the Kaiser to war. The lesson learned is exactly the same as in the Kennedy case, this time proven by a failure and not a success.

Probably the most interesting case is Winston Churchill, because most of the suggestions that we made and the insights of other cases are negated. Churchill had a huge ego, his relationship with his generals was at best mediocre, never friendly and many times hostile, he had some unclear or even dangerous ideas and in the end he is the last candidate to be considered as an example of a wartime leader and definitely not someone to emulate in civil- military leadership working relations. “Winston had ten ideas every day, only one of which was good, and he did not know which it was”. This is the opinion of his Chief of Imperial General Staff and undoubtedly one of the best British generals and strategists, Alan Brooke.[8] Even his admirers like Eliot Cohen admit his instability, although they try to sugarcoat it and even his harsher critiques like John Chamley admit his genius, despite that they try to throw him off the pedestal of History.[9]   The success in the end was due to this strange relationship between the two men. Brooke completely understood and tried to adhere to the political imperatives of Churchill’s grand strategy, while never accepting or following an order that he thought useless and dangerous. It was not the disagreement between the two men, but the disagreement that brought up success. Churchill knew that Alan Brooke would never tell him “yes” if he was in disagreement. He had to convince him. And vice versa. Brooke many times insisted and sometimes achieved the reversal of unsound operational planning for political motives or out of a romantic idea, not to say show off by his nonetheless brilliant political boss. What is the lesson learned from this case? Bringing together a good team is the most important thing for a leader and the true leader is open to discussion, even if someone questions his judgment. Sometimes disagreements are more valuable to leaders than agreements. And this is not actually only for the political leaders; it is a take-away for military leaders as well.

Let us try to sum up and see what the elements of success in this relation between the political and the military leadership. The first and foremost conclusion is the essence of assuming one’s responsibilities (for both parties) and not intervening to the extent of annulling the other party’s prerogatives. The second has to do with the choice of the military leaders by the civilian ones. They should avoid the absolutely obedient ones. The military leaders should be able to state their opinion and in necessary insist depending on what is at stake. All leaders (military and civilian) should try to form a winning team: They should choose their subordinates, get the most out of them and make them cooperate with each other. And as we saw this is neither self-evident nor easy.

Last but not least, concerning the boundaries, common sense prevails: The successful political leader defines the political and probably some limited military end-states, chooses the military leadership and observes the conduct of war and its political implications. Then, he or she intervenes as little as possible. To scrutinize tactics, defense technology, or to press for the promotion or dismissal of anything other than the most senior officers is inappropriate and dangerous. It may have worked in certain cases of genius leaders but should definitely be avoided. Concluding and according to the “normal theory of civil-military relations”, generals are in the words of Eliot Cohen “professionals, much like highly trained surgeons: the statesman is in the position of a patient requiring urgent care. He may freely decide whether or not to have an operation, he may choose one doctor over another, and he may even make a decision among different surgical options, although that is more rare. He may not or at least ought not supervise a surgical procedure, select the doctor’s scalpel, or rearrange the operating room to his liking”.[10]


[1] “With his characteristic pithiness – ‘La guerre – c’est une chose trop grave pour la confier a des militaires’ – Clemenceau was in fact reclaiming Clausewitz’ s true original proposition”. Mallinson, Allan. (2017). Too Important For the Generals (London: Transworld Publishers), 5.

[2] “Before any of his generals or advisers, Lincoln understood that the only way to whip the hard-fighting Confederates was to hit them with coordinated attacks in all theaters. Only that way could the Union bring to bear its tremendous advantage in manpower and war resources”. See Oates, Stephen. (2007). Abraham Lincoln (Amherst: Harper Collins), 126.

[3] Fotakis, Zisis. (2005). Greek Naval Strategy and Policy 1910-1919 (London: Routledge), 44.

[4] VanDeMark, Brian. (1991). Into the Quagmire (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 95.

[5] “[JFK] also repeatedly acted to prevent, postpone, or at least question the wisdom of potentially provocative measures such as: mining international waters around Cuba, declaring war in conjunction with announcing the quarantine, extending the quarantine to Soviet aircraft flying to Cuba,…, seizing a Soviet ship that had reversed course, risking gunfire if the crew of a disabled ship resisted boarding,…

enforcing the quarantine by attacking a Soviet submarine, arming U.S. reconnaissance planes and returning Cuban ground fire…” Stern, Sheldon. (2005). The Week the World Stood Still (Stanford: Stanford University Press), 216-217.

[6] Fischer, Fritz. (1974). World Power or Decline: The Controversy over Germany’s Aims in the First World War (London: Norton), 95.

[7] Trachtenberg, Marc. (1991) History and Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 50.

[8] Keegan, John (ed). (1991). Churchill’s Generals (New York: Grove Pr), 7.

[9] Chamley, John. (1993). The End of Glory (New York: Harcourt Brace).

[10] Cohen, Eliot. (2002). Supreme Command (New York: Simon & Schuster), 25.