On “Getting out of the Way” of the Military

On “Getting out of the Way” of the Military

I gave a talk on Strategic Leadership yesterday, and closed it with the following quote from Eliot A Cohen’s ‘Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime‘ (2002:4-5):

We can call this consensus the “normal” theory of civil-military relations, which runs something like this. Officers are 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. Even the patient who has medical training is well-advised not to attempt to do so, and indeed, his doctor will almost surely resent a colleague-patient’s effort along such lines. The result should be a limited degree of civilian control over military matters. To ask too many questions (let alone to give orders) about tactics, particular pieces of hardware, the design of a campaign, measures of success, or to press too closely for the promotion or dismissal of anything other than the most senior officers is meddling and interference, which is inappropriate and downright dangerous.


The difficult is that the great war statesmen do just those improper things–and, what is more, it is because they do so that they succeed.
My use of this quote was related to the broader subject of habits of mind that are important to strategic leaders. Nevertheless, it seems particularly apropos to the recent decisions by President Trump to take a more hands off approach in the determination of strategic and operational decisions like setting troop levels in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria; and the use of new and larger weapons to the theater.

2 thoughts on “On “Getting out of the Way” of the Military

  1. Thank you for the work you do Rob! I learn much more about the state of affairs in our world through your writing and explanations than just about any other source and I trust your experience, knowledge and opinions.

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