Taking Command of the Politics of Military Operations

Taking Command of the Politics of Military Operations

Updated: 1 month, 1 day, 3 hours, 29 minutes, 49 seconds ago

BOOK REVIEW: Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine

By Lawrence Freedman / Oxford University Press

Reviewed by Jean-Thomas Nicole

The Reviewer — Jean-Thomas Nicole is a Senior Policy Analyst at the National Search and Rescue Secretariat, Public Safety Canada.

REVIEW — Sir Lawrence David Freedman is a British historian and author. He has been described as the “dean of British strategic studies” and was a member of the Iraq Inquiry (2009). He is also an Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London.

Sir Lawrence was also the official historian of the Falklands campaign, and author of The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, Volume 2, War and Diplomacy (London: Routledge).

Sir Lawrence’s principal areas of interest include contemporary defense and foreign policy issues and he has written extensively on nuclear strategy and the Cold War, as well as commentating regularly on contemporary security issues.

By reading his new book, Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine, I was primarily hoping to get some fresh, strategic, insights on the current Russo-Ukrainian war and where it might be heading in the near future. Unfortunately, the chapter dedicated to it, is naturally incomplete and perhaps more surprisingly, disappointing from the outset:

“It is largely concerned with the origins of the conflict in 2014, as Russia annexed Crimea and stirred up trouble in Eastern Ukraine. The links between these events and the later war are self-evident, yet what is striking is how much Putin’s own risk calculus changed, from being audacious yet careful in 2014 to becoming reckless in 2022”.

Largely written during the enforced solitude of the Covid-19 pandemic, the book is arguably a brilliant testament to what Freedman calls a “curious enthusiasm for writing about war” despite now being retired.

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Along those lines, the author’s stated aim is to explore the issues raised by the interplay between political and operational considerations; more particularly, he examines a series of command decisions taken in the period after 1945. Freedman’s focus is therefore on contemporary conflicts, with an eye looking forward on China and the US:

“Studies of command are naturally drawn to the world wars of the twentieth century when vast armies met in one titanic clash after another… At some point in the future there may be another clash on a similar scale, perhaps between the United States and China, and for which these experiences might still provide some guidance. Yet there is also a reason to consider more recent conflicts. These could be as intense and vicious, with political twists and turns of their own”.

In so doing, he thoroughly reviews historical and contemporary case studies, with a deep knowledge of the many contexts, states, institutions, and personalities involved, twinned with a keen political eye and sensibility.

The complex cases chosen by Sir Lawrence capture the diversity of contemporary conflict. In addition to those involving the United States and the United Kingdom, such as Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, the Falklands, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, he has also included the French colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria, conflicts between Israel and Arab states, and between India and Pakistan, civil wars in the Congo and Russian interventions in Chechnya and Ukraine. It is not easy reading, and is sophisticated and difficult, both in style and content.

Although not a comprehensive account of warfare in the post-1945 world, Command is usefully shedding new expert light on some critical junctures and crisis points in recent, contemporary, history. As the author explains clearly: “through these moments we can appreciate some of the core issues surrounding the exercise of command. Very few command arrangements at times of war are friction-free”.

Sir Lawrence tackles this essential theme again in the conclusion: 

“The best policy is likely to emerge from a readiness by the government to have a vigorous debate. And this is a debate that recognizes distinctive perspectives rather than simply presenting the civilians with the ‘best military advice’ offering no choice. In modern warfare, there is a complex interplay between political objectives and military options, which requires discussion of a range of possible strategies”.

If we follow Sir Lawrence in this line of thinking, herein lies the strategic edge of the democratic system applied to the prosecution of war over time:

“If there is a lesson from this book, it is not that the civilians and military must stick to their own spheres of influence, and not interfere in the others, but that they must engage constantly with each other. Even while recognizing the vital importance of civilian primacy, the military must advise on the realism of political objectives. Even while acknowledging the importance of professional judgements, the civilians must check that operational plans support those objectives”.

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That being said, let us not kid ourselves about the real reason why we read books on history, politics, war and peace so avidly (tongue-in-cheek): of course, we deeply believe in the value of liberal democracy and inherent democratic debate, especially when war and peace is concerned; of course, it must be defended and preserved against all forms of authoritarianisms, foreign or domestic, as a matter of policy. Nonetheless, as Sir Lawrence writes so well:

“With so much at stake, it is not surprising that these are stories marked by high drama, with clashes of personalities, intense arguments and high emotions. They are about moments when human agency mattered, when the fates of whole societies as well as numerous people hung in the balance, and when quirks of character, a small hesitation, or a rush of hubris, could push momentous decisions one way or the other”.

This reviewer awards Command a respectable 3 out of 4 trench-coats.



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