Politics & War: Lawrence Freedman Interview

Lawrence Freedman has examined the personalities and circumstances involved in wars from Korea to Ukraine in a new book. Our editor discussed some of those conflicts, and characters, that defined the latter half of the 20th century.
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Lawrence Freedman, what were there certain criteria you used to pick the conflicts that are in the book?

 The starting point was first that I was going to look at post 1945. So that was the big decision. There’s lots of stuff written about command in the World Wars and historical development of command practises, but I just have a general feeling that post 1945 military history is still not very well developed. Second was that though I was bound to have to look at the UK and the US, and they are the two countries I know best, I didn’t want to get myself confined by them.

So, I wanted to look reasonably far and wide and I didn’t want to just look at regular armies against regular armies. There are surprising number of those sort of conflicts to look at, but obviously there’s the counter-insurgency operations, the colonial operations like Algeria, rebel groups as in the Congo or in Ukraine in 2014. So, I wanted to have a variety of types of conflict. And then I suppose the two deciding criteria were that I was actually interested. I didn’t want to go just through stuff I already knew, so conflicts that intrigued me, that I needed to know more about, and then could I get good material?

It was a lockdown book, I could still get older books, memoirs and so but I wanted something approaching primary material so that there’s authenticity about the language that’s being used and how the various generals are talking about themselves and their conflicts. So I wanted areas where there were good digital sources and it’s surprising how much there is now. It wasn’t as difficult as it might have been. So the combination of these factors more or less, but there are plenty of others I could have looked at. I did Kosovo, but I could have chosen Bosnia, for example. And in the end there were all research topics that kept me interested, which is actually in a sort of selfish way, the first requirement if you’re writing a book, and I think demonstrated a range of command and civil military relationships that have been since 1945.

There are democracies, got dictatorships, democracies masquerading as dictatorships and dictatorships and masquerading as democracies. Is there an ideal model between military and political leadership that works best?

I think it depends on personalities and one has to say is that even the best models can make screwed up decisions. Structure doesn’t always guarantee a good strategy. So I think the best models are those where there are clear civilian and military competencies, that they understand their distinctive roles, but they talk to each other.

Part of the book was to challenge the idea that the ideal relationship is one in which the politicians or civilians provide the objectives, and the military set about implementing them with as little interference as possible from the politicians. I don’t think that works. I think you both need to be respectful of each other’s judgement, but the politicians really need military advice when deciding on what’s achievable, what objectives make any sense. The military can’t really grumble if politicians look over their shoulder when they’re the ones answerable if the whole operation fails and there’s questions to ask. I tend to assume in good policy making with any organisation, the challenge and criticism, if there’s time for it, tends to produce better decisions.

They will have to be realistic about it as well, that some decisions are going to be very lonely ones for both politicians and commanders. They’re the ones who have to take the responsibility. But the extent to which you can have an informed conversation between the two spheres, I think, by and large, makes a better chance of a better decision. And we can clearly see some pretty awful decisions that were taken as a result of that lacking.

Taking Douglas MacArthur from the first conflict in the book, Korea. He had unparalleled power as a commander for the Americans. He certainly didn’t seem to respect Truman, his superior, his Commander-in-Chief.

 He didn’t respect his superiors in uniform either. He was a law unto himself because he had taken the surrender of the Japanese after the Pacific War. He was almost revered in Japan because of the way he had re-established the country after the Second World War. And he had great success in the first months of the Korean War, where quite bold moves helped to push the North Koreans back. He was far more popular than Truman in the country, but hubris tends to set in and he trusted his own judgement and didn’t test it against anybody else’s judgement.

Even though he, as you say, was more popular than Truman, it was inevitable that when push came to shove, the Commander-in-Chief, the President would always win over the general.

 It was a political judgement of Truman. He was advised that it was high risk and maybe in the end, one of the reasons why he didn’t stand for election again in 1952. So in the end, constitutionally, it was clear who won. I think the other factor which tends to get neglected is that the other Chief-of-Staff were also fed up with MacArthur and were worried that he kept on ignoring their instructions, that he had this rogue or maverick aspect of what he was doing. They were quite anxious to put him back in his box as well. Without that, I don’t think Truman would have got away with it. In a sense, if the MacArthur hadn’t faltered, if the Chinese hadn’t invaded, if the Americans haven’t been put onto the back foot, then again, Truman would have probably had to put up with his subordination. But the stakes had got just too high by April 1951, when eventually he was pushed out.

Moving to the conflict in Indochina and the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu. The French all seem to have very good qualifications for command and it just seemed to be a breakdown of communication and relationship between commanders both on the ground and at more senior levels?

 Yes, I think that’s fair. The [French generals] in charge of the campaign of Indochina were very distinguished. There’s no doubting their personal bravery or that they were knowledgeable about military matters. The basic problem in Indochina was that the government in Paris knew that this was a losing cause and was basically trying to get the best position within Indochina for anticipated peace talks. But they never quite worked out what that meant in terms of supporting the local commanders, doing what commanders tried to do, and work out a winning strategy. They never gave them the resources, the political backing and so on.

Whereas the Viet Minh, the Communists, understood this all perfectly well, hence the fact that General Giáp, in charge of the battle, threw everything he needed at [the French] to make sure he won. You can criticise the generals for failing to think through potential communist strategies and for bickering amongst themselves. It wasn’t a united front and they were rather distant from the battle. They formed views without actually visiting Dien Bien Phu. They visited it before the fighting started, but they weren’t really keeping track of it as the fight developed, especially because there was a point where the French on the ground recovered to a degree, and with reserves, might have been able to hold the line for much longer and make things very difficult for the Communists.

But by the time the generals relented on sending reserves, it was too late and the reserves essentially went into captivity. So their basic judgments were pretty poor, even given the fact that the situation was pretty poor to start with.

In the same chapter you cover the Battle of Algiers, which features some veterans of the war in Indochina and again the French government’s objectives differ from the military leadership and de Gaulle takes over midway through. Had de Gaulle chosen to make Algérie Française, if that had been his objective, do you think that the result would have been different?

Good question. De Gaulle, historically, as leader of the Free French in 1945, had been all for holding on to all of France’s colonial possessions, including in Indochina, which is one reason why the army thought he would be on their side when they helped to install him in power in France. Actually his generals, in this case, delivered a victory. They beat the FLN, they stamped out, with pretty brutal methods, the insurgency, but they couldn’t really stamp out the political movement for independence. And de Gaulle realised that it’s one thing when the terrorists are blowing people up in the cafes of Algiers, it’s another thing when there’s mass demonstrations and strikes demonstrating in support of the Algerian people for independence. De Gaulle was shrewd enough to understand that. Only once did he utter the words Algérie Française.

There’s something remarkable about de Gaulle’s ability to remain completely opaque, to give himself as many options as possible, while everybody believes that actually he supports them. He made these gnomic pronouncements, which is one reason why it was such a shock to the generals in Algeria when he announced in the end, it wasn’t that big a deal if Algeria got independence, given what they’ve been through and taken all their troops through, this was what they saw as a great betrayal.

I think de Gaulle is a very good example of a political leader who realises that whatever objectives you’ve got, or even established yourself with this case inherited, you’ve got to judge it against political reality. Can you actually meet them? And if not, you have to make a big adjustment, which is certainly what he did. And the reason he could do it was by avoiding giving too many hostages to fortune.

Does it make a difference if a politician on the left or centre left? I guess with the military one would assume they tend to be a little bit more on the right or centre right?

One would assume. I don’t really see that as an issue in the campaigns I was looking at. Blair, famously, could get quite belligerent. Cameron was cautious, not quite cautious enough in Libya, but I think the politicisation of the military was more an American phenomenon than a British one and obviously at one point a French phenomenon as well. There’s normally very specific reasons for the disaffection.

France [and Algeria], it was the case that the military felt they’d done the dirty work and then this had become an embarrassment, and all their dirty work was to no avail anyway because the cause was betrayed. With Johnson in Vietnam, the military did what they could with the restraints that were given. It was only later that the critique that it was all unnecessary political interference took hold.

Although it’s undoubtedly the case now, or was the case, with Trump who changed things quite a bit. The military was Republican leaning in the States. I don’t think that is as definite now. I don’t think it’s ever quite as true in the UK either.

Lawrence Freedman is Emeritus Professor of War Studies, King’s College London, and the author of Strategy: A History and The Future of War: A History. A member of the Iraq Inquiry, his latest book is Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine.