Back in the bad old days of the – last – Cold War, NATO held an annual exercise when national leaders and senior military officers war gamed how they would handle a crisis. Called WINTEX, these exercises were constructed within the then tight protocols that governed NATO responses to potential aggression. Given that these responses could include how to react to the release of a tactical nuclear weapon, politicians found it timely to take them seriously. WINTEX went when the Wall came down. The world after ‘the end of history’ apparently no longer required such cautionary preparation and anyway untidy contemporary conflicts did not fit the neat NATO Cold War planning construct.
Yet the aspect of operational command which now tests commanders most, and arguably always has done, is the realisation that they must spend as much time and energy talking to their political masters as they devote to actually running the operation itself. This statement may surprise those who have not commanded on operations. It should not. Training of senior commanders, such as the UK’s Higher Command & Staff Course and the US Pinnacle Course, is focussed on teaching them how to wield their legions to achieve their military objectives; little, if any, is dedicated to helping them manage those anxious politicians at home who fear their careers could end in failure and derision should that military operation go wrong.
The reasons are obvious. Whereas training for command is a key part of a senior officer’s life, it is now of little interest to politicians who think they have better things to do with their time. The responsibility that confronts them when conflict threatens can therefore be stark. Some, like de Gaulle or Saddam Hussein, thought they knew it all. Others, such as Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands War or Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, found themselves challenged. Military commanders can be equally phased. Some like, MacArthur, think themselves above politics; others, like Sharon, just ignore all direction.
In his admirable new study of high command Lawrence Freedman discusses these conflicts, and many more in sixteen essays. He covers both the well-known scenarios but equally offers fascinating analysis of less known wars such as the Pakistan Civil War of 1971 and the Congo Conflict of 1965. His essays of the Falklands and Iraq are especially valuable not least perhaps because the author was the official historian for the former and was a member of the inquiry into the latter. His analysis of the differing US and UK perceptions of Iraq and the problems this posed for commanders is the only accurate version I have read to date. He is also particularly good on the origins of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Unlike too many military historians, he includes excellent maps.
Yet what really makes this study special is that he reminds us that command is about people, both politicians and military men, with all their fears and flaws, vanities and preconceptions. Personal relations are as important as experience and ability. Even giants like MacArthur can fall on their hubris.
Freedman concludes, unsurprisingly, that both politicians and commanders have a duty to make high command work. Never has that been more important than today when Europe could face years of conflict. The greatest responsibility of a government is the safety and security of its people. Now is the time to re-instate WINTEX.
Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine by Lawrence Freedman is out now and published by Allen Lane.
Barney White-Spunner is a former senior army officer and the author of Berlin: The Story of a City and Partition: The story of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947.