TShe was here a little while, lasted from the fall Berlin Wall In November 1989 until Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, when even perfectly reasonable people questioned whether major wars might become a thing of the past. This proved to be a ridiculous error of course. Since the late 1990s, our era has been largely defined by war, beginning with Chechnya and the former Yugoslavia and intensifying with 9/11 and the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Now, after Vladimir Putin’s totally unprovoked attack on Ukraine, we’re experiencing the frightening sense that nuclear war might be a real possibility, once again. And the Ukraine war forces us to ask the age-old question: Who really has the trigger? Are the politicians or the generals responsible? Dictators or duly elected representatives? Presidents and prime ministers or the people in uniform?
Professor Sir Lawrence Friedman It is the dominant academic authority in Britain and the English-speaking world on the way modern wars are fought. Rational, liberal, clear-sighted, he drew his life from experience in his new book. It was, as before, a closing operation. A hardliner might say that some articles could be organized differently, with a clearer separation of material by region, for example. But what matters is the quality of the narration and the sheer wit of judgment, given the sweeping subject matter. Command takes not only the major wars—Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, and Afghanistan—but also the French colonial wars in India, China, and Algeria, the quasi-wars created by the Cuban Missile Crisis, Pakistan’s unfortunate attempt to control Bangladesh, the disastrous Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Falkland Islands, and the Laurent Campaign. Wicked Kabila in the Congo: An often shameful but always enlightening show of equipment, human inadequacy and death.
Naturally, there is much to hope that any simple lessons can be drawn from all this. Some political leaders tell generals what to do, and sometimes it’s the other way around. Friedman summons an extraordinary group of post-1945 leaders, from MacArthur to Giap, Cogny and Schaal, all the way to Mike Jackson in Kosovo, Stormin Norman Schwarzkopf in Iraq and two of America’s most impressive but doomed generals, David Petraeus in Baghdad and Stan McChrystal in Kabul. However, some basic principles apply: democracies fight wars more effectively, and dictators actually make corrupt strategists, from Saddam Hussein to Vladimir Putin, who interfere even in the kind of decisions an army lieutenant should make.
Correspondents – I think especially of long-serving people like Jeremy Bowen of the BBC, Richard Engel of NBC, or John Burns of The New York Times, but there are many of us – have seen this succession of wars from a very different point of view: we We stare up into the sky at bombers and missiles targeting enemy cities where we fear, knowing nothing of the strategy that sent you there. Only sometimes can our view be clearer than that of the leaders in their headquarters; For example during President Clinton and Tony Blair’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999, when the White House and Downing Street became increasingly paranoid at their claims that Serbia’s resistance was collapsing when it was clear to us that it was not. Friedman’s view was never just that of headquarters, and he takes great pleasure in resolving the infighting between staff and soldiers on the ground. His account of the wars against Saddam Hussein and the Taliban is ingenious: perhaps the best I’ve read. Battlefield reporting is important, because people back home need to know what’s being done to their name. But there is no doubt that what really matters in the long run is Friedman’s perspective, which examines decision-making and the interaction between governments and military leaders.
Are there certain basic threads connecting all the different wars since Korea? Only one or two: the American short-range, for example. Every major enemy the United States has faced knows that Washington’s attention span is short, and that the only hope of success lies in sticking with it, despite its massive firepower. Since Korea, the United States has failed to emerge as the undisputed winner in any of the major wars it has fought, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. That this has not compromised its position as the preeminent power in the world is an appreciation of America’s immense economic and cultural power. It’s also a sign that none of these conflicts were as existentially important as Washington originally said.
In order to persuade public opinion to support the war, the President of the United States must exaggerate its importance; Think of Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, a very mean local post-colonial conflict. (Blair did the same regarding Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and the supposed 45-minute strike time against British targets.) The big American corporations soon stepped in, snuffed out the inappropriately huge profits, and the Department of Defense embarked on a massive and often unnecessary injection of resources. Finally, the cost incurred, as well as the horrendous damage to local civilian life, begins to tip the scales, and Americans themselves begin to question the purpose of the war. After that, it just comes down to how quickly you get out.
Leadership is the history of our time, told through war. It’s a fascinating and fascinating work of storytelling as well as an essential account of how the wars of the modern world are fought, written by someone whose understanding of complex detail is as powerful and effective as the clarity of his style. I will read it over and over again.