Commands are what commanders give, whether they are the general in overall charge or the lieutenant trying to get an awkward platoon to do what he wants. They are not typically wordy. Eisenhower, supreme commander of all Allied forces in Europe, famously ordered the Normandy invasion to begin with the laconic command ‘Okay, let’s go.’ Just three words set in motion the largest amphibious operation in history. In modern times, commands are usually obeyed, since refusing a command is an act of insubordination, even mutiny, which military institutions punish unhesitatingly.
Commanding is nevertheless a challenge, even if commands must be obeyed. In this broad survey of command in war since 1945, Lawrence Freedman brings to bear his extensive knowledge to explain the many complexities commanders at the highest level must now face, from grasping new ways of warfare to managing military organisation and supply and, above all, coping with the mercurial behaviour of their political masters. If there is a theme to Freedman’s book, which ranges from the Korean War to Putin’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, it is to be found in the tensions and conflicts between military leaders and the politicians who call the shots that he documents. How often must a supreme commander have wished he were free to do what he wanted? Usually, politics has to be factored in.
In many cases, the commander is also a politician, even a head of state. Here, commanders have to reconcile their political and military functions; often, they fail to do so satisfactorily. Freedman finds this most common in dictatorships. Among the examples he cites are those of General Yahya Khan, who took power in Pakistan in 1969 in the vain hope of preventing East Pakistan from seceding, and Saddam Hussein, who managed to hold on to power through ruthless repression but was a hopeless supreme commander with a poor understanding of his enemies, fantasies about Iraqi military might and a command style that included executing subordinate commanders who in his view had failed (three hundred alone in 1982 during the messy Iran–Iraq War). They might well have learned from Hitler that being head of state and supreme commander is a recipe for disaster and gives the professional soldier, who might judge things more rationally or settle for less, little room for manoeuvre. The decision by Stalin in late 1942 to stop trying to be the supreme strategist and give Zhukov and the Soviet General Staff the job of fighting the war surely ranks as one of the few examples where a dictator understood his limitations.
Democratic leaders are also capable of gross errors and misjudgements, and of ignoring the intelligence placed in front of them, but they generally expect the military professionals to get on with the job in hand, even if, like Richard Nixon, they deplore the ‘plodding mediocrity of their strategies