Command by Lawrence Freedman review – inside the war room | Political books

JThere was a brief period, from the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, when even the most sensible people wondered if major wars could be a thing of the past. This turned out to be ridiculously wrong, of course. Since the late 1990s, our era has been largely defined by war, beginning with Chechnya and the former Yugoslavia and escalating with 9/11 and the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Today, after Vladimir Putin’s totally unprovoked attack on Ukraine, we again have the chilling feeling that nuclear war might be a real possibility. And the war in Ukraine forces us to ask ourselves the old, old question: which finger is really on the trigger? Are politicians or generals in charge? Dictators or duly elected representatives? The presidents and prime ministers or the people in uniform?

Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman is the leading academic authority in Britain and the English-speaking world on how modern warfare has been fought. Rational, liberal-minded, clear-sighted, he drew on the experience of a lifetime for his new book. It was, he accepts, an exercise in containment. A purist might say that some of the material could have been organized differently, with a clearer separation of material by region, for example. But it is the quality of the story and the very intelligence of the judgment that count, given the breadth of the subject. The command encompasses not only the major wars – Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf and Afghanistan – but also France’s colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria, the quasi-war created by the Cuban Missile Crisis, Pakistan’s ill-fated attempt to guarding Bangladesh, Israel’s disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Falklands and Laurent Kabila’s vicious Congo campaign: an often shameful but always illuminating parade of material, human inadequacy and death.

It is of course too much to hope that simple lessons can be drawn from all this. Some political leaders tell generals what to do, sometimes it’s the other way around. Freedman summons an extraordinary lineup of post-1945 commanders, from MacArthur to Giáp, Cogny and Challe, to Mike Jackson in Kosovo, Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf in Iraq and two of America’s most admirable but doomed generals, David Petraeus in Baghdad and Stan McChrystal in Kabul. Still, some basic principles apply: democracies do fight wars more efficiently, and dictators do make rotten strategists, from Saddam Hussein to Vladimir Putin, who even interfere in the kind of decisions that a lieutenant in the army should take.

Journalists – I am thinking in particular of veterans like Jeremy Bowen of the BBC, Richard Engel of NBC or John Burns of the New York Times, but there are many more of us – have seen this succession of wars from a very different point of view: we look skyward at bombers and missiles aimed at enemy towns where we cower, knowing nothing of the strategy that sent them there. From time to time, our vision may be clearer than that of the commanders in their headquarters; for example in President Clinton and Tony Blair’s clumsy bombing of Belgrade in 1999, when the White House and Downing Street became increasingly panicked in their claims that Serbia’s resistance was collapsing when it was clear to us that this was not the case. Freedman’s point of view is never simply that of headquarters, however, and he takes a wild delight in unraveling the infighting between the general staff and the soldiers in the field. His account of the wars against Hussein and the Taliban is masterful: perhaps the best I have read. Battlefield reports are important because people back home need to know what is being done on their behalf. But there’s no doubt that what really matters in the long run is Freedman’s perspective, examining decision-making and the interaction between governments and military commanders.

Are there any basic threads connecting all the different wars from Korea? Just one or two: American short-termism, for example. Every major enemy the United States has faced knows that Washington’s attention span is short and the only hope of success is to hang on, despite overwhelming firepower. Since Korea, the United States has failed to become the clear winner of every major war it has fought, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. That it did not harm its position as the preeminent power in the world is a tribute to America’s enormous economic and cultural strength. It is also a sign that none of these conflicts were as existentially significant as Washington originally claimed.

In order to persuade public opinion to support a war, an American president must grossly tout its importance; think Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam, a very mediocre local post-colonial conflict. (Blair did the same with Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and the supposed 45-minute strike time against British targets.) Soon, big business in America was stepping up, sniffing out obscene profits, and the Ministry of Defense continues to pour out immense and often unnecessary resources. Eventually, the cost incurred, plus the grotesque damage done to local civilian life, begins to tip the scales, and the Americans themselves begin to question the purpose of the war. After that, it’s just a matter of how fast to get out.

Leadership is the story of our time, told through war. It is a marvelous and idiosyncratic feat of storytelling as well as an essential account of how modern world wars were fought, written by someone whose grasp of intricate detail is as strong and effective as the clarity of his style. . I will read it again and again.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. He presents Unspun World on BBC Two. The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine by Lawrence Freedman is published by Penguin (£30). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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