Best Defense

An surprisingly ahistorical conclusion in ‘Army,’ but some other good stuff there

If Winston Churchill had left the war to the generals, the war almost certainly would have taken longer.


I have a lot of respect for retired Army Gen. Frederick Kroesen, who led troops in combat in three wars, so I was surprised to see this sentence at the end of an essay he has in the June issue of ARMY magazine: “When the president decides on military action and Congress acknowledges the resource requirements, relying on the military minds to conduct operations is, historically, the way to fight a war.” (My italics.)

Having spent much of the last several years studying how Winston Churchill ran England’s part in World War II, I have to say that sentence shocked me. It absolutely does not describe how Churchill operated. He meddled, he pushed, he questioned, he delved into plans, he second-guessed his generals. He tore through the plans for the invasion of Sicily, for example, and cut a couple of weeks from the staff estimates of how long it would take to get ready to carry it out.

Churchill’s generals hated his interventions. They held a view similar to General Kroesen’s, that the civilians should butt out. But if Churchill had left the war to the generals, the war almost certainly would have taken longer. The Normandy landings might not have taken place until 1945 or even 1946.

Also, British generals were much slower than Churchill was to appreciate the military significance of some major events, such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, or the American development of a nuclear weapon. Churchill wasn’t always right — he pushed for the Anzio landings, but opposed the Dragoon ones in France, and was wrong both times. But he was right more often than he was wrong. Equally important, he favored risk-taking, both in himself and in his generals.

On the upside, the same issue has a good article by Lt. Col. Pete Kilner about one of the trickiest ethical problems anyone can face: What do you do when you become aware of misconduct by a superior, especially one who can retaliate by ending your career?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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