When politics meets war—from Putin to the Pentagon

Things go wrong when political leaders over-meddle in war or military commanders overstep democratic norms
November 3, 2022
Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine
Laurence Freedman (RRP: £30)
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Lawrence Freedman may have retired from teaching at the war studies department at King’s College London, but we should all be grateful he is still sharing his wisdom. His new book provides an excellent historical overview of the changing dynamics between military commanders and civilian leaders. It is incredibly timely, given the global shifts in geopolitics and the different approaches to war taken by democracies versus authoritarian states.

In the west, the power balance between civilian and military leaders has ebbed and flowed over the decades. In the US many former generals can now be seen commenting on politics on television, while senior military-commanders have become politicians or assumed senior civilian jobs: think Jim Mattis as secretary of defence or HR McMaster as national security adviser under Donald Trump, appointments publicly decried by many of their military peers. 

Even before Trump, the US military was gaining influence. At the same time, across the world, civilian leaders have over-meddled in military affairs to the detriment of war-efforts—the most recent example being Putin in Ukraine.

Freedman underscores one of the fundamental tenets of a democracy: the subordination of the military to civilian rule. Yet he also argues that military leaders need a solid grasp of politics, something understood by US general George C Marshall, chief of staff during the Second World War, who had the necessary “political sensibility”. Likewise, civilian leaders need to ensure that military plans support political aims.

Advances in technology allow both military and civilian personnel greater opportunity to get involved from thousands of miles away. AI may help aggregate vast amounts of information coming from the five military command spheres (air, land, sea, cyber and space), but how far it will be used on the battlefield is hotly debated. Freedman concludes with a discussion of this contentious issue, even if experts predict humans are unlikely to cede control to non-humans in the near future.