In February 1972 President Nixon received an assessment from the US National Security Council of the weakness of the South Vietnamese army. Against the advice of his Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, who cautioned against reinforcements on the basis that this would a lack of confidence in the Vietnamese forces, Nix ordered a further aircraft carrier to be sent to the vicinity, indicate more B-52 bombers and removed all restrictions on tactical air support. In March and April that year, the North Vietnamese launched a huge conventional attack on the South, the so-called Easter Offensive. In his wide-ranging and insightful study of command in war since the Second World War, the eminent historian and strategist Lawrence Freedman cites Nixon on April 4: “I don’t think anybody realises how far I am prepared to go to save this … Whatever is necessary to stop this thing has to be done.”
Freedman emphasizes how Nixon was attuned to the link between the offensive and the Paris talks, which had broken down on March 23. On April 6 Nixon ordered strikes against the North. Ultimately, those strikes, combined with heavy US air support in the South – which would not have been possible without Nixon’s earlier decision to reinforce in February 1972 – halted the North Vietnamese offensive, and the Paris talks resumed. (They were concluded in January 1973.) Freedman’s conclusion, that “only by convincing Hanoi that must negotiate seriously could a political outcome be found”, stands in contrast to his assessment of the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, where he notes how President Biden acted against the advice of his military advisers to keep a modest troop presence in order to enable a negotiated settlement.
Freedman chooses fifteen such historical episodes, spanning classic cases such as the Cuban missile crisis, less familiar ones, including that of Che Guevara and Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 1960s Congo, and near-contemporary studies such as Russian command in the Ukraine conflict. He focuses primarily on the interface between political and military considerations in the decisions of individual commanders, and the organization of command structures in general. He does not offer a general theory, but some themes do emerge.
One phenomenon these analogies illustrate is the relationship between predictability and willpower: the more confidently an enemy can predict a collapse of will, the less likely that enemy is to negotiate. That is the value in keeping the enemy guessing through unexpected moves – the value of surprise at a political level, not just a military one. Conversely, telegraphing a lack of will can be disastrous. As Freedman neatly puts it: “The moment when the narrative turns from being one of long-term resolve to short-term retreat is apt to be one of maximum chaos.”
The boundary between initiative and insubordination is another recurring theme of the case studies. In war, gaining and holding the initiative is crucial, and this can require local commanders to follow the spirit rather than the letter of a set of orders. That is especially the case when, as is not uncommon, there is a series of orders and counterorders, or a delay in receiving orders due to communications difficulties. This leads to uncertainty that would paralyse action if commanders could not act on their instincts, in light of the overall objective. Freedman’s superbly detailed account of the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano in the Falklands campaign in 1982, where the British submarine commander received orders and counterorders, and lost communications at a crucial moment, provides a classic example of the interplay between the chain of command and a local commander’s decisions.
That said, too much initiative can become insubordination. Freedman gives the example of Ariel Sharon, who, as an Israeli general in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, disobeyed orders and attacked when he was expressly told to defend. This infuriated most of his superiors, except the defense minister Moshe Dayan, who protected him because, as Freedman memorably cites Dayan: “I prefer [Sharon’s] pressures and initiatives tenfold to the hesitations and excuses of other divisional commanders … Better a noble steed that you have to restrain than a lazy ox you have to beat.”
In other contexts, taking the initiative does not involve clear insubordination, but does involve working around the chain of command. Freedman’s analysis of the British Army’s changing operational approach in Basra in 2007-08 provides an example. In 2007, following a dubious deal with the Shia militia, British forces withdrew from the city to Basra airport. As a result, “The militia was able to take over the city and imposed a hard-line Islamist regime”.
While the Iraqi government ultimately regained control of Basra through operation “Charge of the Knights” in March 2008, with US support, the British would have been left watching from the sidelines had it not been for the initiative of two local British commanders and an American academic. Ahead of the operation they effectively bypassed the chain of command to bring a plan for British embedded support with the Iraqi security forces in Basra directly to coalition headquarters in Baghdad. The result was that British forces were in the end involved in the successful operation, embedded with the Iraqi security forces. But as Freedman points out: “While the UK role was welcomed in London, it was not part of any approved operational concept and resulted from local initiatives.”
A further important insight Freedman offers is that in weak states or autocracies, command structures have to be understood in their political context. For example, in the case of the organization of elite units of the South Vietnamese forces under President Thieu, what might look like an ineffective arrangement from a military perspective, whereby there is not an unified chain of command, makes sense from a political perspective, As the authoritarian leader needs to keep different parts of the security forces at odds with each other — especially the elite forces — so that they do not unite to launch a coup.
Freedman looks forward to the role of AI in conflict and claims that “new technologies will almost certainly change command relationships in the future”. The key tension, he suggests, is whether AI will support human decision-making or make decisions itself, especially when it comes to the use of lethal force. That in turn raises a range of further questions, not just ethical, but also practical, such as what size headquarters should be. While the general trend since the Second World War has been towards ever larger headquarters, if confronting an AI-enabled opponent, having too many humans in the loop may well slow decision-making down to the point of failure.
Freedman’s concluding remarks that “closed systems, in which subordinates dare not ask awkward questions, and in which independent initiatives risk punishment, will suffer operationally”, and that this is a key reason why authoritarian command systems can fail: “when military and political power come together in one individual, there might be anticipated advantage in being able to act decisively, but dictatorships, or indeed any excessively rigid command structure, will encourage sycophancy and tolerance of foolish schemes.”
Lawrence Freedman proposes that Vladimir’s invasion of Ukraine exemplifies his argument about command in authoritarian systems. By contrast, he writes, the strength of democracies lies in their ability “to recognise their mistakes, learn, and adapt”. While it seems to this reviewer that the historical record, especially in recent campaigns, presents at best a mixed view of the ability of western democracies to adapt in war, when it comes to supporting Ukraine, we shall see if he is right.
Emile Simpson is a barrister and the author of War from the Ground Up2018
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