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Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine — Lessons for our own forces

Lawrence Freedman investigates the importance of collaborative leadership in war and the crucial role of the will of the people

Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine
Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine
Author: Lawrence Freedman
ISBN-13: 978-0241456996
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £30

Lawrence Freedman, former professor of war studies at King’s College London, is first and foremost an academic. His latest work, Command, is a philosophical reflection on the nature of command in warfare from the aftermath of the second World War to the present day.

At 515 pages, including a further 59 pages of detailed notes, Command is a veritable doorstep of a book. It is ambitious in its scope – analysing a broad spectrum of leadership styles, from Gen Mc Arthur to Saddam Hussein, Ariel Sharon, the Taliban and Islamic State. It is also a timely work and covers Russian military involvement in Chechnya and in Ukraine in 2014 and the present day.

Freedman’s mastery of the subject of civil and military leadership in time of war is peerless. The book, despite its academic treatment of the subject, is a fascinating study of the psychological and political characteristics that determine success or failure in leadership in war. To summarise the work in one sentence, Freedman’s central hypothesis is that civil primacy in matters of conflict in tandem with an intellectually rigorous and evidence-based approach to war-fighting are the essential prerequisites for victory.

Repeatedly throughout the work, Freedman demonstrates that successful military leaders must be emotionally intelligent, politically literate individuals who evolve strategies and tactics that align with clear and unambiguous war aims set out by an overarching civilian authority. Freedman repeatedly makes the case, citing evidence from history, that successful military leaders subordinate themselves to the will of the people as expressed through democratically elected government. Egotistical leaders such as McArthur and Sharon, he argues, are highly effective when tightly controlled and potentially catastrophic when let “off the leash” – where the disinhibited use of force often leads to escalation and unanticipated, negative outcomes.

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‘Hard men’

Freedman also demonstrates, with many carefully worked examples, the inherently flawed nature of military dictators and “hard men” such as Hussein and Vladimir Putin. He observes in forensic detail the manner in which such leadership styles are brittle, hollowing out the capacity of subordinate commanders to provide evidence-based input to command decisions – leading ultimately to reckless and inept strategies. Freedman argues that such strategies inevitably breach the social contract of the military – based on ethical decision-making, trust and loyalty – with troops losing the will to fight and ultimately failing in the mission.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. A particularly interesting case study was that of the Falklands War in 1982. Freedman sets out the manner in which Margaret Thatcher – with no military experience – relied on a stripped-down, experienced “War Cabinet” to set out the “simple” war aim of expelling Argentinian troops from the Falkland Islands.

According to Freedman, the Royal Navy under the command of Rear Admiral John “Sandy” Woodward was very enthusiastic about the mission – using aircraft carriers recently targeted for destruction in swingeing defence cuts. The army and Royal Air Force were less enthusiastic, with Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Beetham and Chief of Staff General Sir Edwin Bramall concerned at where the Royal Navy was bringing them – on such an extended projection of force – and “to where it all might lead”.

Moral vs operational victory

It is clear from Freedman’s account of the command element of the Falkland campaign that the British had two immediate priorities. The first was what they termed a “moral victory” over the Argentinian junta – in other words, to simply frighten them, to terrorise and intimidate them. The second was to achieve an “operational victory” – to go ashore and defeat a demoralised enemy.

Freedman returns to this theme of intimidation and fear to analyse Putin’s handling of the latest invasion of Ukraine. He sets out the manner in which Putin and other hawks in the Kremlin – including Gen Valery Gerasimov and Gen Sergei Shoigu – sought to use disinformation, fear and intimidation to collapse a “fragile and illegitimate” Kyiv regime. Putin failed to achieve the aforementioned “moral victory” of generating a debilitating fear among Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s regime and his troops.

Freedman predicts (not unlike Sabina Higgins) that eventually, the war in Ukraine will falter and stall to a deadly stalemate and ultimately to a negotiation. Unless Putin presses the nuclear button.

In summary, this book emphasises the collaborative nature of leadership in warfare. Freedman reifies the importance of civilian primacy and democratic systems in forging ethical, morally defensible war aims. Most importantly, Freedman’s a priori position is that military leaders must have a solid intellectual foundation. He argues that “closed systems” – armies with little or no intellectual tradition, with low tolerance for internal dissent and a healthy culture and acceptance of negative critique from subordinate officers are doomed to failure. Our own Defence Forces would do well to promote such an intellectual tradition among its ranks.