Summary of Supreme Command

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This book achieves excellence on several levels and offers an absorbing portrait of leadership under difficult circumstances. Author Eliot A. Cohen presents an impressive analysis of an especially important issue, the balance between civilian and military leadership, which he uses as a paradigm for leadership relations and strategy. His discussion is easily accessible to the general reader, always scholarly but never pedantic, and leaves one in a mood to find anything else this author may have written. Cohen is not afraid to defy conventional wisdom, as he does when he blames the Vietnam failure not on too much, but rather on too little, civilian meddling in military affairs. finds it difficult to criticize this work, except on the grounds that it is so good, we wish there were more of it.

About the Author

Eliot A. Cohen is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He has written books and articles on various military and national security subjects, and is a consultant with the Department of Defense and a member of the Defense Policy Board.



Introduction: Why War Statesmen?

Work in politics is different in basic ways from work in business, and work in the military is different from both. A great political leader may make a poor business leader. A great military leader may fail at politics. A great business leader may not excel as a politician or a general. Leaders may have to do things that look superficially similar regardless of their fields, yet the details differ so fundamentally that there is no reason to expect skill in one area to imply skill in another.

Given that, it is easy to understand why generals might chafe under the direction of politicians. Particularly in wartime with lives, even history, in the balance, it is tempting for generals to insist that they, being military men, are best suited to lead. After all, war is a military enterprise, is it not?

If you assume that the answer is "yes," then you might embrace the "normal" theory of military-civilian relations which political scientist Samuel Huntington outlined in a classic book, The Soldier and the State. Essentially, Huntington’s soldier resembles a doctor called in to treat a patient in the emergency room. The patient may make...

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