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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Pick a True Believer to Run Your Military Campaigns

As a rule military folk do the bidding of political grandees out of duty and honor, agree or not. But military history implies that statesmen are best advised to seek out an executor in full concord with the cause. 

Lance Cpl. Luther Sackett, a rifleman from Rockyford, Co., engages targets during a live-fire and maneuver exercise here Jan. 29. Sackett, and other Marines with Light Armored Reconnaissance Platoon, Weapons Company, Battalion Landing Team 2/4, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, conducted live-fire weapons shoots and trained with the French Army Jan. 28-Feb. 5.

It’s a recurring theme in military history, and perchance it’s been recurring in my extracurricular reading of late: sometimes a less-than-fervent general or admiral finds himself in charge of an expedition. That can create a quandary. The commander may be leery of the purposes impelling the enterprise, the methods he’s instructed to deploy to fulfill those purposes, or both. He might even sympathize with the foe. Commitment to the cause may suffer at the top of an expeditionary force. 

What’s a soldier—or his political masters—to do? 

Examples of civil-military dissent are legion. As Thucydides, the father of history, tells it, two-plus millennia ago the Athenian assembly assigned a troika of generals to head up a campaign to Sicily in hopes of securing the import-dependent city’s grain supply while flanking rival Sparta. The assembly recalled one commander to stand trial on spurious religious charges, another perished during the early going, and the last—Nicias, who had tried to dissuade Athenians from undertaking the expedition in the first place—ended up overseeing it. 

One of history’s iconic martial catastrophes resulted.  

Nor is this phenomenon unique to antiquity. As Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker note in their splendid new history of the Spanish Armada (1588), the fleet commander, the duke of Medina Sidonia, harbored grave doubts about the venture’s prospects for invading England and killing or capturing Queen Elizabeth I. And yet Medina Sidonia proceeded anyway despite his misgivings. The Armada met its doom through a toxic combination of ill fate, bad weather, and English seamanship and gunnery. 

The result, as in classical Greece: disaster. 

Or how about eighteenth-century North America? That’s when the British leadership selected General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe to enforce the crown’s interests in the wayward American colonies. But the brothers Howe were a liberal-minded sort, inclined to agree with the colonists that the king’s American subjects should be afforded the rights enjoyed by Englishmen in England. As a result the Howes seemed loath to strike the killing blow they could have struck against the Continental Army in 1776. George Washington’s army lived to fight another day, adapted its strategy, and, as Nathaniel Philbrick shows, prevailed in the end with hypergenerous help from France. 

Another cataclysm at arms. For Britain, anyway. 

And Shelby Foote documents how, during the American Civil War clash at Gettysburg (1863), the second-in-command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, General James “Pete” Longstreet, dissented from supreme commander General Robert E. Lee’s concept for the campaign. Longstreet went into Pennsylvania believing the army would wage strategic offense through tactical defense. It would carry the fight across the Potomac River into Union territory, that is, but when fighting loomed it would attempt to seize advantageous ground and defy the Union Army of the Potomac to come and take it at extreme cost.  

By contrast Lee’s vision was all offense, all the time. Longstreet was dismayed when the Blue army occupied the heights around Gettysburg, leaving the numerically inferior Gray host to dash itself against fortified positions. The climax came on the third day of battle, when Lee ordered Longstreet to assault the Union center across three-quarters of a mile of open ground, uphill, into the teeth of enemy cannon and rifle fire. Dubbed “Pickett’s Charge” for the division commander who led it, the Confederate death ride became a synonym for reckless futility on the battlefield. 

Four debacles out of four cases. That’s a pattern. 

Disloyalty isn’t the problem. In none of these instances did the commander deliberately sabotage the expedition entrusted to him. And yet. In three of the cases—the Peloponnesian War, the Spanish Armada, and the War of American Independence—statesmen bestowed almost limitless authority on the commander. They had to, or forego the endeavor. After all, it was impractical to supervise operations from afar given the rudimentary—at best—state of command-and-control technology and techniques of the age. And in each case the designee was a doubter. 

Doubt and disagreement mattered. 

The upshot is that it seems imperative to appoint a commander in tune with the politicians back home if he will wield ultimate power over the conduct of a campaign. In such cases the general is a direct, superempowered extension of politics as well as an operational overseer. His judgment should align with that of officialdom, letting him act as a proxy for his political masters. Ambivalence about the campaign’s direction bodes ill. 

And in all four cases, you have to wonder whether qualms about a campaign’s goals or strategy took something off the ingenuity or zest a loyal but skeptical commander brought to the undertaking. If warding off disaster or modulating the campaign’s military punch becomes a supreme commander’s chief priority, chances are the effort will fall short of its operational, strategic, and political aims. Secondary concerns tend to give way. 

As a rule military folk do the bidding of political grandees out of duty and honor, agree or not. But military history implies that statesmen are best advised to seek out an executor in full concord with the cause. 

All hail true believers. 

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. GhostTomahawk

    March 26, 2023 at 5:25 pm

    FACT: The US military has not won a true war since it started answering to the politicians in DC.

    Korea: draw?

    Vietnam: loss

    Iraq: doesn’t count because the entire world beat down Iraq

    War on Terror: loss

    The problem with the military is that it answers to Washington DC. Winning a war while taking your orders to someone a world away who is watching opinion polls only interested in re- elections… it’s not a recipe for success. America needs a 5 star General who can Trump the weak elected people in our govt who usually only have their best interests in mind.

  2. David Chang

    March 26, 2023 at 9:08 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Isoroku Yamamoto is loyal to the King of Japan, and researches the strategy and tactics of USN, but opposes Japan government ministers and Army declaring war on the United States, which he thinks that Japan will lose.

    Before World War II, famous Japan law and politics scholars and Army officers and government ministers have believed atheism, they encourage people in Japan to invade other country, and declare socialism warfare on the United States, Isoroku Yamamoto opposes the socialism Asia policy of scholars and officers, so Japan Army officers send riflemen to the gate of the Japan Navy Command, aim on the Navy Command, and declare that Isoroku Yamamoto and the Japan Navy are traitors.

    Because of sin, we know that civilian control is a wrong constitution thought, not only police and soldiers are under the command of civilians, but people, police, and soldiers should be humble before God.

    God bless America.

  3. cobo

    March 27, 2023 at 10:11 am

    May the supreme being bless us.

    What did he suggested to us. Beat swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.

    But in the 21st century, USA and its democrat party think thry are on verge of final victory, or final solution.

    US Democrat party chief honcho whose name starts with a ‘b’ wants to spread his wokeism (latest religion from western hemisphere) to the rest of mankind.

    He demands everyone to accept & embrace this latest religion, inspired by latest version of american exceptionalism called wokeness.

    Sometime jn august 2012, he demanded the peoole to vote for democrat party only lest they be put back once more in iron chains.

    As far as wokeism is concerned, you have no other alternative or choice to pursue. It’s my way or the highway.

    Swords into ploughshares ???

    Not compatible with wokeism.

    Only wars, military campaigns, military exercises, war rehearsals, crippling sanctions, boycotts, bans and political-military tit for tat actions and acts of dogbarking are legit for advancing the religion of wokeism.

    At old age, the man has received his enlightenment or wokeness and he believes in bloody bloody proxy wars to spread the universal love of wokeness.

    Trouble is today’s the 21st century, not the psychedelic years of the seventies anymore. No more nam wars !

  4. Eric G Weber

    March 27, 2023 at 3:55 pm

    click bait. a few examples over thousands of years. I suppose the many debates between Patton, Bradley, and Montgomery disqualify them from any historical significance because clearly they were not “true believers.” Not even bothering to define objectively “true believer” reminds me of required formations where the officer is speaking and the CSMs are trying very hard not to role their eyes and the self-love-affair of upward-looking officers. February 2003. Shinseki was a true-believer. He was a success story. He told the truth about future missions and was sacked. True believer or not, commanders for the next two decades had to cobble together strategies in Iraq when the facts were ignored by the politicians. Logistics can be independent of true belief.

  5. Jai

    March 28, 2023 at 3:02 am

    Isn’t Lee himself a clear counter example?

  6. ericji

    March 31, 2023 at 4:23 pm

    Dear Mr. Author, perhaps rather than “As Thucydides, the father of history” you should write “As Thucydides, the father of Western history” — less Euro-centric, which is very important going forward.

    Then you write about “a less-than-fervent general or admiral finds himself in charge of an expedition”.

    While this does indeed happen, it’s not a warfare killer as commanders are often replaced in full-scale warfare. It’s better to recognize that a nation that is not 100% committed to war and winning is not a good foundation for battle. It leads to the warfare ADHD the US has.

    It can be argued that the US did not lose the Vietnam war, it just grew tired of it.

  7. ATM

    April 1, 2023 at 9:11 pm

    The moral of the story could also be: If your most accomplished generals tell you that it is a bad idea, don’t do it. Expend your resources on something that will have a good return on our investment. All these situations have one thing in common, incompetent civilian leadership forcing a plan down the militaries throat.

  8. Bob Roemer

    April 2, 2023 at 3:32 pm

    That’s why the Leftist Administration is transforming our U.S. MIlitary into “WOKE” ideological puppets who’ll do what they’re told regardless of the lack of wisdom, ethical, moral or constitutionally legal basis.

  9. ZaSu

    April 11, 2023 at 8:16 pm

    The professor sure loves his wars.
    I bet he wants our proxy war in Ukraine to last for years.

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