On Good News from Generals: Churchill’s Experience and Methods

On Good News from Generals: Churchill’s Experience and Methods

Say what?

A New York Times cor­re­spon­dent writes:

I’ve been read­ing The Best and the Bright­est by David Hal­ber­stam, about how we got into Viet­nam. When you’re decid­ing whether to inter­vene mil­i­tar­i­ly, he says, you can count on the gen­er­als to tell you every­thing that can go awry and stress the neg­a­tive part of the pic­ture. But once they’re invest­ed, once it’s their job to cre­ate a good out­come through mil­i­tary means, it’s going to be all hap­py talk. They’re not going to report that they’re fail­ing. They’re going to give you the sun­nier side of what’s hap­pen­ing, in this case, in Afghanistan. And that’s what happened.


Is this an earth-shak­ing rev­e­la­tion? We’ve known how gen­er­als tell pols what they want to hear at least since Gen­er­al MacArthur told Pres­i­dent Tru­man the Chi­nese would nev­er cross the Yalu Riv­er into Korea. In 1952 Dwight Eisen­how­er cam­paigned for pres­i­dent promis­ing to go to Korea him­self. Before being inau­gu­rat­ed, he kept that promise.

A decade or so lat­er, we had Gen­er­al West­more­land in Viet Nam, always promis­ing that suc­cess was just around the cor­ner. The jour­nal­ist Peter Arnett claimed that anoth­er offi­cer said, “We destroyed the vil­lage in order to save it.” (Alas this proved to be what Churchill might call a “ter­mi­no­log­i­cal inex­ac­ti­tude.” But it seemed to fit the mood of the time.)

Let us go back far­ther to the First World War. Prime Min­is­ter David Lloyd George nev­er asked a lot of ques­tions of his gen­er­als, and for years let them send the lads “over the top,” dec­i­mat­ing a generation.

The Sec­ond World War was con­duct­ed dif­fer­ent­ly. In 1942, Prime Min­is­ter Churchill went to North Africa him­self when he thought he was being fed rub­bish by gen­er­als. (In that case it was out of impa­tience to beat Rommel’s Afri­ka Korps, not opti­mistic sce­nar­ios by the mil­i­tary. Still, it was a stud­ied con­trast to the leader’s curios­i­ty in the pre­vi­ous war.)

Churchill had just been chal­lenged by a vote of con­fi­dence. He won hand­i­ly, but real­ized the coun­try was weary and need­ed a vic­to­ry. In August 1942 he flew to Cairo, toured the West­ern Desert, and sacked the gal­lant Gen. Claude Auchin­leck. He installed Harold Alexan­der as Mid­dle East com­man­der and Bernard Mont­gomery to head the 8th Army. Alex and Mon­ty took twice as long to tack­le Rom­mel as Auchin­leck had promised. Still, when they did, the result was absolute tri­umph. Pro­fes­sor Ray­mond Calla­han is writ­ing about all this cur­rent­ly for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project.

Demanding the facts

Eliot A. Cohen offers anoth­er exam­ple of Churchill’s abil­i­ty to fer­ret out truth from gen­er­als. In March 1941 he queried then-com­man­der of Home Forces, Gen­er­al Sir Alan Brooke, on a Jan­u­ary exer­cise called “Vic­tor”:

1. In the inva­sion exer­cise “Vic­tor,” two armoured, one 
motorised and two infantry divi­sions were assumed to be land­ed by 
the ene­my on the Nor­folk coast in the teeth of heavy oppo­si­tion.
 They fought their way ashore and were all assumed to be in action 
at the end of 48 hours.

2. I pre­sume the details of this remark­able feat have been
 worked out by the Staff con­cerned. Let me see them. For instance,
 how many ships and trans­ports car­ried these five Divi­sions? How 
many Armoured vehi­cles did they com­prise? How many motor lor
ries, how many guns, how much ammu­ni­tion, how many men, how
 many tons of stores, how far did they advance in the first 48
 hours, how many men and vehi­cles were assumed to have land­ed in
 the first 12 hours, what per­cent­age of loss were they deb­it­ed
 with? What hap­pened to the trans­ports and store-ships while the
 first 48 hours of fight­ing were going on? Had they com­plet­ed
 emp­ty­ing their car­goes, or were they still lying in shore off the
 beach­es? What naval escort did they have? Was the land­ing at this
 point pro­tect­ed by supe­ri­or ene­my day­light Fight­er for­ma­tions?
 How many Fight­er air­planes did the ene­my have to employ, if so, to 
cov­er the land­ing places?

Brooke game­ly replied and they sparred back and forth for weeks. “What is the sig­nif­i­cance of this?” Dr. Cohen asks. First, “Brooke stood up to Churchill and not only did not suf­fer by it, but ulti­mate­ly gained pro­mo­tion to the post of Chief of the Impe­r­i­al Gen­er­al Staff. But more impor­tant is Churchill’s obser­va­tion that ‘It is of course quite rea­son­able for assump­tions of this char­ac­ter to be made as a foun­da­tion for a mil­i­tary exer­cise. It would be indeed a dark­en­ing coun­sel to make them the foun­da­tion of seri­ous mil­i­tary thought.'”

Close scrutiny today…

…is much eas­i­er with instant com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Brooke and Churchill could have got through their debate on “Vic­tor” with a few emails. Churchill could have vis­it­ed his North Africa com­man­ders on Zoom or Face­time. Pres­i­dents or Prime Min­is­ters needn’t hie to the scene of bat­tle when they think their gen­er­als are lying to them. (In Afghanistan by the end of August there was noth­ing to hie to.) But the prin­ci­ple remains. Gen­er­als say what they hope civil­ian boss­es wish to hear. So let’s stop stat­ing the obvi­ous. Of course gen­er­als put the best spin on what they’re doing. The prob­lem is what some of them are asked to do.

The mil­i­tary do two things well. They break things and kill peo­ple. It’s when politi­cians order them to build democ­ra­cy or back cor­rupt local grifters that they’re not so good. And that’s when they fre­quent­ly tend to exag­ger­ate their prospects.

Further reading

“Gen­er­als Wavell and Auchin­leck and the Lost Art of Going Qui­et­ly,” 2023.

Eliot A. Çohen, “Churchill and His Mil­i­tary Com­man­ders” (2016), part 1 of 3 parts.

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