Since World War II, the United States has been engaged in near-constant military conflict abroad, often with ill-defined objectives, ineffectual strategy, and uncertain benefits. In this era of limited congressional oversight and “wars of choice,” the executive and the armed services have shared the primary responsibility for making war. The negotiations between presidents and their generals thus grow ever more significant, and understanding them becomes essential.
Matthew Moten traces a sweeping history of the evolving roles of civilian and military leaders in conducting war, demonstrating how war strategy and national security policy shifted as political and military institutions developed, and how they were shaped by leaders’ personalities. Early presidents established the principle of military subordination to civil government, and from the Civil War to World War II the president’s role as commander-in-chief solidified, with an increasingly professionalized military offering its counsel. But General Douglas MacArthur’s insubordination to President Harry Truman during the Korean War put political-military tensions on public view. Subsequent presidents selected generals who would ally themselves with administration priorities. Military commanders in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan did just that—and the results were poorly conceived policy and badly executed strategy.
The most effective historical collaborations between presidents and their generals were built on mutual respect for military expertise and civilian authority, and a willingness to negotiate with candor and competence. Upon these foundations, future soldiers and statesmen can ensure effective decision-making in the event of war and bring us closer to the possibility of peace.
A masterful analysis of the evolution of the American system of military command, in which exists a remarkable cloistering between the military men and the political apparatus that delivers them their orders, and the ways in which that system has so successfully maintained itself… This book is an incredible work of American history, blending as it does military and political histories while simultaneously addressing a will to power that is as American as it was Roman… This indispensable work contains within it a picture of America that expands beyond its subject matter.
In a country as disposed to war as the United States has been, the relationship between the commander in chief and his admirals and generals is as critical as that between the president and Congress. Just how critical that relationship may be is the theme of this book, the first full-length history of its subject. It should be required reading in the White House, the Pentagon, and Foggy Bottom—in this, and every succeeding administration. The history it relates is sobering. Matthew Moten is the kind of authority you’d want for a guide through the subject: As the former head of West Point’s history department, an Iraq war veteran, and a former legislative aide to the Army chief of staff, he has the broad field and staff experience essential for understanding political-military relations in their many forms—and from inside. He’s thorough, disenthralled, critical, and balanced in his judgments. No one can dismiss what he writes… Presidents and Their Generals makes a signal contribution to the historical knowledge of its subject over the long sweep of our nation’s history.
In Presidents and Their Generals, Matthew Moten sets out to provide an episodic history of what he calls American ‘political–military relations,’ by which he means the relationship between military leaders and their civilian overseers. He succeeds admirably, jumping from the Revolution through the War of 1812 to the Civil War, the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the 1991 Gulf War, and the Iraq war. This book is well done: Well considered, well structured, and well written. Moten, a former head of West Point’s history department, is a clear and pleasant writer, with an assured style. He favors making bold statements and then backing them up with persuasive analyses… Moten is sophisticated in his political analysis in a way that academics sometimes are not… The most surprising thing about this book may be that no one seems to have written one like it until now. Moten has stepped up and filled the gap impressively.
This highly readable book, impressive in scope, is a major contribution to understanding the important yet often-shifting dynamics of civil-military relations in the U.S.—past, present, and future.
[Moten] traces the long struggle of presidents to assert their power over recalcitrant generals… Moten beautifully exposes the battles and the alliances between men controlling the country’s future… The author explains the workings of war, the effects and dangers of standing armies, and the growth of the president’s Cabinet-level military advisers… The author’s opinions are precise and witty and based on comprehensive knowledge of his subject, as he clearly demonstrates how wars are lost by the arrogant and/or incompetent. A brilliant, fascinating picture of how wars badly begun and poorly run can affect an entire country—usually at the hands of just a few men.
Filled with shrewd insights and wise judgments, this remarkable book by one of the country’s leading soldier-scholars demonstrates that the lack of harmony and trust between civilian and military at the top of government has cost the nation dearly, both in the distant and recent past. Every president and senior military officer should ponder this history. So, too, should every citizen who cares about national security.
A new and welcome exploration of the often fraught interactions between political and military authority in the United States from the Revolution to the present. Moten makes clear that all was not orderly in the councils of national defense during the last two centuries, and that they are likely to grow even more contentious in the future.
- 456 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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