War by Land, Sea, and Air: Dwight Eisenhower and the Concept of Unified Command






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Publication: Parameters
Author: Bacevich, Andrew J
Date published: April 1, 2010

War by Land, Sea, and Air: Dwight Eisenhower and the Concept of Unified Command. By David Jablonsky. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010. 416 pages. $35.00.

This workmanlike study takes up a very old question, which generations of soldiers once firmly believed to be a matter of vital importance. Today, however, we know better, or at least ought to. The subtitle accurately conveys the author's purpose. David Jablonsky, himself a former military officer and author of many previous books, sets out to describe twentieth-century US efforts to achieve unity of command, paying particular attention to the contributions of Dwight D. Eisenhower, as both soldier and statesman.

War by Land, Sea, and Air accomplishes this purpose admirably. The prose is clean, the research solid, the conclusions for the most part sound. Revelations are few, but this is to be expected. Jablonsky is working a pretty well-plowed field. Some readers may think that the author overstates Eisenhower's personal role. After all, his story begins well before Ike appears on the scene and concludes long after he was gone. Moreover, institutional reform tends to be a corporate enterprise. To attribute big change transpiring across generations to the efforts of a single individual, whether Emory Upton, Alfred Thayer Mahan, or Billy Mitchell, distorts the process. But that is a quibble. Anyway, we all like Ike.

The narrative is a familiar one. The experience of 1898 in Cuba first alerted American officers to the need for interservice cooperation. Participation in World War I introduced them to the frustrations and complexities of inter-Allied relations. During the interval between the World Wars, the Army and Navy made at best halting progress toward confronting these issues. Little urgency existed to do so.

World War II forced the issue, at least for the duration. Yet as Jablonsky makes clear, even under the pressure of global war, unified command-between allies and among services-did not just happen. Creating it required a major push, led by George C. Marshall, with Eisenhower serving as his principal agent. Once established (at least between Brits and Americans), it required constant tending. To prevent backsliding, Eisenhower as supreme commander exhibited tenacity, patience, and considerable acumen. Even then, Allied unity of effort was partial, failing to incorporate the forces commanded by either Douglas MacArthur or Josef Stalin, both of whom played nice only to the extent that doing so served their purposes.

The emergence of the postwar national security state triggered a battle royal over what was then called "unification." President Harry Truman insisted upon it. Led by Eisenhower, confirmed as Chief of Staff in November 1945, the Army generally supported the President. The Navy and Marine Corps stubbornly dissented and eventually prevailed.

The result was a mess. The second half of Jablonsky's narrative recounts efforts, pursued over a period of four decades, to repair that mess. The solution, supported by Eisenhower both before and during his years as President, was to centralize authority, enhance the clout of the Secretary of Defense, establish the primacy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) chairman at the expense of the service chiefs, and (in an allied context) recreate within NATO command arrangements comparable to those that had existed in the wartime European Theater of Operations.

During Eisenhower's presidency, this effort culminated in the 1958 Defense Reorganization Act, which Jablonsky hails as a major achievement. Given the performance of the national security establishment during the decade that followed, that qualifies as a generous evaluation. The fact is that defense reorganization engineered by Eisenhower did nothing to avert and may even have exacerbated the debacle of Vietnam.

Jablonsky chooses not to deal with Vietnam. Instead, he skips from 1958 to 1982, describing the sequence of events that produced the next major reshuffling of Defense Department deck chairs. This effort culminated in the storied Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, the ultimate expression of the conviction that unity through centralization holds the key to military effectiveness, and, according to Jablonsky, legislation that would surely have earned Ike's own blessing.

There Jablonsky's story ends. He devotes exactly one page to the post-9/11 era, choosing not to evaluate the efficacy of US policy in an era in which unity of command is now presumably fully established. His reticence in this regard is, to put it mildly, difficult to comprehend. The question demands to be asked. With the Defense Secretary now fully in charge of the Pentagon, the primacy of the JCS chairman now a given, and the authority of field commanders over the air, naval, and ground forces under their purview accepted by all, how have we done over the past nine years?

Opinions may differ. My own judgment is that we have not done especially well. Overall, the performance of senior military and civilian leaders in connection to Iraq and Afghanistan has not represented an appreciable improvement over the performance of Russell Alger, Nelson Miles, and William Shafter in connection to Cuba in 1898.

Jablonsky quotes, approvingly, a comment by General Marshall shortly after the United States entered World War II. Creating a system of unified command, Marshall insisted, "will solve nine-tenths of our troubles." Well, we have got that system and our troubles continue. Perhaps unity of effort is not quite the panacea it was cracked up to be.

Author affiliation:

Reviewed by Andrew J. Bacevich, Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University.

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