Military historian Moten (co-author: Between War and Peace: How America Ends Its Wars, 2011, etc.), former head of the history department at West Point, traces the long struggle of presidents to assert their power over recalcitrant generals.
George Washington was adamant that as president, he was only to assert policy, not fight wars. When fear of war with the French caused President John Adams to put him in charge of the army again, he changed his tune, insisting that he would be subordinate, not subservient, and demanding the right to pick all his own generals, especially Alexander Hamilton. He also insisted that he would not be active until a crisis appeared, effectively turning the army over to Hamilton, who was much detested by Adams. Moten beautifully exposes the battles and the alliances between men controlling the country’s future. Certainly, Abraham Lincoln was all over the spectrum, with his inability to get George McClellan to do much of anything offset by Ulysses Grant’s effective action. 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. All presidents admit that war, once begun, takes on a life of its own, but generals who begin to make policy overstep their duty. Gen. Douglas MacArthur is a prime example. Harry Truman suffered his arrogance, but “when the president mistrusts or fears one of his senior commanders, that officer’s relief is already overdue.” Moten doesn’t mince words regarding MacArthur, who went on speaking tours while still in service, “soiling his uniform and besmirching his profession with vitriol directed against his commander in chief.” 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.