Cohen said successful wartime leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill maintained close day-to-day supervision over the military, contrary to conventional wisdom that suggests the fighting should be left to military professionals.
He described the ideal relationship between political and military leaders as an “uneven dialogue.”
“The very possibility of such a dialogue is a strength of democracies in war,” he said before an audience of more than 100. “It’s not about bullying or intimidation. It is about dialogue.”
Cohen, who is the author of the recent book Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime argued that the high stakes of war make necessary a constructive tension between political and military leaders. He faulted Lyndon B. Johnson for failing to ask tough questions of his generals during the Vietnam War.
But while presidents should not defer to military leaders, Cohen said, they should try to understand their position.
“Empathy, not sympathy, is another matter, and it seems to me that that’s a quality worth cultivating,” he said.
Tad J. Oelstrom, director of the KSG’s National Security Program and a retired U.S. Air Force general, served as a panelist.
He said he agreed with the general idea of close presidential control of the military, but said that generals had valid reasons to be wary of too much civilian interference.
“I think it is easy to conclude that there is no such thing as a perfect civil-military relationship,” he said. “It’s a very sensitive equation that continually gets out of balance.”
Oelstrom, who served in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf among other posts, offered a number of his experiences in the military to illustrate his perspective.
Both speakers said American officers are more likely to affiliate themselves with a political party—predominantly the Republican party—than in the past.
Cohen said he supports bringing the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program back to Harvard to bring more “Harvard liberals” into the country’s officer corps.
“It’d be good for the military and it’d be good for our officer corps,’ he said.
Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 moderated the event, which was sponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Harvard’s Program on Constitutional Government.
Mansfield introduced Cohen and Oelstrom with a question.
“Which is it better to be—a professor or a general?” he asked. “I decided it’s better to be a general. Because if you’re a general they might make you a professor, but if you’re a professor they’re never going to make you a general.”