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

War by Land, Sea and Air: Dwight Eisenhower and the Concept of Unified Command by David Jablonsky. Yale University Press, 2010, 400 pp.

At its core, unified command is simply the principle of having a single commander with the authority to direct all the forces employed toward a common goal. One has only to look at the present organization of the Department of Defense with its line of command flowing to the various combatant commanders and the pivotal role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to realize that the value of unified command is unquestioned at the strategic as well as the operational level. However, this was not always the case. Prior to 7 December 1941, unified command was more of a theoretical construct than an applied concept. How the US military grew to accept this concept and how its organizational structure evolved is the subject of David Jablonsky’s book.

The story of twentieth-century American military reform has been the subject of numerous books. Jablonsky, a longtime faculty member of the Army War College, tells the story through the views of Dwight Eisenhower, who the author argues is the central figure in the development and implementation of the concept of unified command. Consequently, War on Land, Sea and Air, is in effect a tightly focused biography of Eisenhower from his days as a newly commissioned officer just prior to the First World War through his two terms as president and commander-in-chief, with the intent of showing how his ideas became in reality the defense structure we have today.

Jablonsky uses the concept of unified command in two decidedly different ways. The first is in an operational sense; that is, the granting of operational authority within a geographic area of all land, sea, and air forces under a single commander. As he points out, prior to Pearl Harbor there were efforts by the military to move in the direction of joint and unified command, but the failure of General Short and Admiral Kimmel to coordinate their efforts was indicative of the lack of success. The complex nature of military operations in World War II required that unified command at both the joint and combined level be implemented. In this regard there is a straight line from the establishment of Eisenhower’s command in North Africa and later in Europe, as well as the unified commands in the Pacific under Nimitz and MacArthur, to the modern-day geographic and functional commands that exist today. This initial development of unified operational command under Eisenhower is the focus of the first half of Jablonsky’s work and is by far the best part of the book. It is well written and tightly focused on Eisenhower as we follow his development as an officer and his travails in implementing the concept of unified command in face of contentious allies and political pressures. The author’s analysis of the countervailing political dynamics and personalities in the European theater, while not particularly new, is quite well done.

By focusing on Eisenhower, however, Jablonsky creates the false impression that he was the sole driving force toward unified command during the war. This tends to minimize the role of other actors, such as George C. Marshall, and the fact that US commanders in the Pacific, through trial and error, were arriving at many of the same ideas as Eisenhower. This is not to underestimate the difficulty Eisenhower had creating a joint and a combined force in Europe—only that he was not alone in concluding that this was the most effective way to fight modern war.

The second use of the term unified command is in a strategic, political/military planning sense that evolves around the evolution of the authority of the JCS from its inception in World War II to its present configuration under the Goldwater-Nichols act in 1986 and the concomitant centralization of power into the hands of the secretary of defense. Most of the later half of the book addresses Eisenhower’s efforts—first as Army chief of staff then as military consultant to the Truman administration, NATO’s first commander, and finally as president—to mitigate the issues of interservice rivalry, develop an integrated political policymaking structure, and ultimately create a unified command at the national level. Jablonsky is essentially correct that Eisenhower’s concerns over interservice rivalry led him to conclude that defense planning should be centralized in the secretary of defense and the chairman of the JCS, but again concentrating on Eisenhower over-simplifies the story, especially between the end of WWII and Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953. The centralization movement started during this period and probably would have occurred regardless of Eisenhower’s role. More problematic is Jablonsky’s tendency to conflate interservice rivalry with honest differences of opinion over military strategy. Eisenhower, especially during his presidency, tended to view such differences as contentious, however, the JCS believed they had a professional duty to raise competing ideas. The disconnect between Eisenhower’s view of the JCS role and the chiefs’ own views is never addressed. Jablonsky also ignores the question of whether Eisenhower’s efforts at centralization ultimately politicized the senior military at the expense of their professional values. While he does suggest at one point that Eisenhower’s approach “resulted in confusion over the meaning of military professionalism,” and this would have a profound impact during the Vietnam War, he leaves this important idea unexplored. Instead he leaps directly from Eisenhower’s 1958 reforms to Goldwater-Nichols. The complex interrelationship of military professionalism and civilian leadership’s desire for centralized management is an area that needs further exploration.

One final point is that the conclusion of the book leaves the reader somewhat perplexed and disappointed. After striving throughout to show the value of unified command culminating in Goldwater-Nichols, there is no real assessment of the effectiveness of the reforms. Since 1986 the military has fought three major wars (two of which continue), numerous smaller operations in places such as the Balkans and Somalia, and will continue to fight the global war on terrorism for the indefinite future. An assessment of whether Eisenhower’s vision of unified command has succeeded would have been the logical conclusion to Jablonsky’s work. Unfortunately, there is barely a single page covering this period.

Notwithstanding my criticisms, I would recommend War by Land, Sea and Air for consideration by most officers, especially as they move toward joint and combined staff responsibilities. For those who are very familiar with defense reform, there may not be a great deal new in this book, and a quick skimming may be sufficient. For those less familiar with the history of defense reorganization or the development of operational unified command in Europe during the Second World War, it is an excellent overview and a wonderful starting place for further reading and research.

Jack Binkley, PhD

University of Maryland

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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