During war, power tends to concentrate in the executive at the expense of the legislature. Within the executive, power then tends to concentrate in a three- or four-man war cabinet. Within the war cabinet, power tends to concentrate in a single man. Such concentrations are unhealthy, unnecessary and unwise. They lead to mistakes being persisted in, reckless behavior going unpunished, and unrealistic plans being translated into disastrous reality. Examples of this include the British blunders in relation to the convoy system and the Dardanelles during World War I, and the American blunders in relation to the convoy system on their Eastern Seaboard during World War II.

The proper approach is for the legislature to direct the war effort. The executive role should be the same as it is in peace—to execute the laws. This was the way the Roman Republic ran its wars, and it was the way the Continental Congress ran the American War of Independence. Both republics found that this approach meant vexed questions were debated fully and the will of the nation, being more broadly grounded, was all the more formidable. Setbacks, instead of being divisive and undermining confidence in the leadership, only encouraged solidarity and the redoubling of efforts. By contrast the Carthaginians, who gave themselves over to Hannibal’s sole control, suffered the same fate as the French who gave themselves over to Bonaparte’s sole control, and the Germans who gave themselves to Hitler’s sole control.


Nothing is more common in the world, than to see those men fail grossly in the last actions of their lives, who had passed their former days without reproach: Wise and good men will with Moses say of themselves, I cannot bear the burden.

—Algernon Sidney. Discourses Concerning Government, 1698.

At the outbreak of a major war, politicians tend to be overawed by highranking military experts. Only slowly, after repeated disastrous blunders, does it dawn on the politicians that the minds of these experts are ossified, and that their cultivated air of professional confidence is either a product of self-delusion, bluff, or both. Finally, after considerable avoidable loss of life, the politicians begin to question and replace the generals, leading to more competent generals coming to the fore. Politicians should be alert to this from the start and not allow the hero of the last war, whether Pompey, Kitchener, Pétain, or MacArthur, to hog the stage for one last tragic scene.

Men like Percival (of Singapore fame) and Montgomery (of Operation Market Garden fame), whose petty minds and strict adherence to regulations brought them promotion during peacetime, can be disastrous choices for command in war. Non-performers should be replaced by those who deliver proven results in the current war. However reckless adventurers, like Rommel, ought to be cashiered. A general is a trustee, and it is no answer, when exceeding a commission, to claim vindication in the outcome—anymore than an executor who wagers an estate can claim vindication if he wins at the gambling table.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove