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On supreme command: the characteristics of successful American generals at war

Cavanaugh, M. L. (2018) On supreme command: the characteristics of successful American generals at war. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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To link to this item DOI: 10.48683/1926.00082827


Supreme command matters to a country at war. The supreme commander, typically a military general, is charged with ultimate judgment authority and responsibility for a community’s strategic performance in a conflict. Despite this clear importance, as Harvard’s Sarah Sewall has remarked, “we lack the tools to judge military leadership.” Aside from uncritical biographies and battlefocused military histories, the supreme commander’s role has evaded serious academic scrutiny. This historical study seeks to illuminate patterns in exemplary supreme command. It first considers the topic’s importance, then consults the characteristics associated with superlative supreme command, with particular focus on military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s “military genius” as an ideal type. It then tests the assembled characteristics through three in-depth case studies using primary source records (e.g. dispatches and memoranda) as direct artifacts of judgment to quantify and qualify contrasts between opposing supreme commanders. Later on, it looks to formal, observable characteristics to enable comparisons among high-achieving supreme commanders. This dissertation finds superior judgment, attended by a distinct sense of empathy and grit, and accompanied by several other common characteristics, is what drives successful supreme command. This finding held true across different conflicts, strategies, and other comparative measures. This work concludes by thinking through the finding’s utility as well as pondering the extent to which these traits can be learned through experience or education.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Gray, C.
Thesis/Report Department:School of Politics, Economics & International Relations
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Politics, Economics and International Relations > Politics and International Relations
ID Code:82827


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