"Lessons From Lincoln: On Being a War President" by LTG James Dubik (ret.)

Lessons from Lincoln: On Being a War President

 by LTG James Dubik (ret.), AUSA Institute of Land Warfare, December 2008


President-elect Barack Obama is already following Abraham Lincoln’s example as he goes about forming his government. Months before the November 2008 election, he made reference to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the sixteenth President’s appointment of several political rivals to his Cabinet, and in the weeks since the election has been taking much the same approach. The current focus may be on the President-elect’s selection of a new Team of Rivals, but it will soon be on his war leadership. In that regard he could learn from Lincoln as well.

Lincoln, says author James M. McPherson in Tried By War, was a self-taught war President. His study of war correctly identified three important areas upon which to focus his attention. The first had to do with a conceptual framework, the second with the relationship among the elements of the conceptual framework and the dynamism of these relationships, and the third with the personalities—military and civilian—necessary to execute the war.

Lincoln mastered his role as commander in chief on the job—as may the President-elect. The Constitution names the President as “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual service of the United States.” Nowhere does the Constitution define the roles, functions or powers of a commander in chief; neither does Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Paper No. 69, “The Real Character of the Executive,” which mentions the role of commander in chief but provides little explanation. “Nor did the precedents created by Presidents James Madison and James K. Polk in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War provide much guidance.” Ambiguity meant that “Lincoln would have to establish most of the powers of commander in chief for himself.” Ultimately, Lincoln settled on the following five wartime functions:

Policy. The war aims or political goals of the nation at war.

National Strategy. The mobilization of political, economic, diplomatic, psychological, and military resources necessary to achieve the aims and goals of policy.

Military Strategy. The employment of military forces to win war and fulfill the aims and goals of policy

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