The Commanders

Title:                      The Commanders

Author:                  Bob Woodward

Woodward, Bob (1991). The Commanders. New York: Simon and Schuster

LCCN:    91013037

E881 .W66 1991


Date Updated:  October 15, 2015

Bob Woodward’s best-selling account of decisionmaking within the inner sanctum of U.S. leadership is a long-time favorite for military professionals, The Commanders is a modern classic that offers readers a rare glimpse into the workings of the National Command Authority during Operation Just Cause and the months preceding the Persian Gulf war. As only he can, Woodard lays bare decisions, recounts private conversations, and closely examines personalities. The result is a book that is as fascinating to read as it is difficult to put down–a primer for decision analysis within President George H.W. Bush’s administration.

Woodward became familiar to me during the Watergate articles in the Washington Post. The movie that followed made his name internationally famous. I thought that when the left the Post and began writing gossip news that he had sold out. I was prepared to not like The Commanders.

I was well aware of the military events in Panama, because I had the opportunity to hear a presentation made by Brig. General Boynton who was the chief of staff during the Panama Invasion. It was a fiasco from the outset. The only maps available to plan the invasion (I actually saw the map containing the operation order for the invasion) came from AAA. The Defense Mapping Agency certainly had maps, but Gen. Boynton pointed out that the invasion was a closely held secret, and going to the DMA would possibly give away the invasion plan.

A number of foul-ups were related to communications. The Navy and the Army use different means to send orders. It was difficult for the Army, once on the ground, to get Navy support. The radios were not compatible and required extraordinary means to get information to the admiral in command of the operation aboard the bridge of his carrier.

The only available airfield for the landings had a “maximum on ground” (MOG) of just one. Putting troops on the ground was slow and dangerous. As soon as troops offloaded they were subjected to crossing machinegun fire. Trying to assemble and begin operations was mess.

Woodward’s research and ability to tell the whole story gives you a “fly on the wall” status. He tries not to make any judgments either on the events themselves or the players involved. Woodward succeeds in laying it all out there for you. Woodward clearly likes Gen. Colin Powell but he doesn’t paint an overly rosy picture of Bush, often leaving you wondering about Bush’s decision-making skills or intentions. This may only be because he was not able to personally use Bush as a source.

Now, more than 10 years after the events that drove Woodward to pursue the more than 400 personal interviews that comprise The Commanders, the book could not be more relevant. As America further embarks in the war on terrorism, many of the same personalities remain at the nexus of the decisionmaking apparatus. Two vital players of those decade-old events, current Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell, continue to formulate policy and influence decisions at the core of efforts to destroy al-Qaeda and other entities that threaten U.S. interests.

Woodward, the Washington Post investigative reporter who played a central role in documenting the Watergate scandal and the fall of President Richard M. Nixon’s administration, essentially credits Cheney and Powell, and combat commanders Generals Maxwell Thurman and Norman Schwarzkopf, with providing the critical focus necessary to execute war. Though Woodward rarely mentions Cheney in an openly positive manner, he nonetheless portrays him as an instinctively progressive leader who offers no quarter to those clearly “not on the administration team.” Conversely, Woodward recognizes Powell as a natural leader–measured and politically savvy. Within the book’s pages, readers will clearly see two men destined for leading roles in the Nation’s future.

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