Generals and admirals are mistaken if they believe their only job in war is to execute the policymaker’s war aims, requiring of them merely an “end state” and the time and resources to accomplish the job. Political leaders are wrong if they believe their job in war is to make policy decisions, getting only options from military leaders that are to be used in discussions from which military leaders are excluded. While convenient because each can “blame” the other when things go wrong, such attitudes are based on a false understanding of the civil-military relationship necessary to wage war successfully.That relationship is not simply a forum to establish civil control and dominance over the military, a way to demand obedience—as some have suggested—to any policy decision regardless of how potentially ineffective it may be. Rather, it is a forum that should recognize the final decision authority concerning consequential strategic and operational matters rightfully rests with senior civilian leaders; and that the purpose of the relationship is to ensure those final decisions are the best, all things military and nonmilitary considered.The relationship should serve to make sure decisions are based on a complete understanding of the situation as is possible; that all information available at the time is considered; options and risks are fully explored; and decisions are made based on facts and reality, not bias and ideology. Those senior executive, legislative and military leaders who participate in the weighty discussions leading up to a final decision are responsible to each other, the nation, and those whose lives are to be put at risk that the final decisions are obtainable. History shows us that such a process is often contentious, difficult and uncomfortable but without it, the probability increases that lives may be unnecessarily put at risk or even wasted.Some posit that in the civil-military relationship, senior civilian leaders have a “right to be wrong.” I disagree. War-waging decisions always put lives at risk: the lives of the innocent in a war zone as well as the lives of citizens who are also the soldiers who carry out the orders. In some cases, war-waging decisions may even put the life of the political community itself at risk. When the stakes of a decision are this high, no final decision authority has the right to be wrong. Rather, the decisionmaker has an obligation to be as right as is reasonable to expect, given the nature and realities of war. Those involved in the process leading up to a consequential decision—whether in uniform or in a suit, whether in the executive or legislative branch—have an obligation to ensure that any decision is as fully vetted as it can be. Finally, civilian and military leaders have three further responsibilities. First, they are responsible for aligning the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war. In this way, they help ensure that individual military and nonmilitary tactical actions are nested within an operational scheme that is tied to the strategic political aims the war seeks to attain. Second, they are responsible for making bureaucracies work well enough to execute decisions. Then, they are responsible for adapting decisions to the realities of war as it unfolds.Execution of these responsibilities requires that senior political and military leaders establish some kind of reality-based feedback system and coordinative body (or bodies) to ensure they can constantly assess and adapt to the uncertainties, opportunities and obstacles that invariably arise in any war. Those who ultimately execute decisions on the battlefield that senior leaders make in the capital are owed this conceptual alignment and organizational coherence.In waging war, civilian and military leaders need each other. Both perspectives are necessary. Neither alone has a corner on relevant knowledge, and both are co-responsible for results. Americans would be unpersuaded by a senior flag officer who says, when testifying about a consequential wartime decision, “I just executed the policy decision I was given”—as if he or she had no responsibility for the quality and substance of that decision. Americans would find equally unsatisfying a senior political leader who, when talking about the same decision, says, “I just make policy, others execute it”—as if policy and execution can be disconnected in war, or as if waging a war is solely a military affair.“Wars are fought not to be won,” Peter Paret reminds us in The Cognitive Challenge of War: Prussia 1806, “but to gain [some political] objective beyond war.” Simply put: A functional civil-military relationship is essential in war if a nation is to prosecute the war well enough to attain its strategic aims and use well the lives it puts at risk.Civilian leaders must push, probe and question their military and nonmilitary subordinates—even to the point of annoyance and discomfort—to ensure that strategic aims are actually achievable within acceptable costs and risks; and to ensure the strategies, policies and campaigns designed to attain those aims are as well-crafted and aligned as possible. Similarly, subordinate military and non-military leaders must respectfully push, probe and question their civilian seniors to ensure the means used in war are nested within, and instrumental to, well-reasoned policy and to ensure strategic aims are actually “doable.”Disagreement is not disrespect. Such pushing, probing and questioning lies at the heart of what Eliot A. Cohen calls “the unequal dialogue” in Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime. Both senior political and military leaders must understand the outcomes they are co-responsible to attain, and why those outcomes are worth the potential costs and risks. The dialogue that Cohen describes increases the probability of such understanding.The dialogue is unequal, however, because senior political leaders retain final decision authority. But the participants in the dialogue are functionally and morally equal. They are functionally equal because both civilian and military perspectives are necessary to ensure any final decision concerning aims, strategies, policies or campaigns has the highest probability of success, and because both are needed to execute initial decisions and adapt as the realities of war present themselves. And they are morally equal, for both are co-responsible for the lives that are risked and used in execution of war-waging decisions.This kind of dialogue can only occur under the conditions of mutual respect, trust and understanding—for example, the Lincoln/Grant and Roosevelt/Marshall relationships. In those cases—like much of Vietnam and periodically during our post-9/11 wars—where senior political or military leaders either disrespected one or mistrusted one another, sought to dominate or control rather than understand each other, or deceived one another, the probability of success reduced significantly and thus, the nation was poorly served.Waging war is hard because of the ambiguities, uncertainties, fog and friction that is part of war’s nature at the tactical and strategic levels. It is made harder when those responsible for making and executing war-waging decisions, then adapting as the war goes on, are in dysfunctional relationships. The cost of a dysfunctional wartime relationship is paid in lives: of the innocent; of the citizens who are the soldiers whose lives are risked, used and forever changed by war; and in damage to the political community—especially in unnecessarily long wars or lost wars.No relationship is perfect, but all participants in a war-waging civil-military relationship have a moral obligation to make it work. The stakes of war are simply too high to operate otherwise.