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Generals at the brink of disaster

By John E. McIntyre

The Baltimore Sun

11:40 AM EDT, June 17, 2013

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Some people read military history for the technical details--why General X failed to match Hanibal's pincer movement at Cannae. Others, like me, dip into it to see how individuals and societies respond to circumstances of immense stress.

Victor Davis Hanson explores these larger dimensions of wars in The Savior Generals (Bloomsbury Press, 305 pages, $28). He takes five commanders from classical antiquity to today to explore how they went into losing wars and salvaged the situation. In each of these case studies he looks well beyond the battlefield.

Themistocles, who saved Athens at the battle of Salamis, is his first example. The tactics, luring the Persian ships into confined quarters where the more mobile Greek triremes had the advantage, get attention, but Mr. Hanson looks at the larger political and social significance of Themistocles' actions. Shifting Greek military strength from infantry to ships diluted the power of the landowners who supplied the hoplites and increased the power of the citizens who served as rowers. Mr. Hanson argues that this was Themistocles' larger political purpose to reshape Athenian society.

Justinian's great general Belisarius achieved victory after victory in the sixth century with cobbled-together forces, but he was hampered by Justinian's jealousy and by palace intrigue. And further, the great plague that depopulated Byzantium deprived both emperor and general of the resources to hold on to their military gains. The victories of Belisarius are thus seen in a long arc of decline, the repeated holding actions until Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1452.

In 1864, Abraham Lincoln was deeply apprehensive of failing to gain re-election to the presidency. His chief general, Ulysses Grant, had engaged in battles such as Cold Harbor whose immense casualties sickened the North without appreciably making progress against the Confederacy. Farther west, William Tecumseh Sherman's dance through Georgia with Joseph Johnston accomplished two things, Mr. Hanson argues: He avoided the kind of major set battle with tremendous casualties that would have strengthened anti-war sentiment in the North, and he took Atlanta, giving Lincoln a timely victory.

When Douglas MacArthur's ill-judged "march to the Yalu" collapsed under a massive Chinese attack in the winter of 1950-1951, Matthew Ridgway was sent in. He promptly worked at restoring morale, in part by insisting that the troops be better supplied, evaluated and dealt with the deficiencies among commanding officers, and allowed the Chinese to advance and overextend their supply lines before counterattacking. He was also sensitive to the political climate, the tension between MacArthur and President Truman, and by the readiness of various groups in Washington to start a "who lost Korea?" uproar. Moreover, Mr. Hanson argues, Ridgway understood better than MacArthur and others how a limited war could be waged.

Though I lack the standing to contradict the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, I have to say that I am not fully persuaded by Mr. Hanson's inclusion of General David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy and the "surge" in Iraq in his distinguished roster of savior generals. Of course, he points out that he is writing about savior generals, officers who took a nearly hopeless situation and salvaged it, rather than victorious generals, who fulfilled longer-term aims. But it sounds a little like special pleading when he laments that so much attention was paid to Saddam Hussein's  non-existent weapons of mass destruction, including by the Bush administration, when the United Nations resolutions authorizing military action included more solid grounds. And I think he might have been less hard on Democrats in Congress who objected to the surge if he had conceded that their having been led to vote for a war on unfounded premises might have left them reasonably skeptical.

These quibbles aside, Mr. Hanson has wrtten an engaging book in which the action on the battlefield is placed within a larger perspective of the politics and the societies that go to war, and the qualities of the generals who fight those battles.