On Linked In, for the last few days I have participated in a very splendid discussion of the Greatest Military Leaders of all time. It is always rewarding to engage in a spirited but respectful conversation with total strangers who enjoy my depth of thinking. And it is also rewarding to discuss with others of deep thinking and wide-ranging knowledge as well. The idea came up, probably jokingly, to write a book about these leaders, and I responded (seriously, as is my fashion) that I would happily do it if I had a book agent. After all, I already have one book of essays finished and another book almost done, besides another book that is in its beginning stages. I am happy to add a couple of projects to my list, as long as I can get them into a finished state and have someone else to send them to for distribution and publishing. This reminds me as well that in my free time this weekend I have a couple of book proposals I need to work on.
At any rate, the subject of the Greatest Military Leaders of all time seems hopelessly complex. After all, to properly compare military leaders, and judge fairly, one would have to have an enyclopedic knowledge about war and be interested in the history and ways of war of the entire world. Or at least one would have to collect enough people that would be able to do the task together. It turns out that one only needs a handful of historians who have global interests to do the job well, though. The real difficult challenge is presenting the information about the greatest military minds in a way that is both educational for the reader interested in military history (fortunately, this is a large audience). I thought of tackling the problem in the following way, which I will describe, along with a (very brief) discussion of the names that would qualify on our discussion.
The heart of the book would consist of a discussion of the Greatest Military Minds based on region (since that seems the only way of breaking down the number of great military leaders into something reasonable). Large essays would be devoted to the following regions: East Asia, Europe/Russia, Africa, The Middle East, and the Americas. Included in these large regional studies would be military leaders like Genghis Khan, Sun Tzu, Wu Chi, Mao Zedong, Admiral Togo, Rommel, von Molke (the elder), Frederick II of Prussia, Napoleon, Atilla the Hun, Aetius, Alexander Suvorov, Marshal Zhukov, Epominidas, Alexander The Great, Saladin, Hannibal (and his relatives), Chaka Zulu, Emperor Menelik, Shihab ad-Din (of the Adar Sultanate), Moshe Doyan, Mahmud II, Cyrus the Great, Joab, George Washington, Winfield Scott, William T. Sherman, Andrew Jackson, Simon Bolivar, and Kamehameha (the unifier of Hawaii).
Each of the reports would not only comment a little bit about the leaders themselves, but also a little bit of information about the particular brand of genius they showed. Some of the leaders would be recognized as “adversaries” (Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee make for a good pair here too, in addition to Atilla the Hun and Aetius from above, or Sulla and Marius and Julius Ceasar and Pompey the Great from the Roman Empire), whose shared greatness depends on the recognition of the greatness of their opponents. Other leaders would be noted for the geographical challenges of their conquests—Kamehameha as the unifier of Hawaii (itself a very obscure area militarily), the massive span of their conquests (Genghis Khan and Cyrus the Great), their excellence in logistical warfare (George Washington), their diplomatic and political skill (Winfield Scott, Simon Bolivar), their use of indirect warfare (Epominidas, William T. Sherman), or their contribution to military studies (Sun Tzu, Wu Chi, though very easily Vegetius and Mushashi and von Clauewitz could be added too). Suvorov and Zhukov (along with perhaps Alexander Nevsky and Peter The Great) would explain the Russian military excellence, and the addition of a Byzantine like Maurice (who also wrote an excellent military text, the Strategikon) or Belisarius, or Southeast Asian leaders like Chaka I of Siam and South Asian leaders like Asoka would help address ignorance of those areas as well. Additionally, it would be important to comment how leaders both fought (Mao) or prevented people’s war (Winfield Scott), took advantage of nationalism in one’s army (Napoleon, Chakra I) or held together fractious coalitions successfully (like Eisenhower or Aetius). Such understanding would help people realize that warfare is more than about tactics in battle (though that does play a part, but is about everything from logistics to strategy to diplomacy and politics as well).
After all, people do not really learn anything from reading lists of greatest generals where everyone is either people they don’t know (when no information is added to explain their greatness), or where everyone is a European or North American leader. Additionally, if everyone is chosen because of tactical greatness, people have a false idea about what makes a good leader—it requires skills in a broad area, not just tactics. Indeed, generals can be mediocre to poor in tactics (like George Washington) and be great leaders because of their skills at motivating soldiers or at preserving their army and its resources through logistical management. Such victories may not be “sexy” like Hannibal’s double envelopment at Cannae, but they are victories, and often important ones. Other generals, like Winfield Scott, were used as diplomatic envoys in order to avoid unwanted and unnecessary wars from even occurring. Sometimes the most successful wars are those that do not need to be fought.
One of the joys of being a military historian is pondering war in all of its aspects, not just the battles but life on the homefront, the relationship between a nation’s military and its political system, and how a military is not only a force for defense (or aggression) against other nations but also a source of cohesion within societies or, alternatively, a reflection of the divisions within that society. People like myself who are not particularly militaristic by nature study war not because we long to kill or attack others, but because war matters, and because sometimes we are involved in wars without having any say in the matter, and therefore must learn how to fight effectively and wisely so that we may use what gifts we have been given to win. For only when one is victorious can one sleep peacefully in one’s bed, without being tormented by nightmares. A victory is only here and now, but a defeat haunts one and one’s descendants for generations to come. Therefore, if you fight, fight to win, and do not fight a war that you are not prepared to win.