The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost – From Ancient Greece To Iraq, by Victor Davis Hanson
There is one common thread, one that the author chooses not to recognize, in all of these various stories of savior generals who were able to salvage wars that were thought of as lost. In all of these cases, we are dealing with military situations that were lost or at least imperiled in a political sense and not necessarily in a military sense. As a result, four of these five generals end up being from republican regimes, and the fifth one was a general in the Byzantine Empire, which was notorious for seeking to act ambitiously with its military to an extent beyond most other empires of their time (or any time really). As a result, this particular book explores those leaders who were not themselves autocratic leaders of a regime who saved war efforts that looked lost (like, say, Frederick the Great of Prussia) but rather were generals who were accountable to leaders and not only had to win but win in a way that was politically acceptable. This is something that the author appears not to take into consideration, and he of course biases his account even more by looking at only Western generals, although some Chinese generals would have met the bill as well as his Western options did.
This book is about 250 pages long and is divided into five chapters that deal with five generals and their supposed role as savior. The author begins with a prologue and then ends with an epilogue, acknowledgements, notes, bibliography and index that help to frame the author’s thinking about the qualities of a savior general, without thinking enough about the qualities of the situation that needed saving in the first place. The author first talks about Themistocles and talks about how he was able to persuade the Athenians to fight on sea despite having their city burned twice, and about what this meant for his future career as well as what future political leaders of Athens did to prevent that sort of event from happening again (1). After that the author talks about the wars of Belisarius in Persia and Italy in particular, and how it was that he never fully had the confidence of Justinian despite (or because of) his obvious military talent (2). After that the author discusses three American generals, William T. Sherman (3), Matthew Ridgeway (4), and David Patraeus (5), and how they managed to turn defeat into draws or victories in the Civil War, Korean War, and Iraq War, respectively.
In examining what made these various wars lost, and what the author considers turning these wars around, a few conclusions can be drawn. For one, some of these wars were a bit ill-advised from the start, and lacked a certain amount of legitimacy. That can certainly be said of the war in Iraq, but it can also be said of the invasion of Italy and certainly of the attempt to move beyond the 39th parallel in Korea in the face of China’s express warnings that they would intervene as they did. In most of these cases the wars were almost lost because of considerable mistakes in how they were fought, not because the wars were entirely unwinnable from a conventional standpoint. The Civil War is a case in point, where winning the war with a minimum of casualties was certainly important because there was an election, not because the war was in fact lost. It was the election that was in peril, not the Union war effort by that time. The author seems not to be as sure in his grasp of political history as of military history, and in a book like this, that is a serious shortcoming.