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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

THE SAVIOR GENERALS: HOW FIVE GREAT COMMANDERS SAVED WARS THAT WERE LOST - from ANCIENT GREECE to IRAQ by Victor Davis Hanson

  Victor Davis Hanson Delivers Another Quality Book

Published in 2013 by Bloomsbury Press

Victor Davis Hanson, best known for his works on Ancient Greece, looks at five different generals from five different time periods and discusses how these generals became what he calls "Savior Generals". This book is very similar in structure to his 2003 book Ripples of Battle.

Hanson picked five generals to discuss. All are from the West and he notes that this is not an all-inclusive list. They are not even particularly spread out well over history. One is from Ancient Greece, one from the early Byzantine Empire and three of them are American generals. In my opinion, not all of them fit the mold perfectly. In fact, I think only two of them do.

To be a Savior General you have to have been on the outs with the establishment and then, when everything has fallen apart and the situation is about as dire as possible, the establishment command structure looks to you to come in with your unorthodox ways and save the day. You also have to have an odd sense of how people work - a sense that makes you approach the crisis at hand in a different way than everyone else. Once the victory is won, the "Savior General" is removed in some way.

Themistocles (524-459 B.C.)

Hanson starts out with Themistocles, the general turned admiral who almost single-handedly created the Athenian navy in order to prepare for a repeat Persian invasion after the Athenians defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. While most Athenians assumed that the Persians were not going to return after their defeat at Marathon, Themistocles understood the true size and scope of the Persian military and knew that the military losses at Marathon were a drop in the bucket compared to their true potential. When the Persians returned it was with "the largest amphibious invasion of Europe until the 1944 Normandy landing more than 2,400 years later." (p.23)


While the Sparta's famed 300 soldiers and their king slowed the Persian advance  for a few days at Thermopylae, the Athenians fled their city state using the navy that Themistocles had pushed for so hard between invasions. Hanson goes into detail about how Themistocles argued, cajoled, harangued and demagogued this fleet into existence and then repeated his performance all over again with the Greek allied leaders as they tried to figure out if they should even engage the Persians or if they should simply surrender. Luck, skill, sleight of hand, superior knowledge of the waters around Athens all contributed to a victory when defeat seemed so sure.

No general in this book was so far behind the 8 ball as Themistocles. His country (the Athenian city-state) was lost. It had been looted and burned and occupied. Thousands of foot soldiers were lost. For all practical purposes all that was left was the navy. but, Themistocles had prepared his country for exactly this moment and, even they they were heavily outnumbered (366 Greek ships against more than 600 Persian ships), the plan worked. Despite the great victory, Themistocles died in exile.

Belisarius (500-565 A.D.)

By comparison to Themistocles, Belisarius's story is not nearly so dramatic. He mostly fought on the Byzantine frontier - only once was the Empire itself at stake and even then, it probably could have been recovered easily enough if some troops had been recalled. He was a soldier always, rarely dabbling in court politics, unlike Themistocles who was a gifted politician for far longer than he was in actual combat.


The only known portrait of Belisarius. 
But, the career of Belisarius is remarkable in that he went from one lost cause to another and made the Byzantine Empire (really the Eastern Roman Empire) grow to the point where it nearly re-captured most of the combined Eastern and Western Roman Empires. His Emperor, the famed Justinian, never quite trusted Belisarius and deprived him of resources, men or clear orders necessary to finish the jobs properly. As I was reading, I found myself wondering if Justinian was a genius in his own right who was depriving a potential rival of the resources he needed to overthrown him, or a twit that was depriving a talented general of the resources he needed to complete his mission. Was he a brazen leader who was expanding his empire with a minimum of resources because that's all that was available or was he timid and just refused to completely commit to a military course of action. I decided that the answer to all of these questions was YES. Yes, he knew Belisarius was a potential rival and he was a twit for depriving him. He wanted to grow the Empire while the opportunity was there but he was all too aware of the risks of sending too many soldiers abroad. 

Despite his years of loyal service and saving the Emperor from a revolt and an attempted invasion of his capital, Belisarius was forcibly retired and brought back to the capital so the Emperor and his spies could keep an eye on him. 

William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891)

In a way, the story of Sherman is the story of two Savior Generals. Sherman fought in the first major battle of the American Civil War and even earned an important command and then had a nervous breakdown. Up-and-coming general Ulysses S. Grant discovered Sherman and brought him along with him. When Grant earned promotions, Sherman did, too. 

When Grant was promoted to be the head of the Union Army and headed to Washington, D.C. to confront Robert E. Lee, Sherman took over Grant's forces in the West and began to move on Atlanta.This is where Sherman does the atypical thing. Rather than seeking battle or blindly making a dash for the city, Sherman tries to outmaneuver his opponent in order to take the city with a minimum of losses.

Grant struggled with Lee and offered a demoralizing series of battles with massive casualties as Grant and Lee's armies grappled all over northern Virginia, rarely separating more than a few days before re-engaging and generating thousands of more Union casualties. 

Most historians believe that Lincoln's re-election was far from assured in 1864 and that Sherman's taking of Atlanta right before the election certainly helped. This is the crux of Hanson's argument for Sherman being a Savior General. Sherman helped ensure the re-election of Lincoln and Lincoln's re-election helped ensure the defeat of the Confederacy. 
1864 Portrait of Sherman by Matthew Brady.

On top of that, Hanson argues that Sherman's infamous March to the Sea was a revolution in warfare - a war on the property used to wage war rather than on the people that were fighting in the war. He argues that this revolution was more merciful than what was typical in most Civil War campaigns because it mostly avoided casualties with the focus on property.

Hanson has an amazing grasp of the Civil War for an historian that focuses on Ancient Greece. I enjoyed his analysis of Sherman but was frustrated with his dismissal of Grant as a Savior General as well. Before Grant arrived in the East the call was always, "On to Richmond!" with little concern about the Confederate army in the field except the degree that it kept the Union Army out of the Confederate capital. However, Grant re-focused the army on Lee, knowing that eventually Lee would simply run out of men and supplies. Grant's relentless effort ensured that Sherman would never have to face reinforcing units detached from Lee's army.

Sherman deviates from the mold of Savior General in his post-war career. Unlike most of the generals he profiled, Sherman had a successful post-war career.

Matthew Ridgway (1895-1993)

When Ridgway arrived in what remained of South Korea in December of 1950 the war in Korea had already been lost, won and lost again - in just six months.


Ridgway with his characteristic grenade
on his right strap and a first aid kit on
the left.
Ridgway was unpopular with the brass because he had plenty of opinions and never failed to share them. But, in just 100 days he moved the United Nations forces from a defensive (if not outright retreating) posture to an offensive footing and began pushing the North Korean and Chinese forces back across the pre-war border. 

His style of being with the fighting men and seeing what was really going on rather than being told through intermediaries re-invigorated a largely defeated army. He brought enthusiasm, proper supplies for the winter and an argument as to why this war in this place was important and he shared them all freely with his men. He also recognized the American advantages in this war (superior air power, having occupied Japan nearby as a source of men and supplies among other). He also limited the war aims to simply restoring the pre-war border rather than conquering North Korea. By doing that, he helped make the current truce that has largely held for 60+ years possible. 

Sadly, the Korean War is often referred to as "the forgotten war" and Ridgway's amazing success is often forgotten.

David Patraeus (born 1952)

Perhaps the most controversial Savior General to be added to Hanson's list is David Patraeus. 

This book was written before his disgrace over his mistress/biographer and her access to sensitive documents and information.

 No matter his personal failings and his failure in Afghanistan, Patreus had success in Iraq with George W. Bush's unpopular "Surge" from January of 2007 to May of 2008. Hanson details how Patreus had been removed from the Iraq theater earlier and then brought in to implement the Surge strategy that he had been advocating to calm the fighting in the unpopular Iraq War.

This strategy seemed almost counter-intuitive. Embrace the very communities that are attacking the American army. Move among them, become a part of those communities. And, once trust is earned, convince those communities that they should turn on Al-Qaeda and embrace the new government. It cost more lives lost at first because the trust had not yet been earned and the American soldiers were more exposed. 

Reading about the real progress made with the Surge was bittersweet considering the current problems in Iraq with ISIS and all of the beheadings, murder, mayhem and chaos as well as Patreus's fall from grace. 

I rate this collection 4 stars out of 5. 
More information on this book can be found here: The Savior Generals
Reviewed on January 20, 2104.