Book Review: The Savior Generals – The Tough Who Got Going

by Mark Moyar

Wall Street Journal

For a police chief, keeping the streets of Beverly Hills safe will probably never qualify as an act of great leadership, if only because the task itself lacks a certain degree of difficulty. The value of leadership is much clearer when circumstances are unfavorable—especially when failure seems imminent and is then somehow converted into success. For this reason, Victor Davis Hanson’s “The Savior Generals” focuses on five figures who faced an outsize challenge and rose to meet it with resolution and skill. “In some sense, winning against impossible odds—when most others cannot or would not try—is the only mark of a great general,” Mr. Hanson writes.

Mr. Hanson’s fluency with a broad range of historical epochs, which has made him one of his generation’s most notable historians, is on full display in “The Savior Generals.” Although his portraits come from the military realm—ranging from the classical period to the current day—they illustrate eternal verities that arise in all types of endeavor, and they capture attributes associated with master strategists in all walks of life, such as a disregard for conventional wisdom and an intuitive grasp of the big picture.

In 480 B.C., as massive Persian armies tore through Greece, the Athenian general Themistocles crafted an ingenious plan to turn back the invaders, whereby Athens and the other Greek city-states would concentrate their naval vessels at the straits of Salamis. If they could lure Persia’s far larger fleet into the narrow straits, they would mire the Persian ships in currents known only to the Greeks. The leaders of other Greek city-states derided the plan as too unorthodox and risky, Mr. Hanson tells us, going along only after Themistocles employed another cunning maneuver—a threat to withdraw the entire Athenian fleet and population to Sicily, which would leave land-bound Greeks at Persia’s mercy. On the day the Persians arrived at Salamis, the Greeks sank half their fleet, notching one of history’s greatest naval victories.

In another of Mr. Hanson’s examples, the Byzantine general Belisarius, in the sixth century, broke with tradition and refrained from plundering newly conquered territories. The standard operating procedures of the time, he recognized, made enemies of peoples who could be converted into allies. Through benevolence, he enlisted the help of local allies in ousting Germanic barbarians from their conquests in Italy and northern Africa, reversing the sliding fortunes of the Byzantine Empire.

In the American Civil War, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman demonstrated similar insight by exploiting the symbiotic relationship between strategy and politics. Because heavy casualties were undermining Northern support for the war and endangering Lincoln’s re-election prospects, Sherman resolved to win a spectacular victory at Atlanta with little loss of life. In the fall of 1864, he advanced slowly on the city and used the threat of encirclement to compel a series of Confederate retreats. He severed the rail lines into Atlanta, which induced the Confederates to abandon the city, thereby handing Lincoln the triumph that secured his re-election.

Another striking aspect of Mr. Hanson’s savior generals, beyond their intellect and creativity, is their ability to discern reasons for hope where others see only doom. Mr. Hanson cites in particular Matthew Ridgway’s assumption of command of the 8th U.S. Army during its retreat from northern Korea in December 1950. To shore up the dispirited troops, Ridgway moved his headquarters to the front and visited units personally, radiating optimism. He fired generals whom he deemed defeatist or weak and promoted the best colonels to replace them. The personnel changes were unpopular at the Pentagon, where bureaucrats complained that the appointments did not conform to standard procedures, but they proved effective. Within three months of taking command, Ridgway had pushed the Chinese back to the original dividing line between the two Koreas.

When Gen. David Petraeus took command of U.S. forces in Iraq in January 2007, American politicians and generals foretold doom for his impending “surge.” In April, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid even asserted that “this war is lost.” Gen. Petraeus, refusing to believe that past difficulties meant future failure, pressed on. When the situation in Iraq improved, he touted the gains without concern for Democratic allegations that he was lying. American morale was much the better for it, and so was the American effort in Iraq.

Despite their unorthodox ways, Mr. Hanson observes, the figures in “The Savior Generals” proved willing to obey civilian authorities and stay out of partisan politics. They also showed a willingness to stay in the military for decades during which peers denigrated them, superiors misunderstood them and regimentation chafed them. Surprisingly, as Mr. Hanson shows, they were retained and eventually promoted. It seems that the higher-ups in their organizations valued the mavericks in their midst.

Mr. Hanson’s lessons are particularly germane for the U.S. military today. With the U.S. pulling its troops out of Afghanistan, its armed forces are returning to peacetime conditions, curbing the appetite for nonconformists and risk takers. Among our current challenges is the necessity of making life tolerable for innovative thinkers and promoting them in sufficient numbers. Failure to meet this challenge will deprive the country of savior generals the next time they are needed.

Mr. Moyar is a senior fellow at the Joint Special Operations University.

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