Among readers of military history
the usual suspects for history’s greatest captains
are Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal and Napoleon.
After these masters the lists for top generals
go their separate ways.
Here is a rather lengthy one:
How does one decide who makes the list? Here are some guidelines for what constitutes excellence in the military arts.
1. The candidate must not just conquer but must hold—he must put into place political changes that render the enemy unable to present a future threat. Territory once held should not have to be re-conquered again and again. To be forced to do so demoralizes and wastes blood and treasure. While Napoleon failed in this time after time, Alexander and Caesar succeeded.
2. He must always keep in mind his Clausewitz and realize that warfare is a means to a political end. To lose sight of this is to revel in the slaughter and commotion of the battlefield for their own sake. Genghis all too often simply exulted in the chaotic mayhem of war.
3. He must be a skilled diplomat and be willing to form alliances and to achieve victory with little bloodshed. Cyrus did this again and again.
4. He must keep his army well-supplied and in high spirits so as to provide it with the will to fight and win. His army must feel itself invincible. Patton and his 3rd Army are fine models of these.
5. He must lead by example: sharing the risks of the march, talking with his troops, sharing their fatigue and laughter. Hannibal, Alexander and Caesar were these sorts of generals.
6. His campaigns must be quick, direct and to the point. Goals should be attainable with resources either at hand or available on the march. A long war with no clear goal demoralizes and makes defeat more likely. Pompey in Spain and Westmoreland in Vietnam were guilty of such wars.
7. He must be magnanimous—and even a bit chivalrous—in victory. Saladin and Caesar demonstrated these character traits again and again.
8. He must be able improvise on the run—to build boats and bridges, to adapt to an enemy’s tactics, to supply his army in enemy territory. Cortez and Alexander did all of these.
9. He must be flexible in tactics and expert at siege, guerrilla war and intelligence. Here Caesar and both Scipios were masters.
10. He must be accomplished at speed and surprise—the overnight march, the splitting of forces, the sudden appearance where his enemy did not expect. Sherman and Napoleon excelled here.
11. He must at all times and everywhere keep in mind that his army is composed of men not gods or machines. Flesh has limitations though a great captain can get wonders out of the men under him. Marius did just that during the Roman Republic’s war against the German tribes.
And what of true military genius rather than just competence? A writer on the Punic Wars has some words on that.
All genius is rare and military genius cannot, in the nature of things, be rarer than any other kind. It only seems to be so because it demands certain conditions in order to enable it to manifest itself, which are only very exceptionally encountered in civilized societies…[A great general] needs a war of some magnitude, swift elevation to high command, a tenure of command extending over several years, complete freedom of action and an adequate supply of human raw material out of which to forge the tools of his trade.
Who is the most competent general around today? This would be Tommy Franks. Oklahoma born but Texas raised, Franks designed the campaigns that overthrew the terrorist regimes of Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan had troubled invaders since Alexander. Even the British came to grief there (1842), losing 16,000 troops and camp followers on a retreat to India. The Soviet Union also tried its hand there. During a ten-year invasion and occupation (1979-1989) it killed hundreds of thousands and forced millions to flee. Even so, the Russians never could pacify the place even though they shared a common border with it. The Soviet retreat was one of the causes of its own fall.
Good old Southern boy Franks conquered Afghanistan in five weeks though that country was on the ‘far side of the world.’ Franks then turned his guns upon Iraq and smashed the Baathist regime to pieces. And let us not forget who appointed Franks to his post—that would be George W. Bush. These two were a perfect case of master and commander.
Any discussion of military greats would be simply overwhelmed by the number of ancient Romans who fit this description. For 1300 years Republican and Imperial Rome cranked out military worthies faster than the Clintons created scandals. The most notable among notables would include Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Major, Titus Quinctius Flamininus, Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus, Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus Minor, Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Lucullus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Octavian, Agrippa, Tiberius, Germanicus, Agricola, Corbulo, Trajan, Septimius Severus, Aurelian, Aetius, Belisarius, Heraclius…and on and on and on until the Battle of Manzikert (1071).
From the start (509 BC) the Roman government was in reality a group of a dozen or so patrician families who intermarried and formed the Senate, the most ‘ruthless and far-seeing aristocracy’ ever devised. This government—it ruled in the name of ‘the Senate and the People of Rome’ —oversaw Rome from her beginnings as a small beleaguered city-state of 300 square miles to her conquest of the entire Mediterranean world. Senators competed ferociously to lead armies in the field, and many perished—along with their legions—in doing so. As Republic became Empire the patrician families continued to fill bureaucracies, army commands and the imperial throne. Simply stated, the Roman Senate was the strongest and most competent government of all time, and most of the greatest military commanders in history came from it.
Our modern world of late has shown little evidence of producing the circumstances necessary for the rise of superb captains, which is of course a good thing. But that might be about to change. After all one can truthfully state that war is the natural condition of man and that peace is a temporary interval between wars. What has kept the world free of major warfare since 1945 has been the dominance of the United States. As she begins her decline we can safely though regrettably assume that this world will return to its usual practice of wars and rumors of wars, some of which will encompass the globe.
A new era of Alexanders and Caesars might be at our doorstep, awaiting only a cry of havoc from some random Middle Eastern tyranny or some absurd Asian madhouse. Its appearance might be startling indeed.
2 Responses to “Masters In The Art Of Killing”
Francis W. Porretto // May 2, 2009 at 11:00 am
If I may ride one of your concluding tangents: It is possible to argue that the withdrawal of the United States from the world stage immediately after the Versailles Treaty was imposed on Germany was what made World War II (”The Second Round” — Barbara Tuchman) all but inevitable. However, let’s not omit consideration of the tremendous forces that were brewing in Europe and Asia during those twenty years:
– In Germany, the conviction that the Allies had deceived Germany into surrendering with promises of a “soft peace;”
– The growing anti-war movements throughout Western Europe;
– The peasant-agrarian movement in China;
– The totalitarian shinto-bushido movement in Japan;
…and other, lesser forces local to various nations.
Part of the reason for the general condition of relative peace since 1945 was indeed American military power and prowess, but another part of it was the military, economic, and spiritual exhaustion of many of the parties that had been major players in the wars of the half-century before that. That was (and is) both good and bad: yes, Europe is no longer frequently at war, but its overall enervation has allowed the tendrils of aggressive Islam to gain a powerful purchase on it…one it might be too late to unravel.
The United States can only keep peace in the world if it remains militarily dominant over the world, and (though it might seem unnecessary to say so) if military dominance is sufficient to keep the peace. One of the great questions of our time is whether that second requirement is met in the face of the new, “asymmetric warfare” that concentrates on demoralization by terror.
Scipio // May 2, 2009 at 12:13 pm
I have complete confidence that the US military can meet any sort of threat whether conventional, guerrilla or asymmetric. It is the leadership in Washington—if that grab bag of traitors and communists can be called that—that will defeat it. And if this happens, guess who will get the blame? Obama will use the defeat to further demoralize and reduce the military—unless the military acts first.
Had the US not got involved in WW I there would have been no WW II. Sure, that would have meant yet another German defeat of France, but that was hardly uncommon. Or we should have marched our armies to Berlin, occupied that country and hung the Kaiser. As it was Wilson got the very worst of both worlds—he got involved yet did not use American power to cement a lasting victory. Of course Wilson was a Democrat, so that dismal outcome was to be expected.
I agree that Europe’s plight might be too late to unravel. Islam and PC have made deep inroads at all points political, cultural and economic.
More and more Americans will gladly surrender their liberty for a mere mortgage or health care. Can we expect such quasi-men to really be up to another world war?
MASTERS IN THE ART OF KILLING
02 April 09
Barry Soetoro aka Barack Hussein Obama
because he is not eligible to be President of the United States
because he is not a Natural Born Citizen
as required by Article Two, Section One, Clause Five
of the United States Constitution.
This is a fact regardless of
where he was born (Mombassa, Hawaii, Chicago, or Mars).
He is not a Natural Born Citizen
because he was not born of
BOTH OF WHOM WERE UNITED STATES CITIZENS
at the time of his birth.
His father was a subject/ciitizen
of Kenya/Great Britain at the time of his birth and afterwards.
His mother was too young to pass on her US citizenship
according to the law in effect when he was born.
Check it out:
His usurpation cannot be corrected by Congress,
it can only be corrected by his resignation, his removal
by an amendment to the Constitution
which will never happen.