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Andrew Roberts’s Leadership in War: An Antidote to Cynicism

Statue of Admiral Nelson atop Nelson’s Column at Trafalgar Square in London, England. (Kieran Doherty/Reuters)
A slim volume from the master historian and biographer distills lessons from the lives of nine figures who made history.

In the notes for his last book, The Last Tycoon, Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that there were “no second acts in American lives.” If one had to draw a single conclusion from Andrew Roberts’s Leadership in War: Lessons from Those Who Made History, it is that there emphatically are in the lives of great leaders — and that, on the contrary, making a showing in a second, and even a third and fourth act, is the true mark of greatness in the lives of the political and military leaders who have made history in the modern world.

On the eve of his leadership of Britain through the dark days of the Second World War, Winston Churchill was a 60-something “has-been,” who had been in the political wilderness for over a decade, had championed a succession of lost causes, and whose followers in the British House of Commons could be counted on a single hand. Churchill’s own hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, had himself suffered one of the most humiliating defeats of modern military history well before he became French emperor, when the vast army he assembled in 1798 to conquer Egypt was promptly marooned there, after the British admiral Lord Nelson sunk the whole French fleet at anchor off Alexandria. And yet Napoleon went on to greater and more glorious defeats still: After leading the largest army in history on a doomed invasion of Russia in 1812, he succeeded in rallying the French once again, having escaped confinement on the island of Elba, to give a final battle at Waterloo in 1815.

Here is a second characteristic of great leadership in war: sheer perseverance in face of whatever setbacks and obstacles that fate throws in your way — perseverance born of colossal self-belief and sense of personal mission. Lord Nelson rose to become Napoleon’s nemesis at sea despite the fact that he was a congenital sufferer of sea-sickness. Indeed, by the time of his moment with destiny at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Nelson’s disregard for his physical condition brings to mind the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail: having lost an eye in 1794, an arm in 1797, and having suffered a severe head injury in 1798. And yet Nelson directed that battle from the foredeck of his flagship, bedecked in glittering medals; an inspiration to his men and an easy target for French sharpshooters. He did so, to be sure, because of his “animal courage,” “monstrous vanity,” and driving ambition — but also because of his unflinching belief, as Andrew Roberts reminds us, that he was “one of God’s chosen instruments for punishing [the] French.”

Leadership in War is an understated treasure of 2019. Originating in a series of lectures Roberts gave to the New-York Historical Society, the book is a collection of pen-portraits of major war leaders of the past 200 years, which distills some of the insights Roberts has developed in more than a dozen classic works of history and biography, all in a slim volume that might be read over an afternoon. These nine leaders are ones who have “made history,” for better and for worse. So alongside Napoleon, Nelson, and Churchill, Generals Marshall and Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher, we find Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. The book’s practical aim is to see whether successful leaders have enough in common for us to derive “essential leadership lessons” that might be applicable today. But its broader philosophical one may be to discern whether there really is — as we might hope — any correlation between the morally good and the historically successful.

What are the qualities of great leadership in war? Many might be placed in a category of the obvious but necessary. Hard work, energy, and an extraordinarily good memory; charisma and a strong personality; personal courage and bravery; speed and a sense of timing: Napoleon once said that he “could afford to lose an army but never an hour.” Another is an instinctive feel for history and an appreciation of the way in which people want to understand their own place within it. And another is clear-sightedness and honesty in confronting difficult situations. Roberts draws an evocative comparison between how Hitler and Churchill responded to bomb damage in their capital cities: The former had the curtains of his limousine closed when passing through ruined districts of Berlin; the latter toured the bomb-sites of East London the morning after attacks, and wept, quite genuinely, as he met survivors.

There are more peculiar components of great leadership as well. One of them seems to be to take other people’s ideas. Nelson took his military-naval philosophy largely root-and-branch from the captain of his first frigate in the late 1770s and made it his own. Napoleon’s “Napoleonic Code” of 1804 — which still informs the French and many Latin American legal systems today — allowed him to take the ultimate credit for the ideas and hard work of experts under his supervision. General George Marshall and President Franklin Roosevelt are credited for the “Germany First” policy of the United States’ Second World War strategy, resisting the natural desire of the American public to immediately punish Japan for Pearl Harbor; but this was the product of years of analysis and war-gaming carried out by hardworking staff officers in the U.S. War Department ever since Hitler had come to power.

Then are what we might regard as the more negative qualities common to great leaders in war. One is that they emphatically did not “check their privilege.” Churchill was famously able to carry the heaviest of responsibilities and yet “sleep soundly” at night — he once observed that he “had no feeling of personal inadequacy or anything of that sort” — and Roberts reminds us how much of this preternatural self-confidence was the product of his extremely privileged background within the British aristocracy. The kind of ruthless egotism necessary to become a great leader also seems to act as a rich breeding ground for peccadilloes in one’s private life. Churchill was blessedly free on this score — despite recent claims to the contrary — but many others, including Nelson, Napoleon, and Eisenhower, behaved thoroughly inconsiderately toward their wives.

Then there is the problem of these leaders’ unreconstructed nationalism. “One thing that all these . . . leaders have in common,” Roberts says, “was an absolute faith in their tribes’ being superior to their antagonists.” Perhaps the most striking lesson of Leadership in War is therefore how such nationalist sentiment can be reconciled with successful alliances. Eisenhower’s service as supreme allied commander in the Second World War is a study in how national empathy can bridge disparities of power and chauvinistic rivalries. Charles de Gaulle survived as leader of the Free French because Churchill and Roosevelt displayed a similar kind of empathy: putting up with de Gaulle’s rude and ungrateful behavior because they understood what France meant to him — because they knew how much their own countries meant to themselves. Without such faith in their own “national exceptionalism,” few great leaders would have led in the first place, and fewer would have followed them. One is reminded of Burke’s famous analogy of prejudice in society to the bark of trees: it may look ugly, he said, but if you strip it away the tree will die.

Do we find these traits shared by good and bad leaders alike? A reassuring conclusion of Leadership in War is that we don’t — and that, in fact, morally repugnant individuals are inherently less successful war leaders. Roberts’s chapter on Hitler is a tour de force of historical portraiture. Forget the clichés about his bewitching charisma, Hitler was an absurd, boorish, banal, vainglorious, misogynistic “little weirdo,” incapable of normal human interactions, uncomfortable in anything approaching debate or discussion, hooked on juvenile conspiracy theories of all kinds, and whose ideas would not have stood up to 30 minutes of serious television interview. Both his and Stalin’s chronic insecurity, personal cruelty, and cynicism born of their guiding concepts of race and class wars, caused them to make errors and miscalculations at critical decision points in the war. They were all but incapable of taking on others’ ideas; or of operating within an alliance, habitually inclined, as they were to view their partners’ behavior not as goodwill to be reciprocated but as weakness to be exploited. One wonders whether we ought even to regard the two men as “nationalists:” Hitler’s famous “Nero Order” for the destruction of Germany in April 1945 suggested, amidst his claims that the German people had failed him, reminds us that, in the end, they did not even believe in their own nations.

If belief and conviction, historical awareness, and Olympian self-confidence are essential in a leader at war, how much more must this be so for a society able to survive one. Roberts is optimistic about the examples these men and women still hold for their societies today. A statue of Nelson, he observes, still stands in Trafalgar Square in London, “atop a 160-foot column . . . but he stands even higher than that in the love and regard of his people.” I hope so — but I wonder. An informal poll I conducted among some of his people, aged 18–22, over the Christmas break, suggested that a large number of them do not know who Nelson was — and that many believe him to have been a character from The Simpsons. Still, at least they do not yet know him as an “imperialist racist fascist.” We may hope that Leadership at War will help stave off that dreadful day for a few more years still.

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