If the universal genius of such commanders as Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon is equal to the most varied chances of war, the narrower virtuosity of the “savior generals,” Victor Davis Hanson writes in his absorbing new book, enables them to excel in the singular art of salvaging wars that appear to be lost.
Hanson finds the exemplary instance of a savior general in Themistocles, the Athenian who came into his own in the lowest ebb of his city’s fortunes. After the Greek defeat at Thermopylae, a massive Persian army under Xerxes descended to Boeotia and Attica. In this dark moment, Hanson writes, the “salvation of Athens rested solely on the vision of a single firebrand” who in the midst of general despair perceived the enemy’s weakness and found a way to take advantage of it. The result was the naval battle in the Bay of Salamis, in which Greek sailors eviscerated the Persian fleet. Xerxes retired into Asia, and the following summer the demoralized rump of his expeditionary force was annihilated at Plataea.