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Wisdom in Command

by Michael Knox Beran

The Savior Generals: How Five Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost — From Ancient Greece to Iraq, by Victor Davis Hanson (Bloomsbury, 320 pp., $28)

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.

Thucydides said that Themistocles “was supremely happy in forming a prompt judgment in matters that admitted but little time for deliberation; at the same time he far surpassed all others in his deductions of the future from the past, and was the best guesser of things to come.” With characteristic clarity and incisiveness, Hanson shows how this combination of presence of mind and farsightedness fostered in Themistocles a “contrarianism” that challenged the military orthodoxy of his day, which held that infantry phalanxes (like those that prevailed at Marathon in the First Persian War) were the key to Greek survival. Themistocles, to the contrary, foresaw that Persia, with its vast population, could field armies so large as to be unstoppable by Greek infantry. What Greece needed most, he said, was not an army but a navy, and to this end he persuaded the Athenians to build the triremes that carried the day at Salamis.

The strength of mind that perceives new ways to win wars is of course a quality found in all great commanders. Philip of Macedon developed the infantry formations with which his son conquered much of the world; Bonaparte discerned the possibilities of the levée en masse; Moltke saw that in the hands of a first-rate general staff, railways and telegraph lines were weapons that would change the nature of war. But Hanson is surely right when he argues that contrarian commanders who implement their unproven strategies even as defeat and dishonor stare them in the face are in a class by themselves.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of the commanders Hanson depicts in Savior Generals is their equanimity or sense of proportion. His generals “are philosophers of sorts who worry about the idea of yin and yang, nemesis and karma.” They are neither overly puffed up by victories nor wholly cast down by defeats. The qualities the Greeks knew as sophrosyne, an instinctive sense of the limits life imposes on conduct, were essential to the success of the second commander Hanson profiles, Flavius Belisarius, the Byzantine general who a thousand years after Salamis preserved the eastern remnant of the Roman Empire from the barbarians who threatened its frontiers — Persians in Mesopotamia, Vandals in North Africa, Goths in the Italian peninsula, Bulgars from the Pontic Steppe. Unlike the young Julius Caesar, who envied the fame of Alexander and sought to surpass it, the savior general is not a glory glutton; Belisarius saw himself not as a contender for Caesar’s laurel crown but in the sober light of a military technician, diligently repairing breaches in Byzantium’s defenses.

The same sense of balance and proportion was the hallmark of another of Hanson’s savior generals, Matthew Ridgway, who salvaged the Korean War after Red China intervened on the side of the North Korean Communists. Ridgway pushed the enemy north to the 38th parallel and beyond, and in doing so saved South Korea. But he stopped short of attempting to liberate the whole of the peninsula. A “good general,” says a Chinese sage, “effects his purposes and then stops.” Resisting the intoxication of victory, Ridgway reasoned that the proximity of Russia and China meant that an invasion of the north would lead either to a nuclear conflagration or to a protracted Asian land war that American public opinion would not sustain.

The “very notion of ‘savior,’” Hanson writes, “is embedded within some sense of a moral universe that should be saved,” and in his book he has preferred commanders from “consensual societies” to those from authoritarian ones. Marshal Zhukov’s defense of Leningrad and victory at Stalingrad saved Russia, but they also saved Stalin. Erich von Manstein “saved Hitler from himself,” but that cause, Hanson writes, was “better lost than won.” The Greco-Roman Byzantium for which Belisarius fought was not a consensual society, but it preserved the relics of an older, better Hellenic civilization, a heritage that, after the dispersion of the Byzantine scholiasts in the 15th century, enriched the free culture of the West.

There may be another, more subtle intention in Hanson’s selection of two Greek and three American commanders. Of the two Greek warriors he profiles, Themistocles fought for Hellas in her prime. Belisarius, by contrast, defended in Byzantium the decaying carcass of the Greek spirit, a degenerate empire whose bejeweled despots, Gibbon wrote, pursued the “timid policy” of “dreading every active power” in the state other than their own will.

A similar arc can be traced in Hanson’s three American general officers. William Tecumseh Sherman fought in the decisive crisis of the Republic’s youth. In taking Atlanta in 1864, he (arguably) saved Lincoln’s reelection and in any event contributed to the survival of a stronger Union. Some nine decades later, Matthew Ridgway arrived in Korea representing the greatest economic power on earth. But when David Petraeus returned from Iraq in September 2008, the shadows had lengthened, and there was a faint but ominous resemblance between the America he served and Belisarius’s Byzantium, crippled, Hanson writes, by a “vast public bureaucracy” that “translated into ever fewer Byzantines engaged in private enterprise, wealth creation, and the defense of the realm — at precisely the time its enemies were growing in power and audacity.”

Both Belisarius and Petraeus, working for cash-strapped regimes with costly commitments at home and abroad, had to find ways to win wars with limited manpower. One of the keys to their success, Hanson argues, was their genius for making civilian populations their accomplices. Belisarius compensated for a “chronic shortage of troops” by appealing to local populations, a strategy, Hanson says, that anticipated “modern notions of counterinsurgency warfare in which an outnumbered invader must enlist local adherents to a shared cause.”

Counterinsurgency was crucial to Petraeus in leading the surge that raised the number of American troops in Iraq to a peak, in 2007, of some 166,000 in a country of perhaps 30 million. (By comparison, American troop strength in Vietnam peaked at more than half a million in 1968, when North and South Vietnam had a combined population of around 40 million.) The increased manpower, Hanson writes, was effective mainly because it coincided with a change in tactics from “counterterrorism (going after known terrorist insurgents)” to “counterinsurgency (protecting the civilians to deny insurgents necessary support and sanctuary).” Petraeus was convinced “that after four years of warring, Islamic terrorists and ex-Baathists were vulnerable,” having “suffered far more casualties” than the Americans. Even as critics contended that the U.S. “had lost the support of the Iraqi people, Petraeus sensed that the insurgents, not the U.S. military,” were turning off the Sunni civilian population. In Hanson’s reading, counterinsurgency further undermined the appeal of the insurgents, as ordinary Iraqis concluded that they had something useful to gain from the Americans.

Few historians writing today have as deep an insight as Hanson into the problems America confronts at home and abroad, and nothing in his latest book is more sobering than its suggestion that the effectiveness of a military savior is in proportion to the health of the civilization he is defending. Belisarius was plugging leaks in the rotting hull of Byzantium. America, when General Petraeus returned from Iraq, was in better shape, but already there were signs that it was advancing along the cruel trajectory described by Thucydides. If Athenian success at Marathon and Salamis ushered in a golden age, Thucydides showed that it also led to overreaching. The city became an imperial power resented by much of the rest of Greece, and with the exception, Thucydides says, of Pericles, none of her statesmen was able to steer a prudent course. They devoted themselves instead to exploiting class antagonisms for their own political gain.

The Romans knew a similar fate. By the time the young Belisarius entered the imperial service, Rome was an overstretched power. The luxurious indolence of Constantinople was subsidized by wheat commandeered from Egypt, and the high offices of the old republic, once the reward for virtue and ability, were degraded into sinecures for slaves and eunuchs. Justinian, the emperor whom Belisarius served, attempted to abolish the consulate itself, in order that his “despotic temper,” Gibbon writes, “might be gratified by the silent extinction of a title which admonished the Romans of their ancient freedom.”

Thucydides said that what happened to the Greek cities would happen again: What “has been before will ever be as long as human nature is the same.” If Americans are to escape the cycle in which victory and success are converted into a ruinous complacency, they must hope not for a savior general but for something rarer still — a savior statesman.

– Mr. Beran, a lawyer and contributing editor of City Journal, is the author of, among other books, Forge of Empires, 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

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