Some questions are of perennial importance, and yet it sometimes takes a singular event to carve their significance into stone. Take leadership, for example. Few things appear to be of greater moment than leadership as I write these words during the crisis of 2020. Or take the global perspective. If anyone doubted the need to study the world as an interconnected whole (though not necessarily a friendly whole), he can do so no longer. Finally, there is strategy. How to solve the crisis, how did we get there, and where do we go next are all strategic questions of the highest order.
The two books under review here explore profound issues about leadership, strategy, and the global perspective. Not that either book is about pandemics, panic, duplicitous tyrannies abroad, looming economic depression, or the possibility of social unrest at home. Their common purview is war. Fortunately, amid all our woes, war is not on offer, at least not yet. Yet war is close to our minds these days. Few could doubt that the disease behaves like an enemy on the attack. Many will have wondered whether the virus, a tiny microorganism only 125 nanometers in size, might be in the process of unleashing monstrous events that lead to an actual war and not just a metaphorical one. So, current affairs as well as a perennial interest in history both turn our attention to these two works.
Andrew Roberts begins his Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from Those Who Made History with a simple question: how can one person lead a hundred people, or hundreds of millions of people, or even a billion people? He proceeds to offer an answer in a series of nine luminous studies of individual leaders, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Margaret Thatcher. Between them comes a memorable and sometimes terrible cast of characters: Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, George C. Marshall, Charles de Gaulle, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the author of bestselling and prize-winning books on Napoleon, Churchill, and on the leaders of the Second World War, Roberts is superbly well-qualified to write about these extraordinary leaders.
How can one person lead a hundred people, or hundreds of millions of people, or even a billion people?
War, as Roberts shows, is not only a regular test but a revelatory one. War reveals character in ways that seem like a curse in good times and a blessing in bad ones. Roberts argues that there is a paradigm of successful wartime leadership. Among the necessary characteristics are intellectual qualities such as the ability to concentrate, compartmentalize, and plan; a good memory; a combination of energy and a workaholic devotion to the job; the military virtues of courage and steadiness; confidence both in one’s self and in one’s own nation; exceptional communication skills; determination and ruthlessness; charisma; a shrewd judgment of people; and the ability to know when and how to seize the day. Clearly, few people will be gifted with more than one or two of these qualities. Only the most exceptional will possess them all.
With a fine sense of the absurd, Roberts notes that a good leader must be willing to be unreasonable when needed. He cites as an example Queen Elizabeth I’s refusal to name her successor, which flew in the face of her advisors but saved England from civil war. Interestingly, Roberts also notes that one thing a good leader need not have is a sense of humor. And, like both generals and theorists before him, Roberts accepts the power of chance. Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Clausewitz all felt the weight of fortune in human affairs. Napoleon famously wanted to know if his generals were lucky before he made them Marshals of France.
Roberts teaches not just through analysis, as indeed he does, but by example. Each of his chapters is a finely crafted gem of communication. The book began as a series of lectures and retains an oratorical polish that never misses a beat on either the printed page or digital screen. To read Roberts’s prose is to understand that no leader succeeds without being able to explain and inspire. Consider, for example, his stirring retelling of Admiral Nelson’s words before the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805:
At 11:35 a.m., while the drums were beating the call to action, the gun ports were being raised, the cannons run out, and the decks sanded down to make them less slippery when the blood started to spurt, Nelson ordered his famous signal—“England expects that every man will do his duty”—to be hoisted from his flagship. He told Flag Lieutenant Pasco that he hoped it would “amuse the fleet.” Whether it amused the sailors that day is unknown, but it has certainly inspired generations of his fellow countrymen.
Nelson, of course, went on to win a decisive victory that day but at the cost of his own life. His corpse, preserved in a cask of brandy mixed with camphor and myrrh, was brought home to England for a warrior’s burial.
Roberts’s description offers vivid detail, spare prose, immortal rhetoric, and a touch of humor. But, you might say, Nelson is an easy case to hoist upon a declamatory pedestal, so how about a harder one? Consider, in response, Roberts’s assessment of Adolf Hitler:
Despite charisma’s being something that people are able to manufacture—as with Hitler—we also know genuinely charismatic people in our lives—teachers who inspired us, bosses who led us, truly remarkable people whom we would trust with our lives. Thank God such people do exist, because sometimes society depends upon them. Yet for all the huge effect Hitler had on the twentieth century, and for all the work put into trying to make him appear charismatic, Adolf Hitler was not such a person. His charisma was artificial and his personality that of a banal, soulless little weirdo with a lot of theories that today wouldn’t have stood up to scrutiny in a single, serious half-hour radio or television interview. The deaths of seven million Germans, thirty-four million Allies, six million Jews, and so many others stemmed from the perverse ideas of one of life’s utter mediocrities. The pity of it all is beyond description and explanation.
It’s difficult to imagine a more devastating and concise critique of Hitler. It is both sharp analysis and a cry to Clio, the Muse of History, to explain how on earth such a thing could have happened.
So, whether sketching the virtues of a hero or dissecting the vices of a monster, Roberts delivers. His chapters offer masterly, magnificent portraits of what it takes to steer an army or a nation through a crisis. This is no hero-worship, however. Leadership in War also shows how easy it is to turn triumph into ashes.
The book is as full of revelatory intimate moments as any novel. Consider, for instance, a detail that Roberts records about General George C. Marshall, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army who built the military that won America’s victory in World War II. Roberts tells how Marshall once recalled an incident involving General John Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force to France in World War I and Marshall’s then-boss. On this occasion, Pershing was returning to headquarters in his car. Pershing leaned back in his seat, an innocent gesture, but, as it turned out, a dangerous one. The sight of Pershing leaning gave birth to a rumor that things were going badly. Years later, Marshall concluded from that experience, as he told his wife, that in World War II, he didn’t have the luxury to get angry or to appear tired.
The book is as full of revelatory intimate moments as any novel.
Or consider the anecdote about Churchill that Roberts offers. Writing from the Western Front, where he went in 1915–16 to redeem his honor after having been responsible for the disaster at Gallipoli, Churchill wrote to his wife: “I should have made nothing if I had not made mistakes.” As Roberts notes, the phrase offers insight into the man. It shows Churchill’s intelligence, self-awareness, and the telltale combination of self-confidence and resilience. And then the Churchill biographer Roberts, in a characteristic touch, goes on to add a dash of self-deprecating wit: “One of the frustrations about trying to analyze Churchill is that he always analyzed himself far better.”
If Churchill beat Roberts to the punch in this instance, he left plenty of room for Roberts in other respects. Any leader would envy the chance to have Roberts as his or her speechwriter or Director of Communications. Every reader can be grateful for such a thrilling and succinct account of leadership.
Turning to Jeremy Black’s Military Strategy: A Global History, one finds a wide-ranging and learned study of strategy past, present, and future. A distinguished and prolific historian, Black offers a magisterial overview of several centuries of history, with a focus on the years since 1700.
“Strategy” is everywhere in today’s discourse. As Black writes, strategy now is applied equally to how to “game” a dinner party as to how to win a war. He defines strategy as “an overarching vision of what an organization or individual wants to achieve” coupled with a set of objectives designed to make that possible. Strategy is not, however, the details of the plans for implementing the goals: those details, rather, to use current terminology, should be thought of as operations.
There’s a paradox in the book’s title. Although Black’s subject is military strategy, he argues that military strategy cannot be understood in strictly military terms. Generals have to gain power in their own country before they can make war on another; they need to acquire soldiers and weapons; armies have to be fed, clothed, and housed; causes need ideologies; states need allies; alliances unfold in a dynamic, international system.
He argues that military strategy cannot be understood in strictly military terms.
Military strategy, as a result, is never practiced in a vacuum. Black advocates what he calls a “total” view of strategy, one that considers war, the international system, and domestic politics. Strategy is the expression of an entire culture, hence the usefulness of the term “strategic culture” to describe the different environments in which, say, Catherine the Great and Ho Chi Minh each developed a strategy.
Black is interested in strategy more as practice than as theory. To carry out a good strategy, it’s more important to understand the nature of war in general rather than, say, to parse Clausewitz. Yet we still need the classics. As Black says, the most successful strategies achieve their goals by diplomacy, finance, propaganda, or the threat of fighting without having to risk battle with all its multiple chances of things going wrong. These tactics, of course, stand among the central arguments of Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and Thucydides. So, however welcome Black’s focus on practice is—and heaven knows today’s academic nonsense gives theory a bad name—it remains essential nonetheless that our makers of military strategy read the classics of strategic thought.
Strategy, as Black shows, is not an objective term in the sense that water or wood is. It’s a cultural artifact, invented in Western Europe in the eighteenth century. For the ancient Greeks, for example, from whom we get the word strategy, strategia meant “generalship,” not “overarching vision.” Black does a splendid job of setting the emergence of our notion of strategy in an eighteenth-century context, arguing that it had several sources: the European Enlightenment, the growing global range of power projection by Britain and France, the unsettling rise of Prussia and Russia, as well as the crises that shook France after its defeats in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63).
And yet strategy does refer to something timeless. For example, although Greeks did not refer to “Pericles’ strategy” in the Peloponnesian War or “Hannibal’s strategy” in his invasion of Italy, they certainly understood that each man had a vision and a plan for achieving it. To be sure, those visions were shaped by their respective cultures. Pericles, for instance, once said that one’s sense of honor is the only thing that doesn’t grow old. Honor remains important to today’s soldier, but less so to Western societies as a whole, especially to elites, who would probably consider it unsophisticated. It’s unlikely that honor would loom large in a military strategy churned out on the Pentagon’s supercomputers. Honor, nonetheless, does have a way of creeping back into modern ways of thought, in the form, for example, of prestige or reputation. Think, for example, of the importance of “credibility” in American strategy in Vietnam.
Another cultural concept that Black refers to, and delightfully, is revenge. That too would be widely derided today as atavistic and boorish. Yet any schoolchild knows that blows left unpunished lead to more blows. Hence, it made strategic sense for the United States to attack Afghanistan in 2001 after 9/11 and to take revenge on al Qaeda and on the Taliban that had harbored it. Removing a continuing threat was, of course, a good reason to attack, and the government put it forward, but America’s motives were not simply utilitarian. Or, rather, they followed a “higher utilitarianism,” which says that revenge is useful itself, both to instill confidence at home as well as to frighten off enemies abroad. Unfortunately, this sound strategy turned into a mission creep, and only now, nineteen years later, is America slowly disentangling itself from Afghanistan, after a high cost in blood and treasure and lost opportunity elsewhere.
In an era in which military power has a global reach, Black’s approach could hardly be more welcome. There is considerable discussion of China, Russia, Turkey, and Japan, as well as of the United States. Black is particularly good at seeing European history from its imperial perspective. For example, he notes that British defense strategy in the interwar years (1919–39) was as much a matter of dealing with the British Empire as it was with the threat of a revived Germany. If the appeasers didn’t have their eye on the ball, it wasn’t only a matter of misjudging Hitler and of underestimating the Wehrmacht but also of overestimating the benefits of the Empire. Colonial troops had helped Britain and France in the First World War, but Britain would have been better off in the 1920s and 1930s if it had focused on European defense.
For the professional historian or theorist, Black’s Military Strategy is pure gold. The lay reader will find much of value in it, but in a different way. Every page of this book is filled with insight. It’s a book less of flowing narrative than of flashes of acumen. Military Strategy is best appreciated in short sips over a long time rather than in a few sittings. It’s probably more a book to consult again and again with pleasure and profit than a book to curl up with, although this professional historian confesses to having spent more than one enjoyable evening with it in an easy chair.
Both Black and Roberts offer the reader of history a chance to get to know the past and to learn from it. Each author analyzes politics and war: Black through a more academic lens, and Roberts through a series of short, sharp, and lapidary sketches. Both books teach us what it means to be a leader in a time of crisis; what a successful strategy requires; and what a focus not just on local but global issues entails.
Taken together, the two books offer faith for the fight. We will need it.
1Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from Those Who Made History, by Andrew Roberts; Viking, 256 pages, $27.
2Military Strategy: A Global History, by Jeremy Black; Yale University Press, 480 pages, $35.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 9, on page 23
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