In his latest book, fellow PJM columnist Victor Davis Hanson explores that unique, and exceedingly rare, military man, the savior general. Or as the subtitle of the new book puts it, How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost — From Ancient Greece to Iraq.
These men range from Themistocles and Belisarius to the Civil War’s General Sherman, Matthew Ridgway, in Korea and David Petraeus in Iraq. They became “savior generals” in VDH’s estimation, because each salvaged a war that appeared to have been hopelessly lost by a previous general whose name and ego caused him to make a hash of the fight. In some cases, their battlefield predecessors, such as MacArthur in Korea, were fighting the last war all over again, instead of responding to the conditions of the current battle. How did the savior generals VDH chose for his book manage to rise to the top ranks of their respective armies, and yet keep their ego in check? How did they learn to stay flexible and respond to the battles they were tasked to fight? And how does a savior general learn how to balance the warfare of politics, versus the actual warfare on the battlefield?
During our 28-minute long interview, Victor will discuss:
● What can we learn from the generals of antiquity?
● How did VDH narrow his list of “savior generals” down to five, and which men didn’t make the cut?
● What are the current states of Iraq and Afghanistan in the Obama era?
● Why “savior generals” often have unfortunate post-military careers.
● Is America’s culture still capable of producing further savior generals?
● The complex relationship between America’s hard left and the military.
● How VDH’s home state of California is surprisingly resilient, despite the best efforts of its politicians to destroy it.
And much more. Click here to listen:
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Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and I’m talking with fellow PJ Media columnist, Victor Davis Hanson. In addition to his weekly column at PJM, Victor also writes for National Review, is a member of the Hoover Institute, is a gentleman farmer in Fresno California, and has new book out titled, The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost – From Ancient Greece to Iraq. It’s published by Bloomsbury Press, and it’s available from Amazon.com and your local bookseller.
And Victor, thanks for stopping by today.
DR. HANSON: Thank you for having me, Ed.
MR. DRISCOLL: Victor, we should probably start by defining the title. What exactly is a “savior general,” and who qualifies for that definition, in your opinion?
DR. HANSON: Well, you know, the word is somewhat ambiguous, because it doesn’t say “victorious general” or “losing general.” It means people who saved, but not necessarily, you know, achieved ultimate victory. So people like Matthew Ridgway, that were asked to go into Korea when the United States, essentially — by December 1950, essentially had written off the effort, and yet he restored American and U.N. forces to the 38th Parallel, but he didn’t reunite Korea; or David Petraeus, who was the architect of the surge that saved the American reputation in Iraq and brought somewhat quietude to a really — a terrible insurgency, but he didn’t really triumph over all of the enemy in Iraq — today it even has problems — so in the sense that when wars are going very badly and consensual or constitutional societies are about ready to write off the effort, there’s a certain type of commander that comes to the fore that you might not have wanted before the conflict or after.
And the other thing is it’s savior — we say “savior” — savior, it sounds sort of almost religious in its tone. And I think there’s — they were great savior generals in the sense of restoring lost battles: Rommel, Model, von Manstein, Zhukov. But their efforts were on behalf of authoritarian societies that you probably would have preferred they’d failed rather than win. So what I did was I went through history and said which generals fought for causes that most people who are supporters of constitutional government support, and [asked myself] how were they different than people like Alexander the Great or Napoleon or Wellington? And what I came up was oh, twenty or thirty people throughout history who didn’t necessarily have advantages in manpower, they were not well-connected, they didn’t have maybe the best technology, they didn’t start a war. But they were brought in, in the eleventh hour, to restore something.
Because I wanted to look at the leadership qualities of generals when there was no advantage, they didn’t have any momentum, or there was no reason why they should win, rather than just somebody like Napoleon or Wellington that had a lot of other criteria besides their own genius that might explain why they won it at Waterloo or Austerlitz or something.
MR. DRISCOLL: Now, is the phrase “savior generals” a phrase that you yourself coined?
DR. HANSON: Yes, it is. It is. I hadn’t seen it — I hadn’t seen it mentioned before. I talked to — in some interviews, when I was writing the book, I talked about it in paper — a news — a couple of newspaper columns, and I noticed that for some generals in the American Army it caught on.
General Petraeus himself, before the book came out, often referenced himself as sort of a Sherman or a Matthew Ridgway. So I think that it was an idea that caught on, because — again, we’re not saying that they’re victorious generals, or they’re people of a stature of Alexander the Great or Hannibal or Napoleon, but they’re a particular subset.
I often — in the book, I mention this image of the Western — especially in the 1950s and 1960s movies like Shane, The Professionals, or The Magnificent Seven, especially The Searchers and High Noon, or Maginif — if I said The Magnificent Seven — where we give — we have a particular type of person, a western cowboy marshal, savior-general, so to speak, that comes into a town or a cause, and he defeats the enemy, but there are certain personality quirks, eccentricities. They tend to have a maverick profile, or they’re just too scary. And after they’re — they’ve done their duty, they don’t fit well.
So Shane has to take off. He can’t stay in the Wyoming small farmer community. Ethan Edwards, in The Searchers, has to leave. We know that in High Noon, Gary Cooper throws down — Marshal Will Kane throws down his badge. And all of these savior generals were not really men of the hour before the war started. They were not the architects of their cause. They weren’t favored by political leaders. And then after they did quite extraordinary things, they — to be frank — ended up pretty badly, because they’re the type of people — maybe it was their character, maybe it was the way they talked or wrote or maybe the way they were portrayed by the public — they didn’t — they weren’t — I guess they weren’t comfortable with post-war consensus or tranquility.
When I finished the book, of course, David Petraeus’ problems had not happened. I had to insert a little sentence in the galleys. But somebody had remarked to me who read the galley before that — I had done that, and said well, wow. Petraeus is now CIA director, he ended up well. And I said well, it’s not over till it’s over.
Themistocles killed himself. Belisarius ended up as a beggar in the streets of Constantinople. Sherman spent most of the post-war period in the 1870s defending his record from criticisms that he’d been a terrorist. Ridgway got on the wrong side of everybody. George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, especially Omar Bradley, and then most of the chairmen of the joint chiefs, and was asked to retire by Eisenhower.
And then Petraeus, I think anybody — whatever their feeling was about Iraq or the surge, did believe that David Petraeus deserved to be chairman of the joint chiefs, or at least supreme NATO commander, and yet he was given no chance for either billet. And the CIA is sort of the cul-de-sac of political careers. And so he — so far, he hasn’t ended up too well after his moment in Iraq.
MR. DRISCOLL: In addition to modern generals such as Petraeus, your book covers well over 1,000 years of history from Themistocles and Belisarius to the American generals Sherman, Ridgway, and Petraeus. Most Americans have some basic understanding of their own history. What can they learn from those generals of antiquity that you’re also writing about?
DR. HANSON: Well, I tried to look at people in antiquity to make the point resonate that technology is not the issue in war that makes one side win or one side lose, or it’s not necessarily essential to leadership, or there’s not a new social science, or there’s not a new facet of human nature. In other words, that human nature is set, it’s static throughout time and space. And we can go back to antiquity even through we’re talking about triremes rather than submarines, or we’re looking at Byzantine cavalry rather than Humvees. The essentials remain the same. War is sort of like — whether you like it or not — like water. It doesn’t change through the centuries, but the delivery system, a pump, can produce it in much greater volumes. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that water has changed because you see it pumped out of an enormous dam, or something, at thousands of gallons per second versus a hand pump, a few gallons per minute.
It’s still the same thing. And that’s what I’m trying to get at in this book, that leadership and these oddball, eccentric, contrarian, eccentric people are sort of timeless. They’re — because they represent parts of human nature that’s familiar to all of us.
MR. DRISCOLL: Well, you mentioned eccentrics. And I was kind of surprised not to see General Patton or any American general from World War II in your book.
DR. HANSON: Well, it was a hard call, because I wanted to limit the study to about 120,000 words, there were generals in antiquity like Scipio Africanus, after the battle of Cannae, that helped Rome regroup and salvage the Second Punic War. And of course, George Patton, after the Kasserine Pass and the disaster in North Africa, reconstituted the American effort.
But here I was a little bit more arbitrary. I asked myself, are these generals — if you took that general away, would they have won the war. And I think as great as General Patton was, and he was the center of a book I wrote — the focus a book I called — I wrote, called The Soul of Battle, fifteen years ago — that even if we had not had General Patton, or Curtis LeMay, for that matter, who was a great savior general in the B-29 program — we probably still would have won.
I don’t think we would have won in Korea. We would have lost that war without Matthew Ridgway. I don’t think without David Petraeus we would have had a surge. And without a surge we probably would have given up in Iraq. I surely don’t think — if Sherman was not around we would not have taken Atlanta — we being the Union forces — before the election, and Lincoln probably would not have been reelected in 1864.
I know of the antiquities, great generals — without Themistocles, there wouldn’t have been a Salamis. It’s beyond — beyond controversy. And I think without Belisarius, Justinian wouldn’t have ever been able to hold together the new borders of the Byzantine Empire.
So I guess what I’m saying is that there were savior generals of fronts, of battles, of areas, and then there are savior generals that preserve an entire war or an entire effort. And I think the five that I chose fall into that latter category.
MR. DRISCOLL: Victor, I really enjoyed the chapter on Matthew Ridgeway. Could you talk a bit about him, and why the Korean War is so little known today, outside of, I guess, it being the background for TV’s long-running M*A*S*H series in the 1970s?
DR. HANSON: The Korean war was controversial, because it was really the first war that the United States didn’t win in the sense that we didn’t defeat North Korea and unite the peninsula, that some people thought was either the original aim of the war, or should have been the original aim of the war. And then second, after the war — after the armistice, there was not a — there was not what we thought would be a peace treaty. There was no side that admitted defeat or victory.
And then given the problems we have with Korea today, people go back and say, my gosh, when you don’t win a war, you bequeath it to your ancestors. And that’s sort of what happened.
All that being said, today South Korea is a successful country. It gave us everything from Hyundai to Samsung. And we forget that in December 1950, the United States and the United Nations forces had pretty much lost the war. They had gone all the way the way up under Douglas MacArthur, who never really spent a night in Korea — he was he commander by autopilot from Japan — the Yalu River and the Manchurian border.
Then in — quite unexpectedly — I think it shouldn’t have been unexpectedly — but the Americans were caught napping and 700,000 People’s Army troops from Red China came across the border — largest, longest, most serious military retreat in American history, saw us retreat back 400 miles to the 38th Parallel. And then our supreme commander on the ground, General Walker, gets killed in a jeep accident. MacArthur’s engaged in a political war with the State Department and the joint chiefs about Communism, how to best deal with Communism. And everybody expects Seoul to fall within a week. And it did fall again.
And suddenly they — in late December they tell Matthew Ridgway, who was a World War Two hero, but pretty much destined for a retirement in obscurity, to go to Korea, ostensibly to oversee a retreat, perhaps down all the way to Busan, and evacuation to Japan. And he lands there in late December of 1950, and immediately he says, where’s the plans for the offensive.