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So it is that Victor Davis Hanson’s splendid new book, “The Savior Generals,” provides a profound look at turning points in history. The subtitle says it all: “How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost – From Ancient Greece to Iraq.”
Hanson, a writer of much acclaim, is one of the best analysts and historians in the world today. His latest book is another gem that has perhaps a broader audience than one might first suspect. In other words, if this is thought of as a “man’s book,” the wider audience is deprived. This is a book for anyone, especially those who (in an increasingly desperate world) are looking for hope, inspiration and gritty courage.
From ancient Athens to Sherman’s Atlanta to the surge in Iraq, Hanson displays a stunning skill in painting five portraits of leaders who changed their worlds. The reader will be hard-pressed to pick a “most inspiring.” As a leadership book, “The Savior Generals” has few if any peers.
Let’s dive into the middle of this magnificent effort and try to imagine what a hard-nosed Union officer thought about trying to win a war unsurpassed for carnage, valor and decisive days.
General William Tecumseh Sherman is still hated in the American South. Listen to Hanson’s description of the man who brought the Confederacy to its knees: “As he went into Georgia in May 1864, Sherman still remained an utter paradox – both an insider with valuable political connections and an outcast who had met only professional failure before the war. He was a scruffy, unkempt westerner who brought a wealth of book learning and innate genius to the art of war. Pictures taken during 1864 do not suggest a robust young man of forty-four, but instead a troubled, almost angry middle-aged warrior in his fifties – face creased, hair wild, and eyes fixed away from the camera.”
Mired in grim battlefield losses and a protracted conflict lengthened by the technical brilliance of Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln finally decided that he needed fighters in command, not the war games champion, George McClellan. Enter U.S. Grant and his alter ego, Sherman. Drawing up a strategy that would end with the burning of Atlanta, the two Union generals would go down in history as architects of a hard-fought war that changed America. Though controversial to this day, their strategies nevertheless brought the carnage to a halt, and their leadership qualities are still studied.
Nor should we forget the lessons learned from the tales of the legendary general, Flavius Belisarius, who rescued the Byzantine Empire from being extinguished countless times. As Hanson puts it, upon recounting several reversals of fortune, “Instead, the old Roman Empire of the Caesars was for a time nearly restored.”
Belisarius, a Roman general who served the state all his adult life and preserved it through sheer force of will, was eventually worn-out by palace intrigue, warfare and a generally cruel world. But he is still remembered for his battlefield exploits, as Hanson describes so beautifully.
The engagement with a Persian army twice the strength of his own forces, at Dara in 530, is a case in point. Unmoved by the odds, Belisarius used a system of trenches and concealed horsemen to ravage the Persians, killing, as Hanson describes, “five thousand elite mounted Persians” in only hours.
This type of strategy would mark Belisarius’ career.
Flash-forward hundreds of years to Korea, where the American effort to halt communist expansion had come to a standstill in the brutal winter of 1950-51.
Enter General Matthew Ridgway. A mere five years after the epic victory over the Axis powers, American military might was on its heels in the east. A mere few weeks after the landings at Inchon, the army was immobile. At a friend’s house one evening for cocktails, Ridgway received a phone call that the commanding American general, Walton Walker, had been killed in a jeep accident.
Hanson explains in a brilliant narrative how Ridway assumed command of Eighth Army in Korea. With calls both within American society and within the military community for a nuclear answer, American forces stabilized under Ridgway. You’ll have to read Hanson’s remarkable “The Savior Generals,” but rest assured it will be well worth it.
Rare individuals inspire long after they’re gone, and the leaders profiled in “The Savior Generals” will remain with readers for a long time.