From time to time I review books on this blog, mostly books on military history and war studies. Today's book review is no different. I've spent the weekend reading Victor Davis Hanson's Savior Generals, a fine and short book. Hanson is controversial in the United States, where he is sometimes seen as a neoconservative. This label is a bit misleading, for he is by profession a historian and does not dive into the theoretical schools political science has established for decades now, though he is certainly not avoiding politics as a subject. This has led to a scholarly canon that most political scientists sometimes find discomforting, simply because he does not subscribe to any particular modern school of political thought. Moreover, his interest in military history spawns centuries and Savior Generals adequately reflects that—the first of the five case studies deals with Themistocles at Salamis, 48o B.C., the last is focused on David Petraeus and his Surge in Iraq. His earlier books on war and warfare do not always span quite such a period of time, but they too take a longue durée approach to military history nonetheless.
But in contrast to some modern historians, who are interested not in particular historical epochs but rather with the way mankind takes over the doorstep from one epoch to the other—from European absolutism to the period of modern history, which most historians date with the French revolution, Hanson is interested in what does not change. And some of the continuity he is looking for he finds in the general principles that determine war and warfare. This makes him largely suspicious of anyone who claims that a totally new era of war is approaching. And in the context of sheer endless debates on drones, robotics, swarming and a revolution in military affairs, his approach is—somewhat ironically—refreshing. Having said that, its rather unusual to look for this continuity by focusing on personalities and not structures. But he makes his case eloquently and illuminates five military leaders, which have turned the tide of wars. Methodologically that approach is not easy to defend and Hanson's only explanation is that all things being equal the wars these military leaders got involved in, would have ended differently had it not been for them. Based on these criteria, this book makes a compelling read.
I'll focus on the last three case studies – Sherman (Civil War), Ridgway (Korean War) and Petraeus (Iraq). I am not an expert on the American Civil War, though the Sherman chapter is the strongest in my view. Ridgway was particularly interesting for his legacy, while the Petraeus chapter hit me as being the weakest, not because Petraeus' impact has been smaller than Hanson argued (it hasn't), but largely because Hanson does not fully succeed in describing the minutiae of the changes Petraeus adopted (there is a lot more to counterinsurgency than protecting the population, while going after the bad guys at the same time). Overall, all cases underline a major point Hanson is making. The nature of war and warfare is not changing and the tide of the battle can still be turned by whoever is the most adaptive, open-minded and risk-taking strategist on the battlefield, no matter what weapon is being employed.