Evaluations of the performances of nine leaders, from Napoleon to Margaret Thatcher, who commanded their nations’ military forces.
Veteran historian Roberts (Churchill: Walking With Destiny, 2018, etc.) is no stranger to many of his subjects—he’s written multiple books about both Napoleon and Churchill—and holds strong opinions on all, although there are few surprises. All nine of the leaders he examines were blessed with supreme confidence and “an absolute faith in their tribes being superior to their antagonists….They believed in what is now called national exceptionalism, as tribal leaders throughout history have.” Napoleon, Churchill, Hitler, de Gaulle, and Thatcher took for granted that they were destined for great things. Three career military officers—Horatio Nelson, George Marshall, and Eisenhower—never gave the impression that personal ambition, in itself entirely acceptable, trumped an obsession with smiting the enemy. All of the author’s subjects were ruthless; Hitler and Stalin may stand out, but Roberts delivers unnerving examples from others, Churchill in particular. All were compulsive workaholics except Hitler, who was oddly lazy and the least intelligent. Since war, as Carl von Clausewitz put it, is the continuation of politics by other means, it’s essential to possess a sixth sense for politics, which turns out to require the same talent for timing, observation, and ability to predict an opponent’s behavior as a battlefield commander. However, many successful military leaders who flopped on politics (Pompey, Erich Ludendorff, Philippe Pétain, Douglas MacArthur) don’t make Roberts’ list—or anyone else’s. Many evaluations once universally accepted are now controversial. Thus, Roberts writes that Marshall’s chilly reserve won Franklin Roosevelt’s deepest respect, but other historians point out that Roosevelt did business with a breezy informality and preferred the advice of men he could schmooze with.
Brief, painless biographies and reasonable, if traditional, appraisals of the qualities required to make war.