Intelligent but abridged lives of six accomplished military leaders.
Despite the subtitle, prolific historian McLynn (Richard and John: Kings at War, 2007, etc.) does not get inside the minds of his subjects—Spartacus, Attila the Hun, Richard the Lionheart, Cortés, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and Napoleon—but his meticulous, opinionated writing will satisfy readers who take their history seriously. Napoleon and Spartacus were the only brilliant tacticians. Attila, Richard and Ieyasu were pugnacious national leaders, and Cortés was a brutally ambitious adventurer. McLynn delivers cradle-to-grave biographies but deals mostly with their campaigns, which vividly illustrate Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics carried out by other means. In the absence of politics, war is futile—Rome refused to negotiate with Spartacus, so his victories gained nothing. Attila, Richard and Cortés foolishly believed that fighting was an end in itself, so they fell victim to more sophisticated rivals. Ieyasu, a mediocre general, employed guile and compromise to solidify his victories and then to maintain his power. He was the sole warrior to die peacefully in bed, and his Tokugawa shogunate ruled a stable Japan for 250 years. The most intellectual of the six, Napoleon was also the only leader never threatened by internal rivalries, but his naïve political dealings with Britain and Russia led to catastrophe. McLynn strains mightily to find a common thread, finally admitting that it doesn’t exist. Great conquerors turn out to be a mixed bunch with wildly disparate motives, personalities and levels of intelligence. All became historical superstars by crushing opponents on the battlefield, but this turned out to be the easy part—a lesson we are still learning.
The book lacks a coherent theme, but the biographies are a cut above popular middlebrow history.