Conventional study of a dozen unconventional military leaders.
What makes a maverick politician? Apparently, recent history suggests, going against party leadership once or twice. What makes a maverick military leader? By former Economist assistant editor and parliamentarian Harvey’s account, there are 16 desiderata, ranging from “outstanding and exemplary courage under fire” to “high intelligence, often concealed under a veneer of military bluffness, and communications skills,” along with episodes of insubordination, a fondness for fighting against the odds and an improvisational character. OK: So Norman Schwarzkopf and George Meade are out. But where’s George Custer? Alexander of Macedon? Georgy Zhukov? Vercingetorix? Vinegar Joe Stilwell? Most are absent because Harvey’s bandwidth is narrow, confined to the period from 1757 to World War II and embracing Anglo-American and Northern European (Garibaldi excepted), predictable figures such as the Duke of Wellington, Erwin Rommel and George S. Patton. Ever since Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1970 film Patton, there’s not much point in discussing the last two, who were famed for defying orders and doing whatever the hell they wanted to. George Washington wasn’t exactly defiant when he attacked the Hessians at Trenton, though, admittedly, when in the thick of battle Admiral Nelson had a tendency to forget he had heard from the bosses. Clive of India did his thing without undue flash, even if he did suffer from moments of depression “and, rarely, displays of cruelty.” James Wolfe was exceedingly brave on the Plains of Abraham—but was not Montcalm as well? Harvey’s book suffers foremost from his obvious choices—only the British sea captain Thomas Cochrane is not widely known, save to students of the Napoleonic Wars. The narrative has the feel of being shoehorned to fit its guiding model, one that is conceptually thin to begin with.
Of modest interest to students of military history. Jeremy Black’s Great Military Leaders and Their Campaigns, among other recent surveys, is more satisfying.