Review: 'Leadership in War' a lively introduction to admirable and odious military figures

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Leadership in War

"Leadership in War: Essential Lessons From Those Who Made History," by Andrew Roberts

LEADERSHIP IN WAR: Essential Lessons From Those Who Made History. By Andrew Roberts. Viking. 221 pages. $27.

In the large panoply of qualities that author Andrew Roberts cites in “Leadership in War” to describe prominent military leaders over the last two centuries, several inevitably stand out. Courage, familiarity with history, knowledge of terrain (political, geographical, topographical), energy, and an ability to plan and strategize. These are the characteristics found in most successful leaders.

A sense of personal destiny, ambition and even ruthlessness are not uncommon. But perhaps the most significant feature they share, some for just a time, is an ability to inspire men and women to fight, often against terrific odds, for reasons that transcend their own safety and security.

These “short pen portraits,” as Roberts calls them, began as lectures he gave to the New York Historical Society between 2014 and 2018. He has chosen to focus on nine leaders whom he believes illustrate “leadership lessons that would be applicable in more peaceful times”: Napoleon Bonaparte, Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, George C. Marshall, Charles De Gaulle, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Margaret Thatcher.

In that group, some are more appealing as people and some are more significant in terms of actual accomplishment. Like many, Roberts seems to revere George C. Marshall, whose buildup of American forces has made the United States into the global superpower it is today, he argues. Marshall should be a household name in his native land, Roberts states, but “fairness is not a feature of history.”

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At the other end of the spectrum is Adolf Hitler, for whom Roberts reserves his most searing language. Not only, he contends, was the conquest of great swaths of Europe a tribute to the capacities of the German Wehrmacht, rather than any strategic ability of the Fuhrer, but the man himself was a “soulless little weirdo, an absurd, mediocre, self-regarding, physically unprepossessing excuse for an Aryan superman.” Nevertheless, Hitler played on the German people’s need to find an excuse for losing the First World War, fanned the flames of nationalism and anti-Semitism, and seized control of the media, thus offered his people an intoxicating combination of hope and hatred.

Some of the most interesting portions of the book also might be the most surprising, even amusing. George Marshall’s contention that a cross-channel invasion should take place earlier than his counterparts believed was a brilliant “bluff” to help keep the Allies and his own president up to the mark in preparing for the landing.

Once, piqued by high-level quarreling before D-Day, Eisenhower threatened to tell Churchill to “get someone else to run the damn war,” though he was known for his preternatural calm because he had “learned dramatics under Douglas MacArthur.”

Napoleon barely slept and had an odd habit of tweaking the ears, often painfully, of his soldiers as an act of affection. Admiral Nelson was seasick off and on throughout his whole sailing life.

Roberts, who also is the author of “Churchill: Walking with Destiny,” has produced a brief, highly readable series of thumbnail sketches of individuals with whom historians and history buffs will be quite familiar. For the general reader, the book offers a lively introduction to the topic of military leadership, one that remains of crucial importance even as the nature of war changes dramatically.

Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston and regular contributor to the book page.

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