Victor Davis Hanson is an American military historian, former classics professor, scholar of ancient warfare, a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution and the author of some 20 books. He has been a commentator on modern warfare and contemporary politics for National Review and is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Tribune Media Group. Thus, it was particularly interesting to hear him talk about his new book, “The Savior Generals,” at the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s Wednesday Morning Club luncheon held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills on August 12th.
The major theme of the book, he said, was how contrarian and unpopular generals have often saved the day, defying the odds, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat to win a campaign and sometimes an entire war. To illustrate this, Hanson spanned almost 2,600 years, choosing Themistocles, Belisarius, Sherman, Ridgway and Petraeus as examples. Hanson noted they all shared certain traits: They all enjoyed their reputations for bucking conventional wisdom; they were all highly literate; they all spoke well and they all led by example.
When confronted with catastrophe, all of Hanson’s examples had one question in mind: “What is the plan of attack?” These great men also understood that in war the status of aggressors and defenders and of the victors and the vanquished is not interchangeable. Hanson lamented that in the current political climate, this one simple fact seems to get overlooked. He expressed his dismay when shortly after army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hassan, who was a Muslim, murdered 13 troops and injured 32 others at Fort Hood, the best that Army Chief of Staff General Casey could say was that he hoped that the U.S. Army’s “diversity” would not become a casualty of this massacre.
None of Hanson’s generals led from behind or were what Byron called “those Pagod things of sabre-sway/With fronts of brass and feet of clay.” Nowhere in the “Art of War” by Sun Tzu, Caesar’s “Commentaries” or the war manuals of von Clausewitz will one read that one should love one’s enemy. What one will read is the categorical imperative that one should kill, crush and defeat one’s enemy and keep on doing so until he has had enough of it. Themistocles, Belisarius, Sherman, Ridgway and Petraeus were all soldiers who forged their own path and who knew that without victory there would be no chance of survival.
For these men, however, fate has often been unkind. Themistocles was subjected to trumped up charges of corruption; Belisarius had an unfaithful wife and an ungrateful emperor; Sherman was slandered as a terrorist because he had humiliated the enemy and often had many personal feuds; Ridgway was forced to resign as Chief of Staff by President Eisenhower with whom he had strong disagreements about the role of the U.S. Army; and Petraeus resigned as Director of the CIA due to an extra-marital affair.
Nevertheless, when President Reagan awarded General Ridgway the Presidential Medal of Freedom on May 12, 1986 saying that “Heroes come when they’re needed; great men step forward when courage seems in short supply,” he could have been talking just as much about Themistocles, Belisarius, Sherman and Petraeus as he was about Ridgeway.
Victor Davis Hanson spoke for 45 minutes without notes and it was clear that he took delight in his subjects. He displayed an encompassing range of historical knowledge and, with his subjects in the “The Savior Generals,” confirmed that people of great courage and character can change the course of history.
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