What Makes a Good General?

posted in: Literature | 0

The more I listen to (well, read) about warfare, the more I’m learning about what makes a good general. Not a subject I’d ever have expected to fascinate me, but in the hands (well, voice) of a great historian, generalship becomes a highly lethal (or courageous, depending on your point of view) subset of leadership.

Case in point: Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August describes the opening months of World War I as diplomatic maneuvering (I’d say bullying and feinting) among the European powers, then once war is thought inevitable (there’s great fear among some of losing face), the deployment of troops (and ships) along pre-determined plans.

Here a very interesting scenario unfolds among the Germans, Belgians, and French (with England eventually to be drawn in). Because the French lost Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans in the Franco Prussian war of 1870, their generalissimo Joffre organized his thinking about defense in an offensive way. Instead of considering that the Germans might well come through neutral Belgium and attending to fears from his other commanders that this indeed might take place, Joffre weighted manpower heavily on the eastern edge and, in fact, sent French troops initially into Alsace.

Meanwhile, King Albert of the Belgians, the premier commander of that small and supposedly neutral country, rallied his troops and citizens courageously against the invading force,. After initial victories, the Belgian forts could not withstand the huge “Big Bertha” mortars, which reduced the forts to rubble with the soldiers in them. This part of the story Tuchman recounts with one telling sentence: the Belgian troops in the forts often “went mad” as they waited for the next mortar to fall, knowing they’d be decimated.

According to Tuchman, the French high commander Joffre, stoic, silent, yet consumed by the notion that “elan,” rather than superior force or insightful planning would win battles, fired general after general under him, for disagreeing, for caution, and of course for failure to win. As I listen to the war unfold, I expect to find that France’s, i.e. Joffre’s unwillingness to suspect that the German troops might mass in northwest France will cost France countless months and casualities.

This is a very interesting portrait of leadership, and reminds me of much smaller, everyday encounters where “fixed ideas” of someone at the top resist the cogent arguments of underlings. Likewise, where the “high command” puts forth one value, i.e. “elan,” or spirit, heroism, etc., but follows quite another, i.e. “revanche,” meaning in this case recapture of what has been previously lost, rather than attending to the reports of what is actually happening and acting accordingly.

Heaven forbid we should embark on another world war. The carnage is unbelievable, and the story of World War I has only begun. There are so many ways to suffer and die, and peacetime existence presents plenty, thank you very much. But we can learn a lot about leadership from studying the history of warfare, though several crucial differences affect the application of examples from the past: changing technology, and the differences in governments and cultures.
But humankind remains fundamentally recognizable: I applaud with Tuchman the Belgian heroic resistance to what was, after all, an enormous insult to their neutrality which had been guaranteed by all the major powers. That they took up a fight for which they were not prepared, and refused to allow Germany or France to tromp over their fairly new nation, knowing full well that their independence depended on that resistance, won the admiration of France and England at the time, and still rouses my own applause from almost a century later.

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