Victory and Command

October 29, 2013

Paul K. Davis, Masters of the Battlefield: Great Commanders From the Classical Age to the Napoleonic Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)

The ancient Greeks said that there were three kinds of men:  those who love gain, honor, or wisdom.  In his engaging study of 15 legendary Generals throughout history, Paul Davis illuminates a fourth:  those who love victory.  While victory is made up from a thousand different qualities and impulses, the Generals that Davis chooses to study have in common the burning desire to win in the most demanding endeavor that humans undertake: combat.

Beginning with the Theban General Epaminondas (well-known to readers of classical historian Victor Davis Hanson), Davis takes the reader on a tour de force of the art and science of war leadership, concluding with two brilliant chapters on Napoleon Bonaparte and Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.  Along the way we meet well-known Generals like Alexander, Hannibal and Frederick the Great, and lesser-known fighters like Belisarius and Oda Nobunaga.

Davis does a nice job sketching out the biography of each commander, examining the back stories of personality and character.  He is economical in these areas, which is fair enough especially given the varying degrees of information available on the cast of Generals he is studying.  Perhaps the best material in each chapter is on the nature of the armies and the style of warfare of a given General’s time.  He draws on his earlier work, 100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present, to describe the battles that — in his view — most clearly show the ability of the General to find his way to victory.

This is a volume that would sit quite nicely within the curriculum of any of the nation’s War Colleges.  Davis reflects the nine classic principles of war that virtually all students of combat study today: objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity.  In a bow to the British Army’s manual, he adds a tenth principle, one that is perhaps supremely important in this modern era of the largely volunteer soldier: morale.  Taken together, his framework is workmanlike and quite supportive of his task.

The volume is richly illustrated with clear and useful maps, giving the reader a sense of being in the General’s tent the night before the battle, with candles sputtering in the wind and the battle captains gathered around to hear the operational orders for the following day.  The book is also thick with footnotes and contains a well-structured and thorough bibliography.  It is a handsome volume for a well-stocked library.

The tonal pitch of the book is scholarly;this is not a volume for the beginner or the casual reader.  Its greatest strength is in illuminating the Generals’ ability to dominate their particular era through two abiding tasks for any military leader:  being able to quickly raise and deploy forces; and to motivate those forces in the rigors of combat.   The book also places a high premium on a General’s ability to adapt to the modern world through creative and ingenious use of technology, tactic, and technique.  An example would be the first use of handheld firearms on the battlefield by Bohemian General Jan Zizka.

What do these leaders have in common?  In addition to creativity and logistic skill, all were able to create a culture of devotion and confidence from the soldiers they led.  For instance, Epaminondastold his men on the eve of the battle of Leuctra that they must kill the Spartan head so that the allied force would wither and die; he then illustrated the point by taking a live snake and crushing its head before his troops.

It is especially interesting to reflect on more modern Generals, and to consider how they would fit the mold of these early fighters.  In the post-Napoleonic era come the giants of the modern profession of arms — the leaders of Germany, Japan, the United States, and the UK in the great wars of the 20th century.   The book also covers the Generals of the period of colonial overthrow like Giap of Vietnam, who defeated both France and the United States in liberating his nation and died just weeks ago.  I suspect there is another volume in this series, and serious scholars of the art of war will be anticipating it.

It would also be extraordinarily useful to have Davis apply his superb pen to Masters of the Maritime Battlefield.  Think of the glorious victory of Greek Admiral Themistocles at Salamis, or Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar.  The American Commanders in the Pacific in WWII, Nimitz, Halsey, and Spruance all deserve their chapters as well.  And as we enter the modern age, it is valuable to adapt this kind of thinking and analysis of land-force commanders to not only the sea, but to the domains of air, space, and cyber as well.  Ender’s Game is indeed coming, if not already here.

In terms of companion pieces to read alongside this, several leap to mind.  First would be John Keegan’s classic works, The Mask of Command and The Face of Battle.  In the former, Keegan sketches out Alexander, Wellington, Ulysses Grant, and Hitler.  In the latter, he looks at three battlefields – Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme – and illuminates the commanders set upon them.  Victor Davis Hanson’s many works about classical Greek warfare are equally good, and his work with several others on The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War is superb.  Of particular note is his The Soul of Battle looking at Epaminondas (presenting a contrasting view to Davis, by the way), Sherman, and Patton.  Davis’ new book is a classic of this type of writing.

Many of the principles of war and the historical lessons of leadership in Masters of the Battlefield apply today, although — as always — the tools, scale, means, and approaches to war are changing. Since the days of Napoleon and Wellington, thousands of things have been wholly remade or newly introduced by technology, including  cyber, special forces, unmanned vehicles, vast systems of command, control & communications, massive logistics capability, enhanced biology, and weapons of mass destruction.  Yet any General studied in this volume would still find, and wrestle with, the same fundamental challenges — motivation, leadership, innovation and – above all –  out-thinking the enemy.  In the end, warfare is brain-on-brain, and the profiles in combat in this book show us that again and again.


Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret) is former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and currently Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.  Admiral Stavridis holds a PhD from Fletcher, and has written five books and over a hundred articles, including Destroyer Captain. You can follow him on Twitter @stavridisj.


Photo credit: Nathan Gibbs