Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and the Genius of Leadership
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Great generals must be ready to die young, and many conquerors throughout history have. They also must face the ever-present possibility of failure. Conquest is not an easy job. Success requires a combination of military greatness and supreme political skill. Very few people excel at both.
Our generals today do not try to excel at both, and that is a good thing. They bow to civilian authority. They do not decide whether to go to war, only how to fight a war, and even on that point they must yield to the politicians. They do not decide political strategy, only military strategy. It is a good thing not to put political and military power in the hands of one man.
They do lose sleep over killing people. They don’t fight wars of aggression, only of defense. To be sure, sometimes defense requires attacking another state that is plotting against us or oppressing its own people or occupying land that is rightfully ours, but all that is a far cry from declaring someone else’s soil to be “spear-won” land, as Alexander did.
The great commanders of the ancient world lacked the humility called for in great statesmen. They were great men but not benefactors of the human race; they came to destroy more than to fulfill. In many ways, their examples are to be honored in the breach. And yet, they do have something to teach us.
No man has ever outdone Alexander’s feat of conquering such a large empire in such a short time at such a young age. No strategist has ever pulled off a more daring invasion that Hannibal’s march from Spain over the Pyrenees, the Rhone, and the Alps into Italy. No battlefield commander has ever thrown the dice as boldly as Caesar did when he crossed the Adriatic Sea on the eve of winter without warships or supplies – and won the war.
No one ever understood better than these three that war is politics. No conqueror has ever dared to co-opt the conquered as brilliantly as Alexander did when he declared himself to be the king of Asia – and acted the part. No invader has ever rallied the invaded as smoothly as Hannibal did when he entered Italy to the cry of “Italy for the Italians.” No soldier-statesman has ever combined the carrot – pardons – with the stick – military force – as deftly as Caesar.
And then, at the moment of triumph, no one ever forgot the rule that war is politics as completely – or as disastrously – as they. Flush with victory and drunk with success, each man did the one thing that no successful general can ever dare do: he succumbed to his own vanity. Modern generals are not immune to excessive pride. But, in democracies, at any rate, laws prevent any one individual from doing too much damage. History tells a cautionary tale.
Copyright © 2012 by Barry Strauss
Review by Dennis Showalter
Cornell University’s Barry Strauss has no superior and few counterparts as a scholar of ancient military history and a student of war. Strauss takes ancient warmaking beyond linguistics and archeology without interpreting it in contemporary contexts. Masters of Command identifies the ancient world’s greatest captains: Alexander of Macedonia, Hannibal Barca of Carthage, and Julius Caesar of Rome. Each was a master of war. In combat they were heroic. In command they were peerless. But lives put at risk in battle were only the price of admission.
These men were not just generals. They were soldier-statesmen, in the process of conquering empires. That meant each was responsible for looking beyond the battlefield. Each had to define a victory, to know when and how to end a war. Here their records become ambiguous. Hannibal’s vaulting plans certainly fell short of his aspirations. Neither Alexander nor Caesar was able to consolidate and stabilize the systems they sought to create. Nevertheless they stand out as military prodigies.
Strauss makes that dramatic case by taking his protagonists through their respective careers, analyzing campaigns and battles in search for common qualities that brought success in the ancient world. He begins with decisiveness: readiness to seek early victories by attacking. When successful attack proved just an opening gambit, all three knew how to overcome resistance by varying combinations of force, guile, and flexibility. In the third stage of war, crisis, Strauss’s protagonists were at their best. Their climactic battles, Gaugamela, Cannae, and Pharsalus, were killing fields that showed both “too much skill not to impress and too much blood not to appall”. They showed as well a heroic determination their opponents were unable or unwilling to match directly.
That led to the process Strauss calls “closing the net:” dealing with enemy leaders, capturing key political centers, financing an end-game and not least sustaining the effectiveness of his own army. Results here were mixed, with Caesar the most successful and Hannibal the least. But Hannibal outdid his competitors in a crucial area. His troops remained loyal to the end. And in an era when fighting men were the ultimate makeweight, Strauss calls that enough to sustain Hannibal’s place as one of history’s most admired generals.
The last stage of greatness is knowing when to stop. None of Strauss’s commanders ended well. After Cannae Hannibal demonstrated stubbornness when flexibility was called for. Alexander overextended his empire to the point of insustainability. Caesar’s war-ending strategy was sound; his domestic managerial skills foundered on his delusions of grandeur. In evaluating his subjects Strauss is balanced, perceptive, and convincing. He admirably sets the discussion’s parameters. Hannibal takes the palm as a battle captain. Alexander earns pride of place as an army commander, in good part because of his star quality. And Caesar stands at the peak because he came closest to making the transition from general to statesman. The rankings and their evidence invite debate. But for all three generals the Greeks had one word: “hubris.”
Hardcover Book : 320 pages
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, Inc. ( May 01, 2012 )
Item #: 13-536894
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 x 0.8inches
Product Weight: 17.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)