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Thread: Who are the great generals?

  1. #21
    Small Wars Journal SWJED's Avatar
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    Default Rank Amateur

    Quote Originally Posted by Rank amateur View Post
    From this amateur:

    Powell, though he doesn't seem too popular here.
    Rommel, especially since he was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler
    Lee
    Hannibal
    Sun Tzu wasn't a real person but whoever wrote The Art of War should be on the list.

    I think Monty was vastly over rated.



    Not if you agree with Sun Tzu that the best outcome is too achieve your objective without fighting.
    Time to pay the piper...

  2. #22
    Council Member Mark O'Neill's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rank amateur View Post

    Not if you agree with Sun Tzu that the best outcome is too achieve your objective without fighting.
    RA (I hesitate to use either 'Rank' or 'Amateur' alone, as both could sound offensive....)

    Sun Tzu meant within the context of war. (the supreme acme being securing the operational objective without battle through superior generalship). In peace time the General cannot achieve the 'objective' - that is for the political leadership.

    To my mind the real art of being a General can only be demonstrated in conflict. Successful 'peacetime' generals are demonstrating bureaucratic competence, not generalship. Of course, the best ones can excel in peace and war.

    Slap,

    My wrong call on Gavin - apologies.

    Cheers

    Mark

  3. #23
    Council Member Rob Thornton's Avatar
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    Currently reading the memoirs of U.S. Grant. I got interested after the Overland Campaign staff ride. Being from TN, I'd never really given Grant too much thought - most of my time reading Civil War literature focused around over-all accounts, or biographies on Southern leadership. Most of the Civil War prints in my house focused on Lee and Jackson. I had bought into the "Myth of the Great Cause" and did not even know it.

    To some degree Lee had been painted larger then life. Many of the U.S. Generals in the Eastern theater up to that point had shown hesitation to seize the initiative - for whatever reasons - their posterity had left them faded. They may have achieved some tactical success, but had no real operational art that set it sights on strategic success - or carrying out President Lincoln's policy end of ending the rebellion so political re-integration could occur.

    The point is that great generals are not only capable of gaining a tactical victory, but of operational art and securing strategic ends with the means provided them.

    Grant's memoirs provide some insight I think into the circumstances that produce great generals. He starts by discussing his father's family, and his own boyhood life and education at USMA. He then talks about the Mexican War, the Army of occupation afterwards and the decision to leave the service for private enterprise, the circumstances which led to succession, and his path back into uniform. I'm now at about 1861-2, where he working with the Navy to seize the Confederate forts on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.

    Where I've read some other books by recent Generals, Grant is very humble, and more then willing to point to his mistakes and push credit to his peers or subordinates while he occasionally speaks to a lesson he learned that changed his views. I'm amazed at how large chance played a role in his life and in campaigning, and how Grant was able to make use of that chance. That also is probably a distinguishing factor of a good general, the clarity to perceive an opportunity, and the moral courage to make use of it.

    Regardless of your views on Grant of the U.S. Civil War, Grant's memoirs provide some incredible observations and insights.

    I think if you consider the definition above, it helps to clarify where generals might stand (at least according to your own rank order). The great generals must be capable of more then delivering a tactical victory. The must be able to take means and employ them in ways to achieve (or at least facilitate) political ends.

    As for me, I'm going to hunt down a couple of prints, one is the LOG Base at City Point - there is a great story about foresight and generalship there, and the second is the surrender at Appomattox - there are also lessons there about generalship and foresight in setting the conditions to win the peace.
    Regards, Rob

  4. #24
    Council Member Rob Thornton's Avatar
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    Default Some other qualifiers

    Some other things to consider after you establish the initial entry criteria:

    - The situation inherited by the general - all factors of METT-TC and lets include domestic and geo-politics to boot

    - The scope of the task(s)/objectives/ends to be achieved

    - The amount of means at hand, and his stewardship o those means in light of the circumstances

    - The skill and reputation of the opponent (and the means at the enemy's disposal)

    - the courage required to persevere in the face of difficult odds both on the battlefield and on the home front

    - the enduringness of the outcome - was this an accomplishment that keeps the state from having to go back in 5-10 years down the road

    There are probably many others, but I think these are a few that distinguish "great" from "good".

    Regards, Rob

  5. #25
    Moderator Steve Blair's Avatar
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    Default Grant's Memoirs

    As an aside, Grant's memoirs are considered one of the best of their kind. It's even more impressive when you consider that he was dying when he wrote them.

    Since we seem to be listing again, I'd certainly add Zinni to my list, and I'm beginning to think Mattis should be there as well. Custer was a fine tactical commander in specific circumstances, but he proved unable to adapt to different styles of warfare and in the end paid the price. He wasn't the only cavalry commander at Gettysburg, and Buford made more important decisions during the early stages of the battle.

    This raises an interesting point, though: what level of warfare does one consider when evaluating a great general? Stuart had a flair for some operations, though it could be argued that Hampton made better use of cavalry without wearing them down. Rommel also had an operational flair, but his strategic sense has been questioned. Bradley is considered a great general by some, even though his Hurtgen campaign was both unimaginative and (for many) unnecessary.

    Rob's list is certainly a nice starting point.
    "On the plains and mountains of the American West, the United States Army had once learned everything there was to learn about hit-and-run tactics and guerrilla warfare."
    T.R. Fehrenbach This Kind of War

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    Council Member bourbon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ken White View Post
    Subutai
    Sir, I do not claim any pertinent bona fides in this forum, nor do I consider myself particularly astute in military history. But I must agree that Subutai is an excellent selection. I have a fascination with Mongol history and Subutai is certainly a big figure in it.

    My understanding is that Subutai is one of the pioneers of maneuver warfare and was the first to employ tactical artillery during the Battle of Mohi. He was adaptive, quick, ran and utilized extensive intelligence operations, and conquered more territory than any General in history. I understand he was not one for the nightly chivalry of the Europeans that valued personal battlefield honor in a commander, but instead viewed battles from afar directing his forces. My Grandfather once said to me: "Machismo and cajones will only get you so far, in the end it comes down to whats between your ears", which is congruent with what I take from reading about Subutai.

    I have read that Subutai was on the verge of assaulting the Holy Roman Empire, which would have claimed the rest of Europe for Pax Mongolica, when he was called back. I can only imagine the effect that would have on the history of the world.

  7. #27
    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Default Indeed he was a pioneer.

    Quote Originally Posted by bourbon View Post
    ...

    My understanding is that Subutai is one of the pioneers of maneuver warfare and was the first to employ tactical artillery during the Battle of Mohi... My Grandfather once said to me: "Machismo and cajones will only get you so far, in the end it comes down to whats between your ears", which is congruent with what I take from reading about Subutai...
    Brilliant man. All those I named were pioneers and, in my opinion, contributed more to the art of warfare than they've been credited.

    Your Grandfather was a very wise man.

  8. #28
    Council Member Rob Thornton's Avatar
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    Default Should it be Flags or Generals?

    One of the great criticisms of many generals has been their inability to see beyond land. Certainly its a criticism of many German generals. The inability to consider the joint realm as it is named today would indicate an inclination toward personal constraints.

    Rare is the flag who can employ air, land and sea-power in a complimentary and synchronous manner to achieve an end.

    In today's arena we see COCOMs that are not land generals, but AF generals and Navy admirals. I see no reason why we should limit our list to generals who have employed land forces, rather I propose we expand it to those flags who have commanded land and/or sea and air forces to achieve an end. There is no reason why we should constrain ourselves

    Regards, Rob

  9. #29
    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Default We-elllll...

    Hi Rob;

    Flags count, question is, should they?

    Generalship has a definition; "Military skill in a high commander"

    M-W says about military:
    1 a : of or relating to soldiers, arms, or war b : of or relating to armed forces; especially : of or relating to ground or sometimes ground and air forces (*) as opposed to naval forces

    Admiralship does not have a definition. While I've known more smart Admirals (my old man was a Squid) than I have smart Generals and I certainly acknowledge that strategic vision and political acumen are the requirements for any good FlagO of any service but mlitary skill and naval warfare skill differ.

    I'm not trying to be tedious or petty here; there's a point. That point is the American way of war and peace (problematic at times but I wouldn't change it for another); civilian control of the military (imperative IMO); and Goldwater Nichols.

    The American way of war and peace says any FlagO from any service can be a joint commander (or the CJCS) and, we being good guys, tend to rotate these jobs so everyone gets a share of the pie.

    In my view that's dumb. The Geograhic commands need a lot of tweaking IMO and which service commands isn't all that critical -- PROVIDED that CinC leaves his subordiantes alone (and I'll give the Navy credit for doing tha better then the other services will). That 'provided' is, though, a critical factor. If that cinC is going to meddle, he should be of the service that is the largest component or the opertational lead in the region.

    Since G-N took the Chiefs of Staff out of the advisory loop and that responsibility is now vested solely in the CJCS; Houston, we have a problem.

    Look at the workup to Iraq. The Commander in Chief (Note 1 - ex aviator, no land warfare experience), The SecDef (Note 1 again) and the CJCS (Note 1 again) could not spell ground combat. The CincCent was an Artillerist -- good folks but not maneuver oriented and the first pick to pacify Iraq was a Tanker noted for excessive attention to force protection and micromangament.

    I submit that the system did not put the best people for the job in the right places. An Admiral in the mix may not have done any more harm -- and at CJCS level might have done some good, particularly if he was a surface guy and not a bubble head or an airedale

    (No attacks, please; my Father in law was a bubble head and my best friend is an aviator with gold wings -- the objection is practical based on experience and thought patterns in organizing for combat. I wouldn't recommend a balck shoe guy for an air war...)

    Which is a long, long way of saying collegiality has its weak points and while I don't really disagree with you on FlagOs, the question asked was Generals and I think there are some differences....

    (*) I'd even disagree with Air...(See Myers. R )

    Regards,
    Ken

  10. #30
    Council Member wm's Avatar
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    Default A little iconoclasm and some oldies but goodies

    Since Rob and Ken have already argued for an expanded list, my proposal for a very high ranking "fly boy" addition to the list is:

    "Smiling" Albert Kesselring

    Another German defensive specialist would be:

    Gotthard Heinrici from the Russian Front. (Anyone who was unfortunate enough to have to take command of an Army Group previously led by Himmler gets special points. The fact that he was successful in leading it too during the 1945 campaigns gives him many positives strokes in my book.)

    And his Russian counterpoint:

    Vasili Chuikov, defender of Stalingrad and captor of Berlin.

    Many names offered up fit into the category of great captains (I particularly like Ken's list), but I think many of those names are much more tactical hot shots than grand leaders at the operational/strategic level--Rommel being a prime example. BTW, a close reading of his descriptions in Infantry Attacksshows that he was at his best leading from the front in a small group operation.

    As requested in the original post, I have added a few "older" leaders for consideration:

    Frederick the Great of Prussia
    Prince Eugene of Savoy (His co-leader, Marlborough, was already noted.)
    Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden
    Saladin/Salah al-Din from the Crusades/Horns of Hattin/Capture of Jerusalem fame
    Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra
    Marcus Aurelius
    Deborah/Barak (tough to tell from the literature who was really in charge)
    Joshua

    The fact of the matter is that many "great" generals/leaders are so only because of the great set of advisors and planners that they have/have had working for them. Too bad a lot of those folks get swallowed up in the archives because they do not have good press agents.

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    Let's not forget Shaka Zulu, Crazy Horse, Tecumseh, Chief Joseph and Geronimo and I suppose we could throw in Cornstalk, Little Turtle, Red Cloud, Dull Knife and Sitting Bull too.

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    Council Member Stan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by goesh View Post
    Let's not forget Shaka Zulu, Crazy Horse, Tecumseh, Chief Joseph and Geronimo and I suppose we could throw in Cornstalk, Little Turtle, Red Cloud, Dull Knife and Sitting Bull too.
    Hey Goesh,

    We are still talking about military leaders, correct ? I'll admit, Cornstalk got me searching Dogpile...albeit only briefly

    Coincidently, a famous E6 known only as GT6 was deep-sixed (once again) ! Years from now, he'll also be in Wiki along with Cornstalk.

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    There should probably be some Vietnamese generals on the list.

    I think Ike deserves some recognition for being the first to really lead a coalition of nations, while deploying air, land and sea assets.

    I read somewhere that Lee was educated with every one of the Union generals he initially confronted (they may've all been classmates at West Point, but I'm not sure about that) and Grant was the first Union general that Lee didn't know personally. An interesting example of "Know your enemy, know your self."

  14. #34
    Council Member Rob Thornton's Avatar
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    Hi RA,
    I was under the impression that Lee and Grant did not know each other either, however, Grant states in his memoirs that he had met Lee in Mexico- to paraphrase it goes something like this, "I had met Lee in Mexico and knew that he was human". This plays out in the Wilderness campaign up at Saunder's Field when the Army of Potomac's lead elements make contact with the Army of Northern Virginia and shows some hesitation - they were afraid that Lee was going show up in their rear if they committed. Grant tells his subordinates to quit worrying about Lee somersaulting into their rear and to start worrying about what they were going to do to Lee's army (again a paraphrase). So I think it more along the lines of how well the knew each other (however, your point is well taken

    After Grant ordered the 2nd attack at Cold Harbor just NE of Richmond, McClellan wrote to his wife and said that he thought Grant now understood that Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were a higher caliber then those he'd (Grant) faced down in the West. However, I think that while Grant was willing to enter into a war of exhaustion where he lost 2 for every 1 of Lees as long as it provided him an operational advantage, he was not keen on throwing them away for nothing - it was at Cold Harbor (3 Jun 1864) he was labeled as a butcher. Its worth keeping in mind public expectations were high since Grant was near Richmond, and that there was still a political timetable present.

    Although the two generals were matching each other closely through out the Wilderness Campaign, and I believe had the sense of how urgent things were and where they were headed, they also fell victim to some mirror imaging. Grant was convinced Lee was near the breaking point after the Army of Northern Virginia had failed to exploit an opportunity while fighting over good ground at the North Anna (23-26 May 1864) - consequently he got in a hurry and it cost him.

    In the end he had to slide South and West forcing Lee to extend his lines to match - around Petersburg. When Grant built up the Log base at City Point then seized Five forks and cut the RRs which provided LOCs with the South, it was pretty much over. Soon Lee would send word to Davis that he could no longer be responsible for Richmond - Lee was just over extended. Grant even had the foresight to take steps to prevent Lee from breaking out to go South and link up with the confederate forces in the western theater.

    Another thing I think is relevant when discussing "who are the greats" is acknowledging that its rare to have a perfect record. Clausewitz comes in handy here, because fog, friction and chance always play a role and keep it more like a game of cards then a chess match (another shameless paraphrase). I think you have to consider the whole cloth of the General in question.
    Last edited by Rob Thornton; 08-27-2007 at 02:35 PM.

  15. #35
    Council Member Rob Thornton's Avatar
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    Default Should you do something just because you can?

    Ken,
    I wonder about that as well. Kind of like when does the ground component guy (if organized that way) take over from the Maritime guy in an amphibious operation - generally when enough forces are established ashore as to provide C2 and enough combat power to pursue the LOO toward the objective(s).
    But what about a guy like Nimitz? What about when a state is primarily a maritime power - like the contest between Athens and Sparta? Since man lives on land, the bulk of questions decided reference man will be answered there - land power compels - the others really coerce (probably made a few folks nervous with that one, but I think there are more historical examples in favor then against).

    That should not mean that an AF general or an admiral could not use land forces to do so - I think its more a question of the means at his disposal, and his ability to understand the nature of the war and its conditions (METT-TC w/ a "P"). Since a person can generally only be truly proficient in so many things, it reasonable to assume somebody versed in land power their entire life is going to understand more of the nuances then say a sea or air guy (and vice-versa). If the flag has a good "joint" staff, and the professional judgment to put it to use, it should be fine. I'll give you though that there are more historical examples of Generals who used sea power to attain operational advantages on land and effect strategic outcomes then admirals - Brassidas, Wellington & Eisenhower to name a few.

    You raise a great question, that in my mind raises other relevant questions about how we assign COCOMs - and the whole issue of interdependence. It also raises the issues of definitions and if we should reconsider them- either to reaffirm them, or change them in light of present conditions.

    I honestly need to cogitate some more on that one.
    Last edited by Rob Thornton; 08-27-2007 at 03:43 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rob Thornton View Post
    Hi RA,
    Another thing I think is relevant when discussing "who are the greats" is acknowledging that its rare to have a perfect record. Clausewitz comes in handy here, because fog, friction and chance always play a role and keep it more like a game of cards then a chess match (another shameless paraphrase). I think you have to consider the whole cloth of the General in question.
    Very true. Though I could argue that the true greats try to redeal when they get dealt a bad hand. (Captain Kirk is an example if we have any Trekkies out there.) Rommel partaking in the plot to kill Hitler is another example, even though that didn't work out, he tried and if successful his country would've benefited greatly.

    To give our guys props, I'd suggest that the generals who are saying "Democracy in Iraq may not be possible" are trying to get dealt better cards and I believe that is exactly what is needed.

    There was a football coach who said about a colleague, "He can beat you with his team, or take your team, give you his team, and still beat you." (I'm paraphrasing.) To me, that would be the ultimate mark of a great general. That's one reason I mentioned Hannibal. He was dealt a bad hand - smaller force, longer supply lines - and he was still extremely successful.

  17. #37
    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Default I think the nation and DoD ned to do that as well

    Quote Originally Posted by Rob Thornton View Post
    Ken,...
    . . .
    . . .
    You raise a great question, that in my mind raises other relevant questions about how we assign COCOMs - and the whole issue of interdependence. It also raises the issues of definitions and if we should reconsider them- either to reaffirm them, or change them in light of present conditions.

    I honestly need to cogitate some more on that one.
    Good points all and I agree. My sensing, mostly from my father and Navy and Marine friends who were in the Pacific during the war is that much of Nimitz's success was due to good strategic vision, an ability to pick good subordinates (as diametrically opposed to having them forced on him by a personnel system), to delegate and then to let people do their jobs.

    I think any good FlagO can do the geographic CinC job. A mediocre or bad one will foul up to one degree or another. The key isn't suit color or community, it's the right guy for the job and generally, that entails not being 'fair.'

    He --or she -- selected for that job has to be able to select senior subordinates (hear the Services wail...) and, more importantly, has to be able to trust them and to do just that -- trust them.

    We've lost the ability to trust one another (I blame the personnel system but that's another thread another day. )

    The thing in this thread I have grave reservations about is that 'military advice' to the Prez and SecDef is nominally restricted to the CJCS, that we insist on rotating the services through that and by definition, that is a political appointment...

    What's wrong with that picture?

  18. #38
    Council Member wm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rob Thornton View Post
    Kind of like when does the ground component guy (if organized that way) take over from the Maritime guy in an amphibious operation - generally when enough forces are established ashore as to provide C2 and enough combat power to pursue the LOO toward the objective(s).
    What I think you are really asking goes much deeper than operating across different components. It is connected at a higher level. See if this makes any sense.

    Sometimes we are attacking, sometimes defending, delaying, sustaining, etc. I suspect that we have different folks who are better at each of these. I say this because each type of operation represents a different type and amount of risk, and each of us has a different level of risk tolerance. For example, in my list, I named German General Heinrici--a big time defensive specialist--I'd say he was a pretty risk averse guy. I'm not sure I'd want him planning my strategic offensive--give me a Hannibal, who seemed to thrive on risk, for that piece instead. I suspect Eisenhower was a wizard at organizing sustainment, which represents a different form of risk. I don't recall him ever being singled out for his operational or tactical vision.
    Lincoln had the vision to put Grant in charge at the right time. I doubt Grant would have had the same type of success in Northern VA in say 1861-62. Fabian delay was right in the Second Punic War until Hannibal left Italy. Fabius Maximus would have been the wrong person to command the legions at Zama.

    History is replete with great generals; they just aren't great at doing everything. What I suggest we need at the top are some senior leaders who can see which way the winds are blowing. They then energize their smart folks in the areas towards which those winds are pushing us in enough time to keep us from crashing on rocks, running aground, or getting becalmed.
    With reference to Rob's other point quoted below, I apoligize to all the groundpounders out there (and I am one) for ending this post with a naval metaphor, but sometimes we need to remember that life started in the oceans.

    What about when a state is primarily a maritime power - like the contest between Athens and Sparta? Since man lives on land, the bulk of questions decided reference man will be answered there - land power compels - the others really coerce (probably made a few folks nervous with that one, but I think there are more historical examples in favor then against).

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rank amateur View Post
    Very true. Though I could argue that the true greats try to redeal when they get dealt a bad hand. (Captain Kirk is an example if we have any Trekkies out there.) Rommel partaking in the plot to kill Hitler is another example, even though that didn't work out, he tried and if successful his country would've benefited greatly.

    There was a football coach who said about a colleague, "He can beat you with his team, or take your team, give you his team, and still beat you." (I'm paraphrasing.) To me, that would be the ultimate mark of a great general. That's one reason I mentioned Hannibal. He was dealt a bad hand - smaller force, longer supply lines - and he was still extremely successful.
    Rommel refused to participate in the plot against Hitler, but knew about it and did not betray the conspirators. Thus the forced suicide.

    Think that coach was Bum Phillips, "He can take his'n and beat your'n, and he can take your'n and beat his'n." Not sure who he was talking about.

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    Quote Originally Posted by slapout9 View Post
    American Army
    British Army
    J.C. Fuller my definition of a thinking general. He wrote a great book about Generalship it's disease and it's cure. Can not remember the exact title.
    As others have said, not a real wartime commander, staff officer at the tail end of WWI. Brilliant guy, but I'd call him much more of a military theorist (intellectual father of blitzkrieg) than a great general. Never mind all the fascist sympathizing and occult stuff...

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