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Book review: 'Savior Generals' is a brilliant look at military leadership

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, June 2 2013 3:00 p.m. MDT

"THE SAVIOR GENERALS: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost — From Ancient Greece to Iraq," by Victor Davis Hanson, Bloomsbury, $28, 320 pages (nf)

In his new book, “The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost — From Ancient Greece to Iraq,” historian Victor Davis Hanson explores the lives and careers of five remarkable men who were able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by successfully turning around seemingly hopeless military situations.

Hanson paints a fascinating portrait of men at war. Rather than simply recounting the feats of military legends like Caesar, Napoleon or Dwight D. Eisenhower, conquerors who frequently won battles and wars, Hanson looks at a more complicated and less understood military personality — the general that is thrown in when all looks hopeless, and is somehow able to succeed and restore stability to the situation.

The generals he examines, from the fifth century B.C. Athenian Themistocles who stopped the Persian invasion at Salamis to David Petraeus' recent efforts in Iraq, Hanson is able to expertly find commonalities in all of these warriors and the conflicts they were involved in. The result is a brilliant, highly readable analysis not only of what these men did, but the methods and attitudes they used to achieve success.

Hanson says that these men did not operate in a vacuum. All had to be politically savvy, if not necessarily adroit. Hanson writes of Flavius Belisarius, who fought the Byzantine Emperor Justinian's sixth century wars. Belisarius was frequently suspected of disloyalty and often threatened with execution. This was not terribly dissimilar to the political minefield Petraeus walked when he announced the situation in Iraq was improving to many politicians who had a stake in an American failure in Iraq.

Likewise, Korean War Gen. Matthew Ridgeway had to carefully walk a line between his superior, Douglas MacArthur, and President Harry Truman, all while trying to stem the Chinese communist tide. William T. Sherman also had to deal with his share of political considerations, and as Hanson notes, Abraham Lincoln undoubtedly owed his re-election to Sherman's 1864 march through Georgia.

Hanson offers that these men were all well-read and familiar with the realities of their particular wars, even if other officers and politicians around them were not. They were all mavericks of a sort, often backed up by intelligent, capable wives, and were not afraid to be unpopular when they were convinced they were right.

The decline in the savior generals' status after their military contributions is also noted, and Hanson, comparing them to Wild West gunslingers, writes that those same qualities that made them indispensable on the battlefield often won them only disdain during peacetime.

Hanson's penetrating insights into each of the generals and the wars they fought will both astound and educate and leave the reader with a deep appreciation for the manifold difficulties of command in any era. Simply put, this is an excellent work from start to finish. With “The Savior Generals,” Hanson has once again proven why he is one of America's foremost military historians.

"The Savior Generals" does contain some descriptions of wartime violence, but is generally suitable for most audiences. It contains two or three mild profanities and instances of crude language, such as the wartime nickname of Ridgeway. The book contains no sexual themes.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages, including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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