Is There Such a Thing as a Brilliant General?

As a kid, the idea of war always fascinated me. More specifically, it was the larger-than-life characters at the center of these narratives that captured my imagination, the “great” names of our country’s military legacy: U.S. Grant, Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, to name a few. Indeed, for millions of young men like myself, the allure is the same.

One can often see the military legacies of WWII generals like Erwin Rommel, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur spoken of in hushed whispers of reverence in online chat boards or discord groups for strategy video games that depict warfare, such as Hearts of Iron 4. I, like many others, believed (without knowing anything about actual war) that these men were unparalleled geniuses, visionaries, truly great men who deserved every inch of land they conquered or defended. In my mind, I had always held vague notions that war was something only the most incredibly gifted and nuanced minds could possibly practice.

In short, I believed that good generals were good because they were more skilled, and bad generals were bad because they were less skilled.

But I never truly was invested in military history until about a year ago, when I started to study the World War 2. Even then, this was not an in-depth examination of the tactical, operational or even strategic levels of warfare. Rather, my interest was more political than military. My interest in WWII had reignited my passion, however, and it was after digging up an old copy of Ken Burn’s immortal 1990 documentary mini-series, The Civil War, that I began to take a deeper interest in the military aspects of warfare.

This was not by coincidence. Rather, being someone who likes to design games for fun, I thought: why not try simulating the war in a video game? Not to actually code the game itself, since I have no experience with coding. Rather, my intention was to extensively research all military aspects of the Civil War to create a highly accurate design that could be implemented by code after the game itself was created.

This, of course, necessitated that I learn what it meant to fight war, and by extension, what it meant to be a general at the time. It took me far more in depth when it came to military history then I’d ever come before, and in the process I learned more than I ever expected — or wanted — to learn about military tactics and strategy.

This regret was born out of a realization that the men I had idolized throughout my life were, in fact, not what I had built them up to be.

I realized that these men were not geniuses, but ordinary men whose simple decisions, made to great effect, made them into geniuses in the eyes of others. This regret quickly gave way to relief, however. The fact accomplished generals were simply competent and/or brave and/or lucky men who happened to do their jobs right is maybe not such a bad thing.

Why?

Erwin Rommel, most famous for serving as Field Marshall of the Nazi forces in Africa.

As a propaganda piece, the idea of equating a war with the struggles of a single man can be highly effective. Erwin Rommel, the legendary Nazi Germany general, was the penultimate propaganda piece of the Reich thanks to his successes in the African Theater of WWII. But from an ethical standpoint, I believe that it’s a dangerous thing to equate words like “brilliant” or “genius” with military leaders. It glorifies and romanticizes war, an ultimately chaotic conflict where such words should have no place.

This is not to say that leading an army during the Civil War was an easy job (or that leading an army is an easy job, ever). Feeding, clothing, and training an army during the Civil War was an exceptionally difficult task. However, I believe that the main determination of a general’s success in battle is rarely up to any exceptional aptitude, but rather thanks to a combination of factors largely outside a general’s control.

This reality exists for several reasons. Firstly, in times of war — especially before the invention of radio — generals had to operate with limited and often false intel. Spies were everywhere, on both sides, and it was hard to know what and what not to believe. Therefore, a general’s next decision was often fundamentally a matter of guesswork based on what intel they had at their disposal, and what they believed the enemy general would most likely do.

Secondly, in the chaos of battle itself, it’s often hard to know what exactly to do. This can be caused by many things, from a lack of favorable terrain from which to see the battlefield, to the obscuring of the battlefield by gunsmoke or terrain. Especially in the wooded, hilly regions of America, the actual tactics of deciding where to place or send your men was a task that often went beyond any sort of genius. It was, again, a matter of luck.

Thirdly and most importantly, the actual decisions that require making are not anything like complicated mathematical equations or great feats of literature. Rather, “great” military feats usually come down to simple questions of logistics and strategy, such as: “should I go to this place, and why, and will my men survive the trip?” In addition, these decisions are also often made with the guidance of half a dozen or more usually intelligent men (called an officer’s staff). Regarding tactics, it comes down to even simpler questions, like: “do I have the men and is their line weak enough to make a charge at this point?” or “should I commit my reserve forces to defend this spot?” It might seem complicated from a layman’s perspective, but most amateur military historians could likely give the right answer as to what should have been done.

It’s easy to say that hindsight is 20/20, and that these questions in the moment of battle are of course complicated by guesswork.

But isn’t guesswork simply a matter of dumb luck?

The main battle philosophy of Napoleon Bonaparte (considered by many to be the greatest general in history) was to wait for the enemy to make a mistake, and to capitalize on it. In other words, it was a matter of exploiting the enemy’s incompetence, rather than a matter of doing anything which could be particularly called “genius”.

As the famous quote goes: “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king”.

But at play here in our perception of generals are not only their military successes and failures, but how those successes and failures were received in the press at the time of their occurrence. That is — the press’s perception of a general and the way in which that general acted towards the press can influence the popular and even historical perception of that general for generations.

Douglas MacArthur, one of 5 five-star generals in American history and commander of forces in the Pacific during WWII.

Douglas MacArthur, for example, is widely seen by many as one of the country’s greatest generals, even though some modern analyses are far more critical of his legacy (1)(2). MacArthur was so beloved that after he was removed from command by President Harry Truman (following MacArthur’s disastrous choice to invade North Korea), Truman’s approval rating dropped to 22% — the lowest approval rating of any president in American history.

However, MacArthur’s daring-do persona and great charisma helped create the perception that he was a far greater general than he really was. It was his inexplicable complacency that led to the fall of the Phillipines in what is considered the greatest defeat in American military history, with over 100,000 American and Phillipine troops captured. In addition, his military actions were often self-serving and went against what was the safest and best route, such as his attempt to incite war against China during the Korean war, which could have started WWIII if the Soviet Union had joined the war as well.

Nick-named “Old Slow-Trot” for his slow, considered actions, George H. Thomas was a humble, dutiful man and one of the few Southern generals to fight for the North.

On the other side of the coin is the likes of the Civil War general George H. Thomas. Thomas was one of the most successful generals of the Civil War, if not one of the most successful generals in American history. He served in important commands in several semi-important battles early in the war before providing the famous defense of William Rosecrans’s retreating army at Chickamauga, earning him the moniker: “The Rock of Chickamauga”. From there, he oversaw a critical breakthrough against an entrenched Confederate position at Chattanooga, and one of the most decisive victories of the war at the Battle of Nashville. He had a virtually flawless military record, but he had a poor relationship with his superior Grant, as well as the press, and thus received comparatively little attention in comparison to the likes of William T. Sherman and U.S. Grant.

Today, Thomas remains virtually unknown among anyone not fairly familiar with the Civil War.

But even when it comes to the likes of men like Thomas, who, untainted by the sheen created by an adoring press, could still be said to have had a truly excellent military career, there still remains the question of whether any particular “brilliance” could be said to have been a result of that success. Why is this? Let’s examine the career of this same general (who has been praised by more than a few Civil War nerds as the unsung “genius” of the war) further.

Firstly, his victory at Chickamauga — arguably his greatest — was indeed a brave and competent feat, but not the actions of a genius. His main contribution was simply to hold the line with his men against the onslaught of the enemy — a brave and admirable feat surely — but nothing more.

Then, if we examine the battle of Chattannoga, the famous charge that broke the Confederate line was not even ordered by the usually extremely cautious Thomas.

Finally, at Nashville, while Thomas’s tactics were sound, they were again devoid of any particular genius, involving a fairly obvious attempt to flank the enemy army from the rear with his cavalry. Additionally, his army of 55,000 well-fed troops were up against a beaten and battered force of just 22,000, and it would have taken a military miracle on the part of the Confederates to have come close to winning.

When examining the actions of Thomas — indeed, when examining the actions of most “great” generals throughout history — the answer seems to be that a general’s success is up to a mixture of luck, bravery and general competence, but not any particular genius (though there may be exceptions).

There are so many factors involved that can turn the tide one way or another before and during battle, including: weather; misinterpreted, lost or intercepted orders; disease (with disease before the acceptance of germ theory being a far greater killer of troops than actual battles) and general confusion that to sum up war as a game like chess or fencing where all factors of the game are under the control of the player is simply wrong.

And so, over the course of my experience researching the actions and decisions of generals in the Civil War, my perception of generals was greatly tempered. Now, if you were to ask me whether there were simply good and bad generals, I would probably respond with a more… complex answer. I would tell you that there were generals that did their job right, and generals that did their job wrong, but often those generals that did things right did so through good luck and those who did things wrong did so through bad luck, and even the generals that accomplished great things through no particular good or bad luck likely simply followed certain fundamental principles of war that it wouldn’t take much of a genius to follow.

Not quite as romantic as it is a mouthful, but it is, I believe, a more accurate representation of military leaders.

Writer, thinker, perpetual strategist. Focused on ideas that matter and stories that connect us to our greater potential.