Grant, R. G. Commanders: History’s Greatest Military Leaders.

NY: DK Publishing, 2010.

DK’s specialty is coffee-table-sized books of heavily illustrated history, and this is one of their more absorbing efforts. It covers “commanders,” as opposed to battle-leaders and there’s a great deal more to commanding an army than a talent for generalship. Historically, the man at the top of the ladder — and a very diverse collection of individuals they have been — is responsible not just for deciding how and where those under him will fight, but for training and often recruitment of soldiers, their arming and outfitting, the maintenance of their health and morale, the gathering of intelligence about the enemy, and communications both up and down the food chain.

George Patton, for instance, was (in my opinion) a terrific leader in battle but a terrible commander. George Custer (who is definitely not included among the stars in this volume) should never have been promoted beyond lieutenant. And for every Alexander the Great, all glitz and glory, there’s a cool, unromantic Dwight Eisenhower who just gets the job done. Of course, command itself has changed greatly, even just in the past few decades. A general used to have to find a convenient nearby hilltop in order to direct a battle; now he can actively fight a war in the Middle East via satellites from an operations room in Florida. Because my own interests are more in classical and medieval matters than in modern history, I read most closely the sections on Julius Caesar and Charles Martel and the Black Prince, and their peers, antagonists, and immediate subordinates. I found quite a few names about whom I knew almost nothing, like Hubert Lyautey and Jan Zizka and Tomas Fairfax, and I learned a good deal. Nor did I find any gross errors of fact or eyebrow-raising oddities of interpretation. An attempt also is made to balance western history with sections on Japan, India, Africa, and the Moslem world, which is generally successful. Besides the well-written text, of course, there are drawings and portraits and classical paintings of battle scenes on every page, plus maps and timelines and interesting sidebars. Finally, any book like this, with “greatest” in the title and selective by design, is going to start arguments, but I really couldn’t think of anyone missing from its pages whom I would have included. (I might have omitted Pancho Villa, though.) In fact, the inclusion of some of the less known figures in military history, like Jan Sobieski and Menelik II, makes this a useful work even to the experienced reader.

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Published in: on 4 May 2011 at 11:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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