Art of Command – Book Review
The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell. Edited by Harry S. Laver and Jeffrey J. Matthews. The University Press of Kentucky, 2008. 296 pages. $32.50 cloth.
Despite its title, The Art of Command is not merely another compendium on leadership and command.
The student of military history is, ultimately, a student of human existence. Whether searching for an answer to that oft-asked question, "What is leadership?" or delving into the minutiae of combat tactics, the student inevitably learns about the character of man throughout recorded history, more so than may be immediately apparent. That is why I am interested in military history, a topic regarded by many as a subject composed only of war, death, destruction, and a multitude of other evils.
Not everyone will have the pleasure of being an artist or poet, a doctor or teacher. Not everyone will know the simple beauty of love, either given or received. It is a truth, however, that everyone will come upon some form of hardship, of pain and struggle. We will all make decisions that affect ourselves, those close to us, and possibly even following generations. That is where the study of military history and the people who have made it excels, by giving insight into the thoughts, actions and character of individuals during the most difficult of times—war.
The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell offers readers a chance to learn about leadership, integrity, determination, and other characteristics personified in the lives of nine famous figures of American military history. The Art of Command guides the reader in chronological order through short biographies of George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, Hyman G. Rickover, Harold G. "Hal" Moore, and Colin L. Powell. Many, if not all, of these names are probably known even to non-historians, a testament to the character, personality, and accomplishments of these nine men.
Despite its title, The Art of Command is not merely another compendium on leadership and command. It explores not only those two traits, but also charisma, vision, technical and interpersonal expertise, adaptability, and even the often-overlooked quality of being an experienced follower. All these were crucial to helping these men deal with and successfully come through their particular times of adversity. Not all of their tests came on the battlefield.
George Washington is well known for his loyalty and integrity. The chapter on him looks at those points and how they were evidenced in both his military and civilian life. Despite never having led troops in combat, George C. Marshall is nonetheless considered one of the greatest of all military leaders. His exemplary organizational and administrative skills before, during, and after World War Two were of such high caliber that Churchill wrote of him, "He has always fought victoriously against defeatism, discouragement, and disillusion." Ask any U.S. Marine who "Chesty" Puller was, and you’re bound to get a thunderous "Ooh-ahh!" indicative of the legendary spirit Puller lived for and shared with his beloved Marine Corps. Sure, their stories are more completely told in other books, but The Art of Command shines the beacon on what choices they each made to become the men they were.
Each essay is well written; each author seems to know his subject very well. Editors Laver and Matthews, who also wrote the book’s introduction, are to be commended for finding the contributors, and for compiling an insightful series of influential essays. The Art of Command reads like equal parts military history, biography, and self-help volume. All the chapters are relatively brief, the longest only 17 pages front and back, including bibliography. None, however, are short on conveying a powerful look at the subject’s life and make for engaging reading any time of day or night.
It makes no difference what your lot in life currently is, there are people throughout history who have been there and come through it with flying colors. It just so happens a great many of those people have been involved in our world’s military history. Thankfully, we can all read their life stories and, hopefully, through them find the ways and means to write the stories of our own lives, instead of having them written for us. The Art of Command provides just such insight.