Commanders – History’s Greatest Military Leaders – Book Review
Who was history’s greatest military commander? Historians, professional soldiers and armchair generals have long debated the answer to that seemingly simple question. We form opinions from personal experience, literature, self-study, and even from Hollywood war films. Pose the question to a group of military history enthusiasts and you are likely to hear the traditional favorites—Napoleon Bonaparte, George Patton, Erwin Rommel, or perhaps Frederick the Great—interspersed with the occasional El Cid, Vauban or Saladin. On rare occasions, the more obscure (or less cited) personages of Ramesses II or Jan Sobieski will make an appearance. Author R.G. Grant’s latest offering, Commanders – History’s Greatest Military Leaders, provides ample ammunition for those wishing to continue and enhance this worthy discussion.
How does one begin to search the annals of time to select the best military commanders? Size of their armies? Scale of command? Personal bravery? Number of victories? Era of warfare? Veracity of the known facts and assumptions? In his foreword, Mr. Grant clearly outlines his criteria for inclusion in his book. Simply stated, he identified “hands-on commanders of armies and fleets” to separate those truly in command from those too far removed from the fog and friction of battle to qualify. This automatically excludes some personages normally considered amongst the best military commanders, names like George C. Marshall or William Halsey. Grant identifies another discriminator as the book moves past the 1700s when political and military power was no longer embodied in one individual. Thus, Grant excludes wartime national leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill or Joseph Stalin from his work. Finally, commanders who fought at the tip of the spear in small unit actions do not make the cut, i.e. John Chard, David Hackworth or Hal Moore.
Commanders is not a simple repackaging of commonly known facts and Eurocentric military biographies with a small amount of new information for flavor. Quite the opposite. Grant makes a tremendous effort to include subjects from across the span of recorded history. For every Julius Caesar, Robert E. Lee and Bernhard Montgomery contained within Commanders there are dozens of lesser known, but no less important figures. Within its detailed and beautiful pages, readers will encounter over 200 leaders from nearly every continent and period of history, from 1500 BCE through today’s conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, Grant provides a more detailed examination of 20 specific commanders, their lives and key battles.
Commanders is a work of art, with innumerable photographs and paintings of leaders, their battles, weapons and other accoutrements—and most of them in full color. Unlike so many history books, black and white photographs are quite rare. When black and white photographs are included, it is due to the technological limits of their era than an attempt to save the publisher’s money. Books like Commanders, full of stunning visuals, virtually guarantee a market for hardcopy book printing in the future.
Grant’s work is more a cornucopia of military leaders than a book on military leadership—and the distinction is an important one to make. The author addresses each leader individually in a bite-sized biography or through analysis of critical battles. While Grant does highlight leadership traits and flaws of individual commanders, there is no attempt to distill lessons on the art of leadership itself. Readers must draw their own conclusions on what makes military commanders successful. What traits breed victory on the battlefield? Is it Alexander the Great’s ability to inspire his men, Michael Collin’s personal charisma, or George Patton’s demand for perfect discipline? Commanders is more akin to Encyclopedia Britannica in tone than Sun Tzu’s Art of War or even the US Army’s field manual, the recently updated ADRP 6-22 Military Leadership. In all fairness, a comprehensive leadership examination may not have been part of Grant’s original intent when writing his latest book. However, a work of this type feels incomplete without some form of concluding comments on leadership, or an evaluation of successful leadership trends.
For prospective buyers, Commanders serves as a welcome addition to any library as a quick reference tool for the serious student of military history, or as a primer for those just discovering the genre. The book’s artwork alone justifies the rather reasonable cover price and the vast amount of information on military history will provide many hours of reading enjoyment.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.
Major Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies.