A History of Warfare
Waterloo: Day of Battle
The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I
President Wilson Fights His War: World War I and the American Intervention
The German Officer Corps, 1890-1914
The mythology of militarism has had a long and impressively successful run. Ever since the days of Thucydides, wars and battles have been the historian’s traditional delight. Arma virumque cano… Every girl loves a soldier, and every historian has his favorite general. There they prance across the pages of history, the men on horseback in their shining armor, with their waving plumes and their fear-inspiring helmets, as resplendent as those triumphant, larger than life-size portrayals of Louis XIV’s victories which bedazzle us in the halls of the Louvre and the palace of Versailles! War, Treitschke taught us, is the final arbiter of the fate of nations. And it is to its generals that a nation instinctively turns for salvation in its hour of danger or despair, as France turned to Pétain in 1940. Every student knows that the real ruler of Germany after 1916 was Ludendorff; and in our own day we have seen the army step in to “save” the nation from its politicians in Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia, to name only the most conspicuous cases. It is a tradition with roots in a dim and distant past—and a tradition by no means dead. General LeMay may easily turn out to be a portent, not an anachronism.
The army as the guardian of the nation, the embodiment of its virtues, the defender of its existence: this is the myth, pervasive and persuasive. It is time that it was coolly and critically examined—not to debunk, but to see things as they are, to cut the splendid bedecked and beribboned figures down to life-size. They are not pygmies but they are not supermen, and in a changing world their chief distinguishing characteristic is that they change more slowly than the rest of us. A generation ago, when the greatness of the Great Powers was measured by the number of troops they could put in the field, God was still on the side of the big battalions. The arrival of the H-bomb has changed all this. The “boffin” and the scientist have displaced the strategist and the tactician, and generalship is at a discount. So far as fighting and winning wars is concerned as Vietnam has made only too plain conventional troops and conventional generals are about as effective in the age of the H-bomb as a box of toy soldiers. Which does not mean that the army does not have its uses.
In any case, generalship is an elusive and mysterious quality. As in duty bound, Field-Marshal Montgomery opens his long survey with a summary of the requirements of a good general. All one can say of his precepts is that, abstracted from the intangible quality of personality, they add up to a recipe for losing, just as much as for winning a war. George II’s comment about Wolfe—“Mad, is he? I wish to heavens he would bite some of my other generals!” and Frederick II’s remark about the two mules which had seen …