The Footnote Generals

Throughout history the “Great Captains” have waged war across Europe, gained and lost empires, and provided a veneer of romantic adventurism over the brutal ugliness of war. Through that same time span, there have been an even greater number of “Footnote Generals” who gave sound advice that kept nations out of war, or created conditions that made their victory so one sided that historians scoff at their victory as “inevitable and easy” rather than skillfully played.

Quick, name three Chinese “Great Captains”!  You can’t, can you? Unless you happen to specialize in Chinese history, the names  Pretty much the entirety of Western understanding of Chinese military leadership is having read Sun Tzu’s (who was in fact a famous Chinese general) “The Art of War” once or twice (still better reading than Clausewitz in my opinion).  This is largely because Chinese military history is segregated to “before/after” the communist revolution, and while studying the maneuvers of historic Chinese forces is interesting, it is not illuminating to the current world we live in. Pretty much every world or regional power on the planet has adopted some variation of “the Western Way of War” and developed tactics to deter, defeat, or disrupt it.  The Russian’s developed the “Gerasimov Doctrine” to specifically create war that isn’t declared war to advance their national interests. The Chinese “Unrestricted Warfare” viewed all elements of national power, including and especially finance and economic, as weapons to advance the interests of the Chinese Communist Party.

Winston Churchill said something along the lines of “Slaughter and Maneuver, the better the General the more the Maneuver and less the Slaughter.” And for years I believed he meant “tactical maneuver” of troops and supplies in relation to an enemy.  He might as well have talked about “Political maneuver” there as a good General has the pulse of the political leadership and is able to provide meaningful, if unpopular, advice. Although it is equally probable that Churchill only meant tactical maneuver. GEN MacArthur’s experience in the Korean war definitely shows how political maneuvering can go wrong, especially when the President of the United States is your former aide de camp (which may have caused MacArthur to underestimate the organizational accumen of his former aide, who spent WWII in the European theater holding it all together there).

Still…there were hundreds of Generals in every military in WWII, and we can name only a handful off the top of our heads. The rest are “footnote generals” who were good enough to make the rank and keep it, doing reasonably good work. The ones who failed spectacularly actually fair better in the history books, as their mistakes are analyzed over and over again and taught as examples of what not to do.

But if I had to send my son to serve, I wold want him to serve under a footnote general. Someone who competently does their job, without a flair for the dramatic or cult of personality. Someone who attained their rank not through favor or nepotism, but by dedication and competence. I would never want my son to serve under someone who wanted to make their mark on history.

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