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Alexander draws on several examples through history to illustrate many of the traits common to successful military leaders.
I found the historical overviews excellent. At times the material is a little thick as the sheer volume of facts can get overwhelming. Listening to an audiobook, I find it difficult to keep track of the number of mm of armour a specific generation of German tank has in WWII. Also, I think it would have been nice to have an atlas at hand, as I found it difficult to keep track of locations.
This book will be of interest to: armchair historians, soldiers (past or present or considering a military career), writers, or anyone who wants to undertand a little more about how battles work, and some of the catastophes that we (people in general) have either avoided, or brought on ourselves.
Overall, it's worth slogging through in my opinion.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
The book presents 11 case studies of brilliant generals. For each general it presents a short history of key battles that illustrate the general’s particular brand of greatness and then provides a set of lessons that could be applied more broadly to military style command. The first time through this book I thought it was great. It’s well written, historically informative, and provided an emotional touchstone for a lot of things I already believed, including a lot that was consistent with my beliefs about strategy. I was inclined to give it 5 stars.
The problem started a few weeks after I read this book when I was telling a Chinese friend about the inclusion of Mao Zedong in the list of great generals. The friend somewhat patronizingly claimed that that the key battle narratives in this book were not historical; rather they were a retelling of fictional propaganda created long after the fact. I didn’t believe my fried. But there was something about the particular interaction that started an extended investigation. I needed to know if Mao was a great general; the answer seemed to affect too many other aspects of my world view.
After 2 years of part time armature research, I came to believe that Mao was in fact a great general, but that the accounts of his greatness in this book are completely fictionalized.
IMHO Mao’s greatness as a general was in his use of what Sun Tzu called “dead spies”. This is best illustrated by the Manchurian Campaign, in which prepositioned assets (i.e., sleepers) played a decisive role. The trouble is that the author, I, and most of western culture view this use of dead spies as expletive, immoral, and evil or at least as unmanly. The repulsiveness of the implied lessons, inclines us to believe other versions of history. On the other hand the fictional propaganda was designed to fit with what we want to believe … The deeper trouble is that the facts matter but are only approximately knowable, and at least in this case even small progress in uncovering the facts requires excessive effort.
So … what lesson do I draw from the meta-case study of the Mao Case Study. For starters I do NOT find that the meta-case study leads me to something a kin to epistemological relativism. That would be too much like embracing one case study (or meta-case study) as absolute proof that all cases studies are wrong. But these kinds of case studies feel much deeper much more insightful than they are. It’s a kind of vividness bias. Stories are manipulative; in case studies the story takes pursuance over the facts.
On the other hand, thinking in stories seems to be necessary in order to explore less superficial truths, i.e., truths involving extended chains of cause and effect.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful