March 22, 2005

How Great Generals Win, by Bevin Alexander

Whilst I was at the bookstore some weeks ago I decided, for some unaccountable reason, that I wanted to learn more about military strategy. I cast about to see if I could find something like Military Strategy for Dummies or Warfare for the Compleat Idiot, but those titles were conspicuously lacking. This book doesn't quite meet that need, but it goes part of the way and it was an interesting read besides.

Alexander begins by observing that "The rules of war are simple but seldom followed," and that attacking a prepared position usually results in slaughter for the attackers. Instead, "great generals strike where they are least expected against opposition that is weak and disorganized." The remainder of the book is a series of case studies of great generals and how they won their greatest battles: How Hannibal Barca won at Cannae and how his nemesis Scipio Africanus finally defeated him. How Genghis Khan and his generals conquered the geographically largest empire the world has ever seen. How Napoleon Bonaparte won his early battles. How Stonewall Jackson used his small force to neutralize far larger Union forces. How William T. Sherman won the Civil War by doing in the South what Stonewall Jackson wanted to do in the North, had he not been killed in battle. How Sir Edmund Allenby stopped the Germans in the Middle East, with a little help from T.E. Lawrence and his Arabs. How Mao Zedong led the Red Army during the Long March. How Heinz Guderian, Erich von Manstein, and Erwin Rommel realized what tanks were really good for, and the use they made of them. How Douglas MacArthur won at Inchon and why he failed spectacularly afterwards.

The book ends with a summary of the principles discussed throughout the book:

  • Operate on the line of least expectation and least resistance. Figure out where the enemy doesn't expect you to go--and go that way. France fell so quickly at the beginning of WWII because no one thought the Germans could bring tanks through the forest of Ardennes.

  • Maneuver to the rear of the enemy. Your enemy's morale will suffer when he realizes that you're sitting across his supply lines; and if he's too far from home his army might just disintegrate. That's what happened to the North Korean army in South Korea after MacArthur's invasion of Inchon.

  • Occupy the central position. That is, if your enemy has two forces, maneuver to a point directly between them. This ensures that you can deal with either one before the other joins with it, thus "defeating the enemy in detail". Napoleon was a master at this in his early days; once he became emperor, though, he lost his subtlety and tried to win all his battles with brute force.

  • Follow a "plan with branches". Uncertainty and misdirection are your allies. Therefore, maneuver in two or more columns, keeping the columns far enough apart that the enemy can't guess what your true objective is, but close enough together that they can support each other at need. The enemy won't know what to defend, and will likely end up dividing his forces to defend a number of spots. No less than three times during Sherman's march north from Atlanta the Confederates split their forces between the two cities his columns appeared to be approaching; and in each case Sherman marched his troops right through the middle and captured a third, undefended city.

  • Don't attack prepared and well-defended positions. Instead, make the enemy leave their positions and come to you. Scipio Africanus conquered Carthage not by a frontal assault on the city, but by marching into and burning the city's agricultural hinterland. The Carthaginian army was forced to follow after, or else the city would starve.

  • Don't get pinned down in fortifications. If you're holed up in a fort, you're effectively out of the battle.

  • Where the enemy's army isn't is often more important than where it is.

All in all it's a fascinating book, and for my purposes useful as well. I recommend it.

Posted by Will Duquette at March 22, 2005 08:03 PM