July Handgrenade--Generals Don't Matter (?)

John T Kuehn's picture

July 2019 Handgrenade

Generals Don’t Matter (?)

John T. Kuehn

            A very interesting article appeared in the last month that has a lot of folks buzzing and chattering. Its title is “Do Generals Matter?” by Cathal Nolan.  Thus my title—a restatement of the thesis, which is –not really. The author presumably goes into far more detail on this score in his much longer, and we are told award-winning, book The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost (Oxford University Press).   The publication venue, the online War on the Rocks, was “proud to announce its first Distinguished Book Award” to that book at the same time as its publication of this article.[1]

            I will ask my H-WAR readers to check out either the book or, more likely, the shorter article and weigh in on Nolan’s claims, suppositions, and suggestions.  My own take involved the rather breathless “discovery” tone the author uses about attrition versus the decisive battle/short war paradigm that he bases his conclusions on.  Nowhere did I see mentioned A.A.  Svechin, Hans Delbrück; or, more modern, J.C. Wylie, who have all have discussed attrition and warfare in the past in their works.

            Nowhere did I see a discussion of Russell Weigley’s intriguing thesis about the efficacy of battle in The Age of Battles.[2]  And that one has been around for a while (early 1990s).   So I went over to the Ike Skelton Combined Arms Research Library (nickname CARL) after ascertaining that The Allure of Battle was in their collection--due diligence and all that.

            Here is what I found.   There is no bibliography.  Hmmm.  Okay, so much for letting the reader know about books, sources, and articles by others that informed one's thinking but were not cited in the notes.  That left the index, and thank God there was an index.  No Weigley, no Wylie, no Svechin.  There was one reference to Delbrück, but only on the topic of the Battle of Tours (ca. 732-734)  as an example of the bias in military historiography toward decisive battle (a point I tend to agree with).  Nothing about Delbrück’s arguably famous dichotomy of strategy –exhaustion and annihilation-- and his kerfluffle (conflict) with the German General Staff involving Frederick the Great’s strategy as one more of exhaustion and NOT battle, as an explanation of his success.  This omission is odd so I looked up Gordon Craig who famously wrote THE article on this matter in Makers of Modern Strategy, but again, the only mention of Craig is one reference in passing to something about the elder von Moltke and not Delbrück.[3]  Nolan does mention, in passing, how Frederick’s success probably had more to do with luck and accident (the death of the Tsarina Elizabeth).  But one is tempted, especially on the score of the book, to opine that there is not much new here, other than the mistakes and omissions.  And I am sympathetic to Nolan’s thesis.  Imagine if I were not?

But I am interested in what the rest of H-War readership thinks.


[1] See Cathal J. Nolan, “Do Generals Matter?” 24 June 2019, at https://warontherocks.com/2019/06/do-generals-matter/ (accessed 06-28-2019).

[2] Russell F. Weigley, The Age of Battles:  The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo.(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991), passim.

[3] See Gordon Craig,  “Delbrück: The Military Historian” in Makers of Modern Strategy, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton University Press, 1986): 326-353.

Dear H-Warriors,

I am currently reviewing The Allure of Battle for The Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, and I can reassure you that Hans Delbrück is cited in the ninth footnote of the introduction and Russell Weigley in the tenth footnote (both on p.7).

The last paragraph of the book's introduction emphasises that: 'Military historians already know these things. They are not the intended audience of the book. Its goal is to help correct distorted public memory of battle in modern war, to start to replace popular images of the decisive battle with somber appreciation of larger material and national commitments in wars decided by prolonged fighting'.

I haven't yet got all that far through the book, but so far I can recommend it to the H-War community as well worth reading, not only for professional historians but, perhaps especially, for those who serve in the armed forces or in the making of foreign policy.

Adam Storring
University of Göttingen

The citation section, the bibliography, accomplishes a lot for any book on a topic, mostly it speaks about the author's own credentials in presenting the information and how they have looked at a wide variety of material to survey the most important ground. I just finished writing an article I want to have published in an academic journal and, while I was doing some very original work, I still wanted to find several strong sources to validate my claims, even validate negative claims about the sources. Online articles are being required more than ever to be sourced, even H-War wants to have citations for their articles from what I understand and I suspect a fair amount of replies. At American Military U even our forum postings for the next class had to be cited both with the books we were reading as well as additional works that we had researched. We could not just assert a claim and be done with it. This what really separates research and serious discussion from just another chatroom on the internet. This is also the case with other, non-academic works.

Many non-fiction, current events or biographies, or a wealth of other books are inclusive of a bibliography and it is one of the main criteria of book reviewing for quality. When I found out that Bill O'Reilly's books only contained a page and a half of citations at most I instantly put them back on the shelf, it was not worth it. There was a controversy with him having ignored a very important memo or document and that it was not listed in the bibliography in his "Killing Reagan" and the press tore him apart. This was a genuine concern and in my view well-deserved. You should not be able to even get a book submitted for review if it is not sourced to a certain amount. My word, my academic papers in my MA program were required to have no less than 25 sources.

I also agree with the website listed in my own bibliography in this post, the bibliography also enables the reader to give credit where credit is due and the lack of one may make themselves open to charges of attempted plagiarism or excessive borrowing. The author needs to give some acknowledgment that the ideas have been challenged or questioned in reading. The only other alternative is that the writer did not really do significant work, they didn't go to the library and do some heavy carrying of books and pouring through them. They picked the ideas up through osmosis which is the least reliable and most plagiarism liable means.

Story on O'Reilly and Killing Reagan:

Why a Bibliography Is Important in Research


I reserve the right to respond more substantively in the next few days but for now a quick search of my electronic copy of Nolan's book reveals 13 citations each to Weigley and Delbrück, none to Wylie or Svechin. Delbrück's falling out with the Generalßtab is discussed briefly in the Notes. In any event Nolan's failures of citation bother me less than they do you, as I see it more as an argument than a scholarly study and I believe that it must stand or fall on the merits of its arguments in themselves. In that regard I would say I find it interesting but a bit overblown.

William D. O'Neil

Possibly, the answer needs to be a qualified answer ? When generals Do Not Matter[and/or others]. Here 3 online brief explorations of 'when' was decided, by the American Revolution, in 1780, or more to the point by the American Revolution:\

Attempted overthrow of the new American Republic and Govt.


Benedict Arnold (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection)
'A General in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, Benedict Arnold served with distinction in several battles, but was passed over for promotions several times. Arnold was also investigated by the Continental Congress during his service and faced various accusations from opponents. Frustrated by the opposition he encountered, Arnold eventually started working for the British even while continuing to serve in the Continental Army. Ultimately his betrayal was discovered and Arnold fled to New York City, accepting a commission in the British Army. Arnold's name has become synonymous with treasonous behavior and is perhaps one of the most infamous figures in American history.'


'It is clear from Sir Henry Clinton’s papers, opened to scholars some forty years ago, that Peggy was aware of her husband’s treasonous negotiations from the beginning and to some extent was involved in them. Only hearsay supports the story of her confession to an acquaintance that it was she who had persuaded her husband to betray his country, but such an action would have been in keeping with her character and background. Unlike her moderate father, Peggy was an ardent Tory, and she was ambitious. She realized that if the General aided the British substantially, he would be well rewarded. A grateful king might even give him a title. Then some day, after years of gracious living in England, she could return to Philadelphia to be deferred to by her friends as “Lady Arnold.”
It was the collapse of these dreams that sent her into apparent hysterics on September 25, 1780, when word reached West Point that the treason conspiracy had been discovered, and her frantic husband made his last-minute escape, leaving Peggy and her six-month-old son to the kind mercies of George Washington and his aides. Washington gave her a choice. She could join her husband in British-held New York or her family in Philadelphia. '


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Benedict Arnold Is America’s Most Famous Traitor. But You Probably Don’t Know His Whole Story
Benedict Arnold Is America’s Most Famous Traitor. But You Probably Don’t Know His Whole Story

Illustration showing Major General Benedict Arnold (1741 - 1801) rallying the American troops and performing heroically during the Battle of Saratoga, during the American Revolutionary War, Oct. 7, 1777. Published in Shinn's History of the American People, 1899. Interim Archives/Getty Images
By Stephen Brumwell July 30, 2018
As accusations of treachery continue to swirl around Washington and the White House, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the specter of a stocky, limping, figure dressed in the tricorn hat and long-tailed coat of a Revolutionary War officer.
Treason has become a talking point on both sides of the aisle. The chaotic fallout from President Trump’s recent Helsinki summit with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, prompted former CIA director John Brennan to describe Trump’s behavior as “nothing short of treasonous” — and on Monday, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani mentioned by name the man who, in American history, is synonymous with that idea. “George Washington would have said that about Benedict Arnold at a certain point in time,” Giuliani said during a CNN interview, by way of explaining his earlier praise of Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen. “George Washington didn’t know that Benedict Arnold was a traitor.”

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Now, however, everyone does. Nearly 250 years after he defected to the British, Major-General Benedict Arnold remains among the most vilified figures in American history. Ever since Sept. 25, 1780, when his plot to betray the Hudson Valley fortress of West Point was exposed on the brink of being activated, Arnold has been branded a Judas, ready to barter his honor and country for enemy gold.

What would he think of his name once again making news? We can only guess. But Giuliani’s point does in fact speak to an important element of the real story of Benedict Arnold. And if the testimony of this most notorious American turncoat is any indication, treason — and the motivations behind it — can be far less clear than the public may wish to believe, and history to remember.
Not that the definition of treason is complicated. To the frustration of the President’s critics, Article III, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution narrowly defines treason against the United States as consisting “only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid or comfort.” Americans shared this understanding of treason, rooted in English common law, even before the Constitution was written.
Yet if Arnold had been executed for that crime — in reality, he escaped to the British in New York — some of those who witnessed him swing would surely have felt mixed emotions. Before turning his coat from Continental blue to British scarlet, he’d served the Patriots with conspicuous bravery, helping to ensure that the Declaration of Independence amounted to more than bold words. Without his contribution as a dynamic and resourceful soldier, it’s debatable whether today’s USA would even exist.


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'Two episodes stand out. In 1776, when a British army was poised to advance south from Canada, Arnold assembled a fleet on Lake Champlain that forced the enemy to halt and construct warships of their own. That October, Arnold’s flotilla was destroyed, but his willingness to fight against heavy odds bought the Americans crucial time — and earned George Washington a timely reprieve. If Britain’s northern force had rolled south as planned, he would have been trapped. Without Arnold’s energy and determination, there would have been no ripostes against Trenton and Princeton, victories that revived the Patriot cause when it was at low ebb.
In the summer of 1777, after the British resumed their stalled advance from Canada under General John Burgoyne, Arnold’s role was even more significant for the future of the fledgling republic. By helping to rebuff a British advance along the Mohawk Valley, he clipped one wing of the invading army. When Burgoyne’s depleted forces pushed on for Albany, and encountered the army of General Horatio Gates near Saratoga, Arnold’s aggressive tactics transformed a stand-off into a decisive Patriot victory. That outcome convinced the French to enter the war against Britain, vastly improving the prospects for American independence.

Badly wounded, Arnold was appointed military governor of Philadelphia. But — ironically, considering his own role in bringing the French over to the Patriot side — he soon became convinced that British peace commissioners offered his countrymen a better option than alliance with their traditional enemy. In May 1779, Arnold opened negotiations with the redcoats in New York.
In fact, this was Arnold’s second brush with treason. Like George Washington and other supporters of American independence, when he first took up arms against his legitimate sovereign King George III, he became a rebel, guilty of high treason under English law dating back to 1351. By the Royal Proclamation of Rebellion, issued in London on Aug. 23, 1775, all Crown officers were obliged to use “their utmost endeavours to suppress such rebellion and to bring the traitors to justice.” The official punishment for treason was execution by hanging, drawing and quartering.
But though Patriot prisoners-of-war died by the thousands from disease and neglect, they were never hanged as rebels. Britain was reluctance to unleash the full force of its Treason Act on the American insurgents — though several rebel states (notably Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey) had no such qualms about employing their own harsh laws against Loyalists who clung to their allegiance to the Crown.

When his conspiracy was uncovered, Arnold was immediately accused of selling his soul for British cash. Since then, historians have acknowledged the role of his prickly, proud personality, and his mounting resentment against politicians who failed to appreciate and reward his services. But a careful reading of all the evidence suggests that Arnold committed treason for what he believed to be honorable reasons, and in the best interests of his distressed fellow Americans. As the British general Sir Henry Clinton reminded him soon after his first approach, “you proposed your assistance for the delivery of your country.” Over the years, Arnold consistently maintained that he’d defected to save America from an ineffective Congress, a cause that had lost its way, and a bloody and protracted civil war. As late as 1792, while exiled in London, he complained about the “illiberal” comments that he’d endured because of the prevailing misconception that his conduct in America had been influenced by “mercenary,” rather than “just,” motives.'

To Adam, Ah, a faulty/incomplete index then, and still no bib. Be sure to mention those in review.

R John Kuehn

I may be completely off-base and exposing my ignorance, but I found the article by Professor Nolan to be mystifying. Questioning whether generals matter is, I think, connected to understanding of the function of a general officer. I suppose if we can define what generals do we can determine whether or not they matter.
Over the course of my career, I have observed more than a few general officers. When one looks at generals across time and cultures one comes to a conclusion - successful generals or commanders enunciate or act out what might be termed a "command philosophy" and regardless of what they say subordinates are influenced by the ways in which they act.

I think the most important thing about a commander is that person's effect on morale. Leadership is an intangible, composed of personality and vision; its practice is an art, while management, the other side of this coin, is rational, and calls for accurate calculation; its practice is a science. Managers are necessary; leaders are essential. As we examine successful commanders, one returns to concepts that carry across time and space - leadership, training, and morale. I think this is a constant and reaffirms the German military axiom, "Die Truppe das Spiegelbild ihrer Führer” (good leadership makes good soldiers).

Further, a military organization can be seen as a pyramid with the commander/general at the top and the ranks of subordinates arrayed below. If we turn the pyramid on its side, its apex becomes the commander's humblest subordinate. Viewed in this manner, the entire pyramid rests on the morale, skill, and dedication of the lowest ranking members of the organization. Again, morale, leadership, and training are the building blocks.

I don't know if this answers the question posed. I know I have Gordon Craig's essay on Delbruck in the Paret volume in my possession but even though I retired 18 months ago I still have not completely unpacked and organized my books since my move.
v/r, Lewis Bernstein

Nolan's article is thought-provoking. I think we can all admit that 21st century warfare is fundamentally different than warfare in previous centuries. Sub-state warfare has always existed but it lately seems to have taken over the whole field of conflict. The major states certainly have persistent rivalries but will we ever again see anything like World War II? Generals mattered in that war because while the major Axis powers were staffed at the top by strategic idiots they did have, here and there, pockets of operational-tactical excellence. We needed guys like Slim and Patton. In sub-state warfare such as the US has experienced since the Great Strategic Blunder of 2003, it's about micro-tactics and innovative weapons improvisation, for the most part. Not much need for generals, kind of like the war in Vietnam, come to think of it. We need careful operators at battalion level and below, augmented by a host of noncombat resources.

I read the original article at the time of its publication and was sufficiently interested to track the book down at my closest Barnes and Noble. I’m about 5 chapters in and am not yet in a position to comment on the work entire (though so far, I’ve found it very well-written, accessible, and has touched on a few campaigns that my previous education in military history had glossed over).

But based on my reading thus far, and in reviewing the War on the Rocks article, I’m leaning to the conclusion that Nolan’s main argument can be summed up in one striking passage from the article:

“I suspect the deepest problem in the way of our understanding modern war is very old-fashioned: vanity. The vanity of civilian elites who make short-term policy and call it long-term strategy. The vanity of generals (and admirals) who implement flawed or inept war plans knowing the means they have cannot achieve the goals for which they reach. The vanity of nationalists and historians (too often one and the same) who misrepresent how wars actually are won and lost, so that the old pattern repeats. But above all, the vanity of nations and empires. All that pride in our short-war capability, our superior moral virtue, our sublime doctrine and the fighting quality of our army (or navy, or air force), cometh before a fall into unplanned wars of attrition. Civilian leaders promise too-eager publics a “short and lively” (kurtz und vives) war, hand off the problem to their military, then are surprised by and lament a rough parity among the great powers that conduces to protracted war. This is one of the major patterns of history that ensured long wars of attrition followed from short war delusions, including, after 1945, proxy guerilla wars of attrition.”

There’s a part of my mind that imagines Nolan screaming this at a very specific audience, beyond the public at large: those senior uniformed leaders and civilian policy makers who promise the public that no, this time, the war will be short and victory overwhelming and complete. My imagination also sees those senior leaders as almost universally American. Doubtless that intended audience won’t read this book, but Nolan feels compelled to write it nevertheless, on the off-chance that at least one of them is listening, or that someone in the public will read it and ask some pointed questions to those leaders the next time they assure us of lightning victory.

His point is not that generals don’t matter, but that our obsession with the clean set-piece brilliance of a few battles has convinced us—the royal us, pretty much every literate adult in the public at large who has at one time or another studied a battle with more than passing interest—that brilliant battles equate with a brilliant and decisively won war. Nolan points this one finger in the reader’s chest over and over again: NO. Civilian historians and those in the military hold up this or that “standard” general or campaign as an example of brilliance to be emulated, omitting the caveat that, well, Napoleon ended his life on a small rock in the middle of nowhere, and Carthage wound up ground beneath the Roman heel. We put so much emphasis on those battles, so little on the fact that, paraphrasing Nolan, they didn’t matter in the end. That being the case—those battles not deciding the war, but rather held up as examples of brilliance when, at the end of the day, they’re the brilliance of losers—Nolan’s trying to bring out all the rest, that the emphasis on some singular brilliance in battle overshadows those other areas more mundane, but more important, where real brilliance is needed to, you know, WIN THE WAR.

Like I said, I’m only 5 chapters in. But if nothing else, there are quite a few people inside the Beltway who should be smacked on the head with this book until the message sinks in. Maybe then we won’t hear things about how a future war could be won with “two strikes, the first strike and the last strike.” A few strikes on the noggin with this book might change that tune.

The discussion made me read the original blog post by Dr. Nolan. Here are some of my own thoughts on his post, the others, and the topic in general (or "In General" if I would try to make a pun out of it...)

I looked briefly at Dr. Nolan's biography and found only an academic background, no actual military experience. That of course does not disqualify him from having an opinion on military leadership and generalship but I would suspect his understanding of operations in military units to be thus limited.

I would say while I didn't recognize it when I was in the Army, I became and am still a student of organizational management- first in the military and then doing government work in the emergency management field. That has been amplified by my interest in military history and specifically a focus on unconventional warfare (which I would argue is the most difficult of military challenges for most forces/countries).

So on its face, a comment that leadership/management at any level of an organization "doesn't matter" is nonsense. It matters at every level and good organizations find ways to encourage, train, support those at all levels while dealing with any situations they may face. The dynamics obviously change all the time and with all situations, so good organizations have ways of adjusting appropriately. I think what is an accurate observation is that there are times when leaders have not done well and either the system (their government/politicians) didn't support them, they as individuals had been promoted beyond their level of competence (yes it happens), or their training didn't give them what they needed to handle the situation they were put in (conventional or unconventional). And then their are the unwinnable situations - pity the good leaders and units who are tossed under the bus.

But back to Dr. Nolan's piece... I think his title, while eye-catching, doesn't really reflect his thesis (if I understand it correctly). What I basically got out of it was that historically, decisive battles which elevate the general in charge to historic prominence, are comparatively few, compared to the numbers of leaders who are not "allowed" even the opportunity for quick and decisive victories. I think that is a fair analysis of fact without editorializing on the quality or importance of those in charge. But my own personal view is that unconventional warfare is far more complex and tests the mental agility of leaders far more than conventional war (as difficult as that is) so Generalship/Leadership is even more important to the ultimate outcome. It may become 30 or even 100-year wars but maximizing what is possible in the outcome will not just happen by accident. Without glorious and decisive victories those in charge may slip into obscurity regardless of whether these long wars turn out well or badly. As with most professions and most professional people, whether they achieve historic fame is really not a valid judge of their contributions or skills.
Greg Banner
LTC, USA (ret.)

Ralph, Isn't the goal NOT to have another World War-type event?
I would hope that is the goal. Nukes have gone a long way toward helping us to achieve it, moreso than generals.

As for generals in this age, seems like we have a lot of them...
vr, John
(T. Kuehn, Platte City)

All, As I read a review essay in the Journal of Military History by Howard Fuller on a new book about John Ericsson and the Monitor something popped out at me that should have popped out earlier, and which highlights a key lacunae in the thinking of "military historians" on this issue of decisive battle (which, I agree with some of you, is the real target for Nolan's thesis).

Some definitions first--military historian, for me this is NOT just military history of land warfare, but all warfare in all the various mediums, domains, and physical environments on Terra (earth). You see where I am going don't you?

Right, the lacunae is right there, in that definition, or rather how most of the military historian "tribe" thinks of military history--it involves warfare by generals. No admirals. Or other funny navy ranks like "commander."

Back to a weakness in Nolan's approach, he, un-intentionally I think, devalues sea power, maritime warfare and other things "naval" in his thesis. This does not mean his thesis does not apply at sea (or for those so inclined-- the maritime domain), but it applies differently and here is why reading Fuller's essay got me thinking on this score.
I quote: "so long as we remain a people, so long will the work of the [USS] Monitor be remembered and her story told to our children's children." (JMH, July 2019, p. 862, Dr. Grenville Weeks, op. cit.) In other words people of that day thought the combat in Hampton Roads pretty decisive. And guys like Fuller and Bill Robertson still do.

My modest proposal is that decision at sea can occur, although how that decision flows from leadership is perhaps much different, in some cases, than the old paradigm of generals winning battles and those leading to a sort of punctuated equilibrium event in war that hastens political decision (the logic of war).

Now, for all those military historians (narrow sense) grinding their teeth out there (or losing interest whenever naval discussions arise), I will concede that Sir Julian Corbett and J.C. Wylie have already written more effectively, critically, and comprehensively (as has Herbert Rosinski) on this score of decision at sea, and how it too can be over-rated as the holy grail for flag officer (or combat command) leadership. So go to them, their arguments are worth reading, too.

Do naval leaders matter in war, or do they matter just as much (perhaps more) in peace? Well, I've written two whole books on that subject, so you be judge.(both with Naval Institute Press and available in most libraries).

vr, John T. Kuehn, Commander, USN (retired)

I haven't read the book, but the article and the responses to this thread strongly imply that much of this is a strawman argument. I just do not accept the assumption that a large number or the majority of military and civilian leaders believe fervently in decisive battles and promise short wars. Everyone tries to achieve a short war, of course, but that is not quite the same thing as 'promising.'