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.
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. 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. 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.
 See Cathal J. Nolan, “Do Generals Matter?” 24 June 2019, at https://warontherocks.com/2019/06/do-generals-matter/ (accessed 06-28-2019).
 Russell F. Weigley, The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo.(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991), passim.
 See Gordon Craig, “Delbrück: The Military Historian” in Makers of Modern Strategy, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton University Press, 1986): 326-353.