Interview: Victor Davis Hanson on The Savior Generals


In his latest book, fellow PJM columnist Victor Davis Hanson explores that unique, and exceedingly rare, military man, the savior general. Or as the subtitle of the new book puts it, How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost — From Ancient Greece to Iraq. 


These men range from Themistocles and Belisarius to the Civil War’s General Sherman, Matthew Ridgway, in Korea and David Petraeus in Iraq. They became “savior generals” in VDH’s estimation, because each salvaged a war that appeared to have been hopelessly lost by a previous general whose name and ego caused him to make a hash of the fight. In some cases, their battlefield predecessors, such as MacArthur in Korea, were fighting the last war all over again, instead of responding to the conditions of the current battle. How did the savior generals VDH chose for his book manage to rise to the top ranks of their respective armies, and yet keep their ego in check? How did they learn to stay flexible and respond to the battles they were tasked to fight? And how does a savior general learn how to balance the warfare of politics, versus the actual warfare on the battlefield?

During our 28-minute long interview, Victor will discuss:

● What can we learn from the generals of antiquity?

● How did VDH narrow his list of “savior generals” down to five, and which men didn’t make the cut?

● What are the current states of Iraq and Afghanistan in the Obama era?

● Why “savior generals” often have unfortunate post-military careers.

● Is America’s culture still capable of producing further savior generals?

● The complex relationship between America’s hard left and the military.

● How VDH’s home state of California is surprisingly resilient, despite the best efforts of its politicians to destroy it.

And much more. Click here to listen:


(28 minutes long; 25.6 MB file size. Want to download instead of streaming? Right click here to download this interview to your hard drive. Or right click here to download the 4.79 MB lo-fi edition.)

If the above Flash audio player is not be compatible with your browser, click on the YouTube player below, or click here to be taken directly to YouTube, for an audio-only YouTube clip. Between one of those versions, you should find a format that plays on your system.

[jwplayer config=”pjmedia_eddriscoll” mediaid=”64679″ width=”300″ height=”200″]

Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.


MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll for PJ, and I’m talking with fellow PJ Media columnist, Victor Davis Hanson. In addition to his weekly column at PJM, Victor also writes for National Review, is a member of the Hoover Institute, is a gentleman farmer in Fresno California, and has new book out titled, The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost – From Ancient Greece to Iraq. It’s published by Bloomsbury Press, and it’s available from and your local bookseller.

And Victor, thanks for stopping by today.

DR. HANSON:  Thank you for having me, Ed.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Victor, we should probably start by defining the title.  What exactly is a “savior general,” and who qualifies for that definition, in your opinion?

DR. HANSON:  Well, you know, the word is somewhat ambiguous, because it doesn’t say “victorious general” or “losing general.”  It means people who saved, but not necessarily, you know, achieved ultimate victory.  So people like Matthew Ridgway, that were asked to go into Korea when the United States, essentially — by December 1950, essentially had written off the effort, and yet he restored American and U.N. forces to the 38th Parallel, but he didn’t reunite Korea; or David Petraeus, who was the architect of the surge that saved the American reputation in Iraq and brought somewhat quietude to a really — a terrible insurgency, but he didn’t really triumph over all of the enemy in Iraq — today it even has problems — so in the sense that when wars are going very badly and consensual or constitutional societies are about ready to write off the effort, there’s a certain type of commander that comes to the fore that you might not have wanted before the conflict or after.

And the other thing is it’s savior — we say “savior” — savior, it sounds sort of almost religious in its tone.  And I think there’s — they were great savior generals in the sense of restoring lost battles:  Rommel, Model, von Manstein, Zhukov.  But their efforts were on behalf of authoritarian societies that you probably would have preferred they’d failed rather than win.  So what I did was I went through history and said which generals fought for causes that most people who are supporters of constitutional government support, and [asked myself] how were they different than people like Alexander the Great or Napoleon or Wellington?  And what I came up was oh, twenty or thirty people throughout history who didn’t necessarily have advantages in manpower, they were not well-connected, they didn’t have maybe the best technology, they didn’t start a war.  But they were brought in, in the eleventh hour, to restore something.


Because I wanted to look at the leadership qualities of generals when there was no advantage, they didn’t have any momentum, or there was no reason why they should win, rather than just somebody like Napoleon or Wellington that had a lot of other criteria besides their own genius that might explain why they won it at Waterloo or Austerlitz or something.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Now, is the phrase “savior generals” a phrase that you yourself coined?

DR. HANSON:  Yes, it is.  It is.  I hadn’t seen it — I hadn’t seen it mentioned before.  I talked to — in some interviews, when I was writing the book, I talked about it in paper — a news — a couple of newspaper columns, and I noticed that for some generals in the American Army it caught on.

General Petraeus himself, before the book came out, often referenced himself as sort of a Sherman or a Matthew Ridgway.  So I think that it was an idea that caught on, because — again, we’re not saying that they’re victorious generals, or they’re people of a stature of Alexander the Great or Hannibal or Napoleon, but they’re a particular subset.

I often — in the book, I mention this image of the Western — especially in the 1950s and 1960s movies like Shane, The Professionals, or The Magnificent Seven, especially The Searchers and High Noon, or Maginif — if I said The Magnificent Seven — where we give — we have a particular type of person, a western cowboy marshal, savior-general, so to speak, that comes into a town or a cause, and he defeats the enemy, but there are certain personality quirks, eccentricities.  They tend to have a maverick profile, or they’re just too scary.  And after they’re — they’ve done their duty, they don’t fit well.

So Shane has to take off.  He can’t stay in the Wyoming small farmer community.  Ethan Edwards, in The Searchers, has to leave.  We know that in High Noon, Gary Cooper throws down — Marshal Will Kane throws down his badge.  And all of these savior generals were not really men of the hour before the war started.  They were not the architects of their cause.  They weren’t favored by political leaders.  And then after they did quite extraordinary things, they — to be frank — ended up pretty badly, because they’re the type of people — maybe it was their character, maybe it was the way they talked or wrote or maybe the way they were portrayed by the public — they didn’t — they weren’t — I guess they weren’t comfortable with post-war consensus or tranquility.

When I finished the book, of course, David Petraeus’ problems had not happened.  I had to insert a little sentence in the galleys.  But somebody had remarked to me who read the galley before that — I had done that, and said well, wow.  Petraeus is now CIA director, he ended up well.  And I said well, it’s not over till it’s over.

Themistocles killed himself.  Belisarius ended up as a beggar in the streets of Constantinople.  Sherman spent most of the post-war period in the 1870s defending his record from criticisms that he’d been a terrorist. Ridgway got on the wrong side of everybody.  George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, especially Omar Bradley, and then most of the chairmen of the joint chiefs, and was asked to retire by Eisenhower.

And then Petraeus, I think anybody — whatever their feeling was about Iraq or the surge, did believe that David Petraeus deserved to be chairman of the joint chiefs, or at least supreme NATO commander, and yet he was given no chance for either billet.  And the CIA is sort of the cul-de-sac of political careers.  And so he — so far, he hasn’t ended up too well after his moment in Iraq.

MR. DRISCOLL:  In addition to modern generals such as Petraeus, your book covers well over 1,000 years of history from Themistocles and Belisarius to the American generals Sherman, Ridgway, and Petraeus.  Most Americans have some basic understanding of their own history.  What can they learn from those generals of antiquity that you’re also writing about?

DR. HANSON:  Well, I tried to look at people in antiquity to make the point resonate that technology is not the issue in war that makes one side win or one side lose, or it’s not necessarily essential to leadership, or there’s not a new social science, or there’s not a new facet of human nature.  In other words, that human nature is set, it’s static throughout time and space.  And we can go back to antiquity even through we’re talking about triremes rather than submarines, or we’re looking at Byzantine cavalry rather than Humvees.  The essentials remain the same.  War is sort of like — whether you like it or not — like water.  It doesn’t change through the centuries, but the delivery system, a pump, can produce it in much greater volumes.  But don’t fool yourself into thinking that water has changed because you see it pumped out of an enormous dam, or something, at thousands of gallons per second versus a hand pump, a few gallons per minute.


It’s still the same thing.  And that’s what I’m trying to get at in this book, that leadership and these oddball, eccentric, contrarian, eccentric people are sort of timeless.  They’re — because they represent parts of human nature that’s familiar to all of us.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Well, you mentioned eccentrics.  And I was kind of surprised not to see General Patton or any American general from World War II in your book.

DR. HANSON:  Well, it was a hard call, because I wanted to limit the study to about 120,000 words, there were generals in antiquity like Scipio Africanus, after the battle of Cannae, that helped Rome regroup and salvage the Second Punic War.  And of course, George Patton, after the Kasserine Pass and the disaster in North Africa, reconstituted the American effort.

But here I was a little bit more arbitrary.  I asked myself, are these generals — if you took that general away, would they have won the war.  And I think as great as General Patton was, and he was the center of a book I wrote — the focus a book I called — I wrote, called The Soul of Battle, fifteen years ago — that even if we had not had General Patton, or Curtis LeMay, for that matter, who was a great savior general in the B-29 program — we probably still would have won.

I don’t think we would have won in Korea.  We would have lost that war without Matthew Ridgway.  I don’t think without David Petraeus we would have had a surge.  And without a surge we probably would have given up in Iraq.  I surely don’t think — if Sherman was not around we would not have taken Atlanta — we being the Union forces — before the election, and Lincoln probably would not have been reelected in 1864.

I know of the antiquities, great generals — without Themistocles, there wouldn’t have been a Salamis.  It’s beyond — beyond controversy.  And I think without Belisarius, Justinian wouldn’t have ever been able to hold together the new borders of the Byzantine Empire.

So I guess what I’m saying is that there were savior generals of fronts, of battles, of areas, and then there are savior generals that preserve an entire war or an entire effort.  And I think the five that I chose fall into that latter category.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Victor, I really enjoyed the chapter on Matthew Ridgeway. Could you talk a bit about him, and why the Korean War is so little known today, outside of, I guess, it being the background for TV’s long-running M*A*S*H series in the 1970s?

DR. HANSON:  The Korean war was controversial, because it was really the first war that the United States didn’t win in the sense that we didn’t defeat North Korea and unite the peninsula, that some people thought was either the original aim of the war, or should have been the original aim of the war.  And then second, after the war — after the armistice, there was not a — there was not what we thought would be a peace treaty.  There was no side that admitted defeat or victory.

And then given the problems we have with Korea today, people go back and say, my gosh, when you don’t win a war, you bequeath it to your ancestors.  And that’s sort of what happened.

All that being said, today South Korea is a successful country.  It gave us everything from Hyundai to Samsung.  And we forget that in December 1950, the United States and the United Nations forces had pretty much lost the war.  They had gone all the way the way up under Douglas MacArthur, who never really spent a night in Korea — he was he commander by autopilot from Japan — the Yalu River and the Manchurian border.

Then in — quite unexpectedly — I think it shouldn’t have been unexpectedly — but the Americans were caught napping and 700,000 People’s Army troops from Red China came across the border — largest, longest, most serious military retreat in American history, saw us retreat back 400 miles to the 38th Parallel.  And then our supreme commander on the ground, General Walker, gets killed in a jeep accident.  MacArthur’s engaged in a political war with the State Department and the joint chiefs about Communism, how to best deal with Communism.  And everybody expects Seoul to fall within a week.  And it did fall again.


And suddenly they — in late December they tell Matthew Ridgway, who was a World War Two hero, but pretty much destined for a retirement in obscurity, to go to Korea, ostensibly to oversee a retreat, perhaps down all the way to Busan, and evacuation to Japan.  And he lands there in late December of 1950, and immediately he says, where’s the plans for the offensive.

And the Chinese are not superman — supermen.  They’ve advanced so far beyond their logistical capacity that they’re even more exposed than you guys were under MacArthur just two months ago.  And if they did it — if they cut us off when we were up to the North, then why can’t we cut them off when they’re far to the South.  And forget the bugles and night attacks, this notion of Communist superman.  They’re just, you know, normal people.  They’re not as well fed.  They’re not as well armed.  They’re not as well protected by air and artillery.  The F-86s are coming on.  They’re going to give us air superiority, or the MIG-15s.  We’ll start B-29s.  We’re going to have a bunch of new offensives called Ripper and — you know, Operation Roundup, and anybody that doesn’t have an offensive plan get out.  I’m going to be — move all of our commanders up to the front.

If they do take Seoul in the next few days, so what?  We’ll take it back through counter-offensive.  And he just did that constantly.  And he fought right at the front.  He had talking points issued throughout the entire army.  Why are we here?  Legal reason, the political reason, the social reason, the economic reason, the economic reason, the ethical reason.  And it went to every — every member of the coalition.

And the result was that they retook Seoul — South Korea in March.  And they were — by April, they were back across the 38th Parallel, and were actually in North Korea.

And then MacArthur was relieved in early April of 1951, and Ridgway was kicked upstairs to be theater commander in Japan.  And so when you look back within just a hundred days, he took an army that was defeated and recreated it and put it back on the offensive, and it actually was back into North Korean territory.

MR. DRISCOLL:  On the eve of Barack Obama taking office in January of 2009, Bill McGurn, a former speechwriter to President Bush, wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal titled, “Bush’s Real Sin Was Winning in Iraq.” Do you agree with that assessment, and in any case, what is the state of Iraq and Afghanistan today under the Obama administration?

DR. HANSON:  Well, George Bush, who by his own terminology, was slack or defeated terribly in the mid-term 2006 election, which saw the removal of Department of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, a real dissention between Bush and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice on the proper policy.  The Iraq study group said it was basically hopeless in Iraq.  And then a complete change of his military command.  So Casey was out.  David Petraeus, in.  And he wants more troops throwing the proverbial bad — good money after bad.  And there was twenty-three percent support for surging in Iraq.  130 people being killed a month.

And just fast forward from January 2007 till September 2008, and casualties dropped from about 100 — fatalities, from about 130 down to 10 or 12.  So when Obama took office, by the first few months of his term, there were two, three, or in some months zero people lost in Iraq.  And it essentially wasn’t a war when Obama was inaugurated.

And while there had been disputes over what was the ultimate American role, I think the Iraqis felt and the Americans felt that there would be a residual force of somewhere between 5- and 15,000 peacekeeping troops.  And that would keep the Maliki government honest, and it would not take retaliations against the Suni or the ex-Ba’ath minority, and it would sort of say, you know, here’s foreign aid, here’s your oil revenues.  Let’s make sure there’s equal distribution and this new consensual government works.

But Barack Obama had campaigned in 2008, that he wanted all troops out as early as 2008, even before he — he hypothetically would have won and assumed office.  And then when he came into office, he didn’t say a good thing about Iraq.  He didn’t say a good thing about the Maliki government.  He had talked so much and campaigned so hard, that Iraq was a failed enterprise, a bad mistake — he said the surge had failed — that he was almost caught by his own rhetoric.


So he pulled everybody out.  And I think now it’s very problematic what will happen in Iraq.  And the same thing with Afghanistan.  He had campaigned that that was the good war in a sense that well, NATO approves it, the UN approves it, it’s popular in the sense it’s not Iraq.  But he didn’t really think it through.  He never said to himself, well, wait a minute.  Afghanistan is much more difficult than Iraq.  It has no ports.  The population is far more illiterate, far more tribal.  There’s no oil.  It’s landlocked.  It’s hard to get to.  Pakistan is very difficult to deal with.  It’s just a hard nut to crack.

And so when he said — he felt that George Bush had taken his eye off the ball in Afghanistan.  And by putting his eye — Barack Obama’s eye on Afghanistan, because he was a transnational, post-racial figure, he was automatically going to win in Afghanistan, he really, I think, was shocked, that Iraq — the bad war turned out not to be his problem, and the good war turned to be — turned out to be a disaster, because it was not more than six months into the war that he announced a surge, and then he announced simultaneous withdrawal.

He didn’t talk to any of his commanders, I think for three months.  We went through General McKiernan, we went through General McChrystal, we went through General Matthews, General Petraeus, General Allen.  And as we speak today, I don’t think that any Americans feel that the administration is conducting a brutal war in Afghanistan.  It’s just — it’s going on.  But the president’s not engaged.

So I’m not optimistic about Afghanistan.  And I’m not optimistic about the eventual outcome in Iraq, although I think Iraq has a much greater chance than does Afghanistan for success.

MR. DRISCOLL:  I wanted to talk a bit about the culture that produced the men in your book, particularly America’s culture in recent decades. I mentioned TV’s M*A*S*H series; beginning in the mid-1960s, there seemed to be a sea change among American liberals that made them distrust and belittle the American military and its leaders. It was rampant in Hollywood in the late 1960s and ‘70s. In academia, even today, programs such as ROTC are looked upon with suspicion, and in 2007, there was Move’s infamous “General Betray Us” full page ad in the New York Times. Given how our elites loathe the military, as a young Bill Clinton once wrote, Does America still have the character to produce the kind of men profiled in your book?

DR. HANSON:  Well, one of the things that bothers me as well, or worries me, is that the military is not representative of the United States, and that may be, in fact, good.  In other words, it’s inordinately — its officer corps is inordinately — let’s be honest — comprised of people south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Thank god for the old Confederacy.  Because we’re getting a particular type of individual in the officer corps, at least, that is more conservative, more likely to be religious than the average American.

And so the military that we feel today abroad represents the United States in the 1940s or ’50s or even the 19th century, far better than does the aggregate population of the United States as a whole today.  And that’s not sustainable.

I think that you have people in the military that have particular values that are admirable, but they’re from America that’s largely disappeared.  And that’s very — it really worried me a lot.

And there’s another thing that’s not — another problem that’s not so remarked upon is that the left actually does like the military for peculiar reasons.  They don’t like what it’s intended for, to fight wars and win them.  But they like the authoritarian nature of military culture to enact social change.

So if you’re a progressive and you want gays in the military openly so — and that’s a — that’s going to be a process of give-and-take, congressional hearings; or see it by the joint chiefs; or you want women in front-line combat units, then you can achieve those social goal without the cumbersome processes of a democracy.

So what we’re seeing now, is the left looking at the military and saying, wow.  They have a particular culture that we don’t like, but they have a methodology that we really like.  It’s authoritarian in the sense that we can use it for our own social goals in America.  And that’s very scary, as I see it, because they see the military as a social organization rather than a mechanism to defend American and advance its national security interest.


MR. DRISCOLL:  And speaking of culture, you and I both are in Northern California; and the strange doings of the once Golden State are a frequent topic in your PJM column. This isn’t related to your book, but before you go, I have to ask, Victor, in a nutshell, what’s your take on what happened to the state, and when does it hit bottom? Does the state risk becoming Detroit on the Pacific, with mammoth unemployment, a hollowed out manufacturing base, and giant fiscal debts?

DR. HANSON:  I think the theme of California is that it’s very hard to destroy a state with a wonderful natural and man-made inheritance.  By that I mean that even today, with the Monterey Shale Formation, and the existing wells, we probably could be the largest gas and oil producer of all fifty states.

We inherited universities that according to the Times Education Supplement, are — there’s more great universities in California than any other nation, except the United States as a whole.  And by that I mean, Stanford, Cal Tech, UCLA, USC, UC Berkeley.

We have this culture, whether we like it or not, that draws talented people.  I’m thinking of Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, all within a small radius around Stanford University.  We have Hollywood.  We have the Napa Valley.  We have Yosemite.

So we have all of these.  And then we have the junior college, state university, UC Tripartite Higher Education, and you put all of that together — the dams, the Big Creek Project, all of these sophisticated irrigation projects, agriculture, and we have the — we have really the most potential of any state in the country, far beyond anything in Michigan.

But that said, we’re in a phase in the last twenty years of a redistribution of state as — let’s be honest — socialist model that says to the high producer, you’re going to surrender your monies to the state at thirteen percent or ten percent sales tax, or seventy per — seventy cents on the gallon.  And in exchange, you’re not going to get good value.  You’re going to have forty — your roads are going to be rated forty-second in the nation.  Your school — your public schools are going to be rated forty-seventh and forty-eighth.  You’re going to have one third of all welfare recipients.  You’re going to have the highest poverty level of any state.

And the reason is, is because the state — at the state level, is a redistributionist socialist model.  And then let’s be frank, we have thirty to thirty-five percent of all the illegal aliens.

And when you combine the richest entitlements with the largest number of people coming from one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, you have — you have a prescription for disaster.

So if — in polite company, if I say that California went from eleventh or twelfth in the 1960s rated in school system to forty-ninth, or I say it didn’t have the funds to make 99 and 101 competitive freeways, although they used to be, or our airports are way behind even though they used to be models of sophisticated air travel, and a lot of it’s because of illegal immigration; people would think that’s too illiberal, you can’t talk about that.  That’s politically incorrect.  But it’s the big elephant in the room in California.  That along with the public employees union.

Close the border, go back to the assimilationist model that would take seven million or eight million children of illegal aliens and turn them into Italian Americans or Polish Americans through assimilation, intermarriage, integration.  Get rid of the salad bowl; adopt the melting pot.  Make California public employees commensurate with other states.  And then you could solve the problems very quickly.  But I don’t see that there’s any constituency for that.

MR. DRISCOLL:  So there doesn’t appear to be the equivalent of a Savior General on the way for California?

DR. HANSON:  We do.  We need somebody.  Jerry Brown, some conservatives thought that maybe he was a person who could deal with the hard left.  But I think that was a rhetorical point that he made, and it was without any — there was no reality there.

So he actually increased taxes and he extended sanctuary cities for illegal aliens.  He has not — he’s not capitalized on our natural inheritance on gas and oil.  We’re not doing anything about building dams. We’re — even though agriculture is booming, it’s despite rather than because of the state.


The state is basically an amoeba-like self-generating organism that’s looking around to get more money for taxation, more money for special fees.  The California Franchise [Tax] Board is just sort of autonomous now.  It’s just trying to find money any way it can to pay this — feed this enormous appetite of entitlements and public unions.  It’s kind of scary.  And I think that’s why people are leaving at the rate of 2,000, 2,500 per week, above 70,000 dollars in income.

MR. DRISCOLL:  This has been Ed Driscoll for PJ, and we’ve been talking with Victor Davis Hanson, who writes his popular Works and Days column each week for PJ Media, and is the author of The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost – From Ancient Greece to Iraq. It’s published by Bloomsbury Press, and  available from and your local bookseller.

And Victor, thank you once again for stopping by today.

DR. HANSON:  Thank you for having me, Ed.

(End of recording; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.)

Transcribed by, with minor revisions (including hyperlinks) by Ed Driscoll.



Trending on PJ Media Videos

Join the conversation as a VIP Member