Interview: Victor Davis Hanson on The Savior Generals


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.