The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost - From Ancient Greece to Iraqby Victor Davis Hanson
Leading military historian Victor Davis Hanson returns to non-fiction in The Savior Generals, a set of brilliantly executed pocket biographies of five generals who single-handedly saved their nations from defeat in war. War is rarely a predictable enterpriseit is a mess of luck, chance, and incalculable variables. Today's sure winner can easily become/i>
Leading military historian Victor Davis Hanson returns to non-fiction in The Savior Generals, a set of brilliantly executed pocket biographies of five generals who single-handedly saved their nations from defeat in war. War is rarely a predictable enterpriseit is a mess of luck, chance, and incalculable variables. Today's sure winner can easily become tomorrow's doomed loser. Sudden, sharp changes in fortune can reverse the course of war.
These intractable circumstances are sometimes mastered by leaders of geniusasked at the eleventh hour to save a hopeless conflict, created by others, often unpopular with politics and the public. These savior generals often come from outside the established power structure, employ radical strategies, and flame out quickly. Their careers often end in controversy. But their dramatic feats of leadership are vital slices of historynot merely as stirring military narrative, but as lessons on the dynamic nature of consensus, leadership, and destiny.
“An instructive series of portraits of five military outsiders called in to turn defeat into victory.” Kirkus Reviews
“It is not really news that Victor Davis Hanson has written another outstanding and eye-opening book. He has done that before and repeatedly, on a variety of subjects.” The Washington Examiner
“Students of military leadership will be intrigued by Hanson's astute set of cases.” Booklist
“Mr. Hanson's fluency with a broad range of historical epochs, which has made him one of his generation's most notable historians, is on full display in The Savior Generals.” Wall Street Journal, Mark Moyar
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The Savior Generals
How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lostfrom Ancient Greece to Iraq
By VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
BLOOMSBURY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Victor Davis Hanson
All rights reserved.
Athens Is Burning
Themistocles at Salamis—September 480 B.C.
Athens Aflame (September 480 B.C.)
The "Violet-crowned" Athens of legend was in flames. It no longer existed as a Greek city. How, the Athenians lamented, could their vibrant democracy simply end like this—emptied of its citizens, occupied by the Persian king Xerxes, and now torched? How had the centuries-old polis of Theseus and Solon, with its majestic Acropolis, now in just a few September days been overwhelmed by tens of thousands of Persian marauders—enemies that the Athenians had slaughtered just ten years earlier at Marathon?
News had come suddenly this late summer to the once hopeful Athenians that the last-ditch Hellenic defense, eighty-five miles away at the pass of Thermopylae—the final gateway from the north into Greece—had evaporated. A Spartan king was dead. There were no Greek land forces left to block the rapid advance of the more than a quarter million Persian sailors and infantry southward into central Greece. The Greek fleet at Artemisium was fleeing southward to Athens and the Peloponnese. Far more numerous Persian warships followed in hot pursuit. Nearly all of the northern Greek city-states, including the important nearby city of Thebes, had joined the enemy. Now the residents of a defenseless Athens—on a desperate motion in the assembly of their firebrand admiral Themistocles—faced only bad and worse choices, and scrambled in panic to abandon their centuries-old city to King Xerxes.
Desperate Athenians rowed in boats over to the nearby islands or the northern coast of the Peloponnese. Anyone who stayed behind in the lost city would meet the fate of the Spartans and Thespians at Thermopylae—killed to the last man. It was as if the great Athenian infantry victory at Marathon that turned back the first Persian invasion a decade earlier had never occurred—like the French who lost their country in May 1940 to the Germans despite the valor of Verdun a generation earlier. All of Greece was to be the westernmost satrapy of an angry Xerxes' ascendant Persia that now for the first time incorporated European land into its empire. Athens—and everything north of it—was already Persian. The war seemed, for practical purposes, almost over, with only some mopping up of the crippled and squabbling Greek fleet at Salamis.
The ensuing mass flight of Athenians was a landmark moment in the history of Greece. Centuries later, the Roman-era biographer Plutarch, who in his own times could not conceive of Asians in Europe rather than Europeans controlling Asia, summed up the Athenian panic and the decision to forgo a last glorious land battle with the brief obituary: "The whole city of Athens had gone out to sea." But what exactly did that mean? Could a Greek polis—traditionally defined concretely by its locale, monuments, and landed patrimony—survive in name only without a home? Many Greeks could not conceive of handing over their shrines and tombs of their ancestors to the enemy without even a fight. That is, until the popular leader Themistocles had convinced them all that they had no choice but to leave. Only that way would the gods fight on the Athenian side and eventually give them victory and what was left of their charred city back.
Soon almost all the fighting-age resident males—perhaps as many as thirty thousand to forty thousand Athenian citizens—had abandoned the city to man its fleet of triremes off Salamis. More than a quarter million elderly, women, and children had sought safety outside Attica, one of the largest transfers of population in the ancient world. In their haste, the despondent Athenians abandoned some of the ill and aged in the city or left them to their own devices out in the Attic countryside. Meanwhile, well over a hundred thousand Athenian civilians would crowd across the bay from the city to the rocky island of Salamis. They were gambling that their own seamen, along with still unconquered Greek allies from the Peloponnese, could wreck the Persian fleet before they all starved—and before the onset of autumn.
There was little help from anywhere. None of the dwindling number of surviving but terrified large Greek states to the south—Argos, Corinth, Sparta—on the other side of the Isthmus of Corinth wished to send a relief force to its likely destruction on the Attic plain. The Greeks of Asia Minor were on the side of Xerxes, those in southern Italy and Sicily too distant to offer help—had they been willing. Apparently the remaining free Greeks to the south would write the Athenians off as an extinct race as they looked to their own defenses, or found some sort of accommodation with Persians. Most were still terrified by the news that King Xerxes' Persians, hot after the Greeks retreating from Thermopylae, had arrived in Attica to level Athens and demonstrate a similar fate waiting for other city-states to the south. The Persian king was becoming legendary, a force that could not be stopped by man or god; and in fact Xerxes was the first Asian invader to reach this far south into Europe in the long history of the Greeks—and he would be the last to do so in force until the Ottoman Turks entered Athens in 1458, nearly two millennia later.
Inside the empty city, the occupying Persians began the laborious task of destroying the stone shrines and temples and torching homes. They quickly finished off a few Athenian holdouts still barricaded on the Acropolis. Meanwhile Xerxes drew up his fleet nearby at the Athenian harbor of Phaleron. The Persians' war to annex Greece was now in a sense almost over. There was only the Megarid and the Peloponnese to the south left to occupy and the easy task of mopping up the retreating Greek ships and refugees trapped on Salamis.
The king himself ostentatiously perched his throne on Mount Aigaleos outside the city. He was eager to watch the final destruction below of what remained of the Greek fleet in the straits of Salamis, if the retreating Greeks could even be shamed into rowing out. Surely Xerxes' firing of Athens should have been an insult to all the Greeks, one that might incite some sort of last gasp of resistance. Or perhaps the humiliated Athenians, like most of the other disheartened Greeks up north, would simply just give up and wisely join the winners. If he could not cut off the head of another Spartan king, as he had done weeks earlier to Leonidas at Thermopylae, perhaps Xerxes could at least impale a Greek admiral or two.
For six months, Xerxes had enjoyed momentum and glory, like all of history's grand invaders. Their huge spring and summer expeditions at first rolled out with little resistance—always admiring their own magnitude, never worrying much about the unseen and surely inferior enemy to come. The legions that joined Napoleon's invasion force in summer 1812 sang as they headed out for Czarist Russia, hardly imagining that most would die there. The imperial German army that nearly surrounded Paris in August and September 1914 had no thought of a Verdun on the horizon. Hitler's Wehrmacht that plowed through the Soviet Union in June 1941 with thoughts of storming the Kremlin by August lost not only the theater, but the war as well. Amid such grand ambitions, few commanders wonder how to feed such hordes as supply lines lengthen, the enemy stiffens, the army loses men to attrition and the requirements of their occupations, the terrain changes, and the fair weather of summer descends into a crueler autumn and winter in a far distant hostile country.
Likewise, few in Xerxes' horde that crossed the Hellespont in April imagined what a distant September would bring. One side or the other inevitably would suffer enormous losses that would shake the foundation of their societies for decades after, given the magnitude of forces and the logistical challenges in play. Xerxes had transported tens of thousands of sailors and infantry nearly five hundred miles from his western capital at Sardis into southern Europe. He had successfully crossed from Asia Minor to Europe by constructing at Abydos an enormously expensive cabled pontoon bridge over the Hellespont—all on the gamble of being able to feed his forces in part from conquered or allied territory. His army and navy were not merely bent on punishing the Greeks in battle, but rather on absorbing the Greek people into the Persian Empire. What was left of the collective Greek defense rested upon fewer than 370 ships from little more than twenty city-states, about half the size of Xerxes' imperial fleet in the bay of Phaleron a few miles distant. Most of the assembled Greek admirals were already distraught at the idea of being blockaded by the Persians in the small harbors around Salamis. Nearly all commanders were resigned to retreat even further, fifty miles southward to the Isthmus at Corinth to join the last Greek resistance on land. Indeed, ten thousand Peloponnesians were frantically working there on a cross-isthmus wall as the Greeks bickered at Salamis. The historian Herodotus—who was a boy of four or five when Xerxes invaded—believed from his informants that many in the Greek alliance had already decided on a withdrawal from the proposed battle. France in 1940 or Kuwait in 1990 had at least kept their defeated peoples inside their occupied cities. But the conquered city of Athens was both taken over by the enemy and also emptied of its own residents. Unlike other defeated Greek city-states that "Medized" (became like Persians) and were governed by Persian overlords, the Athenians who fought at Salamis faced a different, existential choice: either win or cease to exist as a people.
At the final meeting of the allied generals before the battle to discuss the collective defense of what was left of Greece, one Greek delegate bellowed that the Athenian Themistocles simply had no legitimacy. After all, the admiral no longer had a city to represent—a charge similar to that often leveled later in the Second World War against General Charles de Gaulle and his orphaned "free" French forces based in London. The Peloponnesian and island allies saw little point in fighting for an abandoned city. The overall allied fleet commander, the exasperated Spartan Eurybiades, in a furious debate with Themistocles, next threatened to physically strike some sense into the stubborn, cityless admiral. No matter: Themistocles supposedly screamed back, "Strike—but listen!"
Eurybiades, who had far fewer ships under his own command, heard out the desperate Themistocles. He was well aware that the Athenian infantry generals who had won the battle of Marathon a decade earlier—Miltiades, Callimachus, Aristides—were either dead, exiled, or without the expertise to conduct naval operations. Likewise, his pessimistic Spartan antagonist also knew that three earlier efforts to stop the Persians to the north had all failed. Why should Salamis end any differently?
In fairness to the Spartan, Eurybiades' reluctance to join Themistocles in fighting here had a certain logic. King Leonidas had been killed at Thermopylae just a few days earlier. No more than twenty-two city-states remained to fight at Salamis, out of a near one thousand Greek poleis that had been free a few months earlier. Moreover, the Greek fleet depended largely on the contributions of just three key powers, the city-states Aegina, Corinth, and Athens. Their ships made up well over half the armada. It seemed wiser for those admirals to retreat back to the Isthmus at Corinth and not to waste precious triremes far from home in defense of a lost city.
Worse still for the coalition, the sea powers Corinth and Aegina were historical rivals—and yet both in turn were enemies of the Athenians. The Greeks may have claimed that they were united by a common language, religion, and culture, the Persians divided by dozens of tongues and races; but Xerxes presided over a coercive empire whose obedient subjects understood the wages of dissent, while the Greek generals represented dozens of autonomous and bickering political entities who faced no punishment should they quit the alliance and go home. Even in their moment of crisis, these free spirits seemed to have hated each other almost as much as they did the Persians, who had thousands of subservient Ionian Greeks in their service and had shown singular brilliance in bringing such a huge force from Asia and battering away the Greek resistance at Tempe, Thermopylae, and Artemisium while peeling off more city-states to their own side than were left with the resistance. Indeed, until Salamis, Xerxes had conducted one of the most successful invasions in history.
The salvation of Athenian civilization rested solely on the vision of a single firebrand, one who was widely despised, often considered a half-breed foreigner, an uncouth commoner as well, who had previously failed twice up north at Tempe and Artemisium to stop Xerxes' advance. How well Themistocles argued to the Greek admirals determined whether tens of thousands would live, die, or become permanent refugees or slaves in the next few days. Themistocles had earlier gone up and down the shores of Salamis rallying the terrified Athenians, and he kept assuring Eurybiades and the demoralized Greeks that they must fight at Salamis to save Hellenic civilization and could assuredly win. He pointed out that the Greeks could do more than just repel the enemy armada and reclaim the Greek mainland. By defeating the Persian navy, they could trap Xerxes' land forces and then bring the war back home to Persian shores. Yet to the Peloponnesians, who were about ready to sail away from Salamis, this vision of the stateless Themistocles seemed unhinged—or perhaps typical of a lowborn scoundrel who throve in the shouting matches of Athenian democracy but otherwise had no clue how to stop an enemy fleet three times the size of their own.
But was Themistocles wrong? He alone of the generals amid the panic fathomed enemy weaknesses that were numerous. He might have failed to save his city from burning, but he still had confidence he could save what was left of Athens from the Persians. Hundreds of thousands of Xerxes' army were far from home. The year was waning. And they were getting farther each day from the supply bases in Asia Minor and northern Greece—even as the army was forced to leave ever more garrisons to the rear to ensure conquered Greeks stayed conquered. The tipping point, when the overreaching attackers could be attacked, would be right here at Salamis.
Yet the general, and admiral of the fleet, was no wild-eyed blowhard. In his midforties, Themistocles had already fought at Marathon (490), conducted a successful retreat from the failed defense line at Tempe (480), battled the larger enemy fleet to a draw at Artemisium, and this year marshaled the largest Athenian fleet in the city's history. In the last decade, he knew enough of war with Persians to have good cause for his confidence that logistics favored the Greeks.
Nearly a hundred supply ships had to arrive daily just to feed the Persian horde—given that the summer's grain crops of Attica, and those of most of Greece, were long ago harvested. The Persian fleet was without permanent safe harbors as the autumn storm season loomed and already had suffered terribly from the gales at Artemisium. In late September, rowing on the Aegean began to turn unpredictable. Rough seas were a greater danger to the Persians than to Greek triremes that still had home ports down the coast. Moreover, most of the king's contingents were not Persian. Those subject states—many of them Greek-speaking—for all their present obedience, still hated the Persian king as much as they did the free Greeks of the mainland. The Persian navy proved even more motley than the polyglot imperial army.
Most of Xerxes' army also had been camped out on campaign for months. For all its pretense of being an imperial expeditionary force, the various allies would be squabbling more the farther they were from home, while the remaining Greeks grew more desperate for unity the more their homeland shrank in size. So far from joining the general despondency, Themistocles was supremely confident in the Greeks' chances at Salamis. Few others shared his optimism, perhaps because a Spartan king had just fallen in battle at Thermopylae, partly because unlike Themistocles they still had homes to retreat to for a while longer.
Themistocles was soon to be proved right: The Spartan supreme commander Eurybiades did not realize it, but the Persian fleet had, except for a sortie to nearby Megara, already reached its furthest penetration into Europe. Logistics, morale, and numbers had already conspired against Xerxes—even as he boasted of his conquest of Greece. Yet right now in late September 480, few could see it: "We Athenians have given up, it is true, our houses and city walls," Themistocles declared to the wavering generals, "because we did not choose to become enslaved for the sake of things that have no life or soul. But what we still possess is the greatest city in all Greece—our two hundred warships that are ready now to defend you—if you are still willing to be saved by them."
Themistocles talked of Greeks being "saved," not merely "defended," as if a victory at Salamis would be a turning point after which Xerxes could not win. Note further that Themistocles was making a novel argument to his fellow Greeks: A city-state was people, not just a place or buildings. His "free" Athenians with their two hundred ships were very much a polis still, even if the Acropolis was blackened with fire. As long as there were thousands of scattered but free-spirited Athenians willing to fight for their liberty, so Themistocles argued, there was most certainly still an Athens.
What swung the argument to make a stand at Salamis was not just the logic of Themistocles, but also unexpected help from his former rival, the conservative statesman Aristides, who advised the other Greek generals to fight. The latter's reputation for sobriety reassured the Greeks that the Persians really were in their ships and poised for attack—and they believed the prior messages from Themistocles himself that they had better attack before the Greeks got away. Time had run out. Only three choices were left—fight, flee, or surrender.
The Marathon Moment (August 490 B.C.)
What brought the squabbling Greeks to Salamis was a decadelong Persian effort to destroy Hellenic freedom—and the efforts of Athenians to stop Darius and his son, Xerxes.
Excerpted from The Savior Generals by VICTOR DAVIS HANSON. Copyright © 2013 by Victor Davis Hanson. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. His many books include the acclaimed The Father of Us All, A War Like No Other, The Western Way of War, Carnage and Culture, and Ripples of Battle.
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This was a fascinating book from which I learned a lot. However, I was slightly disappointed at the lack of battle details. I enjoy being thrust into the heat of the battle and learning how they unfolded. In spite of that I enjoyed the details of the politics that played such an enormous role in the events of each era.
Superb Book - The selection of the 5 generals in the book was outstanding. Victor Davis Hanson has done it again.