Successful generals are rarely specialists. More often they are well-read, well-rounded polymaths. More than a few are good writers of history. Julius Caesar set the pattern with Conquest of Gaul and Civil War. American generals have been fond of the pen, too. Sherman’s memoirs are the best of this type for my money. Though he is still reviled in parts of the country for his methods in the Civil War, his writings are succinct, intelligent, and insightful. Sherman also knew that historical writing is a battlefield as bitter, if not so bloody, as Chattanooga, so he preempted critics in his introduction by reminding the reader that three people watching the same brawl in a tavern will give three separate versions of events afterward.
Recently I picked out Crusade in Europe by Dwight D. Eisenhower which had been sitting on my shelf for quite some time. It covers his experiences from the invasion of Morocco and Algeria in 1942 until the German surrender to the Allies three years later. The tone, like that of Ike’s public personality (which, somewhat scarily, I remember), is uncomplicated, unassuming, and competent. Yet, the reader (like a careful listener of his speeches) senses somehow that this is a cover for a clever and ambitious mind. Such, by the way, was Nixon’s sense of the man, too, and Nixon surely knew a complex, crafty, ambitious person when he met one. An example is the way Eisenhower handled George Patton, who was full of bluster but actually (Ike’s term) “soft-hearted.” Patton at one meeting demanded that dozens of senior officers be fired for cowardice. Eisenhower calmly agreed if Patton would submit the list of names in writing; Patton, who hadn’t expected Eisenhower to agree, sheepishly withdrew the demand.
Published in 1948, Crusade was written with one eye on the White House, and it shows. As a demonstration of the author’s fitness for command, it is fine campaign material.
The memoir tradition is alive and well. Norman Schwarzkopf and Tommy Franks both wrote about their campaigns in Iraq. These also are worth a read, but both lack significant commentary on the aftermath, omissions which are, under the circumstances, painful.
The U.S. has elected a fair number of Presidents who first made their name in the military. Yet, Eisenhower was the last, and he left office half a century ago. There have been medal-earning vets to be sure, including JFK and Bush senior, but there has been no one first known primarily as a military leader. Perhaps this is because decisive victories have been a bit sparse since 1945. There have been many successful operations, but the larger results have been murkier or remain yet unsettled.