The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost- From Ancient Greece To Iraq is the 2013 book by noted historian Victor Davis Hanson. It is an examination of five generals from different periods of history who, despite their very different eras, countries, and motivations, had one thing in common. They each came into authority during a time when war was going badly, and through their skill of leadership, these men were able to turn the tide of battle, turning almost certain defeat into victory. The five men examined in the book are Themistocles, Flavius Belisarius, William Sherman, Matthew Ridgway, and David Petraeus.
Themistocles was a politician and general in ancient Athens. In 480 B.C. the Persian army was ravaging through Greece, seemingly unstoppable. Bucking traditional military thought, Themistocles had for years advocated building a strong navy, successfully convincing the Athenians to build a large number of triremes (early galley-style warships). These would prove invaluable in the fight against the Persians in the coming conflict. In 480, as one city-state after another fell before the might of the Persians, Themistocles came up with a plan for Athens and the other cities to concentrate their naval fleets at Salamis. Luring the larger Persian fleet into the narrow straits of Salamis would lessen their advantage by leaving them little room to maneuver their large numbers of ships. Also, the Greeks knew these waters and their currents well, while they were unknown to the Persians. The leaders of the other Greek city-states opposed Themistocles' unorthodox plan as too risky, but he managed to secure their reluctant cooperation by threatening to withdraw the Athenian fleet to Sicily, leaving the rest to the Persian's dubious mercy. In the end, Themistocles' strategy proved the correct, and the Greeks sank at least half the Persian fleet on the first day at Salamis, making it one of the greatest naval victories in history.
Flavius Belisarius was a general under the rule of Emperor Justinian in the Byzantine Empire during the sixth century. At the time, the established method of operation was for conquering armies to plunder vanquished territories and peoples. In a break with tradition, Belisarius declined to do this, recognizing that this practice made enemies of people who might otherwise be turned into allies. By establishing a policy of benevolence towards those he conquered, he was able to form alliances with local people to oust Germanic barbarians from Italy and North Africa, stopping the decline- temporarily, at least- of the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire. That Belisarius was able to affect this turnabout time and again was even more impressive as his support from Justinian was very uneven, varying as the Emperor desperately needed him, then felt jealous and threatened when he was successful.
William Tecumseh Sherman was a general in the Union Army during the Civil War. When he was placed in command of the western theater of the war, things were going rather badly for the North. The appalling number of casualties with seemingly little to show for them was undermining support for the war, and threatening Lincoln's bid for reelection. With this in mind, Sherman adopted a strategy to take Atlanta with minimal casualties. In late 1864, he slowly advanced on the city, severing its rail lines and forcing the Confederates to abandon Atlanta. This stunning victory bolstered lagging Northern spirits, assuring Lincoln's reelection. In Atlanta, Sherman ordered the burning of military and government buildings, recognizing the demoralizing effect this would have on the Southerners. This strategy would punctuate his march across Georgia; many of the great plantation houses were burned on his orders, his reasoning being that the rich landowners should not be immune from the consequences of a war that was, in a sense, the result of their demand for slave labour on their estates.
GeneralMatthew Ridgway was placed in command of the Eighth Army in Korea when things were going disastrously. The army was actually in tactical retreat before the seemingly unstoppable force of the Communist Chinese. Ridgway made immediate changes to American strategies; he moved army headquarters to the front, and personally visited the troops, infusing them with renewed confidence. Noting that the men were ill equipped to deal with the winter weather, Ridgway ordered warmer clothes and better rations for the troops. He also fired officers who were defeatist or ineffective, and promoted competent and intelligent men. The Pentagon was unhappy with his methods as they went against standard procedures, but changed their tune when these actions proved successful. Within three months of taking over, Ridgway had pushed the Chinese back to the original line between North and South Korea.
General David Petraeus became commander of the US forces in Iraq in 2007. At the time, a majority of American politicians and even other generals deemed the war to be lost, and predicted failure for Petraeus' planned "surge". Essentially, The Surge refers to the deployment of 20,000 additional troops to Iraq to help secure Baghdad and Al Anbar Province. The purpose of these troops was to relentlessly pursue the enemy, taking and holding their previous strongholds. But it was also to increase their presence among the Iraqi people by living in their communities, protecting them from hostiles, and generally improving their way of life. Despite the naysayers, this strategy proved hugely successful, and American casualties were kept to a minimum. Soon those politicians who had opposed the surge were taking credit for it. Whatever has happened since that time, no one disputes that the surge was the right plan at the right time in that conflict.
Victor David Hanson's Savior Generals provides the back stories for each of these military men, and then outlines the desperate circumstances of the failing wars in which they find themselves called upon to assume command. He details the innovative strategies they employed to gain the advantage over their enemies, and their methods which go against conventional thinking, often resulting in friction with their superiors. Essentially, he relates the histories of five generals who, whatever their faults and failings before or after war, were able to step up and do what needed to be done, despite the seeming impossibility of the task.