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Letter from November 2006 Military History

Originally published on Published Online: October 26, 2006 
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Career Crossroads
Some turns affect not only lives, but how posterity regards those lives.

Military history abounds with heroes and villains who made larger-than-life names for themselves. It is also replete with fascinating also-rans who, either because of their own decisions or simply as a matter of circumstance, never quite achieved what they wanted.

Looking back on the power struggle between Marcus Antonius, better known to William Shakespeare fans as Mark Antony, and Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, aka Octavian, posterity can only ask what Antony was thinking. Emerging from Rome's civil wars as the victor of Philippi, with a politically influential and devotedly supportive wife, he seemed to throw it all away in favor of an amorous alliance with Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt, as well as a less-than-focused war against Rome's intermittent nemesis, the Parthian kingdom, that was distinguished primarily by slipshod timing and surprisingly bad judgment. Both Cleopatra and the failure of the Parthian campaign proved to be significant factors in Antony's decline and fall, and the rise of the upstart Octavian to triumph as Caesar Augustus.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a similarly dubious decision in shipping missiles to Cuba in 1963, and then agreeing to remove them. Khrushschev's second decision to back down before President John F. Kennedy's challenge saved the world — and persuaded the Americans to withdraw their nuclear missiles from Turkey — but the Cuban Missile Crisis would ultimately lead to the Soviet premier's political overthrow.

One does not have to be a commander in chief to achieve notoriety, as Genghis Khan's General Subotai, Confederate Lt. Gen. T.J. "Stonewall" Jackson or General George S. Patton could attest. Among the also-rans, however, there is Léon Degrelle, a Belgian Nazi collaborator unique in his willingness to risk his own life on the battlefield for the cause. In a series of telephone interviews — compiled for this issue — Degrelle, who died in 1994, gave his own rationale for the decision he made and also evaluated its consequences. Hindsight may place a similar onus on Swiss soldier of fortune Henry Wirz, whose quest for martial glory in the Confederate Army brought him a command other than what he would have desired — and if anything, a worse reputation than Degrelle's, as superintendent of Andersonville prison.

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