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Great Commanders?

Compiling a consensus list of truly great military leaders from all times is easy. Just ask around. “Everyone” familiar with military history knows names that must appear on that list: Philip II, Alexander, Scipio Africanus, Hannibal, Caesar, Cromwell, Marlborough, Frederick II, Washington, Napoléon, Wellington, Lee, Jackson and Grant, at least. And, in the last century, Foch, Eisenhower, Rommel, Patton, Manstein, Zhukov, Yamamoto, Giáp—to name only the most obvious candidates.

Similarly, “everyone” could likely agree on many of the shared elements that contributed to the greatness of these leaders: a record of victories; personal courage; strategic and tactical brilliance; intellectual energy; breadth of vision; charismatic leadership; exceptional willpower; keen insight into the strengths and vulnerabilities of their opposition; and, some of us might add, a genuine appreciation of history.

But there is something else, isn’t there? “Great” is one of the most overused and debased adjectives in English. But there is some elusive quality that elevates the great military leaders from the ranks of the “merely” effective and successful commanders—something that separates the household names from those whose stars once shone brightly and who are now ignored. Cynics might suggest that a persistent reputation for greatness owes more to public-relations adroitness—think of Caesar at one end of history and MacArthur at the other—than to transcendent individual achievements.

Many historians, biographers, dramatists and artists have sought to define and refine that special something that marks men for military greatness. Publishers have filled many board feet of bookshelves with hagiographic volumes on the great military leaders—and the outpouring continues to this day, with new volumes on Alexander, Hannibal, Napoléon (especially), Washington, Churchill and others arriving at our offices weekly.

That said, it is worthwhile to consider what in each individual comprises that core element of military greatness, and to pose the question to historians who have long dwelt on the character and deeds of military leaders. So we have been asking authorities who should know for the secret of their studied leaders’ greatness. Their answers are surprising, and we’ll be presenting them in coming issues of Military History. We start with Napoléon Bonaparte.