Notes from Masters of Command
“I didn’t follow the cause. I followed the man - and he was my friend.”
With these simple words, a lieutenant of Caesar summed up a secret of the great commanders’ success.
According to the sources, Alexander’s senior general, Parmenio, responded positively, saying, “I would accept if I were you, Alexander.” The king is supposed to have replied, “So would I, if I were Parmenio.”
To conquer an enemy who has superior resources in manpower, material, and money, an invader has to move quickly. Let the war drag on, and the enemy may husband his resources, grind down the invader, and even counterattack the invader’s home country. To win, the invader has to shock the enemy with lightning attacks that strike at his heart.
Alexander and Caesar understood the principle of shock. Hannibal seems to have understood it at first, but then something happened. Either he lost sight of it, or he failed to receive the necessary support from his home government to carry out a winning strategy, or both.
A victor’s biggest mistake after winning a great battle is to expect success to fall into his lap. On the contrary, since necessity is the mother of invention, the vanquished are likely to be more ingenious than ever, and perhaps even more dangerous. The vistor has to judge his next move correctly.
They remind us of the wisdom of Winston Churchill, who wrote: “Those who can win a war well can rarely make a good peace, and those who could make a good peace would never have won the war.”
There are permanent lessons here for students of war, especially because the three cases look so similar on the surface. All three of our commanders illustrate certain things in common:
Shock and awe is the beginning of a military campaign but not the end of it. Even successful attacks invariably run into obstacles. The history of war is the history of mistakes, and the mark of a good general is less knowing how to avoid errors than being able to recover from them. He must also know how to maneuver for the best position. The side with the better army should do everything it can to draw the enemy into pitched battle, because the alternative is a war of attrition, and that plays to the other side’s strengths.
… Winning a pitched battle is a great thing, but wars are not won by battle alone. You have to know how to use victory. A great commander goes on to close the net and does so in a timely and cost-effective way. This stage is the most challenging and difficult part of waging war, and all too easy to be forgotten amidst the glamour of a famous victory.