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25 March 2021

Leadership in War


Winston Churchill had no doubts about the importance of studying history: ‘In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.’ This includes its subset, leadership in war. Great war leaders, as Andrew Roberts points out in Leadership in War (2019),1 drawing on the examples of their predecessors, have the ability to make their followers ‘believe that they are part of a purpose that matters more than even their continued existence on the planet, and that the leader’s spirit is infused into them’.

Leadership in war is morally neutral, and can be used by leaders for either the good of their nations or their destruction. To illustrate this point, Roberts has chosen examples of both type of war leader in this volume, which started life as a series of lectures to the New York Historical Society. In the former camp clearly lie Winston S. Churchill, George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle, and Margaret Thatcher. In the latter camp, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin reside in the lower depths of hell. Napoleon Bonaparte and Horatio Nelson could be seen to be in purgatory, given that the one devastated France and Europe and the other, in his fierce loathing of Bonapartism, committed a war crime against republicans in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Like Churchill, Roberts is a fan of Bonaparte (as his recent biography, Napoleon the Great, shows), but he concedes that for all his impressive leadership traits, Napoleon made some key strategic mistakes, not least in the way he retreated from Russia in 1812. As Eisenhower pointed out, ‘planning is everything’. It explains the German successes against France in 1940 and the Soviet Union in 1941, and the subsequent Allied victories from El Alamein and Stalingrad to Normandy and Berlin.

A successful war leader needs to be lucky, to be able to read not only the topographical but the political terrain in which total war is fought, to marshal his or her forces and to strike at the most decisive moment. The ability to stay calm in moments of great crisis is a distinguishing feature, as is a single-minded determination to triumph against the odds. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery made this point in his post-war lectures on leadership, to which he added the need for physical robustness to withstand the wear and tear of campaigning.

Above all, leadership is about understanding and appealing to the psychology of the led. Roberts starts his book by recalling the question he was asked in his entrance exam to the University of Cambridge. ‘How can one hundred people be led by a single person?’ In a sense, his book is an extended essay in answer to this question. In the case of Western leaders, it came down to an ability to show empathy towards their followers, no matter their different backgrounds.

Napoleon, Churchill, and especially Marshall and Eisenhower demonstrated this quality again and again in their face-to-face engagements with both soldiers and civilians, seeing to their needs in order to secure their trust and keep up morale. Leadership theory labels this a transactional approach. But it is also closely linked to an inspirational, or transformational, effect of the leader upon his or her followers. This is often regarded as stemming from charisma, and all the leaders in this study had this quality. But it could have a dark side and become toxic. Hitler and Stalin are good examples of this.

Roberts has no qualms about calling Hitler a lazy ‘weirdo’ and Stalin a paranoid ‘monster’. Both presided over the deaths of millions of their own countrymen and women due to their deranged ideas and policies. They are, indeed, a warning from history as to what happens when fanatics seize the reins of power and seek to implement their crackpot ideas, whether Nazism or Marxism–Leninism.

That was only possible, as Roberts makes clear, because of the power of propaganda, the promotion of the image of the leader as the father or saviour of the nation or the revolution against hostile outside forces. It is noticeable that neither Hitler nor Stalin made any effort to broadcast to their peoples during the Second World War, unlike Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who were adept at using the radio. The dictators left it to their image-makers and propagandists. Ultimately fear, inculcated by state terror in the form of the Gestapo and the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) explains why so many millions of Germans and Russians went to their deaths in the name of warped ideologies.

Fortunately for the West, Hitler proved to be a disastrous strategist. Stalin was more canny, exploiting both the seemingly inexhaustible manpower of Russia and the curiously naive belief of both Churchill and especially Roosevelt that they could win ‘Uncle Joe’ over in the making of a stable peace. Stalin’s idea of peace was the devastation of Germany and the triumph of Marxism–Leninism in Europe, hence the onset of Cold War. Concerned as he is with war leadership, Roberts does not really deal with the post-war civilian leadership of Marshall, Eisenhower, and Churchill in facing the Stalinist threat. But it would be interesting to make the comparison (perhaps in a second volume by Roberts), assessing the continuities and changes of approach. President Eisenhower was sceptical of – and resistant to – Prime Minister Churchill’s attempts at an early détente with Stalin and his successors in the new nuclear age. Charles de Gaulle was certainly consistent in his determination that France should pursue its own path, rather than follow les Anglo-Saxons, during and after the Second World War.

De Gaulle’s belief that he embodied France and that it was his sacred duty to keep his particular idea of France alive during the war was ridiculed at the time, not least by Churchill and Roosevelt, who found him very difficult. In retrospect, however, one can see, as Churchill did, that the restoration of France as a nation was vital to the rebuilding of Europe after the war.

Another leader who reinvigorated the long suppressed spirit of a nation was Margaret Thatcher. It was her determination to reverse the illegal seizure by Argentina of the Falkland Islands in 1982 that was fundamental to the subsequent British military and naval victory. It stemmed from her belief that Britain and the British people still had a great role to play in the world, and needed to defend their own. It boosted the country’s self-confidence and showed that the British did not have to accept the long, rolling tide of defeat that seemed to grip Whitehall and Westminster after the Suez Crisis in 1956. That Britons were convinced they had crossed a watershed was shown in Margaret Thatcher’s winning the next two general elections. Her triumph was only halted by the betrayal committed by the grey mediocrities of her own party.

Once again Britain is in need of decisive leadership, this time to bring about Brexit and to restore her freedom and independence from the trammels of the European Union. The latter body has now assumed the monstrous proportions of a super-state or empire, whose apparatchiks are ruthless in closing down the freedoms of the nation and individuals. As such it is alien to the political traditions of the British and their cousins in the Anglosphere. De Gaulle always knew that Britain would prefer her Commonwealth and the United States to France, which was why in the 1960s he refused our entry into the European Economic Community, a forerunner of the EU. The history of the last fifty years has shown that, given our unnatural membership of this organization, we would have been better off staying out. Now is the time to correct that mistake. A majority of voters recognized this in the June 2016 referendum.




1 Andrew Roberts, Leadership in War. Essential Lessons from Those Who Made History (Allen Lane, 2019), 239 pp., ISBN 978-0-241-33599-4. 

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