There is a way of learning about warfare that many men (and a few women, but this is an overwhelmingly male approach) have from reading popular histories of warfare, from certain TV documentaries (especially from the era of the History Channel when it was nicknamed the “Hitler Channel”) and from lots of wargaming, both table-top in the seventies and eighties and computer since the mid-eighties. This is about almost ignoring the political/diplomatic context of wars and perceiving the economics as purely about the ability of national economies to supply the military machine. If your first thought about the US economy in WWII is about the mass manufacture of Sherman tanks and comparing that to the higher-quality tanks produced in lower numbers by the German economy, then this is the way of learning that you have.
This approach thinks mostly about battles in terms of the military skill displayed by the commanders on both sides. As a grognard wargamer, I absolutely acknowledge this approach, but it isn’t history. It’s a form of art appreciation. The beauty of Hannibal’s double envelopment at Cannae, or of Rommel’s use of the desert to create encirclements in battle after battle in the North African campaign, or of Napoleon at Austerlitz, or of Grant at Vicksburg: does it really matter that these decisive victories were won with style, where Gettysburg, or El Alamein, or Friedland, or Zama, or were not?
But there is a real lesson, though: decisive victories – excepting those achieved by overwhelming numbers (e.g. the German defeats of Luxembourg in the two World Wars) nearly always come from the enemy commander making a bad mistake.
If you look at good generals, they create situations where there is an opportunity for the enemy to make a mistake, but where they themselves are not committed until the enemy does. If you want to see flashy maneuvring on both sides, then look at battles and campaigns where both generals were bad. Campaigns where both generals are good see them offering battle at an advantage and it being declined, until eventually the battle that is actually fought becomes a grinding battle of attritition and of the skill of lower-level officers and NCOs. Battles like Gettysburg or the Wilderness in the American Civil War, like El Alamein or Tunis in WWII, like Zama in the Second Punic War, like the battles of Alte Veste, Fürth and Lützen in the Thirty Years’ War – all of these involved skilful generals on both sides, and in none did an army get outmaneuvered. Victory came down to the quality and numbers on each side. These battles tend to be bloody even when there is a clear winner on one side or the other.
When I first started looking at history from this perspective, I was full of admiration for the so-called “military geniuses”. I can still name a few dozen. But, the more I looked at battles, the more it became clear that the big gaps in skill weren’t among the good generals, but the bad ones. Chancellorsville is more about how bad Hooker was than how good Lee was. The decisive battles of Sedan are about Napoleon III and Gamelin’s lacks of military skill, not about von Moltke or Manstein/Rundstedt/Guderian’s genius. Cannae is much more about Paullus and Varro than about Hannibal.
When people talk about an admiration for Robert E. Lee because of his military genius, I certainly understand that of which they speak – Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville are both fine works of the military art – but I no longer regard this as a high art where a handful of greats can exceed the merely good, in the way that a Mozart or a Beethoven can in music. I take the view that the few generals who look greater than other competent and skilful generals do so more because of the (lack of) qualities of their opponents. The result of this is that I’m much less inclined to honour great generalship for itself.
Also, of course, I’m interested in history and not just in the appreciation of the art of generalship. Saying that Erich von Manstein was a great general is like saying that Leni Riefenstahl was a great film director – it doesn’t in any way excuse the appalling nature of the cause for which he fought and she directed films. The same can and should be said for Lee and Jackson and Longstreet commanding the armies of the Confederacy.