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Historic Rescuers

Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013 11:50 a.m. CDT

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It is not really news that Victor Davis Hanson has written another outstanding and eye-opening book. He has done that before and repeatedly, on a variety of subjects.

The subject of his latest book, “The Savior Generals” is given in the subtitle: “How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost— From Ancient Greece to Iraq.”

As both a military historian and a classicist scholar, Victor Davis Hanson is one of the few people qualified to cover such a wide sweep of history. As someone whose depth of knowledge and insight are already familiar to readers of his syndicated column, he is also one of the few who can discuss complex subjects in plain English.

The subject of “The Savior Generals” could not be more timely. It is about how seemingly hopeless situations can be— and have been— rescued from the brink of disaster. The situation of the United States of America today is similarly very dicey, both at home and abroad, both economically and militarily.

This book takes us through the history of how and why nations — both ancient and modern— have gotten themselves into potentially catastrophic situations, and how a new leader with clearer vision, and the character and courage to do what needs to be done, has saved situations that seemed irretrievable.

Both the old leaders who failed and the new leaders who succeeded are shown as three-dimensional human beings, with both flaws and virtues, not the cartoon-like images of public figures too often encountered in current discussions in the media or even in academia.

Those who turned out to have the decisive virtues at the decisive times include some who were failures at other times and in other settings, so “The Savior Generals” is not an exercise in hero-worship.

It is instead a lesson, based on experience over the centuries, on the need for serious, realistic and in-depth understanding in a dangerous world, where there are all too many lures into self-indulgent, short-sighted or wishful thinking.

Often we are more realistic about sports than we are about more weighty things. Everyone recognizes the greatness of a relief pitcher like Mariano Rivera, but how many recognize the greatness of a general who can come into a military situation that looks hopeless and rescue the troops and the country from utter disaster?

That was the kind of situation facing General Matthew Ridgway during the Korean war, when he was suddenly dispatched across the Pacific, without notice, to take over the American and allied military forces that had been battered and driven into a sometimes panicky retreat before the North Korean and Chinese armies.

It looked like an impending defeat, with major international repercussions. But General Ridgway somehow navigated through the military complications on the battlefield and the political complications at home, all at the same time, and saved the day.

A similar situation faced General David Petraeus, who was appointed to lead a troop “surge” in Iraq, where things had gotten so out of control that virtually no one believed he could succeed. Moreover, even when he did succeed, most of the media refused to believe it, until the facts about declining fatalities and a rising Iraqi economy made his success impossible to continue denying.

It is worth noting that those who made all-out political attacks on General Petraeus during the “surge” included Senators who are now the President of the United States, the Vice President, the Secretary of State and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. All this is covered in “The Savior Generals.”

Perhaps the book’s most dramatic example of a turnaround in a militarily dicey situation was that of General William Tecumseh Sherman during the Civil War. The war was going so badly that some considered it doubtful whether the Republicans would even nominate Abraham Lincoln for a second term, and it was more than doubtful whether he could win reelection.

It was only after General Sherman’s unconventional, daring— and successful— march through Georgia, splitting the South in half, that Lincoln was reelected, surprising everyone including Lincoln.

“The Savior Generals” covers not only military history but also the social and political history that provides the context in which military events took place. It leaves us a lot to think about, as regards the issues and predicaments of our own time.

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