Sunday, June 17, 2012

Who is the Best American General?

When it comes to Military matters battles, and wars are often identified by the Generals, or Admirals that fight them.  I am not a Naval expert, though I do come from two generations of Navy men, I know the Army, heart and soul.  It is natural that we should see the clash of two Armies as a singular clash between two Generals.  This is not true, and more often than not it is the "Strategic Corporal" that may turn some small but vital role in a battle.  Sometimes the stubborn bastard that refuses to retreat, or the headstrong young pup that chooses to charge will decide whole battles, even massive ones like Gettysburg, or the Battle of the Bulge.  Often these men are overlooked because in the face of the great struggle going on around them, it is easy to overlook crucial moments, Its is also possible eveyone that witnessed this moment is dead. 

So lets look, as History does at the leaders.  Who is the best American General?  Keep in mind that this is only my opinion here. 

First of the most obvious, by act of Congress the highest Ranking General EVER is General of the Armies of the United States of America George Washington. 

If we look at his record he fought 8 engagements.  5 were clear losses, 2 were victories, and one was a draw.  Any General with that record going before congress today would be practically lynched.  Well one of the truest things about War is that its not how many battles you win, its who wins the last battle.  Washington, is not a tactical genius, but on a strategic level he was brilliantly able to "check" his enemy, forcing him into positions that were unsound.  It should also be noted that Washinton could not have been able to do anything he did without some notable talents. Baron Fredrick von Steuben trained his army, Henry Knox gave him decent artillery, Daniel Morgan (and Benedict Arnold) kept his northern flank clear and there were just as many heroes in the south.   In the end Washington's best ability was was recognizing talent, and using it. 

I think he deserves honorable mention, and he will always be, "first in the hearts of his countrymen"

Next is the Civil War.  There are really only four Union Generals of note in my mind.  Winfield Scott Hancock, Phillip Sheridan, Tecumseh Sherman, and Ulysses S Grant. 

Lieutenant General Ulysses S Grant was known as "the Butcher" because he would often have very, very bloody battles.  In the course of one month he at the head of the Army of the Potomac lost 50,000 men.  And he kept doing the same thing against Robert E. Lee.  The Siege of Petersburg was almost a dress rehearsal for WWI.  Grant's main talent was tenacity.  Unfortunately, in the Civil War Tenacity usually equaled body count.  He was again and again out maneuvered by Lee, and won not because of some great strategy, but because he simply exhausted Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia.  Despite being notable I honestly think Sheridan and Sherman were better generals.  The only reason Grant is remembered (well) is that he won in the end. 

General of the Armies Jack Pershing is an interesting character.  He was all over the world, and fought in several "brushfire" wars his most notable mission was in WWI.  Unfortunately here there is not much you can say for tactics, his main difference is that he would attack, whereas the French and British were content by that point to not launch major attacks.  Tactically or Strategically speaking he was sadly too far ahead of his time.  He lead some of the great generals of the next war, and inspired them to be bold. 

General George Smith Patton Jr. is a favorite of a lot of people bold brash, and often profane, he was a cavalry officer by trade, and pioneered the use of tanks for America.  When placed in command in North Africa after Casarine Pass, he managed to turn a demoralized American Army, into a crack fighting unit.  He was able to beat the "Desert Fox" Erwin Rommel using the very tactics that that he pioneered.  His actions in Sicily and his rivalry with Montgomery are legendary.  He was so feared by the Nazis that he was actually used as a diversionary tactic when planning the Normandy invasion.  The 101st and 82nd would have had many, many more drops in WWII but darn it Patton kept overrunning their DZs.  His hook maneuver to "save" the Screaming Eagles was the stuff textbooks are written from.  I think that he is perhaps one of the best generals in American History, but he was only a wartime general.  Had he lived in peacetime, it is certain he would have somehow started a war with Russia, or been forced out in disgrace. 

General of the Army Douglas A. MacArthur is perhaps one of the longest running, highest ranking, and most controversial generals in American History.   From WWI to Korea he is without a doubt an Army man, and served in every role from Cadet to Chief of Staff.  I want to be clear that though his father Arther MacArthur's Medal of Honor is indeed for valor, GoA MacArthur's was entirely political.  It strikes me that despite the face that he was brilliant in later parts of WWII not being ready for action in the Philippians despite advanced warning, and the Pearl Harbor attack, was one of the greatest blunders in History.  I think that his butting heads with Nimitz and pretty much everyone else in the Pacific was also a huge mark against him.  However he was also able to take risks and think boldly.  The landing at Inchon was bold decisive and almost won the Korean War.  Not preparing for eventual Chinese intervention, and threatening to use Nukes afterwards again adds to the controversy surrounding him.  In the end my feelings on Mac are. . .mixed. 

Creighton Abrams had the misfortune of following a truly bad General Westmoreland in Vietnam, so his contributions thus are somewhat overshadowed.  It should be noted that he started really trying to win "hearts and minds" and while sitting over the Vietnamization program was also head of MAC-V that was more successful that it had been previously.  Most of the battles in his tenure were not major battles (owing in part to the disaster for the North that was the Tet Offensive).  It is one of those great "what if" questions, if you could somehow flip the commanders for the War, would the outcome have been better?  It should also be noted that as a Tank Commander under Gen Patton, he was well noticed, and was at the forefront of much of the push across Europe.  Sadly the War in Vietnam is how he shall be remembered, and by the time he took command there had been enough blunders that the well was well and truly poisoned. 

General "Stormin Norman" Schwarzkopf, is one of those Generals that has all the advantages that every General everywhere wishes they had.  Despite being up against a larger force, which by all accounts was battle hardened, and extremely dangerous to challenge, he manage to completely destroy it in a ground war that lasted only three days.  His massive flanking maneuver was only possible thanks to the innovations in technology, though it is clear that when there were actual battles the enemy was totally out fought, maneuvered and gunned.  Some of the very best tanks and APCs that the Soviet Bloc could produce were turned into so much scrap metal.  I don't even want to contemplate what the body count on the Iraqi side was, but I'm willing to bet it was obscenely high.  Here again he was able to take the best people, from multiple services and the best technology and employ them in ways that shocked the world.  Hindsight being 20/20 he really should have turned north and finished the job, but, like I said Hindsight is always 20/20. 

General David Petraeus is perhaps the most well known (and liked) General that America has produced from the last 10 years at war.  After leading the 101st in Mosul, and rocking at it, he said some things that the SecDef at the time Donald Rumsfeld disagreed with.  He was "banished" to the Army Staff and War College at Ft Leavenworth Kansas.  If you've never been there it kinda sucks.  Rather that pout an moan about it, he rewrote the COIN (Counter-Insurgency) manual, and kicked some serious ass.  When America was against the ropes, OIF was going badly, and it looked like the best option (at least according to Kerry) was to break up the country into three parts, they turned to Petraeus, and sent him along with the much needed "surge" of troops to do a Hail Mary and win the war.  The world was watching and the pressure was extreme, and here's the really crazy part, it worked.  He did what General Abrams could not an won a "hopeless quagmire".  For that he was placed in command of CENTCOM, then when Gen McCrystal got fired was moved back down to Afghanistan, and was still rocking strong and hard.  He is now the head of the CIA, and I would not be surprised if there was something else very big in his future (Hint Hint Sir!). 

So who in my opinion is the "Best American General"?  Well actually none of the ones listed above. 

General Robert Edward Lee.  Now let me clarify, the CSA are still Americans, and acts of congress have given amnesty to all.  Sadly Lee is as American as they come, which makes his story all the more tragic.  Son of "Light Horse" Harry Lee, who fought with Washington, he married Mary Custis, and was thus related to Washington by marriage.  Now the really astounding thing is that when he went to West Point he literally had zero demerits.  They give those things out for unshinned shoes!  His work in the Mexican war as well as the Capture of John Brown made him one of the most promising officers in the Union Army.  This is why a Colonel of all people was offered command of the entire Union Army.  Sadly he could not go against his state of Virginia. 

From 1862-1865 he singlehandedly kept the Confederacy together in the East, and his victory at Fredericksburg was so complete that its amazing the Union could still fight.  Again and again he would defy all logic, divide his army and attack where he was not expected or draw his adversary into an attack they could not win.  He was also a very kind and even gentle man, very just in his dealings and never referred to the Union as the enemy, only "those people".  I would say that Gettysburg was his one great failing but even then if most of us were placed in his shoes, we might've made the same mistakes.  I think really only Pickett's Charge was the only error he made in the battle.  A battle he very nearly won.  His gentlemanly way of command should be held up as the highest ideal of "an Officer and a Gentleman".  Look at the Peninculla Campaign, Spotslyvania and Cold Harbor for some of his greater victories.  Most were masterful given the time and  technology. 

All these men that I have talked about were fighters, all in their own way.  Some were more sucessful than others, and all were "great" in their own way if not always in good ways.  If you are looking for lessons in leadership, I would strongly suggest taking a closer look at Lee, Washington, and Petraeus.  If you want to look purely at tactics I would suggest Lee (again), Schwarzkopf, and Patton, and Abrams.  All these men have lessons we can learn (still) and probably should apply to our own lives.

for me the ranking would go thus:
1). Lee
2). Patton
3). Washinton
4). Petraeus
5). Schwarzkopf
6). Abrams
7). MacArthur 
7). Pershing
8). Grant.

If you want me to give my reasoning for the ranking I certainly will. 


Anonymous said...

Great list but where are the Marine Generals like Gen. Holland Smith, Charles Krulak, or James Mattis?

The Mad Medic said...

Also notice I said nothing of the Air Force, and Navy either. Besides Marines are a very strange bunch. Their leadership tends to want to find the path of most resistance, and when they bite off more than they can chew, or are not ready for, they then tend to display their much vaunted courage. It doesn't help much that their roles in conflicts tend to be hyper inflated. Having said that, there are indeed Marines worthy of mention. Peter Pace for instance.

Brian said...

I do think you forget the general during the Civil War who won the single greatest victory--having destroyed the army on the other side. I think he was the greatest general of the whole war. George Henry Thomas.

Paulmt said...

Great list and I pretty much agree with your order of great commanders. It is hard to compare different times with advancing technology and there are political leaders and battlefield leaders, as you noted. Sherman was my favorite from the Civil War's north side. Lee was a brilliant battlefield commander with Storming Norman and Patton cut from the same cloth. As Patton once said, grab 'em by the nose and kick 'em in the ass.
To me Grant was too much of the Russian style meat grinder type. He was tenacious and willing to fight but showed little imagination or tactical ability.
For once someone left Ike off a list, Thank God! He was never a battlefield leader and was always a politician. You are dead on about Mac, great tactician but no foresight and too often caught with his pants down.

Anonymous said...

No eisenhower so the list is stupid

Kim Mullins said...

Thanks for a great reaad