- - Monday, February 3, 2020

Let me begin this review with an unreserved statement of praise: Andrew Roberts is a remarkably gifted writer of vivid narrative prose, and a talented, popular historian. Even when one disagrees with some of the conclusions he reaches, reading his work is always a pleasure and often a source of fresh insights. 

“The Storm of War,” his masterful, detailed account of World War II, will probably remain the definitive one-volume history of the greatest global struggle of all time for years to come. While his life of Napoleon Bonaparte, which I reviewed in these pages, verged on hero worship at times, it also provided general readers with a brilliant, panoramic biography of one of history’s major figures. His “Churchill: Walking with Destiny” was an even more impressive achievement, and perhaps a better pairing of subject and biographer.

Having first met Andrew Roberts decades ago, when he was just beginning as a writer, it has been a pleasure watching his talents broaden and mature. “Leadership in War” is a modest effort compared to the works cited above, a brief collection of evaluations of nine famous wartime leaders in modern (18th through 20th century) times, essentially a lightly-reworked version of a series of lectures delivered by the author.

Still, it is well worth reading if you happen to be a military history buff or are interested in comparing wildly different styles of “great” leadership, sometimes villainous, sometimes heroic and occasionally hybrid.

The leaders chosen for dissection — Napoleon, Horatio Nelson, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, George C. Marshall, Charles de Gaulle, Dwight Eisenhower and Margaret Thatcher — would seem an ill-assorted bunch. They did, however, share a few common characteristics. All had a strong belief in themselves and their abilities.

One way or another, under wildly varying conditions, they were all able to inspire or command the support of enough of the right people to wield enormous power in wartime. Some of them felt that their talents, real or imagined, should be dedicated to a high and honorable cause and placed duty before self. Others were driven by their own egomaniacal ambitions and belief in a personal “destiny,” conflating selfish motives with supposed ideals.

Unfortunately, one of the latter, Napoleon, was such a master of propaganda and inspired such a morbid fascination in other frustrated, would-be “men of destiny” that he became the template for nearly every military dictator and Third World caudillo who has blighted the world ever since. “Even though he was ultimately defeated,” Mr. Roberts writes, “Napoleon is the wartime leader against whom all others must be judged.”

Yes and no. While Adm. Nelson (who destroyed Napoleon’s ability to project his power beyond the continent of Europe at the Battle of Trafalgar), or Churchill, Eisenhower and Marshall (who closed the books on Hitler’s attempt to become conqueror of Europe on a Napoleonic scale), may have shared some of Napoleon’s professional skills and ego, none of them aspired to becoming self-crowned tyrants-for-life heading multi-national police states.

On the other hand, that is exactly what both Hitler and Stalin strived for, using many of the same “skills” — including massive propaganda, brutal suppression of dissent and the creation of a ruthless new privileged class owing total personal loyalty to their supreme leader.

Perhaps a more useful lesson is to be learned from qualities shared by Eisenhower, Marshall, Churchill, Thatcher and even Charles de Gaulle, but not by Napoleon. In each of these cases — albeit only in a mini-war (the Falklands) in the case of Thatcher — ambition was always harnessed and limited to defending an external threat. Churchill may have been delusional about perpetuating the British Empire after World War II, but he certainly never dreamed of expanding it, much less seeking global conquest.

Similarly, while de Gaulle was an infuriating French chauvinist constantly inflating his importance as the leader of a small, fragmented Free French movement in exile, his sole objective was the liberation of his native France and the restoration of its sovereignty and self-respect. That he succeeded in the end is a positive achievement that far outweighs his frequent hissy fits during the war and his occasional blustery outbursts of Francomania afterward.

What it comes down to is the difference between the pursuit of bullying Napoleonic, Nazi or Soviet “glory” at the expense of others, and the patriotic resolve to resist that sort of thing, even, in the case of Thatcher, at the hands of a tin-pot junta of would-be Napoleons in Argentina. In many ways, Napoleon is as much an exemplar of leadership characteristics to be avoided as he is “the wartime leader against whom all others must be judged.”

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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By Andrew Roberts

Viking, $27, 239 pages

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