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"What Makes a Good General?" Topic

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04 Sep 2017 7:27 a.m. PST
by Editor in Chief Bill

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Personal logo Unlucky General Supporting Member of TMP03 Sep 2017 6:30 p.m. PST

A recent discussion about the best general in the French & Indian Wars highlighted people have a very divergent approach to how they rate a good general.

Not all generals have control over the greater political process and therefore the greater strategy – probably most? So when you even think 'general' what do you think of?

For me it's field command of an army (singular) and I tend to look at the odds as a measure of their mettle. I tend to admire generals like Rommel,Hannibal and Lee for their abilities to generate victory with very little against superior numbers

Does it matter if they win? Is victory a requirement for a good general? Sure, it helps (heaps) but I can think of victorious generals who almost couldn't lose they had so much men and equipment.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP03 Sep 2017 7:41 p.m. PST

Good question. Certainly "time and chance happen to all things" and generalship operates on several levels.

I think Rommel and Hannibal are good examples. If you NEVER win, you're out of consideration. I think you get points for doing much with little. You also get points for picking your fights and--at perhaps a different level--for getting results without or despite battles. (I've been reading again recently about Nathaniel Greene, and I don't forget Fabius the Delayer.)_

In terms of conduct, successful generals give clear, timely orders which, if carried out, will result in victory, know the capacity of their forces and have great--what is now called "situational awareness." They go to some lengths to know the terrain and the enemy, and double-check their own reporting system to know how their own army has been trained, fed and equipped. None of these things guarantees victory, but the general who does them goes a lot further than the one who doesn't.

They also learn. The first time Montrose's sentries let him down reflects poorly on the sentries. The subsequent times reflect badly on Montrose.

Personal logo Grelber Supporting Member of TMP03 Sep 2017 8:45 p.m. PST

I've read that Conrad von Hotzendorf, who commanded the Austro-Hungarian army at the beginning of WWI, was better than his army. I'm not sure this is quite possible, but I don't know enough about von Hotzendorf's leadership to really evaluate him. I think that the good general adjusts himself to his army and its qualities, like Daniel Morgan at Cowpens, though, getting the most out of an inferior instrument, rather than assigning brilliant maneuvers that his army isn't up to.

I've wondered about education at the world's great military academies. I think this has tended to get rid of the total idiots before they reach high command. I wonder if it doesn't also get rid of the true geniuses, who go off to something that has nothing to do with the military, out of frustration.


attilathepun4703 Sep 2017 10:02 p.m. PST

Some generals' reputations rest more on incredibly good luck than on their own merits. Others, such as George Washington, won few battles, but deserve to be considered great because they persevered to ultimate success for their cause.

Some of the qualities I think add up to greatness:
1. Courage, both physical (obviously), but also the moral courage to accept responsibility for hard decisions that will inevitably cost many lives and may wreck one's own career.
2. Leadership. Some generals have the charisma to inspire personal devotion. But what is really essential is to impart respect and confidence in subordinates (or superiors, for that matter).
3. A logical mind coupled with the coolness to remain objective in the midst of confusion and excitement. This is essential in choosing objectives, analyzing the capacities and characteristics of both one's own or enemy forces, planning battles and campaigns accordingly, and assessing when taking big risks is essential, and when the odds dictate caution or retreat.
4. Coup d'oeuil, or the ability to size up the key features of terrain almost instantly. I believe most all great battlefield generals have had this ability, and it probably cannot really be taught.
5. Personal toughness. No amount of courage, charisma, and brilliance can avail if a general cannot bear up under long-term physical and emotional strain.
6. Tact; it may not be essential, but is certainly a great asset when dealing with allies. Also, having it can avoid a lot of nasty and unnecessary conflict with touchy subordinates or superiors.

Ottoathome Inactive Member03 Sep 2017 10:04 p.m. PST


all luck

nothing else.

martin goddard Sponsoring Member of TMP04 Sep 2017 2:03 a.m. PST


robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP04 Sep 2017 4:10 a.m. PST

Otto, if it were ALL luck, George McClellan would be the US Army's greatest general. We've never had a luckier one. The "lost orders" alone would put him in the top 10 of world history.

Personal logo Zeelow Supporting Member of TMP04 Sep 2017 5:04 a.m. PST

The cigar he smokes.

Mick the Metalsmith04 Sep 2017 6:20 a.m. PST

The good general has a 3 roll modifier while the poor one only a 1.

Mick the Metalsmith04 Sep 2017 6:28 a.m. PST

Grelber, if you think that academy eduction helps to remove the total idiots, remember Custer was one.

I doubt that academy training slows total idiots from reaching high rank at all. It actually may enable it, if my own experiences in the military mean anything. Academies further an old boy club that can override merit.

alan lockhart Supporting Member of TMP04 Sep 2017 7:24 a.m. PST

I don't know about a good general but, according to Foch, it takes 15,000 casualties to train a major-general.

charles popp04 Sep 2017 7:34 a.m. PST

The ability to remain calm at all times.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP04 Sep 2017 9:33 a.m. PST

A kind word for the academies. No, sadly, they don't weed out idiots. Neither does Harvard. But if you do them right, they will teach fundamentals, routine and administration. Big armies need a lot of these things. In WWII, the Australians used to use men out of private life to command divisions, but their staffs were regular army officers. Looked at the other way, Sherman used to say that a volunteer officer might do a fine job commanding a division, but somewhere above that--corps, or perhaps district command--the job was mostly paperwork and you needed a regular.
For an army to win battles, lots of things have to go right--or at least not go wrong. If the academies are eliminating certain mistakes, this is no small thing. The trick, as Greibar points out, is to see that everyone learns the fundamentals without chasing out the brilliant. I suspect they do pretty well. The world is not full of great businessmen, scientists or artists who dropped out of West Point, Sandhurst or St Cyr.

Personal logo The Virtual Armchair General Sponsoring Member of TMP04 Sep 2017 10:05 a.m. PST

Because I believe George Washington to be astonishingly fully worthy of the near adoration he received in the century or so after his death, and for all the reason and attributes cited by attilathepun47, maybe the simplest answer to the original question is this: He didn't lose his war.

All other is only commentary as to how he succeeded in that essential achievement.


USAFpilot04 Sep 2017 12:47 p.m. PST

Generals can't even agree among themselves what makes a good general. MacArthur on Eisenhower: He was the best clerk who ever served under me.
Eisenhower on MacArthur: I learned theatrics from him.

I once read something along the lines of: a good leader will inspirer confidence from his men, a great leader will inspirer confidence within his men.

freerangeegg04 Sep 2017 1:14 p.m. PST

A few good staff officers

Puster Supporting Member of TMP05 Sep 2017 3:57 a.m. PST

Frundsberg considered his retreat in 1521 in the face of overwhelming odds his greatest military feat ("ehrlichste Tat"), despite his crucial part in La Motta, Bicocca or Pavia.

Lets start with the defintion of what you consider to be a "general"?

Old Peculiar05 Sep 2017 3:09 p.m. PST

Luck and the incompetence of the opposition!

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP07 Sep 2017 8:10 p.m. PST

Salt, vinegar and about twenty years of baking under a coating of gunpowder.

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