This book is a collection of essays on selected military and civilian leaders from the Napoleonic, American Civil, Franco-German, and First and Second World Wars. The central guiding principle of the book (aside from contractual obligations to a publisher, so it appears) is that leaders, regardless of their other flaws, are most sternly tested in adversity. Von Clausewitz’s concept of ‘friction’ on the battlefield is precisely the time when the leader’s strength of will, unifying and driving their forces, is critical to victory.
Barnett has always held firm views and expressed them pretty robustly, so this book follows in that tradition. This reviewer found those views a distraction, to be honest. Barnett clearly has no time for Basil Liddell Hart or his theories, as Hart is referred to in quite scathing terms on several occasions. In the chapter on Napoleon, he also refers to those who ‘…treat campaigns and battles as if they were games of skill played for their own sakes: and who discuss the performance of military commanders as one might discuss the stroke-play of cricketers or tennis-players.’ The reviewer is of the opinion that a description like that can be aimed at anybody who has studied a battle or campaign who did not fight in it.
Although flawed, this book remains a good read in parts. There are three interlinked chapters on Lincoln, Grant and Lee, which serve as an excellent introduction to the American Civil War. The chapter on Churchill gives a good sense of his flaws – it started off sounding like a guide at Blenheim Palace, but thankfully delivered a more rounded view (For the record, Churchill is one of the reviewer’s role models, but the tensions between virtues and flaws make the man).
3 out of 5 anchors. This book is only recommended either as a primer for more detailed study of its subject matter, or as a visible bookshelf accessory for the office. Its subject matter would make an excellent series of lectures from the man himself, but he has written better in his time.