Gods of War: History’s Greatest Military Rivals
By James Lacey and Williamson Murray
New York: Bantam Books, 2020
402 pp. $32.00
Dr. Jon Mikolashek is a Professor in the Joint Forces Staff College at the National Defense University in Norfolk, Virginia.
Since humanity has waged war, scholars have debated the greatest captains, commanders, and warriors. Continuing this long tradition of friendly and sometimes competitive discussion is James Lacey and Williamson Murray’s Gods of War. In this highly accessible book, both esteemed historians take the reader through the millennia to examine not only the greatest commanders in military history but also the greatest rivalries. The book focuses on contests between peers because they often are the greatest rivals. Gods of War does not examine one-off battles, but focuses instead on campaigns in which either side shared victories and defeats. Those expecting more on figures such as Gustavus Adolphus and Alexander the Great will be slightly disappointed that their favorite commander did not make the cut, but the focus of Gods of War is about the greatest rivalries, and it overwhelmingly succeeds.
Gods of War highlights six rivalries between some of the most revered and studied military figures. The book is evenly divided between war in the ancient world, the Middles Ages, and the modern era. There are two chapters that introduce the concept and a conclusion, and the first rivalry considers Hannibal versus Scipio Africanus during the transformation of Rome into a Mediterranean power. The succeeding chapters follow in chronological order: The political and military rivalry between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. The Middle Ages get attention with the rivalry between King Richard I and Saladin during the Third Crusade. The modern era begins with the Napoleonic Wars and the multiple conflicts between Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington, followed by the bloody contest between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in the American Civil War. The discussion of World War II shifts gears and focuses on the rivalry between Erwin Rommel, Bernard Montgomery, and George S. Patton.
There is no discussion of rivalries in World War I or conflicts post-1945, but the theme of the book is to examine the rivalries between equally great commanders. To put it in a sports context, this is akin to Larry Bird versus Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Tom Brady versus Payton Manning, and Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal. There are plenty of great athletes, but not all great athletes had peers they competed with equally, and more than once. So while great military commanders such as Alexander and Gustavus Adolphus are indeed “great,” they had no near peers to repeatedly compete with over the ages.
Despite the emphasis on rivalries and commanders, Gods of War offers some depth to strategic thought and planning. While there is a focus on tactics and tactical outcomes, the two authors discuss the idea of “master strategists” and how even the greatest commanders often lacked strategic thinking. Lacey and Murray conclude that out of all the commanders covered in Gods of War, only Saladin and Grant possessed a strategic vision and won. Renowned figures such as Hannibal, while a master tactician, lost his war to a better strategic commander in Scipio Africanus.
The joint force will find worthwhile lessons in this discussion of “strategic genius.” As we focus on the operational and strategic levels of war, the United States and the Western world in general are often overly focused on creating master strategists or the next god of war. In reality, that is impossible.
As wars grew in size and scope following the rise of nation-states and the rapid evolution of technology, it is unlikely that a Napoleon, Grant, or George C. Marshall will ever again emerge to fully command war as some historical figures appeared to do. And even if the next god of war arises, it will likely have little to do with what school of joint professional military education he or she attended or if every known joint publication was successfully digested. That does not mean we should not try. But perhaps we should shift away from canned lessons, pedantic rubrics, and poor assessments and toward a clearer focus on history, writing, and critical thinking. That is, perhaps, the greatest lesson of Gods of War to joint military education professionals.
Gods of War is an excellent example of what professional military historians should strive to write. It is easy to read and neither pretentious nor overwrought. It strikes a fine balance between popular or narrative history and scholarly or professional history. Joint professional military education students and professors will see elements of Williamson Murray’s edited collection The Dynamics of Military Revolution: 1300–2050 (Cambridge University Press, 2001) throughout the text, which is still read by all students at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. While the book lacks rivalries between naval commanders or any discussion of airpower, Gods of War is a useful book that will appeal to the most scholarly of historians and nascent strategists, as well as to those who simply desire a more cerebral book for the beach. JFQ