Greatest Generals of All Time

A friend and I were having a discussion today on who we thought were the greatest generals of all time. Let’s see your top 5 and why you think they deserve it.

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2 Responses to Greatest Generals of All Time

  1. Scott says:

    First, you’d have to define who you’re including in the term “General.” I assume you mean top military leaders across history, and not, say, just American military leaders with the title General.

    I’d say it would take weeks or months to provide an minimally thoughtful answer to this question. You’d have to look at these three factors: Raw accomplishment, innovation, and ability to motivate and inspire his troops.

    Raw accomplishment is important: you might be the most talented, innovative, and motivational general in history, but if you never see combat you’ll never make it into the top 5, even if a year after you retire your protégé uses all your brilliant new ideas and crack troops to win a major war. Raw accomplishment can’t be everything, though. You might just live in a period when your enemies are just much weaker or led by really bad generals, or when your side has developed a significant jump in technology, and managed to keep its workings a secret. It wouldn’t have taken a top-5 general to nuke all of the Soviet Block in the years after WWII (but before they stole the technology from us), but it would have been the largest slam-dunk in history in terms of raw numbers.

    As with any endeavor, we all stand on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us, so determining who were the best generals requires a careful analysis of what each general added to the theory, strategy, and tactics of war. Considering how different wars can be even as close as 10 years apart, based on technology, politics, and a myriad of other factors, it becomes very difficult to compare Hannibal with Washington, or Robert E. Lee with Eisenhower. Never mind trying to compare any of those with the Generals we have in Iraq. At least they were all fighting a pretty-much known enemy, not enemy fighters intermingled with people you’re trying to help.

    Finally, strategy, tactics, and technology will only get you so far if your troops aren’t committed. It’s true that it takes more than just a general to inspire the troops, but he is a major key. His attitude and procedures flow down through the ranks. The attitude of the folks back home are a big factor, too. If you believe the polls, the Iraq War is very unpopular at home right now. That can’t be good for the morale of the troops, but it’s a big credit to some military leader(s) that the troop morale is still fairly high.

    So you’d have to find a way to measure and quantify these three factors (assuming I haven’t left any out). Even if you are able to quantify them, you then have to decide how much to weight each one. This quantifying and weighting will be incredibly subjective. I’m not sure such a comparison could reasonably be done at all, and certainly not in a way that you’re likely to get any consensus. Maybe a better question is, “Who are the five military leaders you most admire?”

  2. ghubert says:

    This was kind of the point of the question. We all have different criteria for a great general, and the debate over those criteria is just as important as the discussions of the generals themselves. I admire generals/tacticians facing seeming overwhelming foes whose tactics, along with the spirit of their forces, wins out.
    Okay, to facilitate the debate, here is my current top 5 list:

    1. Hannibal
    2. Alfred the Great
    3. Subotai
    4. Charles Martel
    5. Frederick the Great

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