By Their Deeds Alone: America’s Combat Commanders on the Art of War

By Their Deeds Alone: America’s Combat Commanders on the Art of War

David R. Gray

By Their Deeds Alone: America’s Combat Commanders on the Art of War. Edited by Richard D. Hooker, Jr. Foreword by Rick Atkinson. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 2003. 254 pages. $13.95 (paper). Reviewed by Colonel David R. Gray, Army Federal Executive Fellow, Brookings Institution.

The Global War on Terrorism has underscored several key truths about the military profession. The military profession performs its craft infrequently, largely at unexpected times, in unlikely places, and under assorted conditions. The character of combat often confounds pre-war expectations. Victory of defeat in future battles, therefore, hinges upon the quality of peacetime military training and education of the profession’s leadership. The fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq clearly reinforces these points, especially the need for flexible and adaptable leadership in changing circumstances. Because no curriculum in the military education system can possibly cover every conceivable contingency, military leaders must rely on other sources to supply them with instruction and intellectual preparation for combat. The study of combat leadership in past campaigns affords one such avenue, and that is the thrust of By Their Deeds Alone: America’s Combat Commanders on the Art of War.

To illuminate the value of vicarious experience in the preparation of future military leaders, Colonel Richard D. Hooker, Jr., has compiled an excellent anthology of essays by 11 serving or recently retired Army officers. Hooker is author of 26 articles on national security topics and coauthor of Maneuver Warfare: An Anthology. He has tapped ten other soldier-scholars as contributors for this slim volume. Active readers of military history and theory will recognize the skilled scholarship of John Antal, Jr., Robert Leonhard, Peter Mansoor, H. R. McMaster, James McDonough, and Dan Bolger, all well-published authors. Dana Pittard, Michael Fenzel, and Jack Tien are less well known in scholarly circles, but their well-crafted essays reflect the same thoughtful analysis as the more experienced contributors. By virtue of their professional expertise all have commanded at battalion or higher levels–the authors are able to approach their subjects from the perspective of experienced practitioners who understand the complexities of battle command in war.

In the Preface, Colonel Hooker lays out the major premise of the book–that “leadership [is] the supreme element in war.” To prove the case, the book’s 11 case studies examine battle in cross-cultural context, spanning the breadth of the 20th century. Whether discussing Mustafa Kemal’s stubborn defense at Gallipoli during the First World War, Major General Erwin Rommel’s improvisations to cross the Meuse River in 1941, of Lieutenant Zvi Greengold’s brave leadership by example on the Golan Heights in 1973 Yom Kippur War, decisive combat leadership was pivotal to the outcome of a critical battle. A commander’s ability to make purposeful decisions under the stresses of combat, to improvise in the chaos of battle, and to exploit the strengths of his organization by matching them against enemy vulnerabilities emerge as common themes, regardless of time period of environment. Additionally, the most successful commanders always attempted maneuver to gain maximum advantage over their enemies.

The essays in By Their Deeds Alone cover the full range of conflict that military professionals are likely to encounter in the future. Nine of the essays examine conventional combat in arctic, mountain, desert, forested, jungle, and urban environments, where the value of synchronized combined-arms operations remains the same regardless of terrain. The essays by McDonough and Bolger examine the evolving character of contingency operations caused by bloody upheavals in Africa. As fighting continues in Afghanistan’s mountains and Iraq’s cities, as well as in persisting contingency operations in Haiti and elsewhere, the various chapters offer important insights into how past commanders successfully mastered the challenges they faced in similar types of demanding circumstances.

By Their Deeds Alone is a well-crafted collection of insightful essays. The contributors’ scholarship relies mostly on standard secondary works, published memoirs, and the occasional primary source document and personal interview. The strength of the volume principally lies in the authors’ successful weaving of source material with their professional judgments into well-balanced assessments of combat leadership. The scope of the book is especially relevant as today’s military professionals are actively engaging in full-spectrum operations across the globe. Although each chapter contains a general map for orientation, the book’s map selections are a shortcoming. Readers interested in detailed movements of forces will have to consult each essay’s cited references for specifics.

This volume will appeal to the general reader as well as to military professionals. By Their Deeds Alone would be a welcome addition to military history courses in civilian universities and the various service schools as a source of case studies across the spectrum of conflict.

COPYRIGHT 2004 U.S. Army War College

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