Who was the greatest general of all time?

Many generals and army-leading princes are standing tall in military history, but which one was the greatest of all?

I have two suspects, with a clear favourite for #1.

Many of the usual suspects such as Caesar, Hannibal, Frederick the Great, Prince Eugen, Alexander the Great, Napoleon don't make it to that very short list.

Some of them simply inherited a powerful war machine (Caesar, Frederick, Alexander in some regards Napoleon) and were the first ones to fully unleash it. Some illustrious names from WW2 fit that bill as well.
Severe shortcomings disqualify some such candidates (Frederick relied on the frontal oblique order infantry push tactic for too long, Hannibal failed in regard to sieges, and I am thoroughly unimpressed by Prince Eugen's tactics at Belgrade in 1717).

My two suspects are:

#2 Suvorov
He was the best general the czars ever had. He was a master of superior speed on the operational level (arriving ready for battle before expected) and on the tactical level. His tactics varied, but tended to avoid lengthy exchanges of fires. Suvorov also did much for the improvement of training.
His spell of 63 victories in battle without a defeat qualifies him for the very short list of suspects.

#1 Subutai
This Mongol general can claim to have fought the most varied opposition, most varied terrains, most enemies by quantity, the quickest-moving campaigns (even shaming Suvorov), caused the most devastation - and he routinely won, even with stark numerical inferiority. He wasn't born into nobility or even only into Genghis Khan's tribe. His incredible talent was spotted and he made an incredible career despite his suboptimal upbringing.

There's no point in even only trying to assess him on a moral level (from a Christian perspective he no doubt burns in hell), but as a leader of armies he is a strong contender for the #1 spot.
His many operational art innovations (including predating Napoleon by centuries on the coordination of multiple armies), varied tactics and decades of practically uninterrupted campaigning and battlefield successes (65 victories in battle, afaik without defeat) stand out in military history.*

I encourage you to read more about them, and to interpret that info in the context of their technology, society and political environment.


*: One could claim that Subutai inherited a superior military machine as well, but his forces were very similar to important opposing forces (such as the Cumans). They were also a lot less impressive after his death and weren't very different from the steppe armies that the Central Asian and East European steppes had produced for 1,500+ years before him. The Mongol bow was a bit better but otherwise Mongols weren't very dissimilar in forces quality to the steppe-dwelling Skythians from the time of Alexander the Great.


A rational case for keeping the expenses for military power very low (I)

There's practically no way how a country could have a net benefit from major military action nowadays.* Even successful aggressions such as the Crimea invasion or the invasion of Iraq tend to be costly affairs for years to come, with negligible benefits.
The only wars that appear to promise to be better than all peaceful alternatives appear to be (short) wars of independence, for people mostly value sovereignty very highly.

A possible exception could be a long-term preventative war in which a rising power gets stalled by a medium-sized war before it could unleash a more damaging large-sized war (or even "win" it).
Even such war scenarios still have to out-compete peaceful alternative policies to be the best course of action. Nazi Germany could have been stalled by a total trade embargo and an alliance of British Empire, France, Czechoslovakia and Poland before 1938, for example. The result would likely have been a triangle Cold War (Republics-Fascists-USSR). Much of the PR China's rise and its near-indispensability in global supply chains could have been avoided by refusing trade as well.

There's thus a conclusion that aggressive wars are hardly ever the best choice. We should avoid them altogether, for many people can be manipulating into supporting a bad aggressive war idea by warmongering propaganda (see Iraq invasion 2003).

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Thus only defensive wars make sense. This does naturally extend to collective defence of an alliance, so a country could and should come to aid of a non-aggressive ally under attack even if the specific conflict is no direct threat to its interests.

One should be careful about which country should get the promise of aid in case of aggression against it; aggressive countries should be excluded.

This means that in the end, all 'sensible' wars are defensive wars either on the national or on the alliance level (not necessarily on the tactical, operational or warfare strategy levels).

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How should a (politically) defensive war be waged? 

A complete "victory" that includes the elimination of the aggressor as a threat requires greater effort and incurs greater harm than a war that achieves a white peace (a peace or armistice that includes a return to the pre-war control of territory). One could even make a case that the optimum is to seek a minor defeat, but this is very difficult to realize politically (due to domestic politics). It would require politicians not only to recognize the optimum, but also to put the country before their career.

The difference between a white peace and unconditional surrender (or total elimination) of the aggressor does suffer from the very same problems as an aggressive war: It's to be avoided because it harms the own party more than it benefits it.

The way to go for an alliance under attack is to wage war with the objective of a white peace.

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This means that many capabilities that would be necessary for the achievement of extremist objectives are unnecessary. You don't need troops for occupation duty and you don't need to be able to project air and land power deep beyond the alliance's pre-war borders in spite of resistance.

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You need to be able to first frustrate an aggressor (the capability to do so should help to avoid the aggression through deterrence in the first place) and you need to be able to offer a face-saving exit (which means that maybe the aggressor should have some bargaining chips left to make the peace look more like a deal than a dictat). Furthermore, you need to either gain bargaining chips or to liberate all relevant invaded and occupied territories. Bargaining chips are much better, for they allow a return to peace through a negotiated exchange of bargaining chips. It's difficult to offer a face-saving exit if you liberated all invaded territory.

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Now that we have all this in mind let's state the obvious: Military spending is public consumption, not prosperity-driving public investment. We spend for a service, and this service is mostly the protection against foreign armed threats. Side benefits of military spending such as disaster response services, bad music, aerobatics teams, feelings of pride or dual utility R&D efforts justify but a negligible fraction of the military spending in major Western countries.
More military spending than necessary for deterrence does not yield substantial benefits and is thus wrong.

We can REDUCE (NOT increase) the needed military spending by being allied with other powers that provide a net benefit (most importantly, they should not be aggressive unless the alliance serves the purpose to eliminate them from the list of potential antagonist powers). To have allies means to have less potential enemies and the allied wartime strength becomes at least partially available for your cause. Repeat: Being allied does reduce the need for national military spending. Any exception tot his rule requires that either military spending is completely pointless (and thus to be avoided altogether without alliance due to futility or entering the alliance added so many potential enemies that it's a mistake to join.

It is wise to spend on military capability about as little as necessary for its primary purpose.
Smart alliance policy and military spending oriented towards deterrence and (in the event of war) achieving minor defeat or white peace are the way to go.


 (Part II will delve into a less abstract plane of the topic.)

*: This is an opinion. Anyone who disagrees shall be reminded that his or her disagreement is but an opinion as well, for we have no total costs:total benefits analysis of any violent conflict. The arts and science of mankind don't suffice to do such a complete appraisal. I formed my opinion based on the often very expensive, yet usually marginally beneficial conflicts of the past decades. The best case for the profitability of aggressions is in my opinion the (never provable) assertion that a war may have prevented another, worse war. The 1991 Gulf War and 1999 Bombing of Yugoslavia are candidates for such an assertion. Yet even such an assertion does not exclude that the same benefit could have been had cheaper through peaceful means.


Replacement instead of reform

The Minneapolis' city council's decision to replace the police department made the news in early June. I remember that I mentioned such a 'total water change' policy for terminally reform-resistant (armed) bureaucracies in the past.
It's a very interesting case and one of few experiments in this regard. It'll be interesting to see how it works out. A proper police education and training requires probably two years of full-time learning and a one-year (fully paid) trainee/internship period. The formal education and training of police and deputy recruits is ridiculously short (shorter than for barbers or other fairly simple trades where incompetence doesn't kill) in the U.S.. This short training forces a heavy emphasis on on-the-job training. This in turn empowers rotten bureaucracies to corrupt their poorly inoculated new hires right away.

I doubt that a bottom-up water change with thorough training is going to happen in the Minneapolis case, for it takes many years to take effect and a full water change might require more than a decade this way. They could alternatively hire professionals from elsewhere, but that approach would only work well for few cities at once, since the pool of good cops willing to move is way too small for a nearly nationwide police reform.
Military bureaucracies have the same problem, only much more extreme; they would rather not make use of foreign officers at all since this has become unfashionable after the Napoleonic Era.

The replacement of a rotten air force could make use of a naval air arm as replacing alternative, but this only helps if the latter isn't too rotten itself.
An army could be replaced by growing a militia, national guard or marines branch in parallel to grow up an army alternative over about two decades till the water change is complete.

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Recent private sector corporate successes at maintaining a high vitality / start up spirit for roughly a decade even in an organisation with thousands or ten thousands of employees are interesting cases for studies. It might be possible to distil some recipe to stay 'non-bureaucratic' for decades after a water change.

In the end, after any successful reforms it would take a stern, informed, well-intentioned and effective exogenous (civilian) leadership to keep the bureaucracy from becoming a self-licking ice cone again. It's the exogenous leadership and oversight that is responsible for keeping the bureaucracy on course towards the common good rather than towards its self-interest. 
It's inappropriate to expect the superhuman effort of consistent selflessness from bureaucrats. The group thinking and group egoism are all-too human and all-too reliable. 

This shall also be a reminder why generals and admirals are horrible ministers or defence in principle.

also related

BTW, the Camden police department disbanding did not exclude the old cops from applying for the new county-level organisation.



Link drop June 2020

February's "Disruptive technologies" text did not mention one potential tech: Hydrogen (fusion) warheads without a fission stage. "H-bombs" require the energy of a fission device (Uranium or Plutonium fission) for an intensive x-ray radiation burst that triggers the second (fusion) stage.
Nuclear warheads could be much simpler to produce and have less fallout without that first stage. One of the ideas for alternatives to this fission stage is to use incredibly highly energetic materials. And one idea for what materials could qualify is metallic hydrogen.
It passed way under my radar, but physicists actually have made progress and created metallic hydrogen a while ago.



I am not enough of a physics nerd to understand whether this is really a potentially practical alternative or what the (physical) effects of such a no-fission nuclear warhead would be. Still, there might actually be disruptive technologies in the nuclear warhead corner.

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Hence the discussion about the privacy design of the German tracking app. There's absolutely zero reason to trust ANY government with surveillance capabilities or surveillance authority.

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It's striking that there's this time around almost no talk of much public investment as a counter-'cyclical' economic stimulus. Economists do actually not know for sure whether the recovery from the corona-induced crisis will be a sharp V-shaped one or a more drawn-out one. We might not even have any full recovery (=no return to the old trend line of GDP growth), just as many Western countries had after the 2008 crisis.
Medical experts don't know whether the pandemic will force us to have at least mildly economy-depressing countermeasures for a few more weeks, months or up to two years.

This seems like excuses for not investing much in the future, but consider this; there's no substantial harm in setting up investment efforts, but then being unable to execute them because of continued troubles. There is considerable harm in the opposite scenario of needing such stimulus, but not having it.

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some personal notes:
The news are almost all-round horrible in 2020. Meanwhile, I have a very pleasant private life in 2020. There's a little feeling of guilt over this.

On another note, I expect to completely lose faith in median human intelligence by about 2030 and will then turn into a very, very cynical person. I should limit my exposure to morons to slow this process down. (This is not about commenters at D&F; it's a much more general issue.)

I have tried to come up with some real breakthrough military theory thinking or a concept for some 'magnum opus' on land or air warfare comparable to the 80 book pages equivalent series that I did on modern surface warships. It appears that you cannot force such a thing. Yet, I have recently toyed around with the idea of a military theory/military history commentary on Sun Tzu's "Art of War". This classic is very small and still interesting.