The greatest generals

An interesting experiment in applying WAR to war. Which is to say, Wins Above Replacement:

Among all generals, Napoleon had the highest WAR (16.679) by a large margin. In fact, the next highest performer, Julius Caesar (7.445 WAR), had less than half the WAR accumulated by Napoleon across his battles. Napoleon benefited from the large number of battles in which he led forces. Among his 43 listed battles, he won 38 and lost only 5. Napoleon overcame difficult odds in 17 of his victories, and commanded at a disadvantage in all 5 of his losses. No other general came close to Napoleon in total battles. While Napoleon commanded forces in 43 battles, the next most prolific general was Robert E. Lee, with 27 battles (the average battle count was 1.5). Napoleon’s large battle count allowed him more opportunities to demonstrate his tactical prowess. Alexander the Great, despite winning all 9 of his battles, accumulated fewer WAR largely because of his shorter and less prolific career.

However, outside of Napoleon’s outlying success, the generals’ WARs largely adhere to a normal distribution. This suggests his success is attributable to command talent, rather than an anomaly in the model’s findings. In fact, Napoleon’s total WAR was nearly 23 standard deviations above the mean WAR accumulated by generals in the dataset.

There were also generals that had surprisingly low total WAR despite a reputation as master tacticians. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate States Army, finished with a negative WAR (-1.89), suggesting an average general would have had more success than Lee leading the Confederacy’s armies. Lee was saddled with considerable disadvantages, including a large deficit in the size of his military and available resources. Still, his reputation as an adept tactician is likely undeserved, and his WAR supports the historians who have criticized his overall strategy and handling of key battles, such as ordering the disastrous ‘Pickett’s Charge’ on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. In the words of University of South Carolina professor Thomas Connely, “One ponders whether the South may not have fared better had it possessed no Robert E. Lee.”

German field marshal Erwin Rommel, nicknamed the ‘Desert Fox’ for his successes in North Africa during World War II, also performed poorly in this model, finishing with -1.953 WAR. This finding disputes the praise Rommel has received as a tactician from modern generals, including Norman Schwarzkopf and Ariel Sharon. However, like Lee, Rommel has been the subject of considerable historical debate. In particular, critics have attributed much of his reputation as a tactical genius to both German and Allied propaganda. British generals reportedly exaggerated Rommel’s tactical abilities in order to minimize disapproval regarding their defeats.

Modern generals performed relatively poorly in the model. American general George S. Patton, described by historian Terry Brighton as “among the greatest generals of [World War II],” accumulated only .9 WAR. The failure of modern generals to perform well in WAR may be attributable to changes in warfare which have prevented individual generals from participating in a large number of battles.

Among post-World War II generals, Israeli commanders stood out. Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan finished with 2.109 WAR (60th overall), an impressive amount for a modern general but relatively modest compared to pre-20th Century tacticians. Similarly, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accumulated 2.171 WAR (58th overall) for his battlefield successes in the Suez Crisis, Six-Day War, and Yom Kippur War.

It’s more an entertaining experiment than a serious statistical analysis, but I suspect the incredible tactical success it assigns to Napoleon is much more reflective of the French general’s strategic brilliance than anything else. In like manner, the Israeli generals appear to be overrated due to the low quality of their opposition; if I recall correctly, it was Dayan himself who said that the key to his military success was the fact that he was fighting Arabs.

Napoleon, on the other hand, fought the military creme de la creme of Europe, was often outnumbered, and usually won anyhow. But when you analyse his career, it tends to be his strategic actions that are the more striking and decisive.