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Old 08-13-2012, 07:40 PM   #1
Honey Badger
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GOAT Military Leader

I am a sucker for the "Greatest of all time" threads. I also find that running the events and tactics of great people of history in the context of their times and facing the crucible of other posters and other historical figures that I actually learn a lot about history sometimes in unexpected ways.

I figured I would float this topic to the small but impressive group of posters on this board. We have touched on the topic in other threads but I put it straight out here....

Who was the greatest military leader/commander/theorist of all time and why?
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Old 08-13-2012, 08:51 PM   #2
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

Nelson was once Britannia's god of war
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Old 08-13-2012, 09:31 PM   #3
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

An explanation; I'm not sure we can get to a #1 land army leader, especially if we're considering more than one dimension of military ability. The greatest conqueror, the greatest tactician, the greatest leader, the greatest theorist, etc. are probably all different people. Nobody from the usual suspects (Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon) emerges in my mind as the true GOAT, and while we can have fun with people like Cyrus or Scipio or Belisarius or Khalid ibn al-Walid or Subutai, these will always be a tough sell because the GOAT (imo) should be preeminent in history.

That said, recently I've been in a Napoleonic mood, so for all his faults, I can't think of his equal in modern military history. How he ultimately compares to the ancient/classical/medieval leaders, I'm not sure.
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Old 08-13-2012, 10:49 PM   #4
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

I don't know about greatest, but I'd have to say that Oliver Cromwell is one of the most chronically underrated or under-appreciated commanders in history. In four years, he took a collection of peasants and laborers and turned them into a professional army (the first of its kind in Britain) and conquered England, Scotland, and Ireland, something that had not ever been accomplished in history to that point (he succeeded where the Romans, Saxons, Normans, Edward I, the Tudors, and the Stuarts had all been confounded). Not to mention, his cavalry tactics were far ahead of their time and spelled doom for the armies of the Cavaliers during the English Civil War.
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Old 08-13-2012, 11:03 PM   #5
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

Greater military-wise than the Duke of Marlborough you think (I don't)?
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Old 08-13-2012, 11:10 PM   #6
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

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Greater military-wise than the Duke of Marlborough you think (I don't)?
Not necessarily. Like I said, I generally just think he's underrated, being left off a lot of lists of great commanders. But then again, it's tough to get many British historians to heap much praise on Cromwell.

Marlborough is pretty outstanding, certainly better than Wellington (who is massively overrated because of his opponent).

I'm not a military historian, though. I'd really have to do more research.
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Old 08-13-2012, 11:32 PM   #7
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

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I'm not a military historian, though. I'd really have to do more research.
It's a safe bet that your least researched contribution is superior to anything I've got to offer, but maybe Cromwell isn't ranked high on the all time lists is because he didn't do a lot on the continent? For a similar reason, I hesitate to think of Robert E Lee as a GOAT candidate, although everything I've gleaned from reading about him is that he was as much a genius as anybody on these lists.
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Old 08-13-2012, 11:37 PM   #8
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

Do people outside the US know who Robert E Lee is? I think he should be up there as one of the best.
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Old 08-14-2012, 03:12 AM   #9
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

I'm really glad l started this thread. Some very interesting choices out of the gate. Looking forward to watching this thread develop and submitting a few of my own choices.
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Old 08-14-2012, 05:54 AM   #10
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

Depends on if you are talking about strategy or tactics.

My favorite underrated is George Washington. He did more with less in the face of overwhelming odds than just about anyone ever. His main job was basically to survive. He had a poorly manned and poorly equiped ragtag bunch in the face of the greatest miltary power on the planet. His escape from NY and surprise at Trenton were great miltary achievements. Sure he needed French intervention and British indifference to eventually win but he had to hang on with practically nothing for 8 years to get there. He was truly a man of destiny and most couldn't have accomplished what he did with what he had.
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Old 08-14-2012, 03:31 PM   #11
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

I don't have anything to add but love the thread and look forward to seeing what others post!
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Old 08-14-2012, 05:51 PM   #12
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

From top to bottom I have to go with Napoleon.
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Old 08-14-2012, 08:04 PM   #13
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

Genghis Khan and it is not even close.
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Old 08-14-2012, 08:07 PM   #14
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

Pretty gross how all of the posts so far have been American/Eurocentric.
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Old 08-14-2012, 08:24 PM   #15
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

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Pretty gross how all of the posts so far have been American/Eurocentric.
Depends on what history you know and what history you like. As an American I am primarily interested in American history. Personally I don't know much about Ghengis Khan but my uniformed impression is that he probably wasn't all that much of a tactician or strategist and that his method was brute force and overwhelming odds and wasn't opposed to massacre and obliteration of civilian populations. But like I said I never really studied or read about him so I don't know thats just the impression I have which could be wrong.
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Old 08-14-2012, 08:28 PM   #16
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

The last two Hardcore History Podcast's have dealt with Ghengis Khan. I am only partially through the first.
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Old 08-14-2012, 08:29 PM   #17
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

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Originally Posted by AnyTwoWillDo View Post
Pretty gross how all of the posts so far have been American/Eurocentric.
Pretty gross that you didn't read my second post
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Old 08-15-2012, 01:12 AM   #18
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

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Originally Posted by AnyTwoWillDo View Post
Genghis Khan and it is not even close.
An excellent choice and clearly a top 5 pick. I am a huge fan but I don't think he uncontested champion.

For example what about Cyrus the Great from Persia

Military Campaigns:
Persian Revolt (552-550BC)
Battle of Hybra (551 BC)
Battle of the Persian Border (551 BC)
Battle of Pteria (547 BC)
Battle of Thymbra (547 BC)
Battle of Opis (539 BC)

Cyrus the Great Conquered most of Southwest Asia, Central Asia, and parts of Europe he respected customs and religions of the people he conquered
Established the Persian Empire, and ruled as emperor for 30 years. He transformed the city of Babylon into the capital city of the Persian Empire as well as a center of learning.

Through his military conquest he conquered most of Southwest Asia and Central Asia, and created the Persian Empire, the largest empire of it's time. He is remembered for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy.

Compare that with Genghis Khan

Military Campaigns:
Mongol-Jin War (1211-1234)
Invasion of Kara-Khitan Khanate (1218)
Invasion of Khwarezmian Empire (1219-1221)
Invasion of Georgia (1220-1243)
Invasion of Volga Bulgaria (1223-1236)
Invasion of China (1209-1276)

Khan did unite many nomadic tribes in northeast Asia, and founded the Mongol Empire. He Led a series of military invasions throughout central Asia and China, and conquered most of Eurasia and established one the largest empires in history and ruled as emperor from 1206-1227.

Khan should be considered one of the greatest conquerors in history, as he established one of the most vast empires in history. His legacy is best known as a military commander, however also initiated new political and social reforms, such as a writing system and religious tolerance. Sounds pretty similar to Cyrus the Great if you ask me. What makes him the clear cut GOAT over Cyrus the Great?
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Old 08-15-2012, 02:38 AM   #19
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

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Originally Posted by Gibby_73 View Post
The last two Hardcore History Podcast's have dealt with Ghengis Khan. I am only partially through the first.
I'm hoping the next podcast or two will balance out the coverage a bit. No doubt that the Mongols waged some incredibly brutal campaign, but I think Dan is being a little more dismissive of "revisionist historians" (a term I particularly despise) than is fair.

That said, I think Genghis Khan is a fairly uncontroversial choice for GOAT, or at least in the top 3-5. Obviously with changes in technology and communication it's very difficult to make apples to applies comparisons, but the guy anticipated mobile warfare almost 700 years in advance.

Quote:
Originally Posted by mrbaseball
My favorite underrated is George Washington. He did more with less in the face of overwhelming odds than just about anyone ever. His main job was basically to survive. He had a poorly manned and poorly equiped ragtag bunch in the face of the greatest miltary power on the planet.
I tend to think of Washington as rather overrated, particularly in the American context. A lot of people forget how small in scale many of the Revolutionary campaigns and battles really were. No doubt that Washington was quite competent, and exemplary at saving armies (which is, in fairness, a highly underrated skill), but not particularly outstanding. Yes, it can be mentioned that the British were the world's most formidable military at the time, but they never really brought their full weight on the colonies, and had a host of incredibly incompetent commanders themselves.
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Old 08-15-2012, 04:21 AM   #20
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

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I tend to think of Washington as rather overrated, particularly in the American context. A lot of people forget how small in scale many of the Revolutionary campaigns and battles really were. No doubt that Washington was quite competent, and exemplary at saving armies (which is, in fairness, a highly underrated skill), but not particularly outstanding. Yes, it can be mentioned that the British were the world's most formidable military at the time, but they never really brought their full weight on the colonies, and had a host of incredibly incompetent commanders themselves.
It's true that the Howe brothers heart wasn't in crushing the colonies. And other British commanders were pretty bad. But even so Washington and his army were huge underdogs. They had almost no support and battled sickness and lack of retention due to short enlistments as much as anything. The fact that Washington could hold it together to me was amazing and something most wouldn't have been able to pull off.

You have to look at the situation though. If the British were lead by Ghengis Khan we would now be British. If the colonies were lead by Ghengis Khan we would probably also now be British
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Old 08-15-2012, 01:04 PM   #21
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

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Originally Posted by smrk2 View Post
Pretty gross that you didn't read my second post
I did, you still picked Napoleon/
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Old 08-15-2012, 01:10 PM   #22
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Heart Re: GOAT Military Leader

Quote:
Originally Posted by Honey Badger View Post
An excellent choice and clearly a top 5 pick. I am a huge fan but I don't think he uncontested champion.

For example what about Cyrus the Great from Persia

Military Campaigns:
Persian Revolt (552-550BC)
Battle of Hybra (551 BC)
Battle of the Persian Border (551 BC)
Battle of Pteria (547 BC)
Battle of Thymbra (547 BC)
Battle of Opis (539 BC)

Cyrus the Great Conquered most of Southwest Asia, Central Asia, and parts of Europe he respected customs and religions of the people he conquered
Established the Persian Empire, and ruled as emperor for 30 years. He transformed the city of Babylon into the capital city of the Persian Empire as well as a center of learning.

Through his military conquest he conquered most of Southwest Asia and Central Asia, and created the Persian Empire, the largest empire of it's time. He is remembered for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy.

Compare that with Genghis Khan

Military Campaigns:
Mongol-Jin War (1211-1234)
Invasion of Kara-Khitan Khanate (1218)
Invasion of Khwarezmian Empire (1219-1221)
Invasion of Georgia (1220-1243)
Invasion of Volga Bulgaria (1223-1236)
Invasion of China (1209-1276)

Khan did unite many nomadic tribes in northeast Asia, and founded the Mongol Empire. He Led a series of military invasions throughout central Asia and China, and conquered most of Eurasia and established one the largest empires in history and ruled as emperor from 1206-1227.

Khan should be considered one of the greatest conquerors in history, as he established one of the most vast empires in history. His legacy is best known as a military commander, however also initiated new political and social reforms, such as a writing system and religious tolerance. Sounds pretty similar to Cyrus the Great if you ask me. What makes him the clear cut GOAT over Cyrus the Great?
Well Played! I can't be bothered to write a rebuttal right now, but awesome post! I'm going to fall asleep googling Cyrus's military tactics tonight.
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Old 08-15-2012, 02:26 PM   #23
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

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I did, you still picked Napoleon/
I said specifically that I couldn't think of Napoleon's equal in modern military history. So unless you think Genghis Khan belongs to the modern period, I didn't pick Napoleon over Genghis Khan. I also included Cyrus, al-Walid and Subutai as dark horse contenders, so how you could have read that and said that's overly American/Eurocentric I don't know. It's not a big deal though, we can move on.
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Old 08-15-2012, 07:40 PM   #24
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

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Originally Posted by smrk2 View Post
I said specifically that I couldn't think of Napoleon's equal in modern military history. So unless you think Genghis Khan belongs to the modern period, I didn't pick Napoleon over Genghis Khan. I also included Cyrus, al-Walid and Subutai as dark horse contenders, so how you could have read that and said that's overly American/Eurocentric I don't know. It's not a big deal though, we can move on.
I knew Napoleon would come up often in this thread and think that he is significantly overrated. I don't have a ton of time and will post in much greater detail why in a later post. I could think of plenty of people I would list ahead of him including Carl Von Clausewitz who along with Sun Tzu, (if you actually believe he existed) had far greater impact on military theory then Napoleon ever did.
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Old 08-15-2012, 11:11 PM   #25
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Re: GOAT Military Leader

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I knew Napoleon would come up often in this thread and think that he is significantly overrated. I don't have a ton of time and will post in much greater detail why in a later post. I could think of plenty of people I would list ahead of him including Carl Von Clausewitz who along with Sun Tzu, (if you actually believe he existed) had far greater impact on military theory then Napoleon ever did.
I just want to say one more time that I wrote that I couldn't think of anybody greater than Napoleon in the modern period, so starting around 1600 give or take, ending some time after WW2 (although I personally prefer thinking about WW2 generals as part of a different era). Now to get Eurocentric -- Cromwell is an interesting suggestion, Malborough was boss, Suvorov, Frederick the Great; still I think we must give the nod to Bonaparte.

I also wouldn't claim that Napoleon was the most significant theorist of that period, and while personally I have no patience with the dialectical method of Clausewitz, maybe a person like Guderian (violating what I just said about thinking of WW2 as a separate era) was a more influential theorist than Napoleon. Still, we're looking at the total package; Napoleon was a top 5-10 tactician, a top 2 or 3 military reformer (I mentioned in the other thread that the only person I know to compare to Napoleon in terms of structural military reforms is Gaius Marius), a top 10 galvanizing leader, pretty damn good judge of talent (Desaix, Massena, Davout, Murat from time to time).
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