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Monday, April 21, 2014

“The Mask of Command: Alexander the Great, Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, Hitler, and the Nature of Leadership”, by John Keegan

368 pages, Viking Books, ISBN-13: 978-0670459889

With The Mask of Command Keegan returns from the raw shellshock of combat and furnishes four accounts of famous military leaders; his focus, however, is not on strategic or tactical decisions, but on how these men led, the theatre and persona that these leaders cultivated to provide the trust and moral fiber which motivated their men. This is what Keegan means by “The Mask”; the image, the spirit, the incarnation of what subordinates needed to believe in order to fight. It is in some sense combative to claim that this persona is a Mask – that is, an artifice contrived to motivate and not strictly who these leaders “were”. To some extent, it is impossible to know what any historical figure actually “was” or simply what we even “are”, but in any event, these particular leaders had very interesting masks and Keegan does a superb job in each account.

Clearly, if a leader is to be effective he must have the respect and trust of his men. The problem is that the mechanisms for gaining this respect are either fraught with personal peril, require the embodiment of a cause which is rarely stain-free, or rest upon a non-trivial ideological framework. The simplest starting point, then, is to answer Keegan's question, “in front: always, sometimes, or never”. “In front” always has the advantage of pressing home the point to the men that the leader is bold, unafraid to assume the same risks as his men for a purpose in which he must clearly believe; it also has the disadvantage of placing the leader in mortal danger. So a complication arises, namely, that good leaders are rare and precious, that losing them does a belligerent no good, but that to eschew personal risk is to court mistrust. Alexander, Keegan’s first case study, chose “always” and was able to do so in part because early warfare did not have the lethality of later warfare – arrows rarely hit their mark and skill at arms could tell in the local heat of combat. Alexander could thus afford it, but he too felt it incumbent to act more and more heroically – i.e., to take increasingly greater risks the more he demanded of his men, finally risking too much and losing his life. Wellington opted for “sometimes”, rushing about from regiment to regiment at Waterloo, courting stray musket balls and grapeshot at every turn, exhorting and directing at all times. Still, he did not lead from the front, which was probably a wise decision when impersonal bullets could kill men in swaths. Grant more-or-less chose “never”, as did Hitler.

The issue then arises for all leaders, but especially for those leaders who chose “never”, to find other means of gaining trust and belief. Alexander would engage in dramatic antics, spending days in his tent in peevish anticipation of apology, and would don fabulous armor for engagements. Oration and rhetoric were vital to his success as he attempted to hearten at least a portion of his men. Wellington cultivated the persona of the stoic gentleman warrior, an iron will of perfection, fair to all but intolerant of sloppiness. Grant cultivated the image of being “one of the boys” – surrounding himself with home-town friends, spurring his men by honestly showing them his hangdog vulnerability, and by relying on his men’s belief in the justice of the Union cause (they were, after all, citizen-soldiers, volunteers, men of conviction).

Hitler’s leadership required the constant bolstering of a seductive ideology, endless infusions of propaganda. Belief in his command was cemented by the ceaseless exhortations of Goebbels. Like the uncreative and largely ineffective generals of WWI, Hitler hid in secret bunkers while his men died far away. That Hitler could get away with it for so long and so successfully was largely due to the dramatic improvements in communications, but also through the constant retelling of the Fuhrer's heroism in WWI. Ultimately, Hitler was not a hero, but a false god whose command withered with the monstrous dream of the Third Reich and his distance from the realities of the front. Here, Keegan does a particularly fine job detailing Hitler’s neurotic infantilism, his growing separation from reality, his insecure sense of isolation, and his final ignominious demise.

The text effortless weaves these historical perspectives into a short, concise study of leadership styles and requirements and then presents a clear thesis on leadership in the nuclear age. This thesis is truly terrifying in light of the implications of history; our origins appear to contradict the requirements for future survival. This text is as much a study in leadership and management styles as it is a military science text. It is well written and highly enjoyable. If only we could get Dr. Keegan to add an addendum to leadership in the age of stateless terror.

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