All Generals are Overrated, Rankings are Meaningless and Feelz-Based

Nov 2018
105
Idaho
There is absolutely no way to make a comparison of the variant talents at leading, organizing and field-commanding men between different ancient generals who demonstrated success. Even many who lost, who have been judged incompetent or cowards, may well have been doing something that made perfect sense. Bad luck, bad soldiers, etc. And WTF is a 'great general' even supposed to be? A huge number of various skills and talents, must of which can not be measured in any meaningful way, go into military success (along with the machinery of war of your own state, the martial tradition of the soldiers and sub-commanders, etc.) We know virtually nothing about most ancient battles. Alexander beat the Persians with armies that had beaten them before, and his empire was an ungovernable mass. He was a shitty empire-builder, even if he was a good commander. His daddy may well have done better. And even if Alexander was excellent at commanding Makedonian armies the different talents required to command a Scythian cavalry army or Egyptian army may have been totally absent in him. In any case, we don't know enough about Alexander's battles, his personal strategic outlook, how important his commanders were in actual decision making, or the would-be abilities of all the other commanders who would have been able to just as well if they had lucked out and been born into a powerful monarchy with the right to command an enormous, professional, standing army and fleet at a time when most soldiers were barbarian raiders, fractious aristocrats and peasant levees.

The same goes for Gengis Khan, Iulias Caesar, etc. In fact many of the tactics of the Romans were extremely simple and formulaic, and Caesar seems to have fought most battles like most Roman generals a century before did. Did he have some clever and effective strategems? Yes. However, they also could have ended in disaster. The role of felix and fortuna is constantly underrated in favor of hero-worship and meaningless wrangling over meaningless ranks of precedence.

These 'greatest general' mythologies also ignore statistical randomness such as Nicholas Nassim Taleb points out. With all the hundreds/thousands of battles, generals, empires, etc. it is almost inevitable that some of them would be taken by a much smaller force, and (ipso facto) that force must have a string of unbroken victories or they'd go away. The Romans, on the other hand, lost frequently and won by sheer manpower and tenacity. But that doesn't mean Alexander was better than Scipio, or that Scipio was better than Hannibal. There is simply no reasonable way to judge when our knowledge of these battles, these men, these soldiers is nonexistent and when so many variables are obviously at play.

It may make more sense to say Napoleon was an excellent general, because we know much more about why and how he won his battles (and his wars). But here again he may not deserve nearly his reputation. He may have actually been making stupid, rash decisions which happened to work out while possessing real but much more modest 'command skill' (whatever that is even supposed to mean). Given that he eventually lost and his entire empire fell apart this is even likely.

Basically all this idolization of generals (especially ancient generals) is absurd and can not be empirically justified. It's just a bad understanding of how historical events propagate and the necessary variation in statistical distribution among the historical conflicts.

Some men may in fact be better at commanding certain forces at certain times in certain places when certain objectives are being pursued. The closer they are to modern times the more plausibly we can make this assessment. But for pseudo-historical figures like Alexander (more written on him is false than true) and even Gengis Khan all we know is that they were not totally inept. Whether they actually made good, sound decisions on the basis of ratiocination or native talent is completely unprovable.
 
Nov 2018
105
Idaho
Pretty much how we all feel about silly lists.
Even on a much more objective level, like 'which general was the tallest' or 'which king had the most money' we are reduced to guesswork. When it comes to "skill" at warfare or rulership we are just making **** up.

The reason these 'lists' exist, like garbage popular histories, is because most people don't care about history. It's all muhFeelz and entertainment to them, and when history isn't as entertaining as they'd like it to be they feel no compunction about inventing nonsense.

I know shooters who have never missed their target in their life. These men are probably decent shots, but that does not mean they are therefor better than shooters who have missed in the past. Sometimes you screw up, or the sun is in your eyes, or you are unreasonable lucky and hit even though your technique is bad. Life is full of unquantifiable events that do not fit into any trend to attempt to analyze them by analogy.

And for all Caesar's reputation as a brilliant general he didn't see an ambush outside the Theater of Pompey and lost a battle against a handful of old men with cooking knives. Some genius!
 
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Lord Oda Nobunaga

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
5,633
Ontario, Canada
2edgy5me

Yeah probably true. I never rank the generals in my lists. They all have merits even if I think some are better than others. Ultimately determining who ranks as #1 is mostly subjective. You could make a tonne of arguments as to why X is or isn't the best general.
 
Jul 2018
530
Hong Kong
I could agree no more. Just re-examining the Sengoku history, we could already realize how much bias, misunderstanding and ignorance occurred among those who read very little about that age.

Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Takeda Shingen, Sanada Nobushige (Yukimura)...etc were grossly overrated attributed to their high popularity and vast exposure to media (video games, animes, manga, documentaries, ancient works). And in fact, those who were widely regarded "losers" such like Takeda Katsuyori, Azai Nagamasa, Ishida Mitsunari, Hojo Ujizane and many other minor lord / daimyos / generals / not-so-important figure in appearance (including the subordinates of those so-called "great military commanders") were usually underrated and even "neglected" for their role.

Sometimes the serious bias and inaccuracy caused by the ancient literatures (eg. the fictional-style Koyo Gunkan) and the "stereotype-view" formed by the later generation of people "misleaded" our perception to many things.

For example, Imagawa Yoshimoto's army size and strategic goal in AD 1560 Okehazama were greatly "exaggerated". Did Yoshimoto really plan to destroy the Oda clan by a single campaign ? Or he just desired to lift up the sieges of two besieged castles ? Did Nobunaga's attack upon the Imagawa army so dramatical and surprising as what we imagined (was Yoshimoto completely caught unguarded by that attack) ? In fact, the best part for Nobunaga's performance was probably his grasping of intelligence rather than the "surprising attack" he launched.

Takeda Katsuyori was widely perceived as a "foolhardy" military commander who was easily "swayed" by subordinates to launch the risky attack upon the numerically-superior army in Nagashino — the most unfair view forged based on the highly-unreliable Koyo Gunkan. Katsuyori's military accomplishment in AD 1574 was always neglected. "Defeat" Oda Nobunaga in field at Akechi, capture the impregnable Takatenjin Castle under his leadership before the Oda-Tokugawa relief force coming to rescue, these were no small feat. And even Nobunaga praised Katsuyori's military leadership by claiming that he "inherited his father's prowess" and proved "formidable" in his correspondence to Uesugi Kenshin.

Azai Nagamasa's downfall was largely caused by the disunity and the shortsightedness (and also disloyalty) of his retainers who either urged him to fight against Nobunaga by siding with Asakura, rather than Nagamasa' military incompetence (or inferior than Nobunaga in military leadership). Indeed, Hideyoshi's amazing stratagem in persuading so many Azai retainers "turn-coated" was also usually "obscured" under the glorious military conquest of Nobunaga narrated in many books. And of course, the premature death of Takeda Shingen added another "lucky spree" to Nobunaga who was finally able to concentrate his superior force to eliminate Azai-Asakura at once. We could not ignore all those political / strategic circumstance that became a "driving force" to success (or failure), focusing overly on one man's ability / factor without sufficiently considering all the "internal / external environment" enveloping around him is a wrong way in studying history.

Ishida Mitsunari, just like Eumenes of Cardia, always "forgotten" or "underrated" by many for his astounding performance. One Western military officer in the Meiji Era ever commented : "The Western army (headed by Mitsunari) would surely triumph over the Eastern army (headed by Ieyasu) at Sekigahara with such flawless formation ! " This alone has proved Mitsunari's exceptional talent in military command just like how he handled the domestic business and logistics as a bureaucrat under the Toyotomi regime. It was totally unfair to underestimate Mitsunari merely because he was a "bureaucratic-type" general and lack of military reputation as Ieyasu and many other generals had. He also proved to be a man of foresightness in the AD 1592-98 Korean Campaign. His ultimate defeat was largely due to his lack of authority, charisma and adequate resource under his direct control, and fatally, betrayal and disobedience from his "supposed allies", quite similar to Eumenes' situation in his climatic confrontation with Antigonus.

Sanada Nobushige was given too much credit as well in the Siege of Osaka. In fact, he was just one of numerous prominent figures in that war with no more than few thousand troops under his direct command. He was lack of authority to change the tide of the war. What he accomplished in the war was no more than constructing and defending a hastily-built "outward fort" known as Sanadamura and that "final charge" in which he sacrificed his life. And even in that "final charge", Mori Katsunaga scored even greater success in smashing the Tokugawa army than Sanada, yet basically "unknown" by many Westerners (unless they're a serious Sengoku fan). Ultimately, Nobushige's gallant and spectacular (?) "final charge" did not salvage the Toyotomi clan from being utterly destroyed. The Osaka Castle fell and ablazed as Toyotomi Hideyori and Yodo-dono commited suicide....mission failed, or overstating it...epic failure.

Also, Sanada Nobushige failed to rendezvous with his allied general Goto Matabei in one of the most important battles in the Summer Siege of Osaka, leaving the latter haplessly encircled and overwhelmed by Date Masamune's much larger army.

One more example....Battle of Nagashino was NOT the first battle involved with massive use of arquebuses, and claiming Nobunaga's military genius based on that was utterly a falsification of fact. And arquebuses + palisades were not the only crucial factors for Nobunaga / Ieyasu's great success in that battle (people always overvalued the impact and strength of the contemporary firearms).
 
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Edric Streona

Ad Honorem
Feb 2016
4,513
Japan
You can’t tank something with out a quantifiable number or system.

You can rank sports teams based on results, wins, losses draws, points scored, goals scored, conceded etc.

Generals do not generate meaningful data to enable them to be ranked... so any list is purely opinion.
 
Nov 2018
105
Idaho
Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Takeda Shingen, Sanada Nobushige (Yukimura)...etc were grossly overrated attributed to their high popularity and vast exposure to media (video games, animes, manga, documentaries, ancient works). And in fact, those who were widely regarded "losers" such like Takeda Katsuyori, Azai Nagamasa, Ishida Mitsunari, Hojo Ujizane and many other minor lord / daimyos / generals / not-so-important figure in appearance
The role of propaganda, victor's history and the like is of course a major factor in forming our present conceptions. If Alexander had performed exactly the same but lost one battle by sheer bad luck at the end of his conquest of Persia he would not have such a massive empire and propaganda machine to shape his image across two and a half continents (Europe isn't a real continent, it's a peninsula). Likewise with Caesar. Much clearer than his being a hyperstrategos is his political and oratorical talents, the ability to bribe and sway the mobs of Rome and his hordes of conquered subjects in Gaul. Precisely because he was such a fine speaker, writer, propagandist and liberal with his stolen treasure it is almost inevitable that he would have the reputation of being a great military potentate, even if his skills and tactics were not quite as original or brilliant as this would imply.

Finally, rather than people being 'great commanders' they may simply have been intelligent persons, with more general mental powers and eductation than most generals were likely to possess. Certainly there was no IQ test for generals in Gaul or Rome. Thus a man who had only the normal military education and 'talent' might make better use of it simply because he was smarter. Yet intelligent people tend to do better in their professions whatever they do, this does not mean they have preternatural talent for the trade.

My personal knowledge of Japanese military campaigns comes entirely from video games, so I won't comment on what you've written out except to say that it sounds exactly like the sort of distortions that creep into the works of biased historians - either because they have an attachment/aversion to one of the parties, or simply because they themselves have inherited the views of the winner though not consciously trying to promote bias.

One more example....Battle of Nagashino was NOT the first battle involved with massive use of arquebuses, and claiming Nobunaga's military genius based on that was utterly a falsification of fact. And arquebuses + palisades were not the only crucial factors for Nobunaga / Ieyasu's great success in that battle (people always overvalued the impact and strength of the contemporary firearms).
This is a tendency to overemphasize the innovations of successful commanders, often incorrectly. For example, Caesar used formulaic Roman battle plans just like almost all his predecessors and contemporaries did. He may have used them with better timing and chosen his fighting ground better, etc. but almost all of what he did was straight out of the manual of legionary warfare - disrupt the ranks of disordered, non-professional infantry and bash into them with allied cavalry. This is the oldest 'combined arms' tactic in the world, and the Romans weren't even as good at it as the phalangite armies of the Diodachi kingdoms (though the Romans had WAY MORE manpower than these sad empires).

The same can be said of Genghis Khan and Napoleon. They used perfectly conventional arrays of forces (for their nation) and strategies (for their day and army composition). They may have used them better than their contemporaries, but they were nothing new.
 
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Nov 2018
105
Idaho
You can’t tank something with out a quantifiable number or system.

You can rank sports teams based on results, wins, losses draws, points scored, goals scored, conceded etc.

Generals do not generate meaningful data to enable them to be ranked... so any list is purely opinion.
What you say is certainly true, but I want to point out when I say 'ranking' I don't just mean a cardinal or ordinal ranking but simply the assignment of 'Greaterest Generalissimo Evar' and so forth by popular historical works.
 

nuclearguy165

Ad Honorem
Nov 2011
4,803
Ohio, USA
I think this goes without saying. Really, the only useful way to look at past generals is to analyze their decisions within the contexts they faced. Absolute comparisons from one general to another and trying to say x is better than y is something that I used to love doing before I realized just how ahistorical it was. Hell, I've come to stop even caring about comparing contemporaries. Often, it just comes down to 'you win some and you lose some.'