The Secrets of Warcraft

The Secrets of Warcraft

A new book by two seasoned military historians highlights the importance of strategic leadership in achieving victory. 

David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts. Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine (New York City, Harper). 536 pp., $32.00. 

Not often does the release of a book coincide with an earth-shattering event. Yet David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts, two of the greatest scholars of war around, appear to have a lot of tragic foresight in publishing Conflict just ten days after the darkest day in Israel’s history. Their book is even more salient today than it was on October 6.

Those of us who thought that modernity had rendered war obsolete have once again been proven wrong. Hamas’ diabolical attacks of October 7, which came roughly a year and a half after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, are a reminder that war is a constant of human civilization. The so-called “holiday from history” was just a respite from the nightmare of history. 

This the authors understand well. Both require scant introductions. Petraeus served for thirty-seven years in the United States Army, including as commander of CENTCOM and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, before directing the CIA under Barack Obama. A warrior scholar, Petraeus also has a Ph.D. from Princeton and has been a prolific analyst of military affairs. Though a civilian, Roberts is no ordinary one. The bestselling author of a gripping history of WWII and magnificent biographies of Napoleon and Churchill, he has written much about how armed conflict has shaped our world. It would be difficult to find two more able authors to discuss modern warfare.

Conflict is an examination of military history since 1945. It stresses the dramatic changes that have taken place on the battlefield during that time, not only in weapons but also in politics. How have these wars been won and lost? Petraeus and Roberts claim that great strategic leadership breeds victory and, in their words, “can transform even the most seriously disadvantageous situations for the better.” Strong leaders win wars. Weak leaders lose them.

Their argument reflects their existing work. See Roberts’ recent book, Leadership in War, in which he examines exceptional military leaders of old. Roberts is an unapologetic practitioner of the great man theory of history, so under assault by the academic Left. He emphasizes the primacy of extraordinary individuals throughout his oeuvre. As for Petraeus, he has developed his own theory of strategic leadership, which he has previously fleshed out in writing and lectures. Having served great—and less great—men his entire career, Petraeus has seen the results of their decisions up close on the battlefield. Thanks to the research of both authors, Conflict shows many examples of leaders who, for good or ill, shaped their countries’ fortunes.

Contrast good military leadership with bad military leadership. They were both on arresting display during the Chinese Civil War. In that conflict, Petraeus and Roberts attribute communist victory as much to the failures of Chiang Kai-shek as to the successes of Mao Zedong. Though he was in a much more favorable position on paper, Chiang led a dismal campaign against the communists. By contrast, Mao overcame his weaknesses with superior strategy and tactics. 

Petraeus and Roberts provide many other examples, some of which will be new to many readers, of how poor command led to failure on the battlefield. General Jacques Massu’s embrace of torture during the Battle of Algiers worsened France’s prospects in Algeria. Arab leaders’ overconfidence led to disaster against the Israelis in 1967, while six years later, the hubristic Israeli military establishment watched as its forces were crushed in the opening days of the Yom Kippur War.

Bad political leadership can be just as damning. During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson and General William Westmoreland lost the war of public opinion at home despite tactical successes overseas. Poor decision-making by Republican and Democratic administrations hindered the U.S. military as it sought to crush insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan and help build functional states. Vladimir Putin today demonstrates a profile in futility as he prosecutes his invasion of Ukraine at great cost to the Russian military. 

There are two major strengths of this book. First, it is an excellent historical crash course. Readers in search of a top-notch military history could hardly do better. Sadly, it is getting harder and harder to find this kind of scholarship. The few works of military history that do come out of the academy today have less to do with the foundational questions of warfighting than with intersectional inanities. Good on Petraeus and Roberts for studying what matters.

The book’s second major strength is the lessons it imparts. Petraeus and Roberts see the conflicts they’ve studied not as static artifacts but as teachable moments. They hope that military strategists in America, Britain, and the wider West will be better warfighters after reading Conflict. The book’s recommendations aren’t limited to the big picture. Many deal with the technical side of waging war. For instance, Petraeus and Roberts write, “quality tends to trump mere quantity in the air, giving a vital competitive edge to those countries or alliances that can produce the state-of-the-art warplanes and their all-important spare parts.” As the world awaits great-power conflict not seen in several generations, cogent advice like this must not fall on deaf ears.

The book’s breadth is striking. Petraeus and Roberts seemingly examine all the major conflicts—from Vietnam to the Sinai to the Falkland Islands—that have occurred since the end of the Second World War. A daunting task for sure, but one that they’re well-equipped to complete. Petraeus and Roberts are succinct enough to cover the ground they must while still including plenty of revealing details. The book is engaging and mostly flows well. The exceptions are chapters on Afghanistan and Iraq, both written solely by Petraeus and in the first person. Although they understandably want to highlight his experiences in those wars, the two chapters break the book’s rhythm and appear out of place.

Perhaps in their haste to get the manuscript to print, the authors overlooked some factual errors as well. General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev was never the “President” of the Soviet Union. It was the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, not “the Socialist Republic of Bosnia Herzegovina,” that separated from Yugoslavia in 1991. General Wesley Clark, who served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, was born in Illinois, not Arkansas. More careful copy editing could have fixed these mistakes.

Minor inaccuracies and all, this is a fine book. Conflict puts front and center the ageless truth that war comes naturally to human beings. If the wars of yesteryear are any indication, sound leadership will be necessary to fight and win the wars of today and tomorrow. 

Daniel J. Samet is an America in the World Consortium Pre-Doctoral Fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS and a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.