Riding with Napoleon


In April 2013, I made a point to be in London for Lady Thatcher’s funeral, on my way back to Canada from Rome. Throughout my youth, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain had always been one of my favorite leaders. It was therefore an honor to stand on the street and see her casket pass in front of me on a morning of reverence.

Just a few days ago, I finished reading Andrew Robert’s last book, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from those who made history and, to my great delight, the 9th leader about whom he writes is Margaret Thatcher (the preceding 8 are Napoleon Bonaparte, Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, George C. Marshall, Charles de Gaulle and Dwight D. Eisenhower). I was pleasantly surprised. After all, if the Iron Lady doesn’t deserve a place in such a book, who does?

Thinking about leaders who left an indelible mark in military leadership makes one wonder how did they get there in history? Andrew Robert answers this question when he writes that: “Except through heredity, one does not become a war leader in the first place unless one has a strong personality.”

While it is easy to think and write about the qualities and strengths of great figures of history, it is no less important and vital to understand that, like us, they are humans. The first challenge they must meet is failure. For the road to success if filled with obstacles, but, as Winston Churchill would say, “sometimes, when she scowls most spitefully, [goddess Fortune] is preparing her most dazzling gifts.” Furthermore, you can’t please everyone. I found it almost unbelievable to read that “Although eight admirals, all of them in tears, carried his [Admiral Nelson’s] coffin, such was his controversial status in the Admiralty because of his ceaseless self-promotion and occasional refusal to obey orders that eighteen other admirals refused to attend.” How can anyone dare refuse attending the victor of Trafalgar’s funeral? Statesmen also need to cope with ungratefulness – like those dealing with Stalin and Charles de Gaulle learnt. Finally, you can’t afford modesty. After all, most of these leaders understood “[…] that if their reputations could help conquer, and thus save the lives of their men, who were they to be modest?” Hence, the myth created by de Gaulle to safeguard France’s self-respect during World War II.

But, more than anything, the leaders perform better when they’re profoundly humane. Those who know me are aware of my deep admiration for Churchill, but my favorite chapter is the one Andrew Roberts wrote about Napoleon. I loved to read about the Emperor’s obsession with his men’s boots (after all, his army covered lots of territory by foot), the fact that “he always made sure that wine from his own table was given to the sentries outside his door”, the fact that Napoleon didn’t hesitate to take his own medal of the Légion d’honneur to present it to a deserving soldier or having the feeling that you are observing the Emperor’s “superb filing system” while riding in his busy carriage moving across Europe on bumpy roads. I never was a big fan of the man derisively called the “God of War” by Clausewitz, but Andrew Roberts deserves the credit for turning the ship of my fascination in his direction.

Tomorrow, January 27th, will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, let me say a few words about Margaret Thatcher again. Before picking up Leadership in War, I was totally unaware of her profound philo-Semitism – a disposition I share with her. It was also fascinating to read that “Churchill […] was theologically a lot closer to Judaism than to the Anglican Church into which he was born.” But I digress. Thatcher learnt from her father “[…] the superiority of decisive practical action over mere hand-wringing and vapid moralizing, of the kind that all too many appeasers – in the 1930s and since – have been guilty.” As the metastases of the antisemitic cancer are spreading throughout the world, men and women of goodwill who seek to fight this disease will have to take inspiration from Margaret Thatcher to wage this vital battle. But that’s another story for another post.

I’m writing it for the first time on this blog, but I have been saying it for years. Few authors compare to Andrew Roberts. He dips his pen in the most eloquent ink to bring to life figures who have heaps of lessons to teach us (sometimes about values not to espouse like in the case of Hitler or Stalin).

If there was one leader about whom I would love to know what Andrew Roberts has to say, it would be Moshe Dayan. He mentions him on a few occasions in the book. Just enough to tease, but who knows? We might see something published about the famous Israeli warlord by the author in the future.

Leadership in War is an essential addition on the bookshelves of any leadership enthusiast, whether in the business world, in politics or in the ranks of the military.

239 pages of exquisite intellectual pleasure.


Andrew Roberts, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from those who made history, New York, Viking, 2019, 256 pages.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the fantastic Sharon Gill at Penguin Random House Canada for helping me with a review copy of this excellent book.

Le génie en guerre

ClaudeQuetelOperationsWW2« La guerre n’est jamais avare de nouvelles inventions », d’écrire l’historien Claude Quétel dans son dernier livre Les opérations les plus extraordinaires de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. J’oserais pousser la note en ajoutant « et d’audace » à cette formule, tellement les stratèges et leurs exécutants y sont allés de prouesses souvent inimaginables durant ces hostilités.

Ces 400 pages m’ont donné l’impression que l’auteur a pris la plume spécialement pour moi. D’abord parce que je suis un fan fini de Ian Fleming et de James Bond, j’ai toujours été fasciné par tout ce qui entoure les opérations spéciales et j’ai eu le privilège de visiter certains lieux décrits entre les couvertures du livre.

Je conserverai toujours un souvenir impérissable de cette journée d’été passée à Zagan, localité polonaise située à environ 200 km de Berlin et 400 km de Varsovie, lien emblématique où était localisé le célèbre camp allemand de prisonniers de guerre Stalag Luft III – immortalisé dans le long métrage La grand évasion (The Great Escape) (1963), mettant en vedette Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson et James Donald pour ne citer que ces noms-là.

Photo prise au-dessus du nom du Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, lors de ma visite à Zagan à l’été 2015.

Effectuer de nos jours le court parcours du tunnel Harry offre au visiteur la possibilité de mieux comprendre la détermination, l’esprit de sacrifice et la maestria de ces braves hommes qui n’avaient rien perdu de leur volonté de croiser le fer avec la horde nazie. Leur quête d’évasion était d’ailleurs une manière très imaginative de poursuivre ce combat. Et que dire de l’émotion ressentie à la vue du nom de Roger Bushell (le fameux Roger interprété par Richard Attenborough dans le film) inscrit sur l’une des stèles de granit alignées, immortalisant le point de départ, le parcours très étroit, l’effondrement du tunnel et le point de sortie creusé et emprunté par les valeureux fugitifs.

Et que dire que la visite privée qui nous avait été généreusement offerte il y a de cela quelques années par un officier britannique à la retraite plus tôt à travers les tunnels creusés pendant le conflit mondial dans le roc de Gibraltar et sillonnés par nul autre qu’Eisenhower. J’imaginais les tractations et décisions à prendre par le grand homme en sillonnant ces passages interdits au grand public. Si seulement le rocher pouvait parler…

Vous l’aurez compris, j’ai une appétence passionnée pour le sujet. Et les 32 chapitres du livre ont dépassé mes attentes, notamment grâce au style de l’auteur. Les formules du genre « Le pacifisme et son cousin le défaitisme sévissent dans la troupe » ou « Dans le domaine de l’imagination, des trouvailles en tous genres et des idées baroques, la Grande-Bretagne en guerre mérite incontestablement la palme. Ces insulaires ont une psychologie d’éternels assiégés » émaillent le propos et agrémentent la lecture.

On croise aussi fréquemment un « grand amateur d’opérations spéciales » nommé Winston Churchill et d’une Écosse véritable pépinière des forces spéciales britanniques – un héritage notamment commémoré par l’impressionnant Mémorial des commandos situé à Spean Bridge en plein cœur des Highlands (une heure environ au sud-ouest du Loch Ness) et surplombant la région où les combattants appelés à accomplir des faits d’armes légendaires s’entraînaient inlassablement. Ce qui n’a rien pour me déplaire, bien au contraire.

Bref, si vous nourrissez un intérêt pour les batailles de l’ombre durant la Seconde Guerre mondiale, il serait tristement regrettable que vous passiez à côté de ces excellentes pages. J’aurais pratiquement même envie de les qualifier de délicieuses, tellement je suis gourmand du genre.

Avec tout ce qu’elle comporte de barbarie, de souffrances et souvent de stupidité, la guerre est champ de l’activité humaine qui fait aussi souvent appel à ce que l’être humain a de plus précieux pour son avancement, son génie.

En trois mots, le dernier livre de Claude Quétel est un pur délice.


Claude Quétel, Les opérations les plus extraordinaires de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, Paris, Perrin, 2019, 400 pages.

Je tiens à exprimer ma profonde reconnaissance envers Interforum Canada de m’avoir gracieusement offert un exemplaire du livre.

The Rehabilitation of Ehud Olmert

ShadowStrikeReading Yaakov Katz’s book Shadow Strike, one literally feels in the midst of security briefings or witnessing military preparations. The political and military climates detailed are just surreal, as the main character walks a treacherous tightrope. I once was told that a good author can describe a situation or person in a convincing manner, but an excellent one will sweep you up in the action, making you feel as if you were there. In the case of Shadow Strike, I was so engrossed by the story that it was almost impossible for me to put the book down, so anxious was I to know how it would unfold.

Sandwiched between two larger-than-life figures – Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu – the career of Israel’s 12th Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, would seem to many observers as a footnote in Israel’s political history. Yet, Olmert took a fateful decision in September 2007. A decision shrouded in secrecy, to preserve the security and survival of his country. The genesis and evolution of this decision is masterly explained by the author, who is also the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, in this gripping book.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Source: https://www.calcalistech.com/ctech/articles/0,7340,L-3759710,00.html

After learning from the Mossad of the existence of a nuclear reactor in Bashar al Assad’s backyard, the Prime Minister took the decision to take it out before it could prove harmful to his fellow citizens. To this day, too few people realize and understand that Israel cannot gamble with its security.

Along the way, he could not afford the diplomatic option favored by the Bush administration.  He also had to cope with the opposition and difficult temper of his own Defense Minister, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Every step of the way, secrecy was of the utmost importance in order to ensure the mission’s successful completion but also not to provoke the retaliation of the Assad régime. From the get-go, Olmert was ready to soldier on, showing that his political spine was made of steel.

The fact that Ehud Olmert carried the day against all odds is a powerful testament to the fact that his mandate has not only been successful, even though it will definitely have been marked by humility. He might not have the persona of those tenacious fighters who, like Ariel Sharon, protected Israel in the unit 101 and 202 in the early years of the State, nor the unique eloquence and intellect of Benjamin Netanyahu, but Ehud Omert did what he had to do during these fateful days of 2007. He safeguarded Israel and its future at a very crucial moment.

If only for that, I’m thankful for Yaakov Katz not only because he is one of the most gifted writers I have had the pleasure to read, but also for convincing me that this man has been an underestimated statesman. It’s about time we express some sort of heartfelt gratitude – no matter the fallout of his premiership.

Personally, I hope I will someday have the opportunity and pleasure of telling him in person.

P.S. I’d like to express special thanks to Mr. Joseph Rinaldi, from St. Martin’s Press, for his precious assistance, which proved very helpful in the preparation of this review.


Yaakov Katz, Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2019, 320 pages.