Riding with Napoleon

AndrewRobertsLeadership

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.

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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.

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.

EhudOlmert
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.

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

Highland Warriors

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One of the many beautiful paintings on display at the “Highland Warriors” exhibit at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Few years ago, when I visited Scotland for the first time, the legendary National War Museum of Scotland was one of the first places I wanted to visit in Edinburgh.

Walking through this jewel of military history, I came across a description of a 1915 German medal, “representing the figure of Death as a Scottish piper”. Many things come to my mind when I think of a piper, but certainly not death. But I could understand how the Kaiser troops must have felt when facing the gallant sons of Caledonia on the battlefield:

German soldiers developed their own view of highland soldiers and were believed to have nicknamed their kilted enemy ‘the ladies from hell’. This back-handed compliment was rather appreciated in Scotland.”

You may say I’m partial because of my Scottish ancestors and you are right. I am partial, I admit it and I cherish it. Nevertheless, you have to admit that Highland Warriors are among the best in history.

But, please, don’t take my word for it.

Take into account what acclaimed military historian Saul David wrote about them:

HighlandWarriors3“This charge of Fraser’s 78th [during the battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759] and the heroic performance of the 42nd at Ticonderoga, would transform the image of the Highlanders in the popular consciousness from that of dangerous savages who posed a threat to the security of the state to loyal and hardy shock troops of the empire. From this point on, the Highlanders joined the Guardsmen as the elite of the British Army, and both would win laurels in virtually every major conflict they fought, often – as was the case in Waterloo, the Alma, Tel-el-Kebir, Loos and Alamein – fighting almost side by side.” (All the King’s Men, p. 180).

If I got your attention this far on my post, then you will want to visit Canada’s War Museum’ awesome special exhibition on “Highland Warriors” which is on display until January 12th, 2020 in Ottawa.

In 2014-2015, my family and I lived in Scotland for six months. We visited many military museums – unfortunately not all of them. Nonetheless, I can attest that the historians and museologists of the Canadian War Museum have been able to recreate the same subdued ambiance and reverence as the one I experienced in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Stirling and Fort George.

The set of lights, the chosen artefacts and the short but eloquent captions and descriptions contribute significantly to a unique experience for whoever truly wants to understand the nature and importance of Scotland’s contribution to military history and heritage for centuries.

Right when we exited the exhibition to make our way to the LeBreton Gallery (a favorite of my sons who can see tanks), my 9 years old daughter came to me and told me sotto voce: “Dad, our ancestors were real badass.”  I could feel the pride and admiration in her voice. And I shamelessly agree with her.

So, many sincere thanks to the Canadian War Museum staff for planning and organizing this fantastic exhibition – probably the best exhibition I ever visited. For a little more than an hour, you made me feel like I was back in Scotland.

So, you can call it a vibrant success. Because it is.

Nemo me impune lacessit

The Brave of the First Wave

TheFirstWave“The bigger the challenge, the better we play.” – Lord Lovat

Late in the summer of 2014, life blessed me with the opportunity to visit Juno Beach, the hallowed ground where Canadian troops landed on June 6th, 1944.

While I visited the German bunker, carrying my son in a sling, I kept meditating about the kind of men that landed on that fateful day.

Men who could cope with gigantic – and potentially lethal – problems such as a landing craft drifting away from the planned landing side, German guns that were supposed to have been silenced through bombings, lack of ammunition or food, the psychological tool of being sleep-deprived and surrounded by enemies who only waited for the right moment to assault and kill you.

These were not the type of men we encounter every day, I told myself. But maybe they were, in the sense that they were all different and they were all human, made of flesh and blood. Just like you and me.

A few weeks ago, I received a copy of the magnificent book The First Wave by military historian Alex Kershaw by the fantastic people at Penguin Random House Canada.

What a treat it was for the military history enthusiast in me.

The key to responding to the question I kept asking myself on the beach lies on page 312, when the author writes that a Veteran US Ranger “[…] stressed that during the most critical combat of modern times it was the “heart and mind” that had mattered most.”

Witness to that, “[…] an advance party had cut through a barbed-wire perimeter [protecting a gun battery] and crawled across the hundred-yard-wide minefield, disarming mines with their bare fingers in the dark.” (page 87). Talk about heart and mind!

But the men who fought their way on and through the beaches were also led by exceptionally inspiring figures.

Let me just quote two, among all those evoked by Alex Kershaw. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt (son of the 26th President of the United States) and Lord Lovat (Simon J. Fraser), 24th chieftain of Clan Fraser.

General Roosevelt insisted on landing with his troops walking with his cane (he was suffering from arthritis) “[…] wearing a knit watch cap, not the regulation helmet […]”, insisting to board his landing craft unaided.

As for Lord Lovat, the inspiring Scottish commando leader certainly must have looked like an eccentric for his German enemies, for he “[…] was armed with a hunting rifle, dressed for a good day’s walk on the moors: a white turtleneck sweater, suede vest, khaki corduroy pants, and a duffle coat, which he would leave behind when he went ashore.”

The ordinary men from Canada, Great Britain and the United States who successfully assaulted the Nazi fortress on that historic day became extraordinary through their endurance, sacrifice and determination. And they were inspired by men who rejected the blandness of conformity by showing themselves for what they were, whether it was being afflicted by illness or expressing pride in their ancestry.

Alex Kershaw is probably the best book I have read so far about D-Day and the importance of supreme courage when the going gets tough (I’m referring here to Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder’s men who were besieged in a cramped command post without food, water, ammunition and sleep (page 243)).

Beautifully written (I love Kershaw’s style) and engaging, The First Wave should be the first companion you think of bringing on the roads of summer vacations or on a beach where you will be able to enjoy what these guys fought for – freedom.

All roads lead to Beijing

9780525656401According to some news reports, Turkey seems inclined to go beyond the threats of potential American sanctions, choosing to equip itself with a Russian air-defense system over the US Patriot air-defense system. As mentioned by one source: “One can’t fall out with Putin but can fall out with Trump.”

America’s current foreign policy, “We’re America, bitch”, undoubtedly has something to do with it.

In his fascinating new book, The New Silk Roads, bestselling Oxford historian Peter Frankopan explores and details how China is taking advantage of the fact that the United States have become a vector of permanent destabilization – notably under the leadership of a president who has no qualms to toss away old friends – in order to make “friends in strategically important locations”, in the context of a very well-articulated good neighbor policy.

topThe new Silk Roads along which Beijing seeks to play an always greater role not only spans a determinant geographical area between China and the Eastern Mediterranean, but also encompasses 63% of the world’s population. Peter Frankopan nevertheless goes on to observe that “[…] it is striking then to see how few friends the US and the West have along the Silk Roads.”

Of course, one should not be naïve to the point of thinking that the descendants of the Middle Kingdom have no interest in articulating their friendly and constructive geopolitical posture. Domestic, economic and security needs are at the core of the rising power’s motivations.But that’s to be expected, for international relations are mainly about interests, not idealism. One cannot expect Xi Jinping to throw billions in Djibouti or Sri Lanka without expecting something in return.

The author opines that “All roads used to lead to Rome. Today, they lead to Beijing”. We should therefore be prepared or, at least, prepare ourselves to deal with the power shift that is slowly but surely developing under our eyes. Alas, in the words of Henry Kissinger, “[…] we don’t understand their history and culture.” I have said it often and I will keep on repeating it, more interest, much more interest, should be devoted to understanding what comes out the halls of power in Beijing and to those who are making the decisions.

Xi Jinping might not be a frequent user of Twitter or a master of the vitriolic formula, but he’s becoming a master at winning the hearts and mind of those he wants to be his allies. In that regard and since he’s at the helm of the decisions perpetrating the shift of gravity from the West to the East, he might be the most consequential current world leader.

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Peter Frankopan, The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World, New York, Knopf, 2019, 320 pages.

Commemorating the Victory of 1967

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King and Country figurines IDF006 (Radio Operator), IDF001 (General Moshe Dayan) and IDF004 (Officer w/UZI) pictured on a flag of Israel.

Some time ago, I was thrilled to learn that King and Country was about to release the very first IDF (Israel Defense Forces) figurines of its fantastic collection, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War in June 1967.

To quote from the text accompanying this collection:

“This dramatic new postwar military series of figures and fighting vehicles will tell, in miniature, just why Israel had to do what it did and how with a relatively small regular and part-time army it fought and defeated some of its most numerous, best equipped and belligerent neighbors.”

That says it all and I’m very happy that King & Country has decided to honour the sacrifice of these men and women at a time of great peril for their homeland – the State of Israel.

At the same time, we have to be lucid enough to recognize all the courage it took for this company to make such a bold decision and go forward. In a world where Israel’s enemies are always prone to deny it any quality and even its basic right to exist, it’s imperative to salute those who are not afraid to row against the current. The brave men and women who serve Israel in its armed forces deserve it. Fully.

Who was responsible for the Kippur War?

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Ariel Sharon (in the middle) and Moshe Dayan (on the right) during the Kippur War.

I have always been interested in the origins, the conduct and the military actors who participated in the 1973 Kippur War, which was launched against Israel by Egypt and Syria.

I was therefore very pleased to find this recent article written by David Tal and published in the pages of Middle Eastern Studies recently.

According to Professor Tal, the responsibility of the Kippur War lies at Egyptian president Anwar Sadat doorstep.

Contrary to the school of thought supporting the assumption that “[…] the 1973 October war could have been avoided if Israel had responded positively to Sadat’s peace offers during 1971-1973”, David Tal goes in detail to demonstrate that Egypt did everything to arrive at a settlement through the battlefield, advancing proposals that were unacceptable to Israel and refusing to move an inch on its demands.

But why was that?

“[…] Sadat was offended by the Egyptian military defeat in 1967”, Egypt’s pride was damaged by this outcome and the only way to repair the situation would be either through “[…] regaining the territories without having to negotiate with Israel, or by going to war.”

Sadat’s war aims were nevertheless very modest. A symbolic gain of territory would permit Egypt to proclaim a victory and wash its humiliation.

Everyone knows that Israel won the war, but less known is the fact that the terms accepted by Sadat within the Camp David Agreement framework were those espoused by Israel before the October war and rejected by the Egyptian president.

This war of choice solely happened for Sadat to claim a symbolic victory allowing him to don the mantle of peacemaker few years later.

For anyone interested in the contemporary history of the Middle East and Israel, David Tal’s work is great food for thought.