Great Captains: the Timeless Lessons of the Artist, the ‘Engineer of the Occasion’ and the Adjudicator

A great commander is the one able to act despite the fog of war; an effective leader accepts, without hesitation, to shoulder the responsibility to decide and accept underlying risks. In short, a great captain is an artist, an engineer of the occasion and an adjudicator.

Approximate Reading Time: 20 minutes

By David Pappalardo (@DavPappa)

Author’s note: In his book The Savior General, Victor Davis Hanson warns us about the temptation to “forget the power of individuals in the anonymous age of high technology and massive bureaucracies.” On the contrary, he explains how Great Captains will continue to matter in the future and how leadership is invaluable in warfare.

In turn, the article below underlines three common attributes of great captains as instrumental and timeless. To be successful, future military leaders will have to shoulder the responsibility to decide and to accept underlying risks despite the fog of war. In short, they will have to be artists, “engineers of the occasion” and adjudicators.

Finally, although written in English, this article was first published in French in the magazine DSI.


“Knowledge of the higher fields of war is acquired only by the study of the history of the wars and battles of the great captains and from experience…. Read and reread the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, Eugene, and Frederick; model yourself on them; it is the only way to become a great captain and to discover the secrets of the art.” Napoleon Bonaparte


With this line, Napoleon emphasizes the study of great captains as a way to “model yourself on them” and as the key to successfully “discover the secrets of the art” of warfare. Such a statement naturally brings to question whether timeless lessons on successful leadership exist throughout the ages or whether each great captain was the leader of their time. The Roman Imperator Julius Cesar, Napoleon, and Moltke the Elder in the 19th century will serve as the main, but not exclusive case studies. In addition, the philosophy of the French leader Charles de Gaulle, described in The Edge of The Sword, will shed a useful light on the argument. These generals were unarguably great captains, who deeply influenced their era and history. Admittedly, they were not alike in all respects and it would be vain to extract these leaders from their time or to set up a meaningless hierarchy among them. For example, there is no common point between the “type-B” personality of Moltke the Elder and the shining ego of Cesar or the hubris of Bonaparte. Yet, as Mark Twain said about history, “the kaleidoscopic combinations” of their leadership “seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.” In fact, the examination of their legacy underlines three common fragments as instrumental and timeless. First, in their ability to deal with uncertainty; these great captains combined both the knowledge of the soldier and the intuition of the artist. Agility underpinned their skill to engineer the occasion according to the circumstances and to dominate the events against impossible odds. Finally, they were able to decide under pressure, whether it be through strong character or the achievement of flexible and subsidiary leadership

The “creative intelligence” of the artist

“It is not in grammar that one learns to compose a great poem, to write a tragedy.” Napoleon quoted in Foch, F., and J. de Morinni. The Principles of War

Acknowledging the dual ontological nature of strategy, both art and science, great captains all own the “creative intelligence” of the artist to imagine the future and perceive opportunities in the “realm of the uncertainty” that underpins war. In fact, the Clauswitzian notion of friction, made of contingencies, counteractive organization, and unintended consequences, is precisely the difference between theory and experience where creative intelligence becomes a game changer and where the artist makes the difference. As de Gaulle argues, the coup d’oeil of Napoleon, the intuition of Cesar, were a combination of instinct and intelligence, which allowed them to make contact with the reality of the circumstances. In other words, great captains do not sacrifice feelings for the benefit of thinking, instead they use the former to inform the latter. They are aware that a strictly deterministic approach to warfare is doomed to failure since “war is an activity in which the contingent plays an essential.” As artists, their creativity relies on sensitivity, inspiration, and risk taking. Hannibal at Cannae, Cesar at Pharsalus, Napoleon at Austerlitz, and Moltke the Elder in his conception of the German staff system were all both soldiers and artists.

As Barry Strauss points out, the Carthaginian Hannibal Barca conducted the battle of Cannae in 216 BC “like a symphony [and] as it turned out, not a note was out of tune.” If “winning against impossible odds is the mark of great captains,” Cannae was the triumph of Hannibal; he proved his creativity, his tactical sophistication and refinement. Outnumbered three to two by the Romans and cornered at the Aufidus river, the Carthaginian general still dominated with audacity and inspiration. Hannibal took the risk of weakening his center and cutting his army in two, by adopting a convex formation and withdrawing his skirmishers facing the central Roman thrust. Mastering tempo, Paul Davis explains that Hannibal ultimately achieved a double envelopment of the Roman forces, “acting concentrically in an unseemly way and turning with cavalry not only both wings but even the rear of the enemy.” Cannae, as a classic of the military art, demonstrates that creativity and instinct underpins the acceptance of a calculated risk. Indeed, the French scholar Thierry de Montbrial defines poetry “as the art to write dangerously.” Similar to the gifted poet, “boldness governed by superior intellect” is the mark of a great captain, who in turn, as Moltke recalls, “must accept great dangers, if he wants to achieve great successes.”

With almost two millennia of distance, the battle of Austerlitz in 1805 corroborates Napoleon’s definition of genius as “nothing if reminiscence.” In fact, both Cannae and Austerlitz rely on risk-taking to first close and then tighten the net by means of a strategy of envelopment. Facing the Austrians and the Russians deployed on the Pratzen heights, Bonaparte deduced his enemy’s intention to send their main force to the south: with his coup d’oeil, he could see what everyone else could not see. He therefore weakened his right flank commanded by his “Iron Marshal” Davout to attract and isolate the Russian main effort. Napoleon then launched Marshal Soult to assault the enemy center positioned on the height. According to historian Frank McLynn, “Napoleon’s military genius was never more evident. By intuition he knew the exact equilibrium point at which the Pratzen would be sufficiently clear of allied troops to make Soult’s task easy, but not yet so denuded that reinforcements from the heights were likely to overwhelm the hard-pressed French right.” When the French unexpectedly emerged from the fog, the Russians could not resist their central thrust, and Napoleon succeeded in pushing forward in the north while enveloping the Russian right-wing, and thus achieved a decisive victory. Through this masterpiece Bonaparte epitomized the two-fold nature of great captains: their past experiences are the materials that inform their inspiration; in turn, “a power of judgment raised to a marvelous pitch of vision” allows them to use their education for value. In other words, great captains are both intellectuals and artists.

Similarly, the artistic process and the importance of art in the life of a general does not apply only on the battlefield. In fact, the Prussian general Helmut von Moltke rose, in the 19th century, to entirely reorganize the Prussian army under the influence of both the study of history, the conclusions of Clausewitz on the one hand, and on the other hand from a particular taste for the arts and poetry as “the most open playgrounds of the mind.” Admittedly, Moltke’s legacy is much less spectacular that the resounding victories previously examined. Yet, the historian Arden Bucholz describes him as the custodian of modern war processes “which would become model and paradigm for twentieth-century armies around the world.” Moltke the Elder operationalized Napoleon’s and Clausewitz’s legacy in the German Staff system, emphasizing the dynamic nature of strategy: “strategy is a system of makeshifts. It is more than a science. It is bringing knowledge to bear on practical life, the further elaboration of an original guiding idea under constantly changing circumstances.”

All of the great captains studied here combined their experience and the knowledge of the soldier with the creative intelligence of the artist, whether it be in execution or conception. Ultimately, this attribute empowered them to deal with the inherent uncertainty of warfare and enabled success through agility and effective decision-making.

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The agility of an “engineer of the occasion” to adapt to the complexity of the world

“Adaptability is the law which governs survival in war, as in life, war being but a concentrated form of the human struggle against the environment.” Basil Liddell Hart

If there was only one timeless cardinal virtue in leadership, it would probably be the agility to dominate events and leave one’s mark on them. Agility underpins the power to challenge norms, the ability to adapt to circumstances, and the impetus for initiative. First, Charles de Gaulle emphasizes the need to think of war beyond abstractions and the arbitrary nature of the theory “in assessing the conditions of every special case as it occurs.” According to him, a “doctrine devised in the abstract [has] the effect of blinding and paralyzing” the military mind. Conversely, Clausewitz argues that “talent and genius operate outside the rules, and theory conflicts with practice.” Adaptability and initiative are the two last tenets of agility; they provide incentives for resilient thinking, as the key to successful command in the realm of uncertainty. In other words, the greatest captains of history were what the French scholar Jean-Vincent Holeindre calls “engineers of the occasion,” they combined long-term planning with short-term adaptation. Julius Caesar, Napoleon and Moltke the Elder had “this ability to see the limits of contemporary methods of warfare,” and epitomize perfectly agile engineering of contingencies.

A masterful tactician, Julius Caesar tilted the odds in his favor at the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC with both audacity and agility. His adversary, Pompey the Great, deployed his army in traditional fashion, three units wide and three lines deep. Outnumbered and seeing Pompey’s massed cavalry, Caesar, like Hannibal before him, took the risk to “withdraw individual cohorts from the third line of each of his legions and formed an unusual [defensive-counterattacking] fourth line, which he positioned behind the cavalry, probably at an oblique angle.” In fact, Caesar improvised by turning his back on ordinary Roman formations in battle and adapted his tactics to compensate for his inferior cavalry. Circumstances drove his action, not doctrine preconceived in abstraction. As Strauss argues, “what Caesar’s force, with its inadequate cavalry, lacked in versatility, it made up for in suppleness (…). By surprising Pompey’s cavalry with a solid front of fresh infantrymen, Caesar destroy his opponent’s offensive capability.”

Similarly, Napoleon built his tremendous success on adaptability and innovation. To paraphrase Clausewitz, doctrine educated Bonaparte’s mind, but he used it as building material, not dogmatically. For example, early in the Wars of the Revolution, he developed the ordre mixte, shifting between lines and columns, all the way to the division level. In fact, he adapted the legacy of Guibert (use of the column of attack instead of the line) and Maurice de Saxe (articulation of armies into autonomous divisions) to innovate into flexible formations which produced both firepower and shocks. By the same token, Napoleon introduced the bataillon carré to move his armies: divided in four corps, forming a diamond shape and separated by one day’s march, each corps was able to provide unnoticeable mutual support to one another and emphasized maneuver in battles. As the historian David Chandler explains,

“Each self-contained, all-arm corps was capable of engaging or holding off several times its own number for several hours, during which time the neighboring formations could move up to its support or to outflank the enemy (…). “This dispersal was carefully controlled, and the appearance of disunity was stronger than the reality (…). In this way Napoleon fused battle with maneuver, and thus made possibly his greatest contribution to the art of war.”

Furthermore, Napoleon always sought to develop a strategy with alternative courses, that is “faire son thème en deux façons” [Do your task twice over] as he elegantly used to say. In the Marengo campaign of 1800, Bonaparte initially planned to set up a combined operation with Moreau’s Army of the Rhine to destroy Melas’ forces. Yet, because the latter refused to collaborate out of egotism, Napoleon developed an alternative plan which focused on the Italian theater exclusively. By adapting himself to face unexpected events, Bonaparte seized the initiative, crossed the Great St Bernard Pass and ultimately waged an effective campaign in Italy which was “the true coronation of his power and his regime.” Like Caesar at Pharsalus, agility made Napoleon successful.

Once again, Moltke’s skills are not less brilliant on the pretext that he did not express them directly on the battlefield. On the contrary, the Prussian general probably did more by institutionalizing agility into the modern war process. As Chief of the General Staff system (GGS), Moltke created “an agency for thinking about, planning for, and ultimately directing future war” and relied on the two cardinal notions of organizational knowledge and learning theory. He changed the organizational culture of the Prussian army, its basic assumptions, and shared beliefs through competition and conflict in the educational process to develop original themes. Similarly, he enhanced the accrual of knowledge by using war games and staff rides, “their testing vehicles.” As discussed before, Moltke shaped a flexible, agile, and dynamic approach to strategy defined by Bucholz as “the art of acting under the pressure of difficult circumstances.” Acknowledging that “no plan of operations [could extend] with any certainty beyond first contact with the main hostile force,” Moltke strove through the CGS to reduce uncertainty with agility and continuing education. Bucholz finally argues that the Prussian victories against Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870, “validate 50 years of invisible development” and certify “Moltke as a planning genius of the first order.”

These examples of Caesar, Napoleon and Moltke the Elder underscore flexibility and agility as the timeless cornerstones upon which success in leadership depends. In addition to this key attribute, triumphant great captains were able to “decide in the dark.”

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The courage to decide in the dark

“Of all mistakes, only one is disgraceful: inaction.” Marshal Foch

The final mark of great captains is their ability to decide under pressure, in the fog of war, by guarding against the utopia of perfect vision and through the courage to accept responsibility. Deciding in the dark requires courage to the extent that it is impossible to master exhaustively the consequences of one’s decision. Yet, courage is multifaceted. Determination and character are its first expressions, through acceptance of responsibility. Charles de Gaulle describes a man of character as one with the jealous passion to decide, a voracious taste for responsibility, and the associated accountability. According to him, such a great captain “pays his debts with his own money which lends nobility to action.” Second, courage is expressed in command by empowering junior leaders at the right level. Ultimately, subsidiarity is necessary to avoid a hitch in the decision-making process when the magnitude of war is increasing. Charles de Gaulle frames it magnificently in this sentence:

Should initiative in all ranks, from the highest to the lowest, vanish, should character be at a discount, it would not be long before the army found itself in a state of complete paralysis. Throughout the whole chain of command, the different echelons, growing continually larger and larger, would exhaust their energies in dealing from above with matters which ought to be handled on the spot. The resources of the staff would be wasted in coping with a vastly mass of regulation-often contradictory – a flood of details, all undergoing almost daily modifications and correction; in grappling with the horde of projects, many of them stillborn, forecasts, falsified almost as soon as formed, and numerous expressions of opinion mostly valueless, reports rendered for the sake of rendering, and demands which never have been, never could be, met. All that would emerge from be a general feeling of skepticism and a slackening of discipline.”

While Great captains like Caesar or Napoleon were unarguably “men on the spot,” deciding with boldness, notwithstanding the fog of war, Moltke the Elder would be the first to dominate uncertainty on a large scale in modern wars with the achievement of the auftragstaktik.

Caesar in the Civil war and Napoleon at the conquest of Europe were all bold in the military campaigns they designed. The former crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC and the latter the Great Saint Bernard Pass in 1800, entrusted their fate to the essence of their decision: alea jacta est [“The die is cast”], Caesar allegedly proclaimed. Such great captains were before everything else what the poet William Ernest Henley describes in Invictus: the masters of their fate, the captains of their soul.

“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul”
Invictus. William Ernest Henley

Davies explains that in all Caesar’s battles, there was “only one commander, one leader. There [were] subordinates who [had] their duties, and even some freedom of action, but in battle, Caesar dominated.”

This distinct unity of command in the decision-making process was also highly visible in Napoleon’s campaign, although Bonaparte was able, before 1809, to benefit from his marshals’ skills by giving them enough room for initiative. Thanks to his genius and famous coup d’oeil, Bonaparte intervened only to correct or exploit an accomplished fact. Bonaparte led as a maestro whose successes relied on “unexpected brilliancy or the ruthless exploitation of an enemy’s blunder.” Marengo (1800), Ulm and Austerlitz (1805), Jena (1806) are the threefold evidence of harmony between Bonaparte and his marshals. Yet, Napoleon’s hubris prevented his marshals from truly acquiring the Emperor’s levels of perception and reaction on the battlefield. As Davis reports, the Emperor firmly believed that “it depended on him alone to conquer difficulties by his own superior talents and resolution.” Therefore, the ever-increasing magnitude of war after 1809, revealed the limits of his personality-driven mission command. One of the greatest observers of Napoleon’s campaigns, Moltke the Elder, would strive to remedy this by eventually achieving what became the famous German tenet of decentralized warfare: auftragstaktik.

Helmut von Moltke precisely shaped the modern war process to cope with the ever-increasing demands on knowledge in the decision-making process. Learning from the past, he designed a system to manage friction and uncertainty by the combination of two principles. First, the Chief of the German Staff strove to achieve a single consciousness in the Prussian army through an effective cooperation among the three basic arms, education and routine.  Second, he fostered a subsidiary management in Prussia, the “auftragstaktik,” empowering subordinate commanders with more autonomy and “greater freedom of action in executing orders.” In fact, the achievement of single consciousness is the prerequisite before empowering subalterns in the decision-making process, to prepare their mind to uncertainty and to be flexible and reactive in the fog of war. While, according to Moltke, orders must be simple enough to remove any hesitations in those who receive them, “they must contain everything that a subordinate cannot decide, but nothing else.” In other words, the Prussian general validates the cardinal virtues of creativity, agility and flexibility as indispensable conditions for success in the art of war, yet, updates the definition of a great captain in modern wars. As the French general Vincent Desportes summarizes mentioning Moltke the Elder, the role of the great commander is therefore to give room for freedom of action in which the subordinate can fully exercise its autonomy.

Finally, Moltke the Elder’s legacy finds an amazing echo in McChrystal’s best seller Team of Teams to act and decide in a complex world. While Moltke emphasized a system of expedients, the achievement of a single military consciousness and the “auftragstaktik,” Stanley McChrystal conversely highlights a Team of Teams, where one can attain a shared consciousness to “reap the benefits of the [necessary] empowered execution.” Mark Twain was right, “the kaleidoscopic combinations” of leadership is definitely constructed out of “the broken fragments of antique legends.”

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The artist, the engineer of the occasion and the adjudicator
Hundreds of attributes are regularly used to outline the best leadership philosophy or to model the ideal great captain. Admittedly, leadership is situational before everything else, and one must remain cautious when deciphering the great captain’s legacy in his respective epoch. Notwithstanding that, the examination of the lives of Caesar, Napoleon, Moltke the Elder and Charles de Gaulle, among other great captains from the past, allows the attentive reader to extract three timeless and instrumental lessons in leadership. A great commander is the one able to act despite the fog of war; an effective leader accepts, without hesitation, to shoulder the responsibility to decide and underlying risks.  In short, a great captain is an artist, an engineer of the occasion and an adjudicator. He is “the man in the middle of the spot.”

David Pappalardo is a French Air Force Officer and student at the Air Command and Staff College. As a multirole Rafale pilot, he is the former commander of the 2/30 fighter Squadron “Normandie-Niémen” and has been involved in several operations over Africa, Afghanistan, and the Levant since 2007.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Ministère Des Armées, the French Government, or the United States Air Force.

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