Read enough biographies of George Washington, and you’re likely to get the sense that — as great as the man was — he was more lucky than good as a military commander. Known more for deft retreats than for brilliant battlefield victories, Washington deserves more credit for his stewardship of the first eight years of the federal government than for his work to secure the independence that allowed that government to be formed in the first place.
Dave R. Palmer, former superintendent of West Point, disputes that picture. That’s why he’s re-released his 1975 book The Way Of The Fox under the new title George Washington’s Military Genius. Palmer argues that Washington was a strategic genius who adapted his strategy to four distinctly different phases of a Revolutionary War that lasted for eight years.
A general always has two aims: to defeat the enemy and to avoid his own defeat. Sometimes the two are synonymous, sometimes not. Winning is not the same as not losing. At first glance, that distinction may seem contrived, but it is not. It is very real and very significant. A skilled strategist derives his primary purpose from an analysis of the situation at any given moment and the integration of that analysis with long-range or national goals. In the Revolutionary War, some seasons demanded victory, others the avoidance of defeat. The watchword on some days was audacity, on others it was caution. Washington seemed always to know which was appropriate.
As the preceding paragraph suggests, Palmer tends to — one is tempted to write “always” — give Washington the benefit of every doubt in analyzing the historical record. It’s not hard to imagine that Washington’s clear success stories included occasional flubs and blunders Palmer has chosen to ignore.
Still, this volume offers more evidence that the Founders chose well when they decided to make George Washington America’s leading man for the first 20 years after the new nation’s birth. Along with being first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, Palmer writes, “He was indeed first in war.”