Defeat into Victory - Field Marshall Viscount Slim

Military history is not my usual cup of tea. However, I had a rather strange recommendation. Management books were being discussed on a site I read. 'Sun Tzu!'... 'Clausewitz's On War'... 'Stop being pretentious, what you need is Slim's Defeat Into Victory - now that's a real, practical example of leadership, and none of that stupid theoretical stuff'.

So, I read it. It's fairly chunky, at 600 pages, and covers the Burma campaign in WWII. Summary: Allies get beaten badly, train up, get properly prepared, and sweep back through Burma. The defeat is not terribly informative, and the forward sweep feels a little samey after a while (!), but there are several things I took away from it.

First, I did have a bit more of an idea what generals actually get up to! Most of my exposure to military literature and film is fiction depicting the horror of war. That tends to focus on the grunts, and generals are inevitably seen as horribly out of touch and missing the point. This book really opened up to me what the strategic elements were for. The aim was never just mindlessly grabbing land from the enemy, and indeed it was hardly even to control strategic points such as major cities and ports. Mostly it was to drive the enemy back so hard that they became disarrayed to the point of being unable to fight.

This brings me to the second point, which is the importance of discipline and morale. In bitter parodies, the higher-ups seem to favour tidiness and morale at the expense of pretty much everything else. Slim makes it seem sensible - he puts the major requirements of an army as flexibility and discipline - flexibility to be able to react to plans appropriately and change as needed, but also the discipline to be able to stand and fight. Morale is incredibly important when you're trying to get soldiers to be prepared to die defending a small patch of ground. Eventually the patches of ground add up.

Actually, they add up rather quickly. The book demonstrates how much war can be based on momentum - the side that is losing loses morale, and is much less willing to risk their lives, making them more easily defeated by the enthusiastic enemy. It forms a vicious circle. Add to this that a side that is retreating in disarray can't be controlled properly to counterattack, and momentum and morale become major major features.

To this end, it explains why Slim chose his initial battles in the return to Burma to massively outnumber the enemy, demonstrate them defeatable, and build up morale. More than that, though, his preparation was fantastic. Taking forces unused to jungle warfare, he instituted all kinds of training exercises to bring people up to speed. He pushed his admin staff into gruelling physical regimes in order to make them ready, even if they're not fighting directly. Generally, he showed incredible leadership - he had the authority to make large changes, he could see the problems they were facing, and time and again he actually instituted huge changes to fix those problems.

The start of the war was an eye-opener, but so was the emd. Once the Japanese were defeated, MacArthur delayed occupation for ceremonial purposes, so that we had PoWs dying needlessly to the end. The question of the use of nuclear weapons in WWII also seems less contentious in the context of Burma. The war in Asia continued to destroy huge numbers of lives, and reaching a quick end seemed pretty sane in the circumstances.

The way that huge numbers of deaths are skimmed over by the book is strange. As I said, I'm not used to military non-fiction, and I could read several dozen pages marvelling at the leadership and planning before realising it was all in the aim of grinding away hundreds and thousands of lives (albeit in what was overall a justified cause). Another interesting feature of the writing is how polite it is, generally covering over all mistakes but those of Slim himself. Unsuccessful generals are excused by the complexities they faced, and if someone really cocks up their name is left out entirely. I'm sure it's a good way to keep friends, but gives far less insight into what fails, as well as what succeeds.

A side effect of the book is that I now know rather more about army structure and ranks. I knew that my grandfather had been a colonel, but until now I never realised quite how senior that actually was!

So, how does the book add up as originally recommended, as a management book? So so. It's interesting, but provides little conventional insight. What it does provide, though, is a great example of leadership by combining insight and thoughtfulness with bold, decisive action.

Posted 2011-12-10.