General David Petraeus may currently be viewed by many as the military genius who turned around the war in Iraq (and possibly in Afghanistan as well), but will history remember him? Before you answer yes, ponder the case of Field Marshall Count Joseph Radetzky.
It was Radetzky who – as a chief of staff to the allied army facing Napoleon – devised the strategy that in only seven-and-a-half months (between 1813 and 1814) defeated the seemingly invincible le petit caporal who had dominated Europe from 1797.
Then in 1848 and 1849, Radetzky (full name: Count Johann Josef Wenzel Anton Franz Karl Radetzky von Radetz) continued his remarkable battlefield record by defeating the superior Italian armies, ensuring that the balance of power in Europe was retained, a pan-European war prevented, and the political and geographical integrity of the Habsburg Monarchy (he served) maintained. (A feat celebrated in Johann Strauss Sr.'s "Radetzky March," which is played every year by the Vienna Philharmonic and broadcast in the U.S. by PBS.)
Radetzky's exceptionalism – detailed in Radetzky, a new book by Alan Sked, a professor at the London School of Economics (and a former teacher of mine) – was not limited to military prowess (he was undefeated and won every possible military honor), but also in the length of his service. Born in 1766, Radetzky entered the Austrian army in 1784 and went on to serve until 1858, an astonishing 72 years. Even at age 82 he spent 10 hours a day on horseback, planning campaigns, leading them, and winning battles.
While the great military theorists Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini analyzed and presented Napoleon's strategies to the world, Radetzky had already been employing those theories (for example, always go on offense, have a flexible plan, and attack with superior force at the weakest point, preferably by surprise) – with an unbeaten record in combat.
Most historians rank Napoleon alongside Alexander and Caesar as among the greatest of military leaders, but, as Sked points out, when the military record of Radetzky and the charismatic Corsican are compared, Radetzky clearly holds his own, albeit with one (not so small) difference: Radetzky was never defeated. And compared to some of America's greatest generals? Ulysses S. Grant, Sked writes, was a winner like Radetzky, "although not such a quick or decisive one"; and Eisenhower "was involved in coalition warfare against a tyrant, but never won campaigns on his own."