“War imposes a unique kind of stress on those involved. The normal fear of failure is greatly increased by the very real danger of being killed, wounded, or captured by the enemy. This book looks at those who rose to the occasion, and those who, sadly, did not,” writes Donough O’Brien in his introduction to “In the Heat of Battle.”
Among those historical figures O’Brien identifies as having risen to the occasion are: Yoni Netanyahu (Raid at Entebbe, aka Operation Thunderbolt); Joan of Arc (Siege of Orleans); and Claus von Stauffenberg (for his attempted assassination of Hitler). Each of the 42 named individuals is afforded his or her own chapter—typically three or four pages long—in which their wartime exploits are lauded.
But it’s the second half of the book—in which O’Brien relates the stories of those who failed to rise to the occasion—that is more compelling, not to mention more controversial. O’Brien assigns 33 individuals to one of five categories—“too confident by half,” “fatal inattention,” “flaws and obsessions,” “treachery and rank disobedience,” and “a streak of cruelty”—then explains why he classifies them as such.
Some of the men are commonly associated with missteps—George Armstrong Custer and Benedict Arnold, for instance—but O’Brien uses a narrower interpretation of failure to fold in leaders like John F. Kennedy and George Patton. It just goes to show that even in wartime, success and failure are in the eye of the beholder.