Marshall and Eisenhower and How to Win a War

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Mon, 2012-12-10 02:21 -- John Batchelor
Monday, December 10, 2012

Speaking soon to Thomas E. Ricks, author, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, to reflect upon the generalship that has directed and burdened the US Army since 1939.  The beau ideal of American general officers is George C. Marshall, who was trusted by FDR to lead the fight after Pearl Harbor.  Marshall was reserved, even icy, and he kept his distance purposefully from FDR.  The two men respected each but were never close, nor did Marshall aim to confuse military necessity with social bonding, leaving him room to disagree with and reject the president's opinion if need be.  Marshall favored general officers who were smart, physically sturdy, nimble, and able and ready to cooperate with many others, like a leading team player.  Marshall did not favor mavericks, nonconformists, show-offs, political favor-seekers.  The sought qualities describe Marshall's choice of Dwight David Eisenhower.  In turn, Eisenhower favored generals who were good part players, such as Patton for chasing the enemy, such as Bradley the even-tempered (though not daring) leader of combat divisions from Sicily to Normandy.   I learn that in June and July 1944, the 90th Division was in such mangled shape in the Normandy battle (100% casualties filled constantly by replacements) that Bradley aimed to relieve the boss and replace him with Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (the one-star general in the video above, touring Ste Mere Eglise in a jeep).  Roosevelt died of a heart attack the night before the replacement, and the 90th fought on with new leadership chosen instantly.   (The above Operation OVERLORD footage is rare: it shows the 82nd and 101st Airborne jump over Normandy, and it illustrates the captured Ste Mere Eglise on the first day, with enemy KIA still uncollected on the road as the tanks roar past.) 

Firing and Firing

Thomas Ricks's central argument is that replacing commanders and senior offices for cause was a critical part of the success of the US Army in Europe and the Pacific, 1941-1945.  Relief of a general is proof that the system works to find the best leader at the right moment -- and that influence-peddling and old-boy networks are not a secure path to generalship.  Marshall's Army forced out at least 600 officers before the US entered the war.  Marshall liked to promote from below, liked to reward combat savvy with immediate command responsibility.  Marshall's Army was quick to fire the general officer who who showed he was frustrated, fatalistic, cautious, contrary or a loner.  For Marshall it was mission first, second, third.  For Marshall, maintaining generals because of continuity or collegiality or even comfort was not useful..  Marshall and Ike fired and fired to get the Army they needed to cross the Channel and breach the Rhine.  Sometimes the reason for firing was gross incompetence, such as the 90th.  Sometimes the trigger was vanity or non-conformism (Jack Allen of the First Division at Anzio; Patton of the 3rd Army at war's end, October 1945).  I learn also that many of the general officers who were replaced were later brought back into command positions.  The firing was used as a quick boost to the morale of the command, not as a final judgment on the man.  (When it was a harsh judgment, subsequent decisions supported keeping the man away from a combat role.)  The qualities that work on a battlefield, according to Marshall and and his protege Eisenhower, were intelligence, stamina, boldness, adaptability.  Marshall was the father of a formula that worked magnificently to knit together a vast Army of green soldiers and abundant equipment to land on other continents under fire and sweep aside or outlast the Axis defenders.  Conversely, the sad state of failure since 1945 is in part because so few generals such as Eisenhower have been found and used to lead the US into combat.  The grim tidings of Vietnam (Taylor, Hoskins, Westmoreland, DePuy) and the full Iraq war, 1991-2007 (Powell, Schwarzkopf, Franks, Sanchez, Casey, Petraeus), show that the Marshall model of generals -- bold, judgmental, cooperative, decisive, distanced from the civilian leadership -- is hard to find and keep.  The grotesque failure in Vietnam was a combination of Maxwell Taylor's sophisticated back-scratching with JFK to make himself the Proconsul of Saigon along with the suggested "stupidity" of Westmoreland, who was much more the MacArthur imperial bully than he was was the patient, Ike-like presider over war hounds.  Since Vietnam, says Thomas Ricks, the "merely competent" generals have elbowed out the Marshall school of our day. The second Iraq War, 2003-2007, can be seen as a failure of leadership on the battlefield:  Franks, Sanchez, Casey couldn't and didn't adapt to the demands of an obvious counterinsurgency, and the result was a protracted killing field that damaged the mission.  David Petraeus is presented here, before his DCI scandal and resignation, as an anomaly among general officers, a smart, adaptive, driven leader, who was also a politicized, favor-seeking, star-struck celebrity.  The sad tale of Petraeus as a General Icarus is for another day.