George Marshall: A Biography
By Debi and Irwin Unger with Stanley Hirshon. 552 pp. HarperCollins, 2014. $35.
Much has been written about the larger-than-life military leaders of World War II—Montgomery, Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur. But as these public men did their jobs, another less conspicuous man ran the war. In George Marshall: A Biography, Debi and Irwin Unger explore the life of the unassuming and sometimes overlooked army officer. Well researched and written with a clean, journalistic style, the book will appeal to popular and academic audiences. The Ungers’ coverage of Marshall’s role as army chief of staff during the war alone makes the volume worth reading. They rightly depict the general as a skilled organizer responsible for trans forming America’s anemic armed forces into a formidable combat machine. By Marshall’s estimate, the country’s “ability to fight stood at less than 25%” in December 1940. In response, he streamlined the army’s “decrepit” post-Civil War structure and helmed the Victory Program, a blueprint for rearming the military and bolstering industrial output.
Most important, however, is their objective treatment of Marshall; they strike a healthy balance between admiration of his achievements and recognition of his foibles. Marshall suffered his share of lapses, some of them quite serious, like his support of Operation Sledgeham mer. As the Dieppe Raid demonstrated, Allied forces were not yet equipped to carry out this cross-Channel assault on German-occupied France, but Marshall stubbornly insisted on the plan’s feasibility. Ultimately the Allies overruled him, abandoning the idea in favor of the North African campaign, Operation Torch.
Overall, the Ungers offer a sound portrait of Marshall as an ordinary man who was determined, honest, and unpretentious—qualities that softened his shortcomings and earned the respect of his contemporaries. Because of this, his story is more than a military history; it is a lesson in character and leadership.
—Michael G. Williams is a Maryland based critic and journalist.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.