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Failure is Not an Option

By Thomas E. Ricks
7/17/2017 • MHQ Magazine

George C. Marshall ruthlessly purged the ranks of his generals and set an enduring standard for what it takes to lead U.S. troops.

WORLD WAR II BEGAN with a series of dismissals across the top ranks of the U.S. military. Less than two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Husband Kimmel and army Lieutenant General Walter Short were jettisoned from their posts atop the American military in the Pacific, along with Major General Frederick Martin, Short’s air commander. Upon taking over the army’s Pacific air operation in mid-1942, Lieutenant General George Kenney removed five generals he deemed “deadwood” as well as 40 colonels and lieutenant colonels.

The officer presiding over this purge was General George C. Marshall, who back in Washington was forcing the retirement of dozens of generals he believed were too old and slow-footed to lead soldiers in combat.

“I hate to think that fifty years from now practically nobody will know who George Marshall was,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt remarked to General Dwight Eisenhower one day during the war. Roosevelt’s fears were very nearly realized. Today there is no weapon or installation named for Marshall, as there is a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and an Abrams tank. Indeed, in the snowy reaches of remote northern New York there is even a Fort Drum, honoring General Hugh Drum, Marshall’s leading rival for the army’s top slot. There is no Fort Marshall.

Yet George Marshall was, effectively, the founding father of the modern American armed forces. Under him, the United States for the first time developed a superpower military. Far more than George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, or even Eisenhower, this “coolly impersonal” man (as his subordinate Albert Wedemeyer called him) shaped the military of his time so profoundly that his work is evident in the way army leaders have operated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Specifically, Marshall’s unusual and very American concept of what sort of person constitutes a good general still influences promotions. It would be difficult to understand today’s army without knowledge of Marshall’s career— and especially his powerful sense of duty and honor.

 

GEORGE MARSHALL was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, 15 years after the end of the Civil War. In 1901, he graduated from the Virginia Military Institute and soon joined the army, which was then recovering from its low ebb of the 1890s, the decade when the frontier officially closed and the Indian Wars ended. The army expanded rapidly in the wake of the Spanish-American War of 1898, almost quadrupling to 100,000. In this newly energized force, Marshall stood out as a young officer. One of his commanders, Lieutenant Colonel Johnson Hagood, was asked if he would like to have Marshall serve under him. “Yes,” Hagood wrote in 1916, “but I would prefer to serve under his command.”

World War I was the formative event of Marshall’s life. A 36-year-old captain when the United States entered the war, he earned a post on General John “Black Jack” Pershing’s General Staff in France, where he played a central role in organizing U.S. military operations, impressing fellow officers. He planned the two great American offensives of the war: in Saint-Mihiel on September 12, 1918, and in the Meuse-Argonne sector two weeks later, which involved moving 200,000 troops out of the front line and 600,000 fresh troops into it.

Pershing had enormous influence on Marshall’s thinking about generalship. Marshall observed an unflappable Pershing in March 1918, a critical moment in the war. The French army appeared near collapse after the previous year’s mutinies. The British were in shock after seeing a generation of young men lost in the mud of Belgium and northeastern France. The Germans were resurgent after the Russian collapse and pushing deeper into France. American firepower had not yet been brought to bear, and many doubted that an American force experienced mainly in chasing Indians and bandits on the Mexican border would perform well when fighting among the armies of the great powers of Europe.

Amid the mood of imminent disaster, Pershing stood out as calm, cheerful, and resolute. “In the midst of a profound depression he radiated determination and the will to win,” Marshall wrote in his little-known memoir of World War I.

Marshall also witnessed Pershing’s somewhat ruthless style of personnel management. America’s top officer in Europe was “looking for results,” wrote Major General Robert Bullard, a Pershing commander, in his diary. “He intends to have them. He will sacrifice any man who does not bring them.” Pershing’s officers knew that they had to succeed or lose their commands.

Pershing often used a two-step process to remove generals, first shunting them off to a minor post and then, after a short interval, shipping them home. All told, he relieved at least six division commanders and two corps commanders during World War I. Lower-ranking officers were also judged severely, with some 1,400 removed from combat positions.

Pershing’s policy of swift relief was perhaps more sweeping than that of other commanders in U.S. wars, but he was well within the bounds of American military tradition. During the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, relief of generals was common. After the fall of New York’s Fort Ticonderoga, in July 1777, Major General Philip Schuyler was relieved and accused of dereliction of duty. An inquiry cleared Schuyler of the charge, but he resigned from the army and went home. Schuyler’s accuser, Major General Horatio Gates, himself went on to disastrous defeat near Camden, South Carolina, leading to his own relief. President Abraham Lincoln also relieved a series of generals of their command—among them Irwin McDowell, John Pope, George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, and George Meade.

 

AFTER THE WAR, Pershing asked Marshall to become his aide, a post the younger man filled for five years. Then and during the rest of the interwar years, he honed his philosophy of leadership.

Scholars disagree over whether Marshall maintained a “little black book” of promising young officers to keep in mind for future promotions. None has been found, nor documents indicating that it existed. Yet Marshall had a very clear sense of the qualities he looked for in officers.

His ideas about what makes a good leader would go a long way toward determining who would become a general in World War II—and how the army would think about generalship for decades afterward. In a letter he wrote in November 1920, not long after he became aide-de-camp to Pershing, he listed the qualities of the successful leader in the following order: shows good common sense; has studied his profession; is physically strong, cheerful and optimistic; displays marked energy; and is extremely loyal and determined.

At first glance, this list might seem unexceptional, even Boy Scoutish. Yet it merits closer examination. Heeding a lesson of World War I, Marshall placed a premium on vigor, implicitly excluding the older officer from promotion, especially the “château general” who rarely left the comforts of headquarters to fight in the trenches with his troops. Marshall instead valued men who wanted to be in the middle of things.

Marshall’s list emphasizes character over intellect. He made this choice consciously, tailoring his template to fit the particular circumstances of the United States. The quiet pessimist might be effective in other militaries, he argued, but not in a democratic nation that, protected by two great oceans, tended to pursue a “policy of unpreparedness” for war.

That meant American officers at the beginning of wars typically led ill-trained and poorly equipped units into demoralizing battles. As a result, he decided that the American officer corps needed quick thinkers who were resourceful and relentlessly determined. Officers also needed an abundance of common sense, which would prevent the gross errors that stem from hasty decisions and actions.

The opposite sort of leader, the pessimist, must be excised promptly. The units led by these “calamity howlers,” he wrote with evident distaste, were “quickly infected with the same spirit and grew ineffective unless a more suitable commander was given charge.”

In keeping with American military tradition, Marshall also valued effectiveness over appearance. He was a reserved man but not a fussy one. During a 1933 inspection tour, he walked into one post and found the commander and another officer asleep. He then went into a supply room and surprised a lieutenant working in his undershirt. “You may not be in proper uniform,” Marshall reassured the embarrassed man, “but you are the only officer I found working here.”

Marshall’s list is also significant for what it omits. He was ambivalent about the brawler and the dashing cavalryman. He wanted generals who would fight but not men who would command recklessly or discredit the military with their personal behavior. “You can sometimes win a great victory by a very dashing action,” he once said. “But often, or most frequently, the very dashing action exposes you to a very fatal result if it is not successful. And you hazard everything in that way.” He trusted even less the outlier, the individualist, the eccentric, and the dreamer—all well represented in the 19th-century American military, especially by heroes of the Union such as Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, and more so by those of the Confederacy, such as James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, whom Marshall had studied religiously, according to his official biographer. Marshall called for steady, levelheaded team players— polar opposites of those two latter-day cavaliers. He wanted both competence and cooperativeness. The biggest difference between American commanders in World War I and World War II would be that in the latter war, they were adept at coordinating the efforts of the infantry, artillery, armor, and aviation branches, especially in breaking through enemy lines and exploiting that penetration. As German field marshal Gerd von Rundstedt put it after being captured in 1945, “We cannot understand the difference in your leadership in the last war and in this. We could understand it if you had produced one superior corps commander, but now we find all of your corps commanders good and of equal superiority.”

Like his mentor, Marshall had little patience with the incompetent and faint hearted. Even before he became chief of the army in 1939, Marshall was thinking about how to oust the nonperformers in the senior ranks. In the spring of that year, he and Colonel Matthew Ridgway, a rising young officer, were dispatched to South America to secure agreements to freely move American forces by air and sea across the South Atlantic in the event of war. During the 10- day voyage to Rio de Janeiro aboard the light cruiser Nashville, Ridgway and Marshall sat on the forward deck and talked. More or less cut off from the world, they discussed the future of the army, including how to find and promote good officers.

“He knew from his own experience in World War I and from his extensive reading of our military history of the political and other pressures which had resulted in the appointment to high command in past wars of so many mediocre and even incompetent officers,” Ridgway recalled.

 

MARSHALL RETURNED to Washington with a battle plan. “The present general officers of the line are for the most part too old to command troops in battle under the terrific pressure of modern war,” Marshall said in October 1939, a month after being sworn in as chief. “Most of them have their minds set in outmoded patterns, and can’t change to meet the new conditions they may face if we become involved in the war that’s started in Europe.”

At Marshall’s behest, 31 colonels, 117 lieutenant colonels, 31 majors, and 16 captains were forced into retirement or discharged from the active-duty force in the summer and fall of 1941. In addition, some 269 National Guard and Army Reserve officers were let go. All told, Marshall estimated that, as chief of staff, he forced out at least 600 officers before the United States entered World War II. “I was accused right away by the service papers of getting rid of all the brains of the army,” he said. “I couldn’t reply that I was eliminating considerable arteriosclerosis.”

Marshall removed officers in part to convey a sense of urgency. When the commandant at Leavenworth, Brigadier General Charles Bundel, told him that updating army training manuals would take 18 months, Marshall offered him three months. No, it can’t be done, Bundel responded. Marshall then offered four months. Bundel again said it was impossible. Marshall asked him to reconsider. “You be very careful about that,” Marshall warned.

“No, it can’t be done,” Bundel insisted.

“I’m sorry, then you are relieved,” Marshall said.

When politicians questioned his efforts to put new men into the leadership of National Guard divisions, he let slip his fierce temper, a rarity. At one meeting with members of Congress protesting the relief of a general, he declared, “I am not going to leave him in command of that division. So I will put it to you this way: If he stays, I go, and if I stay, he goes.” When Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter passed along criticism from a friend in the Army Reserve, Marshall tartly replied, “Most of our senior officers on such duty are deadwood and should be eliminated from the service as rapidly as possible.”

The big Louisiana Maneuvers, staged in August and September 1941, served as a proving ground for Marshall’s officers. Only 11 of the 42 generals who commanded a division, a corps, or an army in the maneuvers would go on to command in combat. Just one of the prewar army’s senior generals, Walter Krueger, would be given a top command in World War II.

Today’s officers sometimes fret about “personnel turbulence,” but their lives look unruffled compared with the first two years of Marshall’s leadership. He took over an army of just 197,000 people, a number that included the infant Air Force. Under Marshall, the army grew to 1.4 million in the summer of 1941; two years after that, it had reached nearly 7 million, finally peaking in 1945 at 8.3 million. The newcomers were overseen by a new generation of commanders who were being pushed hard. Once those leaders were in place, Marshall told military journalist George Fielding Eliot, he would put them through their paces to gauge who was really capable:

I’m going to put these men to the severest tests which I can devise in time of peace. I’m going to start shifting them into jobs of greater responsibility than those they hold now….Then I’m going to change them, suddenly, without warning, to jobs even more burdensome and difficult.…Those who stand up under the punishment will be pushed ahead. Those who fail are out at the first sign of faltering.

Marshall wanted to reward the men who showed talent and maturity in these tests. At one point Marshall, irked by the erratic quality of staff work in the Army Air Force, promoted a major directly to brigadier general, skipping the ranks of lieutenant colonel and colonel.

Marshall’s impatience with unsuccessful officers intensified once the United States entered the war. At one point he ordered a general to France immediately but was informed that the man had declined to depart quickly, because his wife was away and his household furniture was not packed. Astounded, Marshall called the general, a good friend.

“Was that a fact?” Marshall recalled asking.

“Yes, I can’t leave here now,” the general responded.

“Well, my God, man, we are at war and you are a general,” said a puzzled Marshall.

“Well, I’m sorry,” the officer said.

“I’m sorry too,” Marshall concluded, “but you will be retired tomorrow.”

Though Marshall and his commanders were quick to punish incompetence, the system of relief could be forgiving. At least five army generals relieved of combat command during World War II—Orlando Ward, Terry Allen, Leroy Watson, Albert Brown, and, in the South Pacific, Frederick Irving—were later given another division to lead into battle.

Significantly, Marshall’s approach to generalship in World War II created an incentive system that encouraged prudent risk taking. “A flexible system of personnel management that rapidly identified proven leaders and placed them in appropriate positions of responsibility helped accelerate the process of change during World War II,” concluded retired army Lieutenant Colonel Wade Markel, a specialist in personnel policy. “The temporary promotion system and its accompanying culture…offered unlimited advancement to those who could produce success, and summary dismissal to those who couldn’t. Confronted with these stark options…the capable found a way to succeed.”

In other words, while sometimes mistaken and occasionally brutal, the Marshall system generally produced military effectiveness. Dwight Eisenhower offers the proof. Just a year before the start of World War II, he was still a lieutenant colonel, not even in command of a regiment. Yet because Marshall saw in him the qualities of a good leader, Eisenhower within a few years was commanding armies of millions.

Decades later, Eisenhower recalled how Marshall moved against so many top officers following the Louisiana Maneuvers. “By God, he just took them and threw them out of the room,” Eisenhower wrote. But ultimately, Ike concluded, Marshall was vindicated. “He got them out of the way, and I think as a whole he was right.”

 

Adapted from The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by THOMAS E. RICKS. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © Thomas E. Ricks, 2012.

Originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.

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