Letter from Military History – July 2011

The Road Not Taken
Making choices, whether among clear-cut blacks and whites or among unpalatable shades of gray, is the defining act of leadership. It is what leaders do. Making tough decisions under duress is not easy, but a leader—a general, say—who can’t bring himself to make such decisions is essentially useless. In some instances a reluctance to pull the trigger is more dangerous and destructive than making a poor decision.

In military situations, in the planning or the execution of combat operations, decisions are frequently matters of life and death, often for large numbers of soldiers. Volumes have been published on wartime leadership, many of them focused on such excrutiatingly fraught choices as General Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to launch or postpone the massive Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, or President Harry S. Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan in 1945. Such choices surely brought with them a burden of responsibility most people can scarcely imagine. Indeed, both decisions determined the subsequent course of history.

But the everyday decisions of a combat commander in the midst of a hard-fought campaign are scarcely less exhausting. In the midst of VI Corps’ charge from Marseilles to Strasbourg in fall 1944, its commander, Lt. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott, grew impatient with detailed tactical questions from Life correspondent Will Lang. Truscott walked Lang back to his command trailer and pointed to the map showing VI Corps’ deployments and asked, “You saw me move this pin, didn’t you?” Lang said yes. “Do you know what this means?” Lang said no. Truscott explained, “It means that by noon today 25 of my men will be dead.”

Because so many noteworthy narratives in military history turn on the consequences of one leader’s decision, we are devoting a new regular column, Decisions, to those momentous choices that, as poet Robert Frost noted, “made all the difference.” Edward G. Lengel, professor of history at the University of Virginia and editor in chief of The Papers of George Washington documentary project, will take charge of this column. He has been a regular and valued contributor to Military History in recent years and a frequent guest on radio and television programs devoted to American and military history. Lengel’s most recent book is Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth and Memory (2011).

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