Strictly speaking, Mark W. Clark was not a controversial general. “Controversial” implies a significant divergence of opinion on a subject, and historians seem to have made up their collective mind about Clark. If there is a Pantheon of Bad Commanders, most scholars of World War II use him as exhibit A. Frankly, they should stop it. Clark certainly was no Napoleon, but neither was he particularly incompetent. In fact, he was a perfectly representative general for a U.S. Army in 1943 that was still feeling its way toward excellence.
The indictment usually begins with his personality. Clark was a blatant careerist and glory hog, his legion of attackers claim, whose ambition exceeded all bounds. He cared more about public relations and cultivating a heroic image than he did about fighting wars. He only let photographers shoot his “good side” (his left, for the rec-ord). He was cocky to the point of arrogant, dubbed Marcus Aurelius Clarkus by some cynical subordinates. He was peremptory with his subordinates. He was inexperienced, and was jumped up over more experienced and deserving officers. He was a hard-core Anglophobe, distrusting his British allies while commanding a campaign in which cooperation was essential.
In reality, every one of these accusations is specious. Was Clark any more of an egotistical glory hound than Patton? Generalship within the U.S. Army is practically defined by overweening ambition. Was Clark really more interested in cultivating his image than, say, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel? No one loved photographers more than the Desert Fox. Was he really promoted too rapidly? In February 1941, Dwight D. Eisenhower was a lieutenant colonel. Two short years later, he was a four-star general, perhaps the world’s record for rapid promotion. By way of comparison, Clark was a lieutenant colonel in July 1941 and a three-star general by November 1942. In a wartime army expanding as rapidly as this one was, just about everyone was going to be promoted early. The personal arguments—and there are vast numbers of those who worked with Clark who contradict all this and who liked him just fine—simply don’t hold water.
There is another accusation against Clark, however, a much more serious one: that he was incompetent. Here, the allegations range all over the map. He charged ashore too impetuously at Salerno, many say, pushing inland without consolidating his beachhead. He then proved too dilatory and unimaginative in the drive north. Before the Anzio landing, his advice to Major General John P. Lucas was hardly the stuff of the Great Captains: “Don’t stick your neck out, Johnny,” he said. Lucas didn’t, the Anzio landing went nowhere, and Clark relieved him of duty. By contrast, Clark again reverted to being too impetuous. He launched the 36th “Texas” Division in a frontal assault against murderous German fire in a futile attempt to cross the Rapido River. It was an operational disaster that led to postwar Congressional hearings and for which Texas has still not forgiven him. Finally, the main indictment: his decision to drive for Rome after the Anzio breakout rather than encircling the German Tenth Army, which was at that moment retreating north in some confusion.
But this accusation, too, fails the evidence test. After all, surrounding a maneuver-trained German field army was not as easy as it sounds. How many times did the Western Allies ever succeed in doing so? Don’t try too hard, it’s an easy answer. Before the final German collapse in 1945: zero.
So if Clark is culpable for failing to encircle a German army in battle, he has some very fine company: Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, Courtney Hodges, and George S. Patton Jr. It was possible to beat the Germans, yes. Outside of a few extraordinary circumstances in this war, however, they usually maneuvered rapidly enough to prevent themselves from being encircled—and that is exactly what they did in Italy.
Salerno certainly tested Clark, and he appeared at times to be overwhelmed. But he spent the night of September 13 doing what he had to do: taking stock and taking a sober view of things. He also spent two difficult days—September 13 and 14—rotating between his command post and tours of the front where he braved heavy enemy fire to rally the troops, just like all those heroic commanders who populate the history books. “He shared the dangers of his men,” one biographer wrote, and that is all anyone can ask. In the end, Fifth Army managed to ward off fierce German attacks, to defend its bridgehead, and to drive inland from Salerno.
Clark’s real problem was quite simple: it was his fate in 1943 to command an American army in the Mediterranean Theater. The inland sea had already become a graveyard of American military reputations: Major General Lloyd Fredendall of Kasserine Pass, the currently disgraced Patton, the soon-to-be disgraced Major General Ernest J. Dawley, and the later disgraced General Lucas. A year later in Western Europe, by contrast, all the commanders miraculously wound up looking pretty good. Perhaps the Mediterranean weeded out the weaklings in the officer corps. Perhaps it lacked the full attention of the U.S. high command, now deep in the planning cycle for Operation Overlord in Normandy. Perhaps it was just the luck of the draw.
In the end, Clark was no military genius—few commanders in history are—but he led his army as well as the difficult theater of operations and the current skill level of the U.S. Army would permit. Judging whether he was a “good” or “bad” general has to take a number of thorny and intertwined factors into consideration, but the real issue was time. The U.S. Army, top to bottom, was going to get a lot better by 1944, and every general looks better when the formations, staff, and support systems under his command—all of an invasion force’s moving parts—are more experienced. While it’s impossible to say with certainty, Clark likely would have been no exception.
Robert M. Citino is the author of nine books, most recently Death of the Wehrmacht (2007) and The Wehrmacht Retreats (2012). He spent the 2008–09 academic year teaching at the United States Military Academy at West Point; he is currently a history professor at the University of North Texas. In 2007, Citino was rated the “#1 Professor in America” by the online student rating service ratemyprofessors.com. His blog, Front & Center, can be found here.