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Omar Bradley, the General’s General

By Alan Axelrod
1/29/2009 • World War II

Bradley spent much of his career teaching, first in the ROTC department at South Dakota State College, then as a mathematics instructor at West Point before going on to the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. There, he was one of the instructors George C. Marshall assembled to lead what became known as the Benning Revolution, an exorcism of the trench warfare tactics of World War I, and the inculcation of the open warfare doctrine born of the new, highly mobile technology of combat with aircraft, tanks, and motor transport. As chief of the school’s weapons section, Bradley created the curriculum in traditional and advanced army weaponry.

After teaching at the Infantry School, Bradley enrolled as a student at the U.S. Army War College in 1933. He was disappointed by the academic exercises, which were 100 percent hypothetical and based on data available to the man on the street, mostly newspaper and magazine articles. When, on graduating from the War College, he was asked to return to West Point as a tactical officer—one of a small cadre charged with teaching cadets the essentials of being soldier-officers—he eagerly accepted the assignment.

The War College had taught him one thing: the incoming U.S. Army officer corps needed a stiff dose of reality. Bradley wanted to bring something of Marshall’s Benning Revolution to West Point by developing officers who were capable of doing more than following orders. From 1934 through 1938, he mentored the generation who would serve in junior commands during World War II and Korea, and rise to higher ranks during the Vietnam and cold war eras. Five of his students became four-star generals, a list comprising Creighton W. Abrams Jr., Bruce Palmer Jr., Andrew J. Goodpaster Jr., John L. Throckmorton, and William Westmoreland. Westmoreland in particular was impressed by Bradley’s pedagogical style: “quiet, sympathetic…patient,” yet frank and firm.

Westmoreland recalled summer maneuvers in 1936, when he commanded a cadet battalion assigned to defend a hill. When the troops opposing him succeeded in taking the hill, Bradley, who was umpiring the maneuvers, summoned Westmoreland to his side:

“Mr. Westmoreland,” he said, “look back at that hill. Look at it now from the standpoint of the enemy.”

Turning, I became aware for the first time of a concealed route of approach that it was logical for an attacker to use. Because I had failed to cover it with my defense, he as umpire had ruled for the attacking force.

“It is fundamental,” Major Bradley said calmly but firmly, “to put yourself always in the position of the enemy.”

Bradley was not interested in scolding Westmoreland, but in ensuring that he took away from the experience of defeat an element that would be key to victory: the principle of putting yourself in the place of the enemy. It is common to speak of great commanders—men like Napoleon, Lee, and Rommel—as having possessed a genius for getting inside the mind of their opponent. When Bradley counseled Cadet Westmoreland to put himself in the position of the enemy, he meant nothing so mystical. Instead, he brought Westmoreland literally to his opponent’s position and invited him—again, literally—to see what the enemy saw and, from that perspective, to ponder the available options. As Bradley understood tactics, putting yourself in the enemy’s position was a practical means of getting inside his head. The exchange with Westmoreland was vintage Bradley, eliciting a principle of war fighting that is profound yet founded on the commonest of common sense.

It was common sense, too, that led him to look beyond West Point for the education of a junior officer corps both sufficiently competent and sufficiently numerous to lead combat in World War II. As commandant of the Infantry School—Marshall’s old job—from March 1941 to February 1942, Bradley did not invent the concept of training officers from the ranks, but he was the chief architect of the Officer Candidate Schools (OCS), creating a model program at Fort Benning and promoting its spread throughout the army. He knew that West Point and college ROTC programs could not be counted on to produce enough adequately trained officers to meet the demand, while National Guard officers tended to be poorly trained, and Reserve officers were just too old. Through OCS, Bradley ensured that the army would have plenty of company-grade officers.

No one would ever have mistaken the warrior Patton for a schoolteacher. But that is exactly how the army first used him in World War II, assigning him to create and run the Desert Training Center in California to educate the nation’s first generation of desert warriors. Although he proved to be an effective mentor, Patton never would have championed a democratic institution like OCS. A military aristocrat, he saw himself as the latest in a line of martial ancestors who had fought in the American Revolution and the Civil War. As a West Point cadet in 1904, he asserted in a letter to his father that, compared with his peers, he belonged “to a different class, a class perhaps almost extinct or one which may have never existed yet as far removed from these lazy, patriotic, or peace soldiers as heaven is from hell.”

If Patton was contemptuous of those outside his class, they, in turn, regarded him and his like with a mixture of ambivalence, scorn, and fear. The professional soldier has always occupied an acutely uncomfortable place in the scheme of the American democratic republic. In World War II, which Americans largely understood as a war of democracy against tyranny, neither the public nor the press were ever sure on what side Patton stood, with his high-booted swaggering and outrageous episodes of apparent brutality, such as slapping two enlisted men (who were suffering from combat fatigue, no less).

To all appearances, Omar Bradley was the exact opposite of Patton. He was the son of dirt-poor Missourians of undistinguished background, whereas Patton was the scion of wealthy Californians with roots in the antebellum aristocracy of Virginia. For Bradley, who enrolled at West Point in 1911, the U.S. Military Academy represented little more than a free college education, an alternative to a life toiling in the Wabash Railroad’s Moberly, Missouri, locomotive shop, whereas Patton worshipped it as the sacred portal that would admit him to the ranks of history’s great warriors. While the American public devoured stories of Patton’s exploits in North Africa, their patience with his pointedly anti-egalitarian excesses grew thin. In the spring of 1943, Bradley took over command of II Corps from Patton. Following Bradley’s capture of the Tunisian stronghold of Bizerte (a victory that yielded 150,000 Italian and 100,000 German POWs), Eisenhower counseled Ernie Pyle, hard-boiled dean of American war correspondents, to “go and discover Bradley.”

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