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Omar Bradley, the General’s General

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

Eisenhower was also tired of all the attention, both good and bad, being lavished on Patton, and he was anxious for the American people to be introduced to a commander who fit more comfortably into the role of a leader of citizen soldiers in the army of a democratic republic.

Pyle took him up on his recommendation and soon located Bradley in Nicosia, Sicily. “Up to now,” Bradley observed, Pyle “had written exclusively about GIs and he was not comfortable with the brass. He stuck with me like a shadow for three days.” The journalist wrote a six-part series that, Bradley modestly observed, “hardly made me a household name.”

But that is precisely what it did. Or, rather, it made for him a household name: the GI General. Bradley’s hour, it seemed, had arrived. In Bradley, Pyle saw a general who looked and acted like a dogface private. He saw him as the anti-Patton and spun him into journalistic gold: a “regular guy” hero who just happened to be a general. Pyle’s “GI General” epithet gave home front America a hook on which to hang a simple and appealing identity for Bradley, and he quickly entered into a public prominence that his burgeoning responsibilities—from II Corps commander in North Africa to 12th Army Group commander in Europe, the leader of 1.3 million men—surely merited. Bradley became what today would be called a brand. Who is Omar Nelson Bradley? Why, he’s the GI General! There was no need for excuses—Patton’s a loose cannon but he gets the job done—and even less need for complexities. In the popular imagination, the Bradley brand easily survived his nearly career-wrecking tactical lapse at the Battle of the Bulge (his slowness to recognize the development of a major German offensive through the Ardennes) and a potentially damning role in supporting, perhaps even instigating, Eisenhower’s controversial strategic decision to concede Berlin to the Red Army.

The Bradley brand made him a popular hero, and he would retain significant prestige through his postwar military and civilian careers. Then came 1970 and, with it, George C. Scott’s resurrection of George S. Patton as a full-blown cultural icon in Franklin Schaffner’s great film. Bradley earned a small fortune from Patton by allowing his memoir, A Soldier’s Story, to be used as a source for the script and by contributing his services as technical adviser, but from the day of the premiere, his own historical significance has seemed increasingly vague. Patton, long dead, had come blazing back to life as a legend; whereas Bradley, though very much alive, remained where he had been for a long time: outside of the public eye and only peripherally in the popular consciousness.

Even worse for the Bradley legacy, professional military historians were growing more critical of his generalship. During his days as an Infantry School and West Point pedagogue, Bradley introduced the use of elaborate sand tables—three-dimensional representations of terrain—to analyze actual battles as well as to prepare for war games. In this way, he pioneered what today would be called a comprehensive understanding of the “battle space.” Yet it was his failure to take into account the Norman terrain—the bocage, the infamous hedgerow country—that imperiled and greatly retarded the breakout from the lodgment areas in the costly weeks following D-Day.

Moreover, his methodical approach to operations could be overly cautious, allowing tactical and even strategic opportunities to slip away. To be sure, he was usually a bolder gambler than Bernard Montgomery, but far more conservative than—who else?—Patton. And then, of course, there was the crowning blunder of his career: his willingness to leave the Ardennes thinly defended in December 1944, a decision by which he seemed very nearly to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Understandably, it is all enough to prompt our asking just what Bradley should be remembered for—aside, that is, from having been the GI General. But the fact is that he was a savvy combat tactician whose successes should have overshadowed his failures, rather than vice versa. And perhaps his crowning achievement was, in the context of one of his strategic breakthroughs, channeling Patton’s headstrong enthusiasm into a smashing victory for the Allies.

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