The American Eagle? Mark W. Clark

By Robert M. Citino
4/8/2010 • Fire for Effect

Last week I introduced the thorny case of one Mark W. Clark.  "General Clark" to his subordinates, and “the American Eagle” to an American public who idolized him in World War II. 

And since this is a blog and not an academic or scholarly publication, and we can say anything we feel like, let me introduce evidence that I have seen (and heard) with my own eyes (and ears).  My mother was one tough cookie, and she told me, from the days when I was but a lad, that Mark Clark was one of the great American heroes of the war.  She was a smart woman, she would never steer her son wrong, and I would never dismiss out of hand ANYTHING she said to me.

Then again, Mom never read a lot of operational history.

As I’ve grown into manhood (and beyond), I’ve read a lot of history of the war.  And I have come to know that not everyone loves Mark Clark.  There’s a contrary case to be made.  A tough landing at Salerno in September 1943.  Even he had to call it a “near disaster.”  Some jitters–and they can’t be denied–in which he gave serious consideration to evacuating the bridgehead.  He had never commanded an army before, so perhaps it was understandable.  But his peers didn’t think so, and they made it clear in a mountain of memoirs.  And his peers knew things that my Mom didn’t, certainly.  Even I’m willing to admit that. 

And then–the unforgivable:  Exhibit A in the anti-Clark indictment.  Operation Diadem has just gone in (May 1944), and Clark’s 5th Army has cracked the Gustav Line.  The US VI Corps has broken out of Anzio, and has what looks on the map like a clear shot into the rear of the German 10th Army, perhaps even “encircling” it.  Instead of driving for the destruction of the enemy army, however, Clark turns his entire force (including VI Corps) towards Rome.  An enemy capital, and one of the great cities of world history.  After his long slog up from Salerno, Clark sees Rome as the “prize” of the campaign.  And ever since, military historians have crucified him for that decision.

Maybe I live in an alternate universe–I admit it.  But from where I sit, a US general who refuses to take Rome, when it sits there offering itself, probably gets crucified by the press, and by later generations of military historians as well.  Let’s also be honest:  how often did the western allies actually “encircle” a German army in this war?  Patton?  Bradley?  Ike?  No.  The Falaise pocket in 1944?  Never happened.  As heavily as it got hammered, the Wehrmacht always managed to slip away.  It got crushed, but never encircled.

Maybe Mom was smarter than we think. 

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