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The American Eagle: Mark W. Clark

By Robert M. Citino
4/2/2010 • Fire for Effect

Let’s continue a thread we’ve been following here since this blog began last summer.  One of the first things I posted was a pair of ruminations on the fitness of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey (Halsey in the Dock, September 20th, 2009 and Taking Action with Admiral Halsey, September 27th, 2009).  He’s had his supporters and his detractors over the years, certainly, and as is usually the case with such things, they both have their points.  Your comments in response made that clear.  More recently, we discussed the historical reputation of General Lloyd Fredendall, US II Corps commander during the Tunisian campaign who lost his job as a result of Kasserine Pass (Fredendall’s Art of War, March 4th, 2010).  Here the record is more difficult to defend, although some of your comments managed to do just that.

Here’s another tough call:  the commander of US 5th Army during the long slog up the Italian peninsula, General Mark W. Clark (with the “W” standing for “Wayne,” his preferred name).  You’re not going to find many historians saying good things about him.  A blatant careerist and glory-hog whose ambition exceeded all bounds. A man who cared more about PR and cultivating a heroic public image than he did about actual warfighting, who only let photographers shoot his “good side” (his left, for the record).  Cocky to the point of arrogance.  Peremptory with his subordinates.  Inexperienced.  Not ready for prime time.  Jumped up over more experienced and deserving officers.  A hard-core Anglophobe in a campaign where inter-allied cooperation was essential.  It goes on and on.

To all of which, I might exclaim, “Really?”  More of a glory-hound than Patton?  More interested in cultivating his own image than Rommel?  No one loved war photographers more than the Desert Fox.  Promoted too rapidly? Can anyone here spell “Eisenhower”?  In February 1941, Eisenhower had still been a lieutenant colonel, for heaven’s sake.  Two short years later, he was a four-star general.  Clark was a lieutenant colonel in July 1941 and a three star by November 1942.  In an army expanding as rapidly as this one was, just about everyone got promoted “early.”

At any rate, I don’t even care if all these personal accusations against Clark are true.  In any organization as large as the U.S. Army, some folks are bound to be more popular than others.  Likewise, anyone promoted as rapidly as Clark was is surely going to have his detractors.  It happens in civilian as well as military life.

There is another accusation against Clark, however, and from my perspective it is a more serious one.  There are many historians who argue that the man whom the wartime press dubbed “the American Eagle” was actually incompetent.

That one needs more careful analysis.  For the next post, let’s go back in time to September 1943.  Let’s land at a place called Salerno and see what we can find.

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13 Responses to The American Eagle: Mark W. Clark

  1. Luke Truxal says:

    I think you really hit a good point here. Character or personality is not relevant unless it carries over to a commander’s performance in the field. It seems to me that those who criticize generals by calling them cocky aren’t really making a very relevant argument. Now if that effected a commander’s ability in the field then their may be something there.

    I feel that sometimes historians when critiquing commanders fail to evaluate the opposing commander. To use an American Civil War reference Lee looks invincible during the first few years of the war because Lee is a good general and Pope, Burnside, McClellan, and Hooker are not the best in the world. However, when Lee faces off against Grant it’s a different story. You can use the same argument for Grant. Grant’s maneuvers earlier in the war are quite impressive. I am not saying that Dr. Citino did that in this case, but I was just making a general observance.

  2. Bill Nance says:

    This is the same truism in the Army. If you are successful, you can be an a–, and people will still see your accomplishments (see Patton or Monty). If you are unsuccessful and an a–, people will only see you as an a– (Mark Clark, Lucas, Fredendall). It doesn’t matter whether someone was unlucky or bad, generals that don’t produce didn’t stick around long.

    All this said, an examination of the Italian campaign should highlight that Clark really couldn’t produce results. Granted, Italy was a tough fight any way you slice the pie, but his conduct of the battle of Anzio clearly demonstrates an army commander that couldn’t make all his pieces work together.

    And yes – I can spell Eisenhoover… Ikenhowser… you know… the guy that hung out with kate summersby so much.

  3. Patrick Hays says:

    We need to remember how Mark Clark came to command 5th army, it was a reward from Ike. Not for any prowess on the battlefield, but for pre-Torch work in which he was Deputy Supreme Comnander for the landings and his submarine aided visit to arrange a cease fire, which failed. He also, according to Rick Atkinson had his wife back in DC running a PR campagin for him. Ike like him, felt some loyalty to him for his hard work and rewarded him. In an independent command one has to be flexible and able to think an react quickly to fast changing events. He probably would have been a good chief of staff like Napoleon’s Louis Berthier, he needed a strong hand over him to guide him. On the battlefield with an independent command he was out of his Depth and good men paid for it!!

  4. Luke Truxal says:

    I spell Eisenhower the same way Summersby did. You spell it I-L-I-K-E-I-K-E.

  5. Rob Citino says:

    And this is why I love you both. :)

  6. Cap'n Dave says:

    There is a saying in the army that may help here:

    “you can fool your boss, and you can fool your soldiers, but you can’t fool your peers.”

    What do Clark’s peers think?

  7. Luke Truxal says:

    Also not just what his peers thought but who were the peers?

  8. Dave T says:

    I can think of only one person who was more of glory-hound than Patton and a greater image-cultivator than Rommel and that would be MacArthur. He made them both look like amateurs.

    Now theres a subject for your next rumination on leadership Dr. C.

  9. Ross says:

    Reading through the papers of Marshal of the RAF Sir John Slessor today at Kew and in a memo to Portal in 1944 he described Clark as the best ground commander in theatre. Hardly faint praise from a man who could be very citical when he wanted to.


  10. Rob Citino says:

    My point precisely. Historians make their judgments, of course, but at the very least, they need to take into account opinions from the period!

  11. Bill Pratt says:

    Oooo, the decision to re-embark from Salerno is a contentious one, are we headed there next? It seems Clark gets the most heat later for heading for Rome, the so-called “Glittering Prize”, instead of closing the Valmonte gap, but the question may be was Alexander’s notorious loose rein on his commanders to blame here just as much as Clark’s hubris? Another interesting question: Was Clark’s decision to wheel through the Alban hills militarily sound. Many have noted, as did Clark, that the roads to the north through the mountains were sufficient for the 14th Panzer Corps’ escape. If Clark would have thrust north to Valmonte, the Roman traffic jam that stifled the pursuit would have been even worse.

  12. QB says:

    Results speak for themselves. The campaign in Italy was pretty much a botched affair from the start that was only rescued by the valour of the men fighting the battles and slogging from mountaintop to mountaintop. While you can’t lay all of the blame on Clark for Salerno,(he hardly had adequate resources as compared to those given to Montgomery and Bradley at Normandy). His subsequent handling of the campaign, especially Anzio (he did choose and supervise Lucas), the often overlooked debacle at Cisterna and his handling of the taking of Rome rather than encircling the Germans by closing the Valmonte gap speak volumes for his lack of good generalship.

    Being somewhat of a glory hound is probably part and parcel of wearing the stars and commanding an army. But glory comes with victories and holds up with the passage of time. I’ve been previlged to have known and talked with quite a few veterans of the Italian theatre and not one has ever said anything good about Mark Clark! Conversly, I have heard nothing but praise on Patton (although not very liked, well respected and vets I have talked with are proud to have served in his army).

    Clark just doesn’t hold up well under the light.

  13. John Cunningham says:

    Mark Clark was a glory seeking malcontent who put himself before his troops. His decision to enter Rome, rather than as a buffer to the other troops fighting in the area, just shows his lack of ability.

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