Marshall’s Brain

Some of the veneration in which Marshall is held rests on a high estimation of his mental capacity.  In the context of this inquiry, were his intellectual gifts such that none of should bother to compare ourselves to him or ever to aspire to his level of achievement?  The question of Marshall’s intelligence seems to have been debated from very early. Marshall’s older brother advised their father not to send George to VMI, where his stupidity would embarrass the family!  American general and mentor Fox Connor considered him “close to a genius,” while the brainy British Field Marshall Alan Brook was unimpressed by his intelligence, although his opinion of Marshall seems to have improved over time.  We understand today that people have multiple intelligences.  Marshall seems to have been especially strong in what is called executive function, bringing to bear the correct mental resources to suit a problem or situation.  An example of this may be Marshall’s ability to think in time-streams, which might be described as the ability to see events in a historical perspective as they were happening. This fueled his ability as a strategist, and it enabled him to conceive the future, imaging the post-war world even as he was beset with the problems of fighting the war.

Clearly, Marshall cultivated these abilities.  Whatever his native or natural intelligence, his mental ability as an adult was highly developed and remarkable.  His ability as Chief of Staff to give detailed briefings and answer long series of questions without notes left congressmen and journalists in awe.  He had undoubtedly developed this ability at the Infantry School, where he showed the instructors how to conduct their classes without any written notes.  Even so, for many of his admirers, it is not so much Marshall’s intellect as his character that made and that make him great.  Marshall’s integrity seems to have been self-evident to almost all who came into contact with him.  Both Congress and the President had absolute faith in the facts he presented, and little less in his judgment. Maybe most of all, they saw him as someone motivated by the truth and the national interest, rather than by personal self-aggrandizement or narrow concerns like that of service loyalty.

Next Post: Humility–Getting it Right


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