Some of you may have read in this blog some of my earlier posts on my hero, George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff in WWII, Secretary of State and of Defense, and author of the plan for European recovery that bears his name. A couple of you may even be aware that I spent part of 2020 trying to write a screenplay about Marshall. Starting this project, someone suggested I write down what it was that I loved about Marshall. I offer an excerpt from the resulting essay below.
First of all, that he was great man. He combined the vision, the action and achievement, the soul and humanity that add up to greatness, both in terms of his character and his role in history. He achieved great things, although I suspect that even if he hadn’t, those who served with him and knew him would have considered him a great person. That he is greatness in military uniform makes him more relatable to me than if he had followed a different profession, but I think that Marshall’s greatness is of a generally accessible kind. Like Grant, the American military figure to whom he can perhaps be most compared, he had much of the ordinary in him. He wasn’t eccentric or flamboyant. He cultivated no style or deliberate persona. He was a man at work. If he was a genius, it was as much due to study and application, to an undeterred focus on the problems he had to solve from day to day and year to year in a career of over fifty years of public service, as to innate gifts. Marshall spent long years in the junior officer and field grade ranks, perfecting his knowledge of the different levels of military professionalism. For him, the Army became a great school. In an interview he modesty said,
“As I have said several times, this puts me in the embarrassing position of seeming to be the one who knew. Well, as a matter of fact, throughout all of this, I’m largely recording my reactions to the experiences of the AEF and later training the army when I was with General Pershing, and my own experiences in those schools.”[i]
Marshall saw himself not so much as a person of special abilities or even knowledge, so much as the repository and conduit of much institutional knowledge. If he had a special trait (along with his great humility), it was perhaps his receptivity and retention of knowledge that was there for the taking. When he was finally elevated to general officer, he had mastered his profession and acquired an understanding of the nature and dire impact of armed conflict in a way that went beyond the usual confines of military professionalism. Idealistic soldiers may worry that their occupation devolves to killing, that the idealism and ethical claims of the military profession are merely a gloss to obscure the gory details, but Marshall makes of military service what many soldiers hope that it will be: a higher calling. Marshall shows by example how one may become, not just a soldier, but a defender of the republic in the broadest sense.
I take the movie Patton as my model of a highly successful biopic of a WWII general. The movie begins with Patton’s assumption of command of II Corps after the debacle at the Kasserine Pass. It runs through the infamous slapping incident, his time in limbo in England commanding a “ghost army,” his brilliant command of 3rd Army, victory in Europe, and his summarily relief after more unguarded comments left him vulnerable and when his services as a combat commander were no longer needed. This covers a period of about three years. Patton’s story is of his search for command, the arena in which he could display his strengths. His antagonist was himself, his almost unhinged tendency to speak and act of out of turn. In the film, these are treated as of a piece. His unguarded speech and actions translate to aggressiveness on the battlefield. Indeed, his need to dominate on the battlefield can itself be seen as almost a neurotic symptom. This gives his character an edge and an interest. What’s fueling him, we wonder: Too many falls off a horse, a need to appear tough, overcoming his privileged, even cultivated background, some other deep insecurity, a lack of an ability to cultivate ordinary relationships except for those involving command and combat? Patton’s story surely illustrates some of the paradoxes of a military career, which involves both discipline and untamed aggressiveness, both civilized and atavistic instincts and behavior. Patton was spoken of as a valuable asset in war but an often uncomfortable presence in peace. In his rise to command, he sometimes had to be protected by others from himself. It was said of Captain Aubrey of the Master and Commander series that he became a better officer but a duller person. Patton was never dull, though perhaps more’s the pity. If he’d been able to tame himself he might have been a better officer and person. Patton defined himself by his proficiency as a warfighter, neglecting the idea that there may be more than this to being a soldier.
[i] Larry I. Bland, Ed. George C. Marshall Interviews and Reminiscences for Forrest C. Pogue (Lexington, VA: George C. Marshall Research Foundation, 1991), p. 545.