A Movie About Marshall? With Thoughts on Hero-Worship

In this post, I will continue to review some of the thought-process that went into the writing of the screenplay currently titled George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory. At the end of the post, I will append some of my reflections on hero-worship.

Taking Patton as a template, GEORGE C. MARSHALL (the movie) might cover a period of a few years, rather than just a single episode. These might be about the same as the years for Patton, 1942-1945. These were the decisive years of the war that saw the buildup and deployment of the enormous American armed forces that would be needed for victory. This was also the period of the great alliances in action: both the “special relationship” with the UK and Commonwealth, and the more guarded and difficult relations with France, China, and the USSR. Marshall had a key role in all of this. It might be argued that he of all saw the war most entire. Other military men focused mostly on the means to victory, while politicians were more concerned with ends. Only Marshall and Churchill seemed to combine a grasp of both, but Churchill with his commitment to the British Empire and his flights of rhetoric saw the strategic picture less clearly than did Marshall. Churchill has been called by Jonathan Rose the leading poet of WWII, Marshall was its more prosaic narrator. He embodied the idea from Thomas Aquinas that military command is an act of moral prudence. He could not always be right (as he acknowledged, insisting on subordinates willing to disagree with him), but his thinking was unencumbered by petty concerns or egotism. He was interested in victory and a sustainable peace, nothing else. His desire to finish the war as quickly as possible was based on the understanding of the human costs of war that he had gained in WWI.

Marshall was at the head of growing power of the  Army of the United States, and he exerted a strong influence on the overall organization and employment of all allied armed forces and the procurement, production, and allocation of the implements of war being produced by the “Arsenal of Democracy.” At the same time, he kept a part of mind reserved for thinking of the post-war world, as early as 1943 conceiving some of the ideas that would develop into the plan for European Recovery. Marshall had a key role in formulating, presenting and popularizing, and in implementing the plan. In the completeness of his vision and the virtuosity of his implementation, he also resembles the Lincoln portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in the recent feature film. Both men functioned at a similar level, and they shared a genius for committed public service.

                A number of accomplishments mark the period of 1942-1945. Marshall had managed to make the Army a more formidable and ready force by the time the war began, but the process of training and equipping an Army that would eventually number over eight million had just started by late 1941. Numbers were important, but he pressed for thorough training and also for an understanding among the rank and file of the issues at stake. The Why We Fight film series was largely his idea and inspiration. He also ensured a cadre of senior officers to lead this Army, many of whom he had trained or with whom he had come into close contact over the course of their careers. Along the way he weeded out the unfit and those who could not make the transition to wartime mentally or physically. He recognized that his own age might be an issue, but he disciplined himself to a sustainable personal routine. He reorganized the entire War Department in the midst of the greatest pressure to continue functioning seamlessly in a new war that for a time appeared already almost lost. He cultivated professional relationships with his own commander in chief, other heads of state (Churchill in particular), and American and allied officers, showing a rare mixture of dignity, grace, and professionalism that eventually won over nearly everyone. Finally, he provided strategic direction in the councils of war. Marshall’s abilities as a strategist are still debated, but I side with those historians who find his emphasis on a landing in France at the earliest opportunity to be an essential part of the victory. Interestingly, he advocated a use of the A bomb that would limit casualties among Japanese civilians.

My Hero

I wonder sometimes about the nature of my frank hero-worship of Marshall. He was just a man, after all. He had his faults and limitations. He was very ordinary in some ways, although his very ordinariness was generally quite becoming. On the other hand, if we acknowledge his greatness, it may appear that his example is simply out of sight and unattainable. Some recent research into the role of character in ethics may shed some light on this paradox. Dr. John Doris has concluded that character may not count as much as we think it does, but that (then) nothing does. The world, he says, is made is of small effects. To stretch this argument somewhat, we might say that even if Marshall was not so very superior to the average person, his relative strengths and lack of flaws of character are significant, maybe especially if we add them up, and place them in the context of Marshall’s time and circumstances.

Luck certainly had a role in Marshall’s rise to greatness. He received an Army commission when he boldly walked into President McKinley’s office and asked for one. Even after decades of faithful and even brilliant service, his rise to the top job in the Army was far from assured. In fact he was something of a dark horse, and there were times when his career seemed to be over. But once in the position of Army Chief, appointed on the day World War II is generally considered to have begun, he was the right man in the right place. His strengths were just what was needed This was not entirely an accident of course. Marshall had been preparing himself for just such a moment for decades. It was his good fortune, and ours, that the stars fell on him when they did.

The fact that Marshall was not a saint or superman means that it may not be so misplaced for us to aspire to emulate his example, or that of some other hero. If we can push for just a bit more ability and suppress our weaknesses with some success, that may be enough for greatness. If our time comes, we should be ready, and having a hero, a star to guide us, might help.

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