George C. Marshall: Education of a General, 1880-1939
by Forrest C. Pogue, with the assistance of Gordon Harrison
Viking, 421 pp., $7.50
War has become the great profession of the twentieth century. Yet there is no professional whom we know less well than the military man. Politicians, businessmen, intellectuals, gangsters, prostitutes, paupers—we have studied them all, interviewed them, classified them, exhausted them. But generals and admirals, who from time to time hold in their hands the power of life and death, remain blanks. If first in war, they tend to be last in peace and infrequently in the hearts of their countrymen.
This is generally true in democratic countries, and it is perhaps especially true in the United States. From the days of the Society of the Cincinnati this nation has mistrusted the professional soldier. Nor, until very recently, was the regular Army redeemed by its moments of glory from its reputation of mediocrity. The years after the Civil War were a particularly dreary time for the military establishment. By the 1890’s, the United States had an Army of 25,000 men—an Army which, as Messrs. Pogue and Harrison tell us, “was no longer needed to fight Indians and seemed to face only a penurious future as a dubious sort of constabulary.” In 1911 Congress actually had to pass a sort of public-accommodations statuts ordering inns, restaurants, and other public places not to discriminate against soldiers.
The mystery is why anyone of ability should have entered the regular Army in these years. And yet, as the nation discovered during the Second World War, the military establishment contained generals and admirals of considerable talent, in whom, even in retrospect, it seems not irrational (assuming the war itself to have been rational, as I do) to have confided the power of life and death. Most of these men made their professional commitment before the First World War. Why did they do it? How could they have stood military life so long? How, after years of isolation and years of ritual, did their instinct and initiative survive when the crisis finally came? This excellent first volume in the biography of the supreme American professional soldier of this country throws useful light on these questions.
No one can doubt that George C. Marshall was a man of exceptional ability and personal force. He was also, as his biographers candidly report, a man of intense and disciplined ambition. When he finished the Virginia Military Institute, he was so determined to obtain appointment as an officer in the Army that he went to Washington, invaded the White House and carried his case personally to President McKinley. Yet this man, who was not only deeply ambitious but who obviously could have succeeded in another career, remained nine years in grade as a first lieutenant, did not become a captain until 1916, fifteen years after his graduation from VMI, or a colonel until 1933, when he was fifty two years old, or a brigadier general until 1936. It is no wonder that, only a first lieutenant at the age of thirty-five, he contemplated resigning (“the prospects for …