A General’s Life: An Autobiography
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
The publishers of A General’s Life apparently agree with Humpty Dumpty. The title page describes the book as an autobiography but then contradicts itself by telling us that it is by two people. As it turns out, it is an autobiography of neither, for General Bradley wrote no part of it and, indeed, saw only the first 113 pages, and Clay Blair, who did write it, talks about himself only in the “collaborator’s foreword.” What we have here is a biography that has been written to sound like an autobiography.
There is, to be sure, no attempt to conceal the facts of the case. Mr. Blair tells us that Bradley had wanted to write the story of his life but that he “had never had a way with words,” his speeches and his memoir A Soldier’s Story having been written by others, and that he had, after an ineffectual beginning, abandoned the experiment. Some years later, his wife asked Mr. Blair to serve as collaborator in completing the project. He agreed, but after he had written the pre-World War II section and shown it to the general, Bradley died, and this confronted him, he writes, with “no small dilemma” about the form in which the work was to be continued.
After prolonged consideration, I decided to proceed in the autobiographical mode. By that time my own mind was so deeply immersed in Bradley’s that I thought like Bradley. I had at hand literally thousands of pages of Bradley’s transcribed words. By confining myself to these words or to official documents or correspondence, and introducing no views or opinions that I knew Bradley did not positively hold, I could reconstruct the war virtually in his own words. So I proceeded with painstaking care, double- or triple-checking other sources for every word I wrote.I feel certain that had Bradley lived to read the result he would not have made any substantial alterations or changes in emphasis.
This last may be true, but it doesn’t make the book an autobiography. Properly used, that term means the story of a person’s life, written by himself and as he chooses to write it. All of Mr. Blair’s double- and triple-checking is irrelevant. Autobiographies have nothing to do with accuracy. Some of them are tissues of lies, and the best of them are apt to be cunning combinations of truth and falsity, exaggeration and misrepresentation, self-justification and innuendo. Consider the Gedanken und Erinnerungen of Otto von Bismarck, which the chancellor dictated late in life, in large part to demonstrate the rightness of his own policies and the obtuseness and folly of his enemies. When we read it, we do not expect to find the whole truth but rather Bismarck’s version of it, and we are intrigued by what we can guess about the motives that inspire this version and captivated by the force and wit with which it is presented. And we are never in any doubt about who is speaking to us.
But who is speaking to us in A General’s Story? Mr. Blair has done a thorough job of going through the printed record and the general’s private papers and the available oral history materials and the tapes of forty-eight hours of interviews of Bradley, but can we believe that this brought him to the point of thinking like him and, particularly, of going through the same mental process that Bradley would have gone through if he had written his own book? Surely the labor of composition would have brought from the depths of the general’s subconscious thoughts and memories that were not in the records that Mr. Blair had used. Is it likely, for instance, that if Bradley had himself written about his first private meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt, his account would have been limited, as it is here, to five sentences bereft of any circumstantial detail or any of the trivia that sticks in one’s mind after momentous events? Hardly. Although the incident is described in the first person singular, there is nothing personal about it at all.
Nor is this an isolated case. Throughout the book, one misses the authentic voice, while being forced to listen for 670 pages to one that only pretends to be so. The pretense is not always skillful either, for the pseudo-Bradley frequently cites books which the real Bradley, whose spare time was given to golf and bridge, probably wouldn’t have had time to read and certainly wouldn’t have remembered in any detail. All of this is irritating and distracting, and one wishes Mr. Blair had found another form.
This having been said, it is necessary to add that he has written a substantial and highly readable book about one of the most remarkable of the commanders of American armies in the Second World War. Omar Bradley had none of the insistent flamboyance that characterized George Patton; nor was he surrounded by the nimbus of infallibility that hung (at least until the Chinese breakthrough in Korea) about the head of Douglas MacArthur. His temperament was mild, his behavior restrained, and his appearance less that of a soldier than that of a schoolteacher, which, indeed, he had been, at places like West Point and Fort Benning, for thirteen of his first twenty-three years of commissioned service.
But he did possess the most important of the qualities that Clausewitz, in his essay “On Military Genius,” declared were essential for the “great captain.” The German theorist wrote, “War is the realm of uncertainty: three-quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for, a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth…and the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.” Bradley, a temporary major general with no battle experience, received orders to join Eisenhower’s staff in North Africa in February 1943. It was not long before he demonstrated his possession of both the coup d’oeil and the determination that Clausewitz stipulated for effective command.
These qualities found only limited expression during the invasion of Sicily, when Bradley commanded the II Corps in Patton’s Seventh Army. Patton was at his most impetuous and undisciplined in Sicily, and serving as his subordinate was as trying to Bradley as being his superior was to Eisenhower. But any irritation he may have felt in this regard paled before that caused by the behavior of General Bernard Law Montgomery, who took advantage of the astonishing lack of a strategic plan for the conquest of the island (Mr. Blair writes that nothing had been worked out beyond the limited beachhead objectives) to try to restrict American forces to a purely supporting role and deny them any share of the credit for taking Sicily. This caused protests and recriminations, and, in this respect, the Sicilian campaign was a curtain raiser for the drama later enacted in France, where the Allied commanders proved themselves to be as quarrelsome as the Greek captains on the windy plains of Troy.
By the time of the Normandy invasion, Bradley, who enjoyed the confidence both of the Army chief of staff, George Marshall, and the commander in chief of the Allied forces, Dwight Eisenhower, had moved up in the hierarchy and was in command of the United States First Army Group, with Courtney Hodges, George Patton, and, later, William Simpson as his Army leaders. As Mr. Blair points out, American soldiers had limited experience with Army group command, and its principles were taught at staff schools only in vague and theoretical terms, with no clear doctrine concerning the functions of the commander. On the basis of his observations in Sicily, Bradley had no desire to leave battlefield decisions in the hands of his Army commanders, and to restrict himself to the more remote task of directing their efforts. He resolved rather to exercise the closest kind of control over Hodges and Patton.
In the enormously complicated situation that existed after the successful landings, this assured the American Army Group of a happy combination of operational flexibility and coordination, while keeping Bradley close enough to the developing battle to use his special gift for seizing tactical opportunities. Thus when Montgomery’s forces were finally poised to break out from Caen, it was Bradley’s keen eye that saw a chance of executing a joint pincer movement to bottle up the forces of Field Marshal von Kluge inside the Falaise pocket and prevent a German retreat to the Seine. Although this succeeded in badly battering the German units, it fell short of Bradley’s goal, largely because Montgomery showed insufficient energy and entrusted the advance toward Falaise to inexperienced Canadian troops.
The victor of El Alamein was no hero to the American ground commanders, not only because his excessively deliberate style of war, which belied his reputation, made coordinated planning difficult, but because he sought continually to undermine Eisenhower’s position as supreme commander, to acquire overall command of the war in France, and to drain strength away from the United States Army Group so that he could mount a concentrated single-thrust offensive in the northeast that would be aimed at the Ruhr and would presumably end the war in a matter of weeks.
The high point of Mr. Blair’s book is his vigorous retelling, with much new detail, of the story of the bitter inter-Allied strategical debate that this caused, and the way in which it was complicated not only by the clash of personalities, but by questions of national prestige that were blown out of proportion by the press. With a patience that was not always appreciated by Bradley and his colleagues in the field, Eisenhower prevented this strife from fatally compromising inter-Allied unity, and in October 1944 he made it clear to Montgomery that further disputes over the ultimate responsibility for operational decisions must lead either to the British general’s resignation or his own.
At that, Montgomery subsided, but only until the Battle of the Bulge gave him a new opportunity to attack the inadequacy of Eisenhower’s strategy and win new support for his northeastern drive. This grab for glory was, however, frustrated in the end because Bradley’s battle plan “Lumberjack,” which authorized “aggressive defense” on the right wing, got American armored units up to the Rhine ahead of schedule and because the seizure of the bridge at Remagen by Courtney Hodges’s forces put them across the river before Montgomery’s ponderous preparations for a crossing were complete.
The campaign in France was a classic example of the troubles that can beset military coalitions, and a more gifted strategist than Adolf Hitler might have been able to exploit the contentions among the Allies. Bradley himself had some reason, indeed, to be grateful to the Führer, whose stubborn refusal to yield ground (“No operations!” he used to snarl at his generals) almost lost him an army in the Falaise pocket, and whose thrust through the Ardennes in December 1944, while causing consternation in Allied headquarters, lacked the reserves to achieve success and was contained, at great cost to the Germans, by the stubborn defense of Hodges’s First Army and the 32nd and 101st Airborne Divisions at Bastogne and St. Vith and the success of Bradley’s plan for an attack against the German flank by Patton’s Third Army. The war would have perhaps lasted longer if Hitler had played according to the conventional rules of warfare.
During the last phase of the war, Bradley commanded four United States armies, comprising twelve corps of forty-eight divisions and numbering 1.3 million men, the largest ground force, Mr. Blair tells us, commanded by any general in American history. Once the hostilities were over, he saw this force melt away in the ill-considered and headlong demobilization that stripped the United States of its military capacity at the very time when the alliance that had defeated Hitler was breaking down and the cold war was coming on. Bradley’s first assignment upon returning to America was the staggering one of reforming and expanding the Veterans Administration so that it could deal with, among other things, the flood of claims for benefits and the administrative problems raised by the overwhelming response to the GI Bill educational program. He was always proud of the way in which he dealt with those questions, and particularly with the difficult task of improving the quality of medical care in VA hospitals. Mr. Blair makes it clear that he had good reason for this sense of satisfaction.
But this was only a temporary separation from the military, and in January 1948 he succeeded Eisenhower as Army chief of staff and then, after a mere eighteen months in that post, was promoted to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a position created, like the new Department of Defense, to promote unification of the services. From the beginning, his tenure of this office, which continued until Eisenhower succeeded Truman as president, was stormy. It began with the unprecedented attack by the Navy upon the Joint Chiefs’ strategy and budget and on the administration’s concept of unification of the services—a fight that caused blood to run in the scuppers and elicited from the usually mild-mannered Bradley the public charge that the rebellious admirals were a bunch of “fancy Dans” who didn’t want to play on the team unless they could call all the signals—but, even after that controversy had subsided, more trouble lay ahead. In June 1950 the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel, and the stage was set for the conflict between Douglas Mac Arthur and his superiors in Washington over how the new war was to be fought.
Mr. Blair’s account of the MacArthur affair is lively and incisive. In reading it, one finds it difficult to avoid the conclusion that Bradley, who was so often critical of Eisenhower’s toleration of Montgomery’s importunities, was himself no less tolerant in the face of MacArthur’s. Even after the Far Eastern commander had grossly misinterpreted intelligence on the movement of Chinese forces, invited disaster by splitting his own, and insisted when the Chinese attack came that the only alternative to the complete evacuation of Korea was an expansion of the conflict that might have brought on World War III, the Joint Chiefs under Bradley’s leadership were far less willing to consider disciplining him than civilians like Dean Acheson and Averill Harriman. Their unanimous vote to relieve MacArthur of his command came only when it was clear that the principle of civilian supremacy was in jeopardy, and even then they voted with reluctance.