Thursday, November 25, 2010

Book Of The Month - 'There's A War To Be Won'

I have a small but fairly complete library on US military history, focusing on the US Army in WWII.  My library contains a lot of great books, works from John Keegan (England's preeminent military historian) to Steven Ambrose (the prolific historian and author who gave us Band of Brothers) to Charles B. MacDonald, the wide ranging military historian and author who served as the Army's Deputy Chief Historian and, based on his own WWII experiences, wrote the classic volume on small unit leadership, Company Commander.

World War II is certainly the most written about war in history.  The amateur historian could spend a lifetime reading about it and studying it (and Lord knows, I have!).  Today, more than 60 years after the surrender of Japan and the end of the war historians are still unearthing new material or developing fresh, relevant and interesting interpretations of old material.  The interested reader has so many great choices when it comes to the study of WWII that it is hard to know where to start.  The usual advice to anyone wanting to begin studying the war is to pick up a good one volume history to help develop a framework for further study.  That is great advice, and there are a number of excellent one volume histories of the war (my personal recommendation is John Keegan's The Second World War).

What was lacking for decades, however, was a good one volume history of the US Army's involvement in WWII.  In particular, an analysis of the how and why of the US Army's success was never really covered in a general history volume.  Every reader of WWII knows the what of the US Army's involvement in WWII - immediately after WWII the US raised, trained, deployed and supplied the largest Army in our history that simultaneously and decisively defeated our enemies in two global theaters of war.  What was always missing was the how; how did the US come to have, almost overnight, the finest fighting force the world had ever seen?  Most histories of the war place the US Army's fighting forces on the battlefield as though they they magically appeared, fully manned, equipped and trained.

The real reasons for the US Army's success in WWII is one of the great back stories of history, and it is told in engaging and easy to read style in Geoffrey Perret's There's A War To Be Won.  Perret gives us the why of the US Army's success and details how the roots of that success were laid down as far back as WWI, where a group of young and talented Army officers like George Marshall, George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower absorbed the lessons of that war and nurtured the Army's professional leadership development through the lean inter-war years.  The foundations for the Army of 1946 were set as far back as 1927, when Lieutenant Colonel George C. Marshall was assigned as Deputy Commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia.  From that assignment Marshall began his steady push for the revamping and modernization of the US Army's doctrine.  He turned the Infantry School into a laboratory of innovative thinking that drove the Army to shed it's 19th century warfighting mindsets and prepare itself for strategic warfare on a mobile battlefield.  This was the how of our success.  It didn't happen overnight, but was a deliberate process started well before WWII and was led by gifted, forward thinking and innovative leaders.

Along the way Marshall kept his eye on a group of sharp young officers that he would later pull up into critical leadership roles.  Mark Clark, Omar Bradley, Matthew Ridgeway, Maxwell Taylor and James Gavin were all young captains or majors when they caught Marshall's eye.  When the Army exploded in size following Pearl Harbor and Marshall needed sharp talent to guide and command these new forces he reached down and pulled these talented young officers up into high leadership positions.  Many jumped one or even two ranks overnight.  But just as quick as he could promote you he would fire you if you didn't perform.  Once he was made Army Chief of Staff in 1939 he cut a wide swath through the senior ranks in the Army, firing or forcing the retirement of dozens of senior officers who were too old, too out of shape, too hidebound or just too damned stuck in their ways to have a place in the modern global Army that Marshall was creating.  Many of those he fired had outranked him just months before he became Chief of Staff.  Marshall could be ruthless, but his ruthlessness had a purpose - he knew the coming war was going to be fought against enemies that were world class and had already proven themselves time and again on the battlefield (the German Army at the time appeared unstoppable as it roared eastward into Russia and the Japanese were on a steady march across Southeast Asia).  Defeating these forces would require the best leadership talent the US Army could create.  The citizen-soldiers of the United States deserved nothing less and Marshall would accept nothing less.  This was the why of our success - taking that raw citizen-soldier talent and making leaders out of it.  It is a leadership production model that still serves us well today through institutions like West Point, ROTC and Officer Candidate School.

Perret's work shines a full light on Marshall's genius, character and professionalism and makes it clear that he was the principal architect of America's victory in WWII.

There's A War To Be Won is a great book - easy to read, not too technical and it holds the reader's attention.  More importantly, you'll come away with a much better understanding of why the US Army in WWII was the finest fighting force the world had ever seen.


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