Great military leaders are the products of the militaries in which they serve. This begins in their early career and includes their education, training, assignments as well as the men that they serve under in their formative years. They are shaped by the character, doctrine and organization of the military that they serve and are products of the times that they live and serve. Even the difference of a few years can make a major difference in the career path and development of a leader. Such was the case with two of the great figures of the US Army in World War Two Generals of the Army George Marshall and Dwight David Eisenhower.
The careers of Marshall and Eisenhower prior to the Second World War were somewhat similar but also included major differences that would shape them for their roles in the war. Marshall was commissioned 13 years prior to Eisenhower in 1902. As a result he served his early years in a peacetime army marked by slow promotion. Marshall was promoted to Captain in 1916 after serving 14 years as a Lieutenant despite attendance at the Army Staff College then called the Infantry and Cavalry School. As an infantry officer he served in the Philippines for 2 years and served in various battalion and regimental level staff positions. Marshall’s career also included as assignments working with the National Guard and State militias. His skills as a planner brought him to France as Assistant Chief of Staff for the 1st Infantry Division and later the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) under General Pershing.
While serving in these positions he was promoted rapidly to Major, Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel. In France he worked with the training, supply and operations of the American Forces as well as coordination with the French and British. His skills were invaluable and he played a major role in the rapid transition of the AEF from the St Michel salient to the Meuse-Argonne and though he reduced in rank when the war ended he was appointed aide-de-camp to Pershing in 1919.
During the 1920 Marshall served as Executive officer of the 15th Infantry Regiment in China and on his return to the United States he was assigned to the Army War College during which time his first wife died. Following her death he would become Director of the Academic Department of the Infantry School. His tenure at the War College was marked by his training numerous officers who would later become generals, including Eisenhower. He played a key role in the Preparation of the book “Infantry in Battle” which became a standard textbook for Army infantry officers. He then served as senior instructor for the Illinois National Guard from 1933-1936 and was promoted to Brigadier General in 1936. After his promotion he worked to improve the Civilian Conservation Corps. His organizational talents were recognized by President Franklin D Roosevelt and he was appointed Chief of Staff of the Army in 1939. Marshall’s career is unique; he never served in command of anything more than a company. His positions above the company level were all in staff or instructor duty. In our current military an infantry officer or other combat arms officer who never commanded a maneuver unit at battalion, regiment or division level would never become a General and certainly never become Chief of Staff of the Army or Commandant of the Marine Corps. Marshall was a brilliant organizer, leader, judge of men and visionary in understanding the necessity of coalitions and inter-dependence of nations in the modern world. His organizational leadership skills, ability to pick the right officers for key positions and his political and diplomatic acumen made him one of the foremost military leaders in US Military history.
Eisenhower was commissioned in 1915 less than two years prior to the entry of the US into the First World War. Like Marshall was commissioned as an Infantry officer and his career progressed in normal fashion until the entry of the United States into the war. Though Eisenhower never served in France, he was assigned to training troops and became one of the early leaders of the Armored Forces until they were disbanded after the war. In the rapidly expanded wartime army Eisenhower was promoted from 2nd Lieutenant to Lieutenant Colonel in less time than Marshall spent as a 2nd Lieutenant.
During his tenure in the Tank Corps he served with George Patton, commanded a tank battalion and was executive officer of an armored brigade. Following the disestablishment of the Tank Corps Eisenhower served as an infantry regiment executive officer in Panama. In this position he was schooled by General Fox Conner in classic military theory. It was fortunate for Eisenhower in that he was able to serve with and was able to gain seasoning and education under an excellent officer. Eisenhower returned to the United States and commanded an infantry battalion at Fort Benning and following this served on the faculty of the Infantry School under Marshall who would remember him at the beginning of World SWar Two.
His subsequent career was somewhat mundane. He served on the Battle Monument’s Commission under Pershing and then on the staff of the Assistant Secretary of War. However both of these assignments put him in the eye of other important officers and officials. Eisenhower was then transferred to the Philippines where he served as Chief of Staff to Douglas MacArthur from 1935-39. He returned to the US to serve concurrently as the regimental Executive Officer and a battalion commander in the 15th Infantry regiment and later Chief of Staff to the Commander of 3rd Army. Through his excellent work in every assignment he gained the attention of Conner, Pershing and eventually Marshall. While at the Infantry school he helped prepare Pershing’s memoirs. His experience with MacArthur in Washington and the Philippines helped prepare him for the myriad of difficult personalities with which he would deal with as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe. In 1941 he came to Washington to serve under Marshall at the WPA.
As far as who was the better officer, opinions vary; there are arguments to be made for both yet Eisenhower himself seemed to subordinate himself to Marshall. Omar Bradley says of Marshall “if there ever was an indispensable man in time of national crisis, he was that man.” (A Soldier’s Story p.205) However both Marshall and Eisenhower were excellent officers and each played a vital role in the Allied victory. However their careers were markedly different. In fact one could say that they were “apples and oranges.” Marshall served entirely as a staff officer and instructor after his service as a company officer. Eisenhower served in numerous command positions as well as staff jobs. Their careers would intersect and had commonalities but each was shaped by their different experiences in the Army.
In World War Two Marshall seems to have fewer critics. However this seems to more a result of Eisenhower’s exposed position in Europe where he was comparatively junior to many of the officers that that he would command. He also had to deal with the competing interests of such strong personalities as Marshall, Patton, Roosevelt, Churchill, DeGaulle and Montgomery while fighting the Germans. This has lent him to criticism from both British and American officers as well as various historians. But these observations are based on wartime experience and not their early careers. Field Marshall Alan Brooke seems to have had more respect for Marshall and many in the British high command showed little respect toward Eisenhower.
“Better” in the military is in the eye of the beholder and often dependant on assignments as well as the superiors that one works for. From a traditional point of view Eisenhower had the better career path with command at battalion and executive officer at regiment levels. However Marshall’s career provided him with a wider spectrum in dealing with senior staff, school, reserve component, government civilian agencies and Washington bureaucracy and politics that Eisenhower did not experience until Marshall tapped him in 1941 to work with the WPA. Their personalities were different and they dealt with subordinates in different manners, but both successfully managed their subordinates. Eisenhower was able to manage Patton and Montgomery while working in Churchill’s back yard, while others such as DeGaulle walking through his door. Both men were uniquely suited to work with each other and in the positions that they found themselves during the war and one has a hard time imagining a better partnership in command.
The interesting thing to me is Marshall’s career. In the current era he would never rise to the heights that he served. Since the Second World War no officer who has not served command in major combat arms units at all levels has risen to be Chief of Staff of the Army, Air Force, Commandant of the Marine Corps or Chief of Naval Operations. Nor has any risen to the Chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or major Combatant Command such as EUCOM, CENTCOM or PACOM. Of we look at Marshall and his impact one has to ask if “punching tickets”in the combat arms is necessarily optimal when it comes to managing the organization at the service level. While it is proven that command is a great asset to senior command in combatant commands it may not be as necessary for the chief of a service. One can ask if an officer who has served in staff and instructor positions, especially those where they have to deal with politicians, civilian agencies, as well as active and reserve component forces as well as an instructor and writer of doctrine could not serve as successfully in a position such as the Army Chief of Staff or the Commandant of the Marine Corps as an officer who has had the “well rounded career.”
In the light of George Marshall these are valid questions to ask. Might someone who has had the ability to step back and examine the personnel, logistics and training of a force as well as having experience with reserve component and civilian agencies could conceivably serve as effectively as an officer who has served rotating between command and staff positions. In today’s world the staff oriented officer would also have experience dealing with industry and intelligence. While I do not advocate such a change I think it would be wise to consider officers such as Marshall for these service level positions.
Following the war Marshall would become Secretary of State and help rebuild Europe while serving under Eisenhower how had become President of the United States.