Thursday, November 29, 2007

Greatest Generation

It's long been my belief that America was supremely gifted in the generation of administrators and bureaucrats -- the middle men of the federal government -- it had from roughly 1940 to 1960. We haven't been so lucky since the Founders in any one generation having just the right skills the times demanded.

No disrespect to the fighting men and the hardworking homefront women (which I suppose is what is usually meant by "Greatest Generation"). My close family was among them. They deserve the epithet. But so do other wartime generations.

Nor do I mean to disrespect the presidents -- Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, whom I rank among the most effective we've had. But an executive is only as good as his staff.

I'm thinking of the well-known names: George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur in Japan, Eisenhower as general -- but also lesser-know essential men like Lucius D. Clay who helped bring up a democratic Germany from the ruins of the Third Reich.

And when you walk back through their autobiographies, you find the threads tend to converge in one place: The Philippines. Nearly all of them had a common experience in the Philippines, in the one great colonial experiment of American history. [Short version: The counter-insurrection brought out the brutality in us, but after the fighting stopped, the Americans proved themselves fairly enlightened and benevolent masters whose subjects fared better, overall, and became independent sooner, that those of most European colonizers; but what business had the people of the Declaration of Independence flirting with empire in the first place?]

Americans remain deeply ambivalent about that episode, and it is often spoken of as a national embarrassment. And often it is compared to what is happening now in Iraq.

In a sense, the course of those men's careers is unrepeatable, since they were born and grew up in an America not yet a world power, much less the world power. The painful surrender of isolationist comfort happened in their youth.

But the military services where they cut their teeth were in many ways like today's: Relatively small in relation to the size of the nation, mostly volunteer, and painfully evolving into new global situations.

Not that great men are good men, or that their greatness isn't dependent a great deal on luck. MacArthur arguably was the most dangerous American ever, a superb political general absolutely convinced -- and capable at convincing others -- that what was good for MacArthur was good for America. And for a remarkable string of months during World War II, it seemingly was so. When he won the debate over whether to strike at the Philippines or Formosa in the Pacific campaign, pure vanity drove him. Yet by the time the act was in motion, the changing situation in China made his choice the best one. His handling of Japan was a blindfolded tightrope walk, and an example of a man of utter self-confidence merging with the spirit of a culture without having the slightest real understanding of it. His luck ran out at the Yalu River, and then the hollowness of it all became apparent. But in the meantime he had done remarkable good for his country.

An American version of Plutarch's "Lives," which I wish someone worthwhile would write, would pair Washington and Burr, Lincoln and Lee, Teddy Roosevelt and my blood relation, the eccentric anti-war Marine Smedley Butler.

And Marshall and MacArthur. Not for nothing is MacArthur's biography titled "American Caesar." And when Churchill called Marshall "the noblest Roman of them all," he perhaps said more than he knew. That was Shakespeare's line for Brutus.

Marshall arrived in the Philippines in 1902 as a second lieutenant in an army of occupation when the active stage of the insurgency there was essentially over and the colonial "nation-building" was getting underway, but a little of both were underway simultaneously. Marshall grappled with insufficiencies of military supply, absence of civilian authority, and he found himself on a number of occasions effectively governing wide swaths of Mindoro, as well as leading his own army command, isolated in a harsh climate with responsibilities far beyond his rank. It all sounds remarkably like what many of our junior officers have undergone the last few years in Iraq.

"Marshall quickly established friendships with key local civilians and exerted his authority over the company by a combination of qualities that would mark his later military career. He relied heavily on subordinates, in this case two experienced sergeants, maintained discipline, and exhibited a rare resourcefulness for a person of his age and experience," writes Marshall's biographer, Mark A. Stoler.

Stoler tells a story of the second lieutenant, then all of 21 years old, leading his troops on patrol in the tropical jungle. While they were crossing a muddy, crocodile-infested stream, a few of his men panicked in fear. They broke and ran for the other bank, knocking Marshall down and all but trampling him in the process. When he got up out of the mud, he didn't cut much of a commanding military figure. But he didn't rage and he didn't just take it. He ordered the company to fall in, then marched them back across the stream, where he immediately about-faced them and had them cross it properly. "Then he calmly inspected and dismissed them. Nothing was ever said again about the episode; there was no need to do so."

If that doesn't build character, it certainly strips away all the dross from inherent character and allows it to shine.

Marshall's conception of the citizen-soldier made him so scrupulously and firmly apolitical that he refused to even vote. Dean Acheson, who served under him in the State Department, tells this anecdote:

During the war, when a news magazine of national circulation had made a bitter attack upon President Roosevelt, a White House aide came to the Chief of Staff of the Army reporting a presidential wish that the pocket edition printed for distribution to the troops be withheld. General Marshall replied that immediately upon his receipt of such an order in writing, it would be obeyed and his own resignation as Chief of Staff would go to the White House. The matter was never mentioned again.

In fact, it would be amusing to count the number of Marshall anecdotes which end on the phrase "it never was mentioned again," or some variant of it.

It's my suspicion that Marshall was the greatest president America never had, and he seems to me proof of the argument that the only people who really ought to be president are ones who do not seek it, however ambitious they may be. That was George Washington's trait, and it was one of our original virtues. But the early 19th century showed what a charade could be made of that by performing demagogues and their partisan friends, so the country gave it up.

So when I read about the everyday stuff underway in Iraq and Afghanistan today, at places like this or this, or this, read the articulate captains describing the incredibly difficult thing they're trying to do, and actually doing, I wonder if there's another potential generation of leaders being born out there. Some will shed the uniform, some will keep it, but many of them will know a good deal more than their peers do about themselves, about power and its possibilities and about getting jobs done. Perhaps one of them quoted in those pieces is a future chief of staff, or a future president. A future Marshall or a future MacArthur.

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